In Action

It’s no secret the universe has been good to Trent and I lately: a dream job with an off-the-charts increase in pay and benefits for me, a near-flawless closing on the perfect second home, and just yesterday we got word of yet another promotion and generous raise for Trent (his second in just shy of two years).

Neither of us is one to cling to the material things in life, so all this “stuff going so good” was starting to feel a little… Too good. Like it needed to go back into the universe somehow because, let’s face it folks –

You can’t take it with you. Any of it. 

Luckily, my new job at Adobe is all about “community engagement.” In fact, I’ve been tasked with developing innovative new kinds of community engagement initiatives for one of the world’s elite technology companies, with a model tradition of philanthropy and corporate responsibility. My first assignment is to get intimately familiar with key initiatives already happening, meet all the players – and participate. In everything.

And so, during this past month – my first on the job – I immediately hit the pavement and joined Adobe’s San Francisco Corporate Responsibility Community Action Team. It was a professional assignment, yes, but it’s been tremendously personally fulfilling. And, come on – I only accepted it as a professional responsibility because I’m the kind of person who feels my personal life is lacking without something like it.

You see?


I was exposed to a lot of unsavory parts of Detroit growing up. My parents never tried to hide the realities of my “armpit of America” city from me – the city of their births. They also never tried to shield me from homeless people as “less” or “others.”

My father was the kind of guy who would take a panhandler into a coney island and offer to buy him dinner. When one turned down his charitable offer on a snowy Saturday during the 1985 auto show (I remember it so vividly; the year of the Aerostar van concept unveiling!), asking couldn’t he “just have some money, man?”,  Dad gave him his spare change, and in his serious engineer-teaching-tone sternly said to me:

“Only God will judge who is worthy of our charity.”

(though, he was particularly enthusiastic about supporting the squeegee man who always stood on the corner of Jefferson and I-375, because he was “demonstrating a work ethic!”; there was no limit to the teaching moments about “hard work” Dad would seize upon; we got many squeegees on the way home from our boat in the summer…)

I think that auto show weekend – I was about seven years old – was the first time I got that lesson about giving indiscriminately, but it certainly wasn’t the last.

Dad used to go jogging around Belle Isle on summer mornings. When he discovered a group of homeless men living under a stand of trees near the bridge on one of his runs, he made it his special side-job to save up all our empty cans and bottles (worth 10¢ apiece in Michigan!) from our weekends on the boat and deliver them to the “guys’ spot.”

Dad and I on the boat, during his remission years and his 5:00 AM 5-mile jogs. No one would have believed the illness he was battling back...

Dad and I on the boat, during his remission years and his 5:00 AM 5-mile jogs. No one would have believed the illness he was battling back…

One weekend he came back with his overstuffed garbage bag still in-hand, looking crestfallen.

“Their stuff isn’t there anymore.”

I worried about what might have happened to “the guys” for weeks after that. I still don’t like to think about it.

When my dad’s cancer came back after seven years of remission, it came back suddenly. He and I were working at the Capuchin monastery annex in Detroit together – a place where drug stores donated damaged goods and the homeless and poor could come “shop” them for free. It was hard work; lots of heavy boxes to unload from big trucks on a cold December day, messy leaky stuff to sort through, clean up, and organize.

Halfway through the day, dad turned pale, vomited blood, apologized to me, and said, “I’m sorry pumpkin, but I really don’t feel good. I think maybe we have to go home early today.”

The Capuchin monastery in Detroit, where dad and I did our last volunteer work together.

The Capuchin monastery in Detroit, where dad and I did our last volunteer work together.

Six months later, he died. I kept doing volunteer work with the homeless in Detroit, though.

And now, here I am, decades later, with this amazing job and this amazing life, trying to remember to give back, and it’s easy to forget, because life’s struggles aren’t quite so in-your-face here in the Bay Area as they are in Detroit.

Last night, I completed the first of what will be a monthly three-hour volunteer commitment at Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco’s Sanctuary Shelter for the homeless. All my shelter work in Detroit was true soup-kitchen kind of stuff; serving up bowls of something that amounted to not much more than gruel, to men bundled in shredded sleeping bags looking to escape -15˚ weather.

This was nothing like that. The ECS Sanctuary is a home for those without one. It’s a place where “the homeless” are part of a community, are treated with dignity and empowered with the basic tools and skills needed to transition off the street (not knocking the folks at the good old Capuchin monastery; this was just one heck of a program ECS has going on – if only every org had the resources to replicate it).

I served dinner to about 100 men, then played cards for an hour with two guys roughly my age named Andy and Damon. I was struck by the small differences of circumstance that separated their life paths from mine.

And I’m grateful for that reminder. It’s been too long.

I’m looking forward to seeing them next month. I told them I’d be back to finish our game of rummy, and I will be.

I have so much more to pay back to the universe.


Also, I really liked Andy and Damon.

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2 thoughts on “In Action

  1. Margaret Wisniewski says:

    Thank you for paying it forward, Lisa. And thank you for sharing those stories about your dad that I did not know. I am glad you inherited his willingness to recognize and respond to those who do not have what you do. You have discovered the secret of a meaningful and happy life. I often wondered what happened to those guys under the tree. I like to think that they found another place to “call home”. Love you!

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