When Wolves help kids (right here in LA)

I wrote this to support the program as it was looking forward to a chance at a grant from Mazda/NBC, but I evidently tried to submit it for review shortly after they closed the submissions. Rather than just slide it into a folder, I thought I would add it here and possibly deliver a message to a possible set of eyes that may feel the compulsion to help out as well, in any capacity.

As a photographer and artist by trade, I have long come to realize I will never be “wealthy.” That is defined by the fact that here will be no homes on the ocean with sweeping views that I have dreamed of nor will I fall asleep to the rhythmic lullaby of waves gentle lapping the shoreline.

 

But defining the term “wealthy” and the currency used to gain it, has taken on a completely different meaning lately in my life. The experiences I get to live out on a weekly basis whether it be to traveling to a distant shore, getting inside looks into the lives of celebrities, sport stars and all the common families that help build this country is something I was hoping to do when I retired from my 9-5, suit and tie gig.

 

The currency I was going to save in order to do all of this was based on years of saving and sacrificing what’s left of my youth. For the record I am in my 50’s and consider myself as youthful, if not more so than most 25 year olds. But I know my clock is moving so much faster.

 

The past ten years has blessed me with the chances and recourses to do something I knew I was here to ultimately do; give back. There are a few causes I like to donate my time and services to. One of which is the Wolf Connection (WC), in Acton California.

 

Here, the combination of love and thoughtful direction towards the misunderstood diverge in a perfect symphony of altruism. Abandoned, mistreated and often abused wolves are joined here with their human counterparts and where true healing and hope begin to take root.

 

I have been on hikes through the hot, dusty and steep hills with the leaders of this unique pack, accompanied by select wolves and the at risk kids, who at first often maintain a cool and at arms length disposition. As a photographer watching everything, including the attitudes and body language through my lens, it becomes apparent to me very quickly who is taking this serious and those who choose to keep their protective walls up. However, that will eventually change and that’s where the wolves themselves make their mark along with the stories told by the WC pack members themselves.

 

While the wolves can’t talk directly to them, the level of communication is undeniable. Concepts such as trust, humility, confidence and family will be introduced in simple terms to each child that’s willing to listen.

 

At times I walk with the kids to hear the conversations and a gain sense of their understanding of these new concepts. Last hike I heard terms “I can’t” or I’ll never” referring to their idea they can ever break away form the bad neighborhoods they live in or the broken family they come from.

 

The Wolf Connection offers a place they can learn to understand how to build the foundation for these foreign concepts and hope; strength and a plan to climb out the dark hole they currently find themselves in. The wolves themselves keep a healthy distance to those who aren’t ready to humble themselves by breaking down the rough exterior and walls. It’s when the kids earn their trust when the magic happens. A kinship in the purest and most primal form has planted its first seed and the foundation for a new understanding of how they value themselves as worthy recipients that will translate to the outside world they return to at the end of the day.

 

The idea is the new value they have in themselves keeps them away from the constant street fights, drugs and misleading fraternities within a gang. The very idea of hope is taught here. The direction it takes to be involved so the chance to climb up the ladder and out of their situation, school family and those in the community who are true leaders will appeal to them.

 

Like with wolves in the wild, it’s all about surviving and being associated with the right pack. And like these wolves here, abused and left behind, the hopes for second chances are realized. To move forward, forgiveness, humility and a solid plan path their new road from Acton to Watts.

 

By the end of the hikes, I have often witnessed the “I Cant’ attitude change to many questions of how they can, and this step to these kids is invaluable as the seed has now been planted. The program last several weeks to properly water and feed these them so the roots can spread in an otherwise barren pot. The impact to each kid cannot be measured, as its impact on the community they live in eventually will.

 

If kids who leaned towards the idea of the easy dollar or sense of community through crime and civil disobedience can be show the road to a more fulfilling life, the community itself is exponentially healed. These kids cannot only be the students, but more importantly the teachers. How does one put a value on that that is not understated?

 

In life every thing boils down to currency. In my case, my currency is the gift of trust I ultimately get from many of these kids. To have a child who has literally been left behind by their community, friends and even family ask advise from me or want to bounce an idea of me makes me a very wealthy man. I am honored to contribute to such a program.

 

As for the currency and what it means to (WC), the motor that drives the operation is not cheap. Housing, feeding, caring and medicine for the wolves is expensive. The manpower it takes to maintain the acreage and support the programs for the kids and is paid in US dollars. A donation from Mazda/NBC of this amount is a game changer would help level the playing field for so many more who can’t see that they can also be “wealthy” too.

 

One for our troops

One for our troops

While shooting for an agency of this 10 yr old boy, it was easy to tell he was done with all the outfits with bow ties, polo shirts and several others. We needed to get through yet another wardrobe change before calling it quits.
So I promised him that if he did this one last change and showed extra enthusiasm for the last part of our photo session, he could then go into his closet and pick out anything he wanted to photograph as a bonus.
He gave me a big smile and I began to get intrigued with what he’d pick. His dad played in the NFL for many years and is in the top 10 all time in scoring. So I was imagining him in one of his many uniforms with a helmet. When he walks out in the gear in the photo I took attached, I was floored. His heroes all revolve around our troops and his knowledge of US military history was amazing..
So I asked the obvious question; why this outfit?
He did not hesitate as he thought it could be a nice Christmas tribute to all of those men and women over seas fighting for our country and ultimately freedom, as they must really miss their families during the holidays. We obviously were shooting in late December and like most shoots I do, there are always surprises.
This one was no different and was an honor to photograph and learn more about JD, an amazing kid

It’s Free! And it doesn’t hurt at all

I still clearly and fondly remember a trip I took Ecuador a few years back. The country had the most spectacular scenery from miles up in the sky, framed by the Andes to the cool blue-green pools deep under the Pacific Ocean, exploring the depths of the Galapagos. There was never a shortage of breathtaking scenery and great photo ops at each turn. However, the most profound memory I brought home and one that still remains with me even to this day was one the simplest of gestures and the easiest one to pass along with out breaking your stride in the least bit.  It may seem simple and a bit trivial, but the unsolicited smiles from the locals really made a real impact on me. It really opened my eyes to where I live full time and how much I can acclimate to any environment; even one full of grumpy people.

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The cost is of course absolutely nothing, except for the brief acknowledgement that someone outside our own little World is relevant, even if only for a brief moment. Yet for some reason it ‘s such a rare commodity here back at home, and one rarely given with out pretension.  It’s amazing what a simple yet, genuine and warm smile can do when it comes from out of the blue. I reference Ecuador and can easily add China, Thailand, Ireland as well in my attempt to describe why or how Peru is had the same affect on me. Even though they share borders with Ecuador and it would seem possible for these borders to be more transparent, they do not do so with the far east and in Europe..So obviously is not  a geographical phenomenon, it become more increasingly a larger perspective which coincidently enough comes from the people who in social circles possess less. Less material things, that is and by no means less emphasis of enjoying life.

This kind of basic and genuine form of communication breaks so many boundaries and is universally understood no matter how terrible the foreign language skills are from a particular location. In China, I went with out a single word in my language-bank so even to say a simple greeting was a challenge at first. However, when armed with enough enthusiasm, confidence in my ability to act out on the spot charades, or draw a quick picture; ultimately I managed just fine with a very open mind and a self defacing, yet genuine smile. Every time it was returned to me and usually with the help or direction I needed. I was forced to interact with people at every turn, which s not a strong point of mine. But for some reason, (possible desperation,) I did so just fine. I think it had more to do with the fact that the people were so accommodating towards helping me.

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One of my little guardian angels “Sunny” who helped me find my place after a 22 hr train ride and a 2 hour bus trip only to get completely turned around.

So much like Ecuador and China, Peru offered a better base for my ability to communicate with my 2nd grade level spanish, but once again the thing I take home with me, more than the beautiful coastline of Miraflores, the greenness and grandeur of the Sacred Valley and of course the jaw dropping spectacle that is Machu Pichu, is once again the warmth of the people and the brightness and sincerity of their smiles.

Whether it be the smallest child, or the oldest person we met, there is an acknowledgement that you are in their realm and more than that are welcome there. Even the taut’s or any number of people selling a number of items on the street are polite and have a thank you followed by a genuine smile even if there is no sale made. It just seems to be in their DNA to be gracious and polite. Weird, huh?

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This man rode into town every day to sell Sugar Cane..Every day, I saw him he wore this smile with out fail

I guess, the main reason I really continue to run out to parts of the World that especially more provincial is to get a sense of hope and perspective that there’s still places where the pace of life is just slow enough to understand how quick this ride we’re on truly is. It kind of validates the struggle I have wanting this life to go on longer so I can experience more of it and simply expand my horizons intellectually, empathetically and of course spiritually. A place where complete strangers can pass you on a street you have never been on, look you dead in our eyes, extend a big smile simply to say hello and have a nice day. There is no other meaning behind it, yet it warms the heart completely and connects us all. It also makes me wonder why its not like this back home where I live in a beach town, full of people who have life by the literal balls and don’t deal with the day to day life and death struggles simply to to stay fed that I see and meet every time I jump on or off a plane.

It also makes me wonder who the truly rich and blessed people are and who are really the less fortunate ones. Generalizing does nothing in this country except make people crazy and force them to pick out the 1 or 2 people they know or heard of to dispel that particular “myth.” This is also not anywhere close to a commentary on a truly capitalistic vs social conservative perspective. I can easily separate the facts that one has nothing to do with the other and ease the ideas that begin from the top down. It appears to me that many of us have lost the idea that begins at the the bottom and grows up and then out. Maybe we all forget where we came from, or where our parents and how their parents have struggled to get us to where we are. Although we are now living in a society that does stress a sense of self entitlement, I’m still not buying the fact that we can not rediscover our foundations we once embraced and get back to being the best country in the World’s history to live in. I am constantly reminded that with a little humility, hard work and servitude to the family and neighborhoods we live in, I won’t constantly be coming home to a place that has lost its warm smile.

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Quechan woman with her Llama in the Sacred Valley, Peru

I am always packing my bags before every trip with the intent of finding extremes of emotions and experiences in usually remote and hard to reach places.  I usually find what I’m looking for as I remain intrepid in that task, but what strikes me the most is the people I meet along the way and how someone who I meet for a total of a minute or two can impact my life as profoundly as many people I have known for years.

Coming home is always a mixture of excitement and a bit of contrition. Most times I come home and spend days in the house trying to acclimate to seeing all the same old robotic and lifeless faces in the cars to my left and right. Sometimes a little walk around the neighborhood, can be a good ice breaker.

I believe to truly understand why we are all in this place in our hearts and souls we simply need to look in the mirror. It starts each day and the second we get out of bed, whether we do just our little part to make someone else feel present, welcome, loved, wanted or just acknowledged. If we are waiting for a larger Leviathan (the kind Thomas Hobbs once described) to tell us what and how to do it, then it’s just going to be too late.

So here is a little photographic tribute of thanks to so many of those beautiful and warm smiles I was on the lucky end of and that continue to help me understand that we are all indeed connected, for better or worse.

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Definition of two old wise men, who also happened to be genuinely nice. By the Gold Mount Temple in Bangkok, Thailand

Peru 2012

The front desk clerks at our hotel in Lima who we actually spent some quality personal time with their families during our stay, including diner at their house

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One of my favorite Inn Keepers in Yanghsuo, China..Was actually hard leaving this guy when it came time to go

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Fresh fruit vendor in Thailand..Met this woman every am helping her pull a cart that a water buffalo may struggle with to her spot over a huge hill

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