(Article 7 of 7 in Rainbow Family Ocala gathering 2015 series)
Before we head back to the coast and continue our journey along the edge of America, we have the opportunity to visit a bit with Gary Kadow. He is the fellow who was instrumental in facilitating the Doctor's visit to the Rainbow gathering as well as many of the donations that were passed out.
Gary has led a diverse life, all of which has led him to helping impoverished families in this central area of Florida. "I ran HUD in New York" says Gary. "I thought I had seen poverty. But I have never seen poverty like it exists in this area."
On HIS WEBSITE the main banner says "Serving our US Military, Disabled and Homeless Veterans, and Those in Need." Originally, "and Those in Need" was not on the mission statement. "How do I go into the forest, with all those in such need and tell people 'I am going to help him, but not you'?" Gary asks.
Yes, the VA says there are 153,000 US Veterans plus their families living in our forests - but there are many times that number total. Gary says veterans comprise about one in six of the homeless in this country - if that is true there are a million people total who live in these areas.
Given the sub-tropic climate in Florida, the problem is especially concentrated here. But with the help of a group of local pastors and the support of large local retirement communities, Gary and other's efforts are making a difference.
Ladies from Michigan dropping off baby diapers and formula for project SOS
Three years ago they were successful in getting the local school systems to add 16 bus stops - all in the forest. This has resulted in hundreds of new children attending school. Although the other school children are brutal with their scornful remarks and it is automatic that the children are held back at least a grade, many of them are hanging in there - some with high honors.
Gary tells the story of one local girl whose mother was busted with crystal meth. After the mothers jail sentence was complete she decided to abandon her husband and five children in the forest. Since that time, this girl has been acting as mother for the other four children plus attending school. And, she has maintained a 4.0 average - straight A's.
A college fund has been organized for children like this. They sign an agreement that states that they will not drink or use drugs for the four years of high school, and that they will maintain certain grade point averages. If they uphold this, their first two years of college is paid, and if they maintain through that the next two years of college is covered. "The longer I am involved here, the more I realize that education is the only way out for these kids" says Gary. "We have second and third generation living in these woods - we have children having children. Education is the only way to break this cycle."
Gary tells the story of a sex education class they held last year. They invited 40 girls, and out of those only two of the girl's parents refused to allow them to attend these classes. These two sets of parents claimed they were not going to expose their children to "that pornographic filth." A year later, only two of the 40 girls are pregnant - the two that did not attend.
It is worth taking a moment to touch on a couple of other dimensions that Gary has experienced in his life. Here is a book he co-authored that covers his time as a volunteer at Ground Zero after 911.
On that day, Gary's wife called and told him to turn on CNN. When he saw the devastation he didn't pause - he immediately began packing his Red Cross gear. You see, besides being a veteran, besides having been Vice-President of a major bank, besides heading HUD for the State of New York, besides being Vice Chair of HUD nationally, besides being a direct adviser to Bill Clinton and many other titles, Gary is an ordained Episcopal minister, a Red Cross government liaison and a Red Cross chaplain.
Gary had a niece and a nephew in the Pentagon when it was struck, so he was not allowed to serve there. He was sent straight to Ground Zero in New York. "I didn't consider myself a hero" says Gary. "I looked at all those others there serving, and thought 'they are the heroes.'"
There are numerous photos in Gary's book, and he describes in detail the State Emergency Management Operation center he was part of. Scores of cubicles were set up with live feed video images on the wall taken from various spots on the disaster site. Gary estimates three thousand Red Cross volunteers showed up and worked at the site.
On his second morning there, Gary recounts that a request came to him for 10,000 body bags, while the hospitals made it known they had space for 3,000 wounded. The realization hit him that they were not dealing with a lot of injuries, they were dealing with a lot of fatalities. By the second day, the smell of death was so overpowering that Gary had to pack his nose full of Vicks and breathe through his mouth just to be able to keep going.
There is much more in his book, but I wanted to give you an idea of the quality of people we are dealing with when we are talking to these folks who volunteer and minister and work with the people in these forests.
Pastor Chris and wife _____
I wanted to put the Rainbow Family's annual visit here in perspective, and between these ministers and some locals I sat and talked with at a local diner, I got an earful.
"This forest is full of Meth-labs. It poisons our community and everyone it comes into contact with" said one local. They told story after story about how there are certain areas of the forest that the Rangers will not go - that are "candy-striped" off on their maps as do not enter. There are booby traps on the trails, and tens of millions of dollars that roll in off of the drug sales.
Several locals shared that a lot of this money makes its way into local law enforcement pockets to bribe them to look the other way. And a lot of the Meth makes it into the local community. One of the side effects of Meth use is that it removes the enamel from the user's teeth which quickly rot. This is a condition known on the street as "Meth-mouth." I saw plenty of this in evidence as I sat at the local store writing the stories about the gathering. It gives a whole new meaning to the sign prominently displayed on the store's front door.
"These Rainbow kids are peace-loving kids who really don't understand why people won't leave them alone" says Pastor Chris. Ed adds: "A few years back, several federal agencies were coming to these gatherings and using the kids for riot control practice. They would come out of the woods at night, all dressed in black with their riot control gear on and herd the kids around. We finally got a stop put to that."
A local farmer is a bit more poignant. "They (law enforcement) know exactly what the real problems are here. They just don't have the balls to deal with them. So, they make a big display of bullying these hippie kids once a year so they can act like they are doing something."
"Welcome Home" - a greeting both oral and written greets the visitor to a Rainbow Gathering.
These are foreign words to most of these kids - in my ten days among them I heard story after story of abandonment, orphanages, foster homes, neglect and abuse. "Loving you." "Thank you for being you." These phrases, used as standard salutations, have deep meaning to these kids and for many signify their first hope that maybe they can be loved and accepted into a society they feel is aligned against them.
Great diversity and much natural beauty are hallmarks of this Central Florida area. Intertwined with the forest are mile after mile of orange groves.
A multitude of springs burst out of the ground - surprisingly a few of them are brackish.
They well up a light turquoise, then shift to that crystal blue as they make their way into streams and rivers.
Over 720 springs have been given names, and unknown miles of underground caverns connect them. Scuba diving in the matrix is a unique experience that attracts divers from around the world. I am sure a whole book could be written on these folks.
And what of these folks that do the controlled burns in our forests?
I spoke with a couple of them who told me there is a circuit all around the United States that they follow in groups each year. They burn swaths of the forest so that later fires can be more easily contained.
And what of the wildlife? I heard the yowl of a large cat at night - bobcat, cougar - I can't tell the difference.
For the most part, the folks are friendly. But like the fires above and the spring waters below, there are constant signs that remind you that just below the surface tensions are smoldering.
Before I pulled out of the area, I stopped at that Country Store one last time. As I sat at the picnic table checking my emails, one of the more vocal locals accosted me.
"So, was ya dancin' around tha bonfiah nekkid with tha res o' dem hippies on Valentines?" she cackled through rotted teeth. "Ah seen dem women's ahmpit hayah - dat's all I'se gots ta see ta know I'se seed all ahh wants ta see !!" she continues.
"Maybe that was some of the folks from Europe" I reply. Of course, this just invites further dialogue, and off she goes, clucking madly about those filthy hippies. I don't know why I had to open my mouth - but sometimes it is so hard to remain silent.
Heading back to the coast, we see a few of the smaller rivers accumulating the bounty of the springs, joining forces as they prepare for their march to the sea.
Here is something I didn't know existed.
Perhaps we will learn a bit more about it when we visit some of the history museums in St. Augustine.
And so, we leave the Ocala National Forest.
As we leave the park there is a long hill. The low line of sight angle makes the oil on the surface of the blacktop shimmer like a mirror.
Oncoming traffic seems to drop out of the blue sky - cars moving away seem to just dissipate into the blue. Has it all been just that - a mirage?
A couple of hundred miles back down the St. John's river brings us back to Jacksonville and the coast.
I found a parking lot right on the ocean where I could hear the crash of the surf all night as I slept.
This morning I found one of those beach hotels with open WiFi and a patio overlooking the Atlantic. As I watch men and women in suits scurrying about for a conference they are holding here I wonder who is more surreal - these slaves of the system or those who are outcasts from it? I don't have a clue.
I can tell you this - I will never again look at one of these rivers we pass as they empty into the ocean without wondering about the multitude of stories we are missing just upstream.
That brings us to today's "Faces in the Crowd." I found this attached to an email:
Seems this young lady has been missing from the west coast for a while now. A sharp eyed lady from Reno Nevada spotted a girl in one of my photos that looks a lot like her.
She asked me if I had other photos of the girl, and I had a few that were taken in that series. Remember, there were thousands at this event and at best I photographed two hundred. She made a small donation to the website and thanked me profusely - she said the photo had give the parents hope - something they have not had in a while now.
I also got an email from someone named "Jude" who threatened to sue me because his photo is on one of the posts and he did not give me permission to photograph him. I told "Jude" that I would be happy to comply if he would let me know which picture it was. But, I reminded Jude that we had been on public property and he had no reasonable expectation of privacy. I have come a long way, but I still have to shoot my mouth off - maybe I will mature someday. Maybe not.
Which brings us to today's parting shot:
Ouch. It seems both procrastination and impatience can cost you. Now if we can just find the wisdom to know the difference. . .
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