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Homeless and Addicted — Then Overcoming Both

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Julie “Jewels” Gates (from Berry Creek, Calif., left) and Elena Wilson (from Oroville, Calif., right) saw jail as a one of the few options for low-income people in Butte County to stop using drugs. (Ryder Diaz/KQED)

Editor’s Note: For over a year, we’ve been bringing you first-person stories about health. Now, we’re digging deeper. Each month, we’ll be exploring a different health issue and asking diverse community members across the state to share their own stories on that theme. It’s a project we’re calling “Vital Signs.”

This month we look at the health needs of people who are homeless. Accurate statistics on homeless Californians are hard to get, but by some estimates roughly one in four people who are homeless abuse drugs. And homeless people face unique challenges when trying to quit.

Today we hear from Julie Gates and Elena Wilson. The two met seven years ago in Chico. Both women struggled with addiction and Gates, who goes by the nickname “Jewels,” sold drugs to support her own habit. In largely rural Butte County, it was hard for them to find treatment they could afford and were daunted by months-long waiting lists for help. Now clean and sober, the two women volunteer at the Hope Center in Oroville, giving back to the homeless community. They talk to one another about their journey.

By Julie Gates and Elena Wilson

ELENA WILSON: Jewels and I, there were periods of time we didn’t see each other but either at the lowest of out lows, and now, at the highest of our highs, God has brought our paths back together.

JULIE GATES: Absolutely.

WILSON: The last time I had seen her before I got clean, I was acutally kicking heroin in Chico. I was homeless. I was really, really sick. And I didn’t have any money and I couldn’t find any heroin. She went and bought me a pack of cigarettes and gave me a little bit of some methanphetamine to do with, to trade, or whatever. She said she’d try to find me some pills.

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Native American Woman Changes Young Lives Through Traditional Dancing

Juliet Small, 19, teaches Native American dance to girls at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

Juliet Small, 19, teaches Native American dance to girls at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

Editor’s Note: Many Native Americans are reconnecting with the traditions of their ancestors—to eat healthier foods and get more exercise with traditional dance and drumming. At the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland, there’s a weekly dinner with traditional recipes, followed by a community dance. Before dinner, 19-year-old Juliet Small teaches Native American dancing to young girls. As part of our ongoing series of first-person health profiles called “What’s Your Story?” we hear from Small who is Apache, Navajo, Cherokee, and Azteca. She has been dancing since she was three-years-old. Small discusses how dancing has brought healing to her family and community. Reporter: Zaidee Stavely

By Juliet Small

Growing up in the Oakland area, it sometimes seems there’s not a lot of outlets for people to get away from the negative aspects of life. There are always so many things you can get caught up with. You know, hanging out with the wrong people, doing the wrong things with those people. But because I’ve always had dancing, that’s always kept me on the right path, to where I want to dance for myself, to keep up with my culture, and to share my culture with everybody else. And when I dance, I’m extremely happy. No negative thoughts.  I feel light. I feel relieved of stress. Continue reading

Sonoma County Man Learns to Control Anger and Violence

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Jon Wheeler, 35, struggled with his own abusive behaviors before finding Men Evolving Non-Violently (M.E.N.). The organization has helped the Occidental resident change his behavior and now he leads support groups for other men.

Editor’s Note: Jon Wheeler used to have a difficult time controlling his anger in romantic relationships. As part of our occasional series, “What’s Your Story?” Wheeler shares how a group in Santa Rosa called Men Evolving Non-Violently, or M.E.N., helped him change his abusive behaviors. Now, he leads those same groups, helping other men who struggle with violent behavior.

By Jon Wheeler

I’d be in a relationship with a woman and whatever was going on in the relationship, I would respond to it with anger. Like, I might even tell you in my words that I’m supporting you, but my tone of voice would say, ‘You’re an idiot and I don’t respect you.’ And I’ve been physically violent with a woman a few times in my life. It has come to that.

I felt guilty for my behavior, and I could see the way that I was acting was driving away a person that I was trying to hold close. Continue reading

Living With Grace in a Nursing Home

PhyllisEditor’s Note: Eighty-three-year-old Phyllis Donner Wolf figured she would live on her own until the end of her life and die peacefully in her sleep. But last spring, she fell and broke her neck, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down. She went from living independently in her apartment in Palo Alto to a nursing facility in San Francisco called the Jewish Home. As part of our ongoing series of first-person health profiles called “What’s Your Story?” we talk to Wolf about what it takes to live a life of grace in a nursing home.

By Phyllis Donner Wolf

I was very active. I did yoga. I did yoga for 40 years. I was in an exercise class that met every morning at quarter to 8. I drove the car for friends to go to the symphony in the city. I was the one who took someone’s walker and put it in the trunk. So when I fell it was unbelievable. I didn’t dream I would wind up in a wheelchair.

I stood up in the middle of the night, which I often would just walk to the bathroom, and this time when I stood up I found myself on the floor. I think I heard a crack, which meant that my neck and spine, the bones just were brittle and broke. And I knew I had done great damage because I could not move the lower part of me.

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Foster Kids Learn About Nutrition, Get Job Training in Oakland Program

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Former foster youth, Kawanzza Byrd, is gaining culinary skills and tips on healthy eating through a youth program called GROW Oakland. (Ryder Diaz/KQED)

Editor’s Note: Project GROW Oakland trains young people to become chefs — to build job skills and healthy eating habits. Some youth are on probation; while others are — or were — in the foster care system. As part of our ongoing series of first-person health profiles called “What’s Your Story?” 19-year-old Kawanzza Byrd, a former foster youth, says the program has changed the way she eats. 

By: Kawanzza Byrd

When you’re in foster care, you really have no control over what you eat. With my partner when she was in foster care, they ate a lot of fast food. Every night. The foster mom, she didn’t cook: She just bought pizza. She bought hot pockets. Continue reading

Woman Finds Relief From Chronic Pain by Caring for Horses

Kaitlyn Pintor visits with horses at Hoof Beats riding school in Petaluma. For the past decade, a nerve disorder has made it painful for her to experience touch. (Ryder Diaz/KQED)

Kaitlyn Pintor visits with horses at Hoof Beats riding school in Petaluma. For the past decade, a nerve disorder has made it painful for her to experience touch. (Ryder Diaz/KQED)

Editor’s Note: As part of our ongoing series of first-person health profiles called “What’s Your Story?” we hear from Kaitlyn Pintor, whose nerve disorder causes pain so severe that she’s often felt like her body has been set on fire. When the pain started nearly a decade ago, Pintor was a single mother of two. She still found time to organize support groups for people who share her chronic pain disorder. Now, a new medication has made her chronic pain more manageable. Pintor speaks to us from HoofBeats riding school in Sonoma County, where she goes for horse therapy. Reporter: Ryder Diaz.

By Kaitlyn Pintor

In 2004, I was diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy after an ankle sprain. I had burning pain that ended up spreading throughout my body, from head to toe.

It literally feels like you’ve been set on fire and you can’t turn the fire down. Just water brushing over my skin would cause intense flame.

The normal comforts don’t comfort you. You can’t wrap yourself in a blanket. You can’t go soak in the sun. Sounds bother you. Or the laughter of your children may turn your pain up. Continue reading

Traditional Healer Treats Body and Mind

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Juana Gomez (right) is a traditional Mixteca healer from Mexico. She lives with her daughter, Johanna Gomez (left), in Madera, Calif. and provides health care to many farm workers. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

Editor’s Note: Some recent immigrants avoid visits to western doctors. Instead, they call on traditional healers who speak their language, use familiar medicinal plants, and share their cultures. As part of our ongoing series of first-person health profiles called “What’s Your Story?” we hear from Juana Gomez, a Mixteca traditional healer from Oaxaca, Mexico. Gomez now lives in Madera, in California’s Central Valley, where many of her patients are undocumented farm workers. Her daughter, Johanna Gomez, translates her story. Reporter: Sasha Khokha

By Juana Gomez

We have the purple basil and we have the green basil. The basil is a very, very sacred plant from my ancestors.

It’s very important to know the classification of each plant because even though they are plants and they are natural and they have healing powers, they work just as medicine and you have to be really careful with them.

My mom says that the most she sees here are males that work on the fields. She says that it is very common for them to come because it’s a combination of not being able to have a restroom close enough, it’s a combination of the heat, the long hours that they’re sitting, the vibration of the tractors. So, there are many, many factors.

Most of the people that come do have physical illness, but many times they are not sick with the physical illness. They are more sick of a spiritual need because of the sadness of leaving their people behind.  Maybe they left their wife and their kids over in their native countries. Continue reading

Tough Road to Starting a Family for HIV-Positive Man

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Andrew Jolivette wants to start a family but because he is HIV-positive, he is having a hard time finding a place that will help him donate sperm to his friend. (Ryder Diaz/KQED)

Editor’s note: Andrew Jolivette was diagnosed with AIDS eleven years ago. Back then, he didn’t think he could ever have a family, since it was illegal for HIV-positive men to donate sperm. California reversed that law in 2007. Now, Jolivette hopes to start a family with a friend. As part of our ongoing series of first-person health profiles called “What’s Your Story?” Jolivette tells us how some medical facilities still can’t handle this kind of situation.

By Andrew Jolivette

You know, my mother passed away about a year ago and I think that that also, in all honesty, has had some impact on me saying: Well gosh, she was such a great mom and all these things she taught me, I want to be able to share that with someone, too.

Quite frankly, because [my viral load is] undetectable and there are measures they can take like sperm washing and the potential mother, can take anti-retrovirals beforehand to ensure that she nor the child will be infected, then why not? Continue reading

Living in an RV in Palo Alto — as Ban Goes into Effect

Fred Smith lives in his RV in Palo Alto. (Ryder Diaz/KQED)

Fred Smith lives in his RV in Palo Alto. (Ryder Diaz/KQED)

Editor’s note: On Sept. 19, Palo Alto joins many other cities in Silicon Valley in preventing people from legally living in their vehicles. As part of our ongoing series of first-person health profiles called “What’s Your Story?” 69-year-old Fred Smith talks about living in his RV after being a software engineer in Silicon Valley for nearly thirty years. Smith gives us a tour of his home.

By Fred Smith

It’s an ’85 Winnebago, Chieftain. And there’s clothes and books, and those are pictures of my wife.

We’re in the bedroom right now and it’s a decent sized queen bed, I guess you’d call it. Actually, it’s a better bed than a lot of people have.

Back in 2003, I was doing well, getting $145,000 a year. Then I got caught in the tail end of the dot-com crash and never recovered from that. Unemployment had ran out and I realized that I couldn’t afford to keep the apartment I had. Actually, I ended up living in my car with my cat for a couple weeks here in the alley behind Happy Donuts. You know, you got these seats that fold down, and you’re half in the trunk and half in the back seat. Continue reading

Wife’s Illness Spurs Mexican Immigrant to Environmental Activism

Eduardo Guevara became involved in environmental activism after his wife was hospitalized twice for asthma. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Eduardo Guevara became involved in environmental activism after his wife was hospitalized twice for asthma. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Editor’s Note: The unincorporated community of Mecca in Riverside County has a host of environmental concerns, from well water with naturally-occurring arsenic to toxic dump sites. When people talk about environmental justice here, Eduardo Guevara is always cited as a leader in the community. But Guevara says that five years ago, after moving here from Mexicali, Mexico, he wasn’t involved in any kind of activism. After his wife was hospitalized twice for asthma, Guevarra learned that their environment might be contributing to his wife’s health problems. As part of our series “What’s Your Story?” we hear from Guevara about how he, his wife and his son started attending community meetings to get some answers.

Since no one had the [the answers as to why my wife got sick], I  started to try to get them for, not only for me, but for her, and for my son.

I started being the guy that sometimes asked the questions nobody wanted to ask. They saw me and they were like, “Oh my god, this guy again.”
And then we went to a meeting, where the Air Quality Management District was at the panel, and out of nowhere the kid is like, “You know what? I saw a kid reading a letter. I’m going to write one, and then I’m going to read it.” You know, my son.

And he took the letter, went to the microphone, read it aloud. He said, “Hi, I’m Eduardo Guevara. I think that the government has to do something about the toxic things that they throw in Mecca. I am worried for my mom because she had asthma and because of those smells she could get asthma again. Thank you.” Continue reading