A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

American Heroes

(Above: Sadeo Munemori, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for throwing himself on a live grenade, saving his buddies at the cost of his own life. The date: April 5, 1945 - the day I was born. He died so I could live.)

Sixty-five years ago this week, Germany surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II in Europe.
It's been called "The Good War," but in fact it was the most terrible war ever fought, with deaths topping 60 million. And the overwhelming majority of those deaths were civilians.
The war brought out the best and worst of humankind. It's obvious who were the worst: the Nazis and their collaborators.
And I would argue that the best were the American G.I.s, who left the comfort and security of their homes and families and laid their lives on the line to set free a suffering world.
And the best of the best were the men - boys, really - of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Army unit that was awarded more medals, man for man, than any other unit in American history.
They rescued the famous Lost Battalion, a Texas National Guard unit that was trapped behind enemy lines, saving 211 men – but at a cost of more than 800 of their own.
They liberated the French town of Bruyeres just hours before the Gestapo was scheduled to execute thousands of Resistance fighters in its prisons – including a 16-year-old boy named Francois Mitterrand, who grew up to become President of France.
They broke down the gates of the Dachau concentration camp, rescuing many prisoners who were on the brink of death.
And the most remarkable thing is that they did all this while their own families were languishing behind barbed wire back home. More than 150,000 innocent Japanese Americans were rounded up and imprisoned in detention camps for the duration of the war.
And yet these men volunteered to fight for our country. Our government betrayed them, but they kept the faith. It's hard to think of a similar example of returning good for evil.
But you'll never get them to admit that they are heroes. Every year at this time, they gather at Roberts Park in Oakland to honor the people they consider the real heroes: their buddies who never came back.
Under the cathedral-like canopy of the Blossom Rock Navigation Trees, they hold an interfaith service at the 442nd Memorial Redwood Tree, which is flanked by a small stone monument and a memorial bench.
It's the only private monument in the East Bay Regional Park District, whose rules forbid such shrines. William Penn Mott, the park district's longtime director, was so moved by the 442nd's story, he made an exception for them.
This year's service will be held Saturday, May 15, at noon, and the men of the 442nd would love you to join them. They especially want to invite young people, the next great generation.
Roberts Park is on Redwood Road, on the way to the Chabot Space & Science Center. Turn right into the parking entrance and drive to the south lot. We'll gather there at about 11:45, then walk a hundred yards or so to the site.
The ceremony will be short but very moving. And the chance to meet these wonderful men is an opportunity not to be missed.
We are losing our World War II veterans by the thousands every day. We won't have them with us much longer. The least we can do is say, "Thank you" while we still can.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Helping Teachers Teach

A few years ago, I worked as a substitute teacher in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, one of the poorest districts in the state.
I loved the kids. They were sweet, bright-eyed and eager to learn, and they were just as smart as kids in more affluent schools.
They would be due to graduate from high school right now; but I wonder how many of them actually will because the deck is so stacked against them.
Few of them have ever been to the beach, or the East Bay hills, or the Lawrence Hall of Science, or even taken BART across the Bay to San Francisco.
They've never stepped on a college campus, even though UC Berkeley is only a few miles away. And it certainly never occurred to them that they could actually go to college there.
This is a heartbreaking waste of talent - not only for their sake, but for the country's.
That's why the work of a private group called the West Contra Costa Public Education Fund - better known as the Ed. Fund - is so important. It tries to fill in some of the gaps by giving small grants to good teachers for field trips, science projects, drug prevention and other enrichment programs, as well as college scholarships to promising students.
"We can't replace the $30 million the district has lost in the last two years, so we have to be smart and strategic about where we invest the money," says executive director Jennifer Henry. "We want the money to go directly to those teachers who, in some cases, spend more time with these kids than their parents do. They know how to spend it more effectively than anyone else."
The Ed. Fund will hold its major fundraiser, the annual Excellence in Education Banquet, on May 14 at the Doubletree Hotel in Berkeley, where outstanding teachers and students will be honored. Even if you can't attend, you can contribute anyway by visiting www.edfundwest.org or calling 510-233-1464.
Meanwhile, here's wishing a happy birthday to the Berkeley/Oakland YWCA, which is 120 years old this year.
The YW's motto is "Eliminating Racism, Empowering Women," and they really mean it.
Back in the 1920s, four decades before the Berkeley schools were finally desegregated, the YW already was calling for racial equality on campus and in the community.
In 1942, YW members protested the detention of Japanese Americans and later assisted the detainees' return to the Bay Area by meeting their trains, helping them get settled and finding them jobs.
In partnership with the student YMCA, the YW pioneered many services for Cal students - such as student housing, loans and freshman orientation - that eventually were taken over by the university itself.
Today, its focus is more on the local community, including a conversational English program for visiting scholars and a math/science program for 4th and 5th graders called TechGYRLS, where Cal undergrads mentor the next generation of young women.
"We haven't gotten stuck in our history," says the YW's unofficial historian, Dorothy Clemens. "We move along with the times, but not necessarily with the fads."
Clemens will sign copies of the new, updated version of her history of the YW at the 120th Birthday party on May 12. For more information, visit vww.ywca-berkeley.org or call 510-848-6370.