Could You Survive the Worst Thing Imaginable?

25 10 2010

Emma, Katie, and Kyle Coble - Credit: Chriscoble.com

Imagine the worst thing that could possibly happen to you. The worst did happen to Lori and Chris (her husband)  who were on today’s Oprah show. A truck driver coming around a blind curve on a freeway slammed into the back of Lori’s car, which was stopped in traffic on the freeway.

Lori was in the car with her mother and her three children…Kyle aged 5, Emma aged 4, and Katie, aged 2. All three children were killed in that crash and Lori and her mother survived.

Somehow…with the support of family and friends and by making a pact with each other to not kill themselves and instead to help each other out…Lori and Chris got through it and decided 3 months later they wanted to have another child. One year after the tragedy, they had triplets…two girls and a boy! The children are now 2 1/2 and they brought them out…adorable. They said there is joy in their home again, but they still grieve the loss of the first two girls and boy. Amazingly, they forgave the truck driver, who is also the father of young children.

The story has several lessons:

  • That you can survive even the worst thing imaginable.
  • That supporting each other through tough times is important. The couple immediately went to counseling and learned to tell each other what they were feeling. You could tell that they are very close to each other and loving.
  • That miracles do happen. They had triplets who were the same sex as the three children they lost.
  • To hold your loved ones close and appreciate them and realize what a gift every day with them is.
  • That family and friends are invaluable and can love you and support you through whatever you are going through.

The couple has demonstrated unbelievable courage as has Lori’s mother, who was also featured and is also a survivor of the car crash. She of course has grieved not only for the loss of her grandchildren, but every day did all she could to help her daughter and son-in-law get through this unbelievable tragedy.

So when you’re having a bad day, as we all do, think of all you have to be grateful for and hold those you love and who love you tight…both figuratively and in reality. We’re all here to help each other out and in the end, having that love and support is what matters.

P.S. I originally wrote this (with some additions, which I didn’t share here) as an email to one of my daughters. This story touched me so much, I wanted to share it more broadly.





A 16-Year-Old Sexual Abuse Victim…and Now a Murderer

19 10 2010

The clean-cut, all-American looking 16-year-old talking to Oprah on yesterday’s show killed a man on January 22, 2010. Daniel Kovarbasich said he “snapped” after being molested for over 3 years by 56-year-old Duane Hurley and he stabbed him 55 times. He’s serving 5 years probation and sitting in prison until he can get proper counseling; a judge let him out to be on the Oprah show to send a message to other children and families.

In this case…as in most…Daniel was sexually abused by someone he knew…a family friend. He was first approached by Duane when he was just 12 and Duane offered to pay him to help him take care of his dog. Daniel’s parents took precautions: they looked up Duane’s name online to see if he was listed as a sex offender (he wasn’t) and they went with Daniel to Duane’s house each time for an entire year.

Daniel Kovarbasich

Duane not only groomed Daniel, but he groomed the whole family and let them do odd jobs in exchange for much needed money or he’d buy them needed household items. They all thought that Duane was a great guy, began to trust him, and even considered him a friend who was welcome in their home; finally the parents started letting Daniel go over to Duane’s house alone.

The grooming progressed when Daniel wanted to drive Duane’s sedan and Duane told Daniel he’d have to show him his penis. When Daniel wanted to drive Duane’s corvette, Duane said “bigger toys, bigger things” and insisted that Daniel let him touch his penis. The grooming continued and the abuse escalated to anal sex. Daniel hated it, but was afraid to tell his parents due to the shame he felt. He also couldn’t get away from Duane, who would track him down if he didn’t come over.

All this time, Daniel had a girlfriend and wanted to plan something special for their one year anniversary of dating. Duane asked him how much money he needed for that and Daniel said $80. Duane let him know that would cost him; i.e., he’d have to have sex with Duane. That was when Daniel snapped.

There were several messages this family…which also included Daniel’s older brother wanted to convey:

  1. If a child’s behavior changes, something could be terribly wrong. Daniel’s brother noticed that Daniel was acting totally out of character…smoking, acting out, etc.
  2. It is usually a “friend” or relative that abuses a child. They are able to win the child’s and his/her parent’s trust and gain access to the child. Daniel’s parents were shocked that this man won their trust, was their “friend,” and all the while was sexually abusing their son.
  3. Smart child abusers groom children. They win the child’s confidence…and that of their parents…over time. They will do things like offer the child special things the parents wouldn’t…like alcohol or driving a car when the child (as in Daniel’s case) doesn’t have a license. This is a red flag.
  4. Daniel urged children who might now be in a situation like he was in to TELL SOMEONE. The abuse will only progress…it doesn’t get less shameful. Get some help. Get out. TELL.

Oprah is herself a survivor of multiple instances of childhood sexual abuse. I applaud her for continuing to get the story out and to hammer home the fact that it is usually someone the child knows who abuses them.

This is a tragic story…as are all stories about sexual abuse. It all started with the selfish, narcissistic actions of a man who didn’t care what the consequences of his actions were. His actions did have consequences and one of them was that he lost his life. An innocent boy was traumatized and made to perform sexual acts for over three years by a child molester he thought was his friend and his family’s friend. That innocent boy became a murderer because of the abuse and a secret he felt was too shameful to tell. The whole family is suffering and their entire lives will be forevermore impacted.

If you are being sexually abused now or have been in the past, but have never admitted it, tell someone. Get help. Don’t suffer in silence and risk having the abuse continue or your reaction to it spiral out of control. It isn’t and wasn’t your fault and you are not the one who bears the shame. That belongs only to the person who committed the abuse.





A Would-Be Robber and The Power of Love to Overcome Fear and Desperation

24 10 2009

It was October 19, 2009. 23-year-old Greg Smith was out of work, desperate, and needed money. He held Angela Montez at gun point, fully intending to rob a cash advance store, but something miraculous happened. Angela, a mother and grandmother, started crying and began talking to Greg. She told him “‘No, you don’t have to do this. Nothing can be bad enough for you to lower yourself to something so bad.” Even though the cash register was open and Greg could have taken the money and ran, he didn’t. His heart softened and he got down on his knees and prayed with Angela for ten minutes. The two even hugged. He left without taking the money.

Oprah had Greg, who is now in Marion County Jail in Indiana, and Angela, who was in the Harpo Studios with Oprah, on her show on Friday. What Greg Smith - From Oprah websiteunfolded there…and what had unfolded during the planned robbery…was a testimony to what can happen when people let go of fear and see the good in each other.

Out of work for a year, Greg said that he felt like “less than a man” because he couldn’t provide for his family. His driver’s license had been suspended so he lost his job, which required him to drive. Feeling like he had no options, he robbed someone the week before and has since apologized to the woman he robbed.

Something really changed in him when he tried to rob the store where Angela worked. Greg said:

Honestly, it was a feeling when she started talking to me, like I told her, no disrespect to my mother or anyone in my family, but noone has ever talked to me the way that she did. She talked to me like a mother would to her child or a grandmother would to her grandchild. She made me feel comfortable and something just made me open up to her. I don’t know what it was. And I felt honestly something that I had never felt before. Honestly, I don’t even think it was Miss Angela talking to me; I actually think it was the man upstairs talking to me through her.

Upon hearing that, Angela said she wanted to give him a big hug, she forgave him, and that she understood. She told him to take the punishment for what he’s done and “…don’t let the past stop you from being great in the future.” Greg teared up and said “I”m sorry, Miss Angela.” He said he never meant to hurt her. During the encounter in the store, he even gave her the bullet in his gun.

Angela was touched and said “See that is remorse. He has a good heart and good love. You know he has served in the service. You have give four years of your life to our country; we love that. Thank you.” Greg’s mouth was trembling; he too, was touched at the power of forgiveness and love from Angela.

Oprah also had Donna, Greg’s mother, and Sherrie, Greg’s long-time girlfriend and mother of their two-year-old daughter, on the show. Donna saw the video of Greg walking out of the store after the attempted armed robbery on the eleven p.m. news and urged him to turn himself in.

Sherrie, Donna, Angela, and Oprah - Credit: Oprah.com

Sherrie, Donna, Angela, and Oprah - Credit: Oprah.com

Donna knew Greg was depressed and was suicidal at one point because he had no work. Yesterday was Greg’s daughter’s birthday and he was distraught that he had no money to buy her a present.

Sherrie works, goes to school, and pays all the bills. She and Greg are both 23 years old and have been together since they were 15. She said she never thought he would do this and partially blamed herself, saying she felt she pushed him over the edge with nagging him to get work.

Donna told her son she loved him and said that she knew he has a big heart. She was sorry she was so wrapped up in her own problems that she didn’t help him. Greg told her he was not mad at her, didn’t blame her, and loved her. He apologized to Sherrie for putting her through this. Their daughter Mya was there…on her 2nd birthday…so precious. She saw Greg on the monitor and gleefully exclaimed “Daddy! Daddy!” Greg said:

I’ve always been a firm believer in God and Christ, but I’ve never walked that walk. I’ve felt like for the longest time I was in control of everything and everything was supposed to go my way. I feel like a lot of the things that I did have before the situation I’m in now I took for granted and I lost it.

Oprah wrapped up the story and told Greg:

We’re hoping the best will come to you really. You seem to have a good heart and you didn’t harm Angela in that circumstance and allowed yourself to have your heart open enough that you could put the gun down and walk away. I know Angela is grateful and we all are grateful too that it worked out this way.

Greg, Sherrie, Mya, Donna, and even Angela have all had their lives impacted because of the economy and the desperation that people can feel from being out of work and not having money. It doesn’t help that Greg is a young black man without a college education and without the creativity and resources to get the help he needs. He is in jail now and is charged with six felony counts and two misdemeanors. On October 22 a judge entered a not guilty plea on his behalf; he does not have an attorney.

By letting go of fear, opening her heart, and seeing Greg as a human being who needed understanding rather than as a criminal, Angela forevermore changed her life, Greg’s life, and the lives of his mother, girlfriend, and daughter. Most likely, Angela’s love and forgiveness have impacted thousands or millions of others who have heard this story, which has been repeated on other shows in addition to Oprah’s. Angela and Greg are each testaments to us that love is a much more powerful force than fear and that what appears bad can be transformative for good in our lives.





Don’t Stop Believin’ – Formerly Homeless Journey Lead Singer and Harvard Student

5 10 2009

The early 80s Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin” was sung on the Oprah show today by their amazing new lead singer (and formerly homeless person in the Phillippines) Arnel Pineda, who was discovered by one of the band members in a video Arnel posted on YouTube. Arnel, who had to fend for himself on the streets after his encouraging mother died when he was 13, is a testament to the power of those words, now living a life he says is way bigger than he could ever have imagined.

The song provided a perfect setup for the story of Khadijah, an African-American young woman who was homeless from the time she was six and slept with her mother and sister in bus stations, on the streets, and in many Khadijah - Homeless to Harvard (Oprah website)shelters. She attended 12 schools in 12 years and was encouraged by her mother to better her life through education. She took this advice to heart, studying hard, and spending a lot of time in the Los Angeles Public Library reading every book she could.

When Khadijah was in the 10th grade, she was determined to finish out her schooling at Jefferson High School, and got up at 4:30 a.m. every day to make the two-hour trip from Skid Row in Los Angeles to school. In May she graduated with honors and is now a freshman at Harvard University. Here’s part of the essay she wrote as part of her admission process. You can read the entire essay at Oprah.com:

Being homeless has given me the skills I need to succeed on the pathway towards my higher education pursuits and life-long goals. My experiences have made me a dedicated student both inside and outside of the classroom. I do not let anything stop me from achieving my goals. Hearing such negativity where I have lived has enabled me to focus on my goals and remain optimistic, even when faced with grave adversity. Having to depend on myself for food has enabled me to take charge of my education. I have learned to be resourceful and diligent and I am confident in saying that I am a very self-motivated and determined individual that will stop at nothing to receive an education. When I go to college, I know that this acquired knowledge and skills will enable me to succeed in whatever I do.

Oprah was so moved by Khadijah’s story that she invited Khadijah to accompany her the next time she visits the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa and tell her inspiring story to the girls there.

Arnel and Khadijah…two formerly homeless people with little to hope for. They both had mothers who believed in them and encouraged them, they both believed in themselves, and they both were willing to work hard to achieve their dreams.

No matter what your situation, no matter how hard or hopeless it may be, don’t stop believing. You never know what miracle is waiting for you!

Here’s Arnel and Journey…





Run for Congo Women – Women for Women

11 04 2009

run-for-congo-women2A story on Oprah about the plight of Congo women and what Women for Women International is doing to help them spurred Lisa Shannon of Portland, Oregon to take action. She organized Run for Congo Women to raise money to help the women there and today bloggers are uniting to bring attention to this cause.

I wrote about the incredible HBO documentary The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo in a November post. Women and children continue to suffer greatly there. The 3/27/09 United Nations Security Council report of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) reports the following:

  • As of January, there were an estimated 1.4 million displaced people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with 707,000 of those being in the northern area of the province of Kivu.
  • Attacks on humanitarian workers, human rights, and the socio-economic and financial situation there have worsened “significantly” even since the start of 2009.
  • Members of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC), the Congolese National Police, and other armed groups have committed egregious human rights abuses such as arbitrary executions, torture, extortion, abduction and disappearance of citizens, and rapes.
  • Sexual and gender-based violence continues with 11,00 rapes being reported each month. Varying from area to area, 35% to 50% of the victims are between 10  and 17 years old and 10% were younger than 10 years old.

Lisa Shannon is one person who decided to do something to make a difference. Below is a 2008 video of her speaking about Run for Congo Women. Another video from Women for Women follows that talks about how we can change the lives of women there by sponsoring a Congolese woman or donating to the organization. Go to http://www.womenforwomen.org to find out more or make a donation.





Oprah on the Polygamous Yearning for Zion Ranch – It’s No “Big Love”

30 03 2009

Oprah visited the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch and aired scenes from her visit today. Disturbing. What she showed is nothing like the Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated TV show Big Love, which just wrapped up its third season on HBO. I love that show. The writing on Big Love is superb, the acting is emotional and believable, and the drama is suspenseful.

Yearning for Zion Ranch outside Eldorado, Texas is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). In 2008 the Texas Child Protective Services (CPS) removed the children after being tipped that children were being sexually abused and underage girls were being forced to marry much older men. Twelve girls between ages 12 and 15 were married when the raid was conducted. Since the raid, people on YFZ say they won’t marry children below the legal age, which is 16 in Texas. The children were eventually all returned except a 12-year-old girl who was forced to marry their prophet Warren Jeffs, who according to FLDS church records, had 58 wives.

Jeffs was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List in 2006 when he fled to avoid prosecution. He was later found and arrested and on 11/20/07 he was sentenced to 10 years to life imprisonment for being guilty of two counts of rape as an accomplice. Jeffs is still scheduled to be tried for additional charges in Arizona. Willie Jessop, who took Oprah into the ranch, is now the prophet.

Excellent, shocking, and eye-opening books I have read on the FLDS church are Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven and Carolyn Jessop’s book Escape. In 1986, 18-year-old Carolyn Jessop, who wanted to attend medical school but was not allowed, was instead forced to marry 50-year-old Merril Jessop (Willie’s brother) who already had three wives and 30 children. Soon after the marriage, Merrill was given two additional wives.

Merril Jessop and his first six wives - Carolyn is on the right

Merril Jessop and his first six wives - Carolyn is on the right as a young bride

Carolyn endured repeated rapes from her husband and life-threatening pregnancies and childbirth until she was able to escape at age 35 with her 8 children in 2003 from the compound in Colorado City, Arizona. She took them and fled because she was afraid that her oldest daughter Betty, aged 14, would be forced into marriage. Betty screamed as they left and said that a mother has no right to do what she wants with her children.

Four years later and two days after Betty turned 18, she returned to the compound. Carolyn feels Betty is brainwashed. Oprah interviewed now 19-year-old Betty who seems to think her mother’s concern is silly. Betty talks to her mother once a week, but says it’s “awkward.” Merril Jessop is Betty’s father and is awaiting sentencing for conducting the unlawful marriage of Betty’s 12-year-old half-sister to FLDS head Warren Jessop who is in jail.

Betty, as well as the other women, men, and children tried to appear candid, but it’s almost certain that they were coached on what to say. Their stories were nothing like what Carolyn Jessop tells in her book of what life is like there.

Oprah probed those she talked to, but did not judge and let it go when people denied what so many people have said happens there. These interesting things did come out of her conversations. My comments are in purple.

  • Children don’t play. The FLDS people consider play frivolous and they say it doesn’t serve a purpose. Their purpose? To be like God. Wouldn’t God consider play and joy okay?
  • Oprah asked a classroom full of second graders if they’d heard of Shrek, Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, Little Mermaid, and other fictional characters…no, they hadn’t. The teacher said that teaching them about fictional characters serves no purpose. I can understand why they don’t encourage children to think creatively or have imaginations. They might consider doing something besides what they are told…like LEAVE.
  • They listen to religious music and sermons on iPods. Again, having no exposure to “fun” music or hearing opinions on topics besides their own religion keeps the people focused on work and their religion and contributes to them having no ability to think for themselves.
  • Oprah interviewed three wives of one husband who was there during the interview making sure they said the right thing watching. Oprah asked them didn’t they get jealous of their husband being with the other wives. One wife said “Our way of life is self-improvement and what better way to improve yourself than to live with other women and learn to overcome your bad feelings and jealousies? If I didn’t live with other women, I would never know about myself. I would never discover the weaknesses in my human flesh.” On the surface, one can understand her comments, but they say so much more if you delve deeply. She is saying that she has bad feelings and jealousy, she is weak to have feelings, and she can’t know herself or feel without being put in this situation of having to share her husband with other women.
  • Oprah talked to about 20 teenage girls and none of them had dated. One said that marriage is the start of a relationship. They all indicated that their parents pick who they will marry. This sounds a lot like what happens with arranged marriages in India. There is little to no free will to choose your own partner in your own time.
  • Oprah asked the teenage girls if they knew that it was against the law for adults to have sex with children. One said she didn’t know that before, and had just learned that. One can only imagine how the men groom girls for sex at an early age. Read Carolyn Jessop’s book. It’s disturbing.
  • Oprah asked about their dresses, which cover their arms and legs and look identical except in color. They wear them even when they swim and only take them off to put on their gowns for bed. They are not encouraged to be individuals and to express their own personalities (or even to have them) with choice of clothes. They also don’t get to be carefree children, wearing shorts, a swimsuit, etc. They are denied so many of what we would consider freedoms.
  • Oprah asked what the teenage girls what want the outside world to know. They answered in unison “That we’re happy.” Of course they said that. They do and say what they are told. They know they will be beaten if they don’t. They denied beating children in Oprah’s interview, but Carolyn Jessop says that children are beaten badly…even with boards…kicked, and otherwise abused. When the children were removed by the Department of Human Services, many of them had broken bones as a result of the physical abuse they deny happens.

Twelve men from YFZ remain under indictment and their trials are set for this fall. Although some might see it differently, after having read Jon Krakauer’s and Carolyn Jessop’s books and done other reading about what goes on in the FLDS “religion,” I see this as men using their power to make women and children subservient and slaves to their every need and desire. Carolyn Jessop said the boys are often taken out of school and made to work from 5 a.m. until sunset every day as slave labor.

The men cloak what they do in the name of religion and being like God and yet they literally take teenage boys out of their homes and dump them somewhere outside the ranch when they reach a certain age (like 14) because they become a threat to the much older men who pluck their peer-aged girl classmates from childhood to service them in “marriage.” Women and children there could have walked out of a “Stepford Wives” movie…they are zombies with no ability to think or choose for themselves.

I find the whole thing disgusting, disturbing, and alarming. The State of Texas tried to do the right thing, but it backfired. I cried for those women and children when they were returned to the Yearning for Zion Ranch.  The men are back to being happy and controlling. The abuse continues. It’s no “Big Love.”

UPDATE 4/14/09: The Texas House Committee on Human Services met today to look at how Texas officials handled the removal and investigation of child abuse at YZR. When questioned, the now FLDS prophet Willie Jessop said he wasn’t sure if there were underage marriages there and that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to speculate on the entire group. The chairman of the committee, Rep. Patrick Rose, told Jessop he just didn’t believe him.

Anne Heiligenstein, commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, who was not working there at the time of the raid, defended their actions. According to the Austin American-Statesman article on the hearing,

She also pointed out that the protective services agency’s investigation concluded that nearly 30 percent of the girls ages 12 to 17 at the ranch had been sexually abused.

“It’s what other reasonable people would have done in the same situation to protect children,” Heiligenstein said.

Heiligenstein also issued a warning: “You cannot abuse children in Texas and get away with it, even if you are a large, reclusive, well-organized and funded organization that has a great deal of media savvy.”

UPDATE 11/6/09: In the first trial (in the 3,000-resident Schleicher County) associated with the 2008 raids on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Schleicher County, 38-year-old Raymond Jessop was convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl he calls his wife. She is one of the daughters of the former FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs and was previously “married” to Raymond Jessop’s brother before being “reassigned” to him when she was only 15 years old. She became pregnant at age 16 and her daughter is now four years old. According to Texas law, no one under 17 years of age can consent to sex with an adult. Jessop, who has 9 wives, faces up to 20 years in prison.

UPDATE 8/9/11:This is from the Huffington Post:

SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) — Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs has been sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting two underage followers he took as brides in what his church deemed “spiritual marriages.”

The head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints stood quietly as the decision of the Texas jury was read Tuesday. He received the maximum sentence on both counts

The jury deliberated less than half an hour.

The 55-year-old Jeffs was convicted Thursday. During the trial, prosecutors used DNA evidence to show Jeffs fathered a child with a 15-year-old and played an audio recording of what they said was him sexually assaulting a 12-year-old.

Jeffs is the eighth FLDS man convicted since a raid of a ranch run by the church, which believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.





A Cost of the Financial Meltdown: Refugees in America

27 02 2009

Middle class U.S. citizens are living in tent cities after losing their homes because of the economic crisis. Lisa Ling did a special report about this for the Oprah show yesterday. It is painful to see homeless people, but even more painful to see people who had jobs and were living a middle class existence now living in a tent. About 1200 people live in tent cities in Sacramento, where Lisa visited, and these communities are popping up all over the country. Homeless shelters are filled to capacity.

In her report, Lisa featured people such as 47-year-old Tammy, who has been living in a tent city for a little less than a year. Her husband was a tilesetter and lost his job. They then lost their home, their car, and everything they had. Tammy can’t find work in her profession as a cashier although she and her husband are both trying to find a job. They eat food that people throw out. She most misses having a shower and a bathroom – a place to do her makeup and hair. She said “I miss looking like a girl. I miss smelling like a girl.” You can see the pain and sense of shame in her face as she talks. 

Another person Lisa interviewed is Jim, a widower and father of five who has lived in the tent city for four months. He lost his construction job after work tapered off. He said that living in a tent “…is like learning to live all over again.” He too mentions the lack of a shower and bathroom and also the absence of a stove and refrigerator. He looks for work 3 – 4 days a week…when he can afford to do so. He has no car and no money and relies on public transit for transportation. He showed Lisa his tent, which includes a fire pit and bottles of water. To get water, he has to walk three miles roundtrip.

I’ve written posts on Iraqi refugees and the large number of refugees overseas, but I had no idea that homeless Americans are living in tents in camps that look very much like those that Iraqi or Darfur refugees live in. It is wonderful that our country is sending money overseas to help displaced people in other countries; we have people who need help in our own country.

If you want to know more about homelessness or find out how you can help, check out the Homelessness section of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development web page.

Here’s a short video that BBC showed last year on a tent city outside of Los Angeles.