Feature stories

Households and friendships uprooted by mobile home park’s closing

Dec. 21, 2007

By Julie Patel

There couldn’t have been a worse time for Marilyn Baker to get the letter. Her son was fighting cancer, and her husband and other son had died two years before. It seemed she had just enough energy to make her kidney dialysis appointments several times a week and tend to simple household chores.

Bewildered, she read and re-read the thing: Flick’s Mobile Home Park, her home for the past 26 years, was going to be sold. That meant the Sunnyvale park would close. It meant the 77-year-old would have to pick up and move.

Where would she go? How would she sort through a lifetime of belongings? Would her friends at the park all be scattered?

“All these thoughts come to you as you’re reading this,” Baker said.

Next door, in his mobile home, Luis Trujeque, 50, could think only about his spunky 12-year-old daughter, Minelia, and whether he could afford to keep himself, his girlfriend and Minelia in the area so the girl wouldn’t be forced to transfer schools.

It has been more than a year since that letter arrived. Since then, the close-knit neighbors at Flick’s – caught between the sometimes rival aims of redevelopment and affordable housing – have endured a rough journey increasingly familiar to mobile home dwellers nationwide. Park owners cash in on valuable land, cities cash in on bigger tax bills and residents, usually elderly or poor, must find someplace else to live.

To see what happens when these people are forced to uproot their lives, the Mercury News spent several months following Baker and Trujeque, first as they fought to save their homes and later through the heartbreak of moving on. But in the end, despite the disappointments and setbacks, there were triumphs, too.

Read more at MercuryNews.com.

Julie Patel and Dai Sugano — along with their editors — won a 2008 national Emmy Award for “Uprooted,” a news documentary about two families in Flick’s mobile home park who were displaced.

U.S. Students Increasingly Turn to Overseas Tutors

November 6, 2005

By Julie Patel, Washington Post

It’s around dinnertime as 15-year-old Eric Lai boots up his computer for an online tutoring session. So why is his tutor Mary Paul about to dig in to breakfast?

Sounds like one of those tricky SAT questions, but a global marketplace trend is the answer: Eric is at home in California and Mary is at an office in south India — 12 time zones and 8,900 miles away.

Eric’s parents are among a growing group in Silicon Valley attracted to one of the latest ventures in the world of “offshoring” — overseas tutors. An increasing number of companies are seizing on cheaper labor abroad and the reach of the Internet to undercut the cost of U.S.-based tutors and take advantage of a vibrant Asian-born immigrant community passionate about its children’s education. But critics of the approach say offshore tutors don’t understand the subtleties of teaching American students.
With the federal government footing the bill for students who qualify for free tutoring under the No Child Left Behind Act, millions of dollars are at stake.

Read more at washingtonpost.com.

Prescription stimulant abused by some students anxious for edge

Julie Patel, Mercury News

May 8, 2005

There’s a new study aid spreading around high schools and college campuses. By using it, though, students could be risking their health, not to mention breaking the law.

It’s called Adderall, a stimulant that treats attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Looking for any edge they can get, some teens who don’t have ADHD say they are using the amphetamine drug to help stay alert and concentrate while cramming for finals, cranking out last-minute papers or taking the SAT.

In interviews with 125 local high school students, 20 told the Mercury News they knew somebody who had tried Adderall without a prescription and nine said they had experimented with the drug themselves.
Students say Adderall is easy to find. Some who have ADHD share their prescriptions with friends. Others sell it for up to $5 a pill or exchange the drug for a tank of gas. One Palo Alto senior hides the pills he gets from a friend in a tin of breath mints. Another said she started swiping pills from her brother after seeing one of TV’s “Desperate Housewives” pop her son’s ADHD drugs.

Illegal, habit-forming

“It’s like mental steroids,” said Becky Beacom, manager of health education at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, which surveys Palo Alto students each year on drug and alcohol use. “Students think they need that extra edge to get into college.”

This year’s survey for the first time included a question about ADHD drugs — including Adderall, Ritalin and Dexedrine — and more than 7 percent of the 1,304 Palo Alto High students surveyed said they had used them without a prescription at least once. Seven students said they do so every day.

“It’s like caffeine or Red Bull,” said a Los Altos High senior who said his friend gives him Adderall to help him focus on finals or major papers. “It’s like any other pick-me-up.”

Not quite. Possessing Adderall or similar medications without a prescription — let alone selling it — is illegal, and subject to fines and jail time.

And doctors warn that Adderall can be habit-forming. Its side effects range from insomnia, loss of appetite and abdominal pain to psychosis and exacerbating physical and verbal tics, according to Shire Pharmaceuticals, the company that makes the drug. Canadian health officials recently stopped the sale of a newer version of the drug, Adderall XR, after Adderall was linked to 20 sudden deaths worldwide.

Aware of risks

Students who acknowledged trying the drug said they knew about the health risks, and many of them knew it is illegal. None of them wanted their names published, either because of the illegality of what they were doing, or more often because they didn’t want their parents to find out.

“I know it’s probably messing up my body,” said a 17-year-old Palo Alto High senior, who has taken dozens of pills over the past year. He said he has experienced sleepless nights, chills, a racing heart and weight loss. But he credits the pills with helping him manage the intense demands of schoolwork, after-school sports and a busy social life.

Students who don’t take the drug aren’t surprised that others are willing to take the risk, especially at highly competitive schools. Bellarmine College Preparatory students discussed Adderall during a recent psychology class. Student newspapers at Palo Alto, Gunn and Los Altos high schools and Santa Clara University have featured articles about the Adderall trend.

“It’s happening more and more and it helps people understand how much pressure is put on kids my age to succeed,” said Rachel Berman, who wrote about Adderall for Palo Alto High’s newspaper and says she knows more than a dozen people who have tried it at least once to study.

Adrenaline flow

By mimicking natural chemicals in the brain and increasing the flow of adrenaline, especially to parts of the brain responsible for judgment and problem solving, Adderall helps users be more focused and less impulsive and distracted. Shire Pharmaceuticals calls the drug an “amphetamine mixture” that improves the attention span of people with ADHD, mellows them, allows them to follow directions better and to think before acting. Students who use it without a prescription say it gives them a rush and propels them to focus intensely on a subject.

“You can’t think about anything else but doing the work,” said another Los Altos High senior. “It’s like tunnel vision: You just zone in.”

He said he took Adderall with a friend recently before working on their senior projects. He had used the drug twice before that: to take a math test and to write a six-page English paper about Hermann Hesse’s spiritual journey “Siddhartha.”

“You’re able to really think deeply about the subject and show the teacher a different way of looking at the text,” said the boy, whose grades didn’t change much; he gets mostly A’s and B’s already.

The Palo Alto High student who experienced the side effects described a similar experience but admitted it may be a placebo effect.

He often takes one before study sessions for major exams, or moments before tests, such as last fall’s SAT.

Some students who don’t take Adderall see it as cheating.

“This just puts more pressure on people who don’t take the drug,” said Palo Alto High freshman Liv Jensen.

Liv’s friend Mia Pond, 14, said she’s heard of people taking it but doesn’t feel threatened by the trend.

“Someone who wants to get into college that desperately has deeper problems in their lives, like maybe they don’t feel good enough about themselves,” Mia said.

Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford has seen a slight uptick in teen patients abusing ADHD drugs, said Seth Ammerman, acting director of the hospital’s Division of Adolescent Medicine. But he said the rise is mostly explained by the fact that the drug is prescribed more and so is easier to get. Pharmacists fill more than 20,000 prescriptions across the country every day, according to the drug’s maker.

“Going back as far as 30 years ago, students used amphetamines,” said Ammerman, adding that Adderall is just the latest version.

Child psychiatrists say parents and teachers should start asking questions if a student starts sleeping poorly, losing weight or appearing zombie-like. Psychiatrists also want to make students with ADHD visit doctors more frequently so they don’t build up a “stash” of the drug that can be stolen, sold or given away.

A spokesman for Shire Pharmaceuticals said the company had not heard any concern about students using the drug as a study aid — except from media accounts.

“We’re not getting calls from school officials or parents saying we have a problem here,” company representative Matt Cabrey said. Moreover, the newer version of the drug, AdderallXR, is less likely to be abused, he said, because instead of supplying a sudden rush it releases the drug slowly throughout the day.

Wayne Benitez, Palo Alto High’s student resource officer, said it’s hard to catch students illicitly using the drug because administrators don’t know who has prescriptions and who doesn’t.

Bad news

“When there’s an adverse reaction when someone gets very sick, that’s when we’ll hear about it,” Benitez said. “You’re not going to search every kid’s backpack.”

Palo Alto High Principal Scott Laurence said a student was arrested and suspended a few years ago for using a type of illegal amphetamine to stay up late to study. But Laurence said the school’s drug survey highlights how few students abuse prescription drugs. Instead of focusing on the negative, the school plans to emphasize that 92 percent of students say they have never tried ADHD drugs illicitly.

The Los Altos High School student working on his senior project said he doesn’t feel pressure from his peers to use Adderall because it’s cool; he feels pressure to compete in the academic arena.

If you don’t go to a University of California school, he said, “people look down on you.”

He said he knows his limit when it comes to Adderall.

“I’m going to try not to rely on it. I’m pretty sure I won’t.”


Students and Adderall use
Adderall is a drug prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Possessing Adderall without a prescription is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and $2,000 in fines. Selling it is a felony, subject to additional fines and time in jail or prison. It is also subject to the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Users in general
A recent study of 10,904 college students conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School, the University of Michigan and others found:
About 7% had taken ADHD drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin and Dexedrine without prescriptions.
4% had done so in the past year.
2% in the past month.
Adderall abuse is most common among students who are male, white, members of sororities or fraternities or who have lower grade-point averages.
The more education a student’s parents had obtained, the more likely the student was to abuse the drug.
Students at colleges with competitive or highly competitive admissions criteria were more than twice as likely to have taken the drug in the last year than those at less competitive colleges.
The Palo Alto Medical Foundation surveyed 1,304 Palo Alto High School students about their use of prescription drugs that treat for ADHD without prescriptions. Of that number, 1,204 students said they had never used the drugs. Here’s what the remaining 100 had to say:
Used it once or twice ever: 56 students
Use it once or twice a year: 17
Use it once a month: 10
Use it once a week: 7
Use it daily: 7
Use it twice a month: 3
Adderall side effects:
Emotional instability or paranoia; Heart palpitations or in extreme cases, heart attacks; Abdominal pain; Loss of appetite; Seizures in rare cases; Insomnia
Source: Harvard Medical School, University of Michigan, Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Society for the Study of Addiction

Men’s eating ills go unseen; Bulimia, anorexia on the rise in males

May 4, 2004
Julie Patel, Mercury News

Sue Roberts couldn’t stop fuming after watching a “Dr. Phil” show on eating disorders. The two-part series featured several girls with bulimia and anorexia.

“What about the boys?” she remembers asking herself, then furiously writing an e-mail to the talk show host.

The Antioch mother knows firsthand the potential danger of the perception that eating disorders are a “girls’ issue.” Her 16-year-old son, Justin, almost starved himself to death after several doctor’s visits missed warning signs.

Although boys and men make up only about 10 percent of patients with eating disorders, they are more likely to have the condition detected at an advanced stage when treatment is more difficult, health experts say.

The lack of awareness among doctors and parents about the problem means there’s little reliable data about boys and eating disorders, said Dr. Pamela Carlton, who helped treat Justin at Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. But several doctors around the Bay Area say they’ve seen an uptick in the number of male patients with bulimia and anorexia nervosa.

They attribute the rise to the increasing pressure for boys to look good. And as more parents and doctors become aware of the problem, more boys get diagnosed and treated, including those who have traditionally been at greater risk for developing eating disorders, such as wrestlers, gymnasts, swimmers, runners and boys who question their sexuality. Like girls, boys who have been abused, have low-self esteem or are perfectionists are also at risk.

Lou Rappaport, who is the department head of the master’s and doctoral programs in counseling psychology at Argosy University-San Francisco Bay Area, said the number of boys with eating disorders he treats has increased at least twelvefold in the past 20 years. Where it was once rare to get one or two cases per year, he now gets a couple of new cases per month.

“Losing weight isn’t a bad idea, but some percentage of them lose weight and keep losing weight, and it becomes an addiction,” he said. “Adolescence is a time of flux, and for some kids to latch onto something they can control on a daily basis is very attractive.”

Justin, a straight-A student, wanted to be perfect in every way. But in 2001, when he was 13 and beginning the eighth grade, he was starting to feel like a failure. His gym teacher mentioned he might be able to shave a few seconds off his mile time — the basis for his physical education grade — if he lost some weight.

Justin also remembers standing in the hallway one day when a tall, thin boy said he was fat and began to laugh.

” ‘Maybe I am’ ” fat, Justin recalled thinking as he walked into class. “I thought about it the rest of the day.”

That’s when he stopped eating. At lunchtime, the 5-foot-tall, 130-pound teen would walk around the school quad as other kids ate. He would turn down food at home and at most eat two or three bites of vegetables from his plate.

His parents at first complimented him on his discipline.

But along with Justin’s new diet came bad moods.

“We were all walking on eggshells because he would blow up about little things,” she said. Then she noticed he was dropping weight fast. She took him to the doctor, who said Justin was fine. After that, if Roberts urged her son to eat, Justin would retort, “The doctor said I’m fine.”

She twice again took Justin to the doctor, who advised Justin to eat more. But within four months, Justin dropped to 82 pounds. His lips, fingertips and nails looked bluish. He wore baggy sweatshirts to hide his frail body, but he couldn’t conceal the malnourishment evident in his sunken eyes and hollow cheeks.

“If Justin was a girl, the teachers at school would have paid more attention earlier, the doctor would have paid more attention and probably me, too,” Roberts said. Justin’s doctor declined to comment.

A teacher finally did call the family to say she thought something was the matter with Justin. When Roberts took her son to the doctor a fourth time, the doctor said they had to do something — quickly.

After struggling with her insurance company to prove Justin’s condition warranted immediate treatment, Roberts admitted her son into Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital.

His condition was worse than she thought. His heart rate was 42 beats per minute. He had zero body fat. His body temperature was 92 degrees Fahrenheit, and there were patches of hair growing on his stomach and neck. It was his body’s way of trying to keep warm.

He was days away from death.

For almost two weeks, he shared a room with another boy with an eating disorder and saw patients who had been hospitalized for months. One day he saw an emaciated girl walking in the hallway talking to herself.

“I really don’t want to be like that,” he recalled thinking. “I want to get out of here.”

That’s why he carefully followed the instructions he was given. He spent 13 days in the hospital, less than most patients in similar situations.

Over the next year, Justin’s mother, father, brother and grandmother made the three-hour drive to and from the hospital every two weeks.

Justin steadily showed signs of recovery. He was eating full meals. He grew four inches in less than a year. At his last follow-up appointment in December, the doctor said he is now just starting to gain back his bone density.

“I’m more outgoing, more confident,” he said. I’m happy now.”

His advice to other boys dealing with eating disorders: “Don’t listen to what other people say. Do what makes you happy.”

Justin is doing just that. He has a girlfriend and is less of a perfectionist these days, getting mostly B’s and C’s on his report card.

“Now it’s: Come home, ride my bike, have dinner, watch TV and go to bed,” Justin said, a few days after returning home from a trip with classmates to Hawaii, adding, “And do homework before class starts.”


Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford: Provides outpatient care, medical stabilization, education and support groups for patients’ parents. Contact the hospital at (650) 498-4468 or


Quest Eating Disorders Program: Provides an intensive outpatient program involving family therapy, supervised meals, individual consultations and follow-ups with a dietitian. Contact the program at (707) 526-8306, extension 403 or http://www.psychstrategies.com/programs/Quest/eatingdisorders.html

Psychotherapy Group for Body Image and Eating Disorders: A support group for boys and men with eating disorders. Contact licensed therapist Brian Wolfe at (415) 558-7106.

Henry Ohlhoff House: Provides treatment for boys and men with eating disorders and substance abuse problems, including an outpatient program for adolescents and a six-month residential program for men over 18. Contact the center at (415) 221-3354.
Source: Mercury News

Los Altos weighs limit on nail salons: Some see overtones of race and image in the council’s stance
September 27, 2004
Julie Patel, Mercury News

The posters in an empty downtown Los Altos storefront promised “Not Just Another Nail Salon.” Pinkies plans to throw bridal showers with champagne and hors d’oeuvres and Princess Pinkie birthday parties when it opens next month.

Peeking through the window, Charles Halleck didn’t get it. “Whether or not they’re going to throw parties doesn’t change the fact that it’s another salon we don’t need,” said Halleck, a photographer whose work is featured in a downtown gallery on a block with five salons.

He can already get his cuticles trimmed and toenails pampered at 23 places within a 10-minute stroll in the heart of Los Altos, one of the Bay Area’s toniest towns. In their quest to revive their downtown’s village ambiance, city leaders have already banned plastic sidewalk furniture and rejected a new Quiznos sandwich shop. On Tuesday, they will consider a ban on new personal-grooming businesses in an effort to keep Los Altos from becoming the nail salon capital of Silicon Valley.

But some Asian-American leaders and downtown salon workers wonder whether the moratorium has as much to do with race and image as it does with a glut in nail care.

Many of the nail-care shops that have opened in the past decade among Los Altos’ antique stores and clothing boutiques are considered discount salons, owned and staffed by Vietnamese immigrants. In California, about 80 percent of nail salons are Vietnamese-owned, according to Nails Magazine, a trade publication that researches the nail service industry.

Special permit needed

Open the door at many of the shops in Los Altos, and you’re greeted by a sharp smell of nail polish and the upbeat chatter of Vietnamese. Nail technicians dip feet in warm tubs of water and paint nails in bright, glossy colors. Some sell lotions, soaps and polishes in every shade of the rainbow.

City leaders have already required special permits for new personal-grooming businesses downtown during the past three years, similar to Los Gatos, which is also crowded with salons.

But just as the Los Altos City Council was considering an all-out ban on new salons on State and Main streets, Pinkies owner Rob Weaver showed up with a polished pitch for a European-style salon, prompting the council to temporarily table talk of a moratorium.

Pinkies’ approval has enraged Tee Tran, who opened For Your Nails about two decades ago on State Street and has watched six of her employees leave with loyal customers to open their own salons within blocks. Before Pinkies, she thought supporting a ban on new salons made business sense, but now she thinks the whole idea is discriminatory.

“There’s something fishy going on,” said Tran, who collected 300 signatures from nail technicians, salon owners and clients urging the city to keep Pinkies from opening. “It’s not fair.”

City leaders scoff at the suggestion that race has anything to do with their support of Pinkies.

“I would support a high-class shop no matter what the ethnicity of the owner,” Councilman Ron Packard said.

Weaver promised the city his salon wouldn’t be another “gossipy” nail parlor like the ones popping up in strip malls and downtowns throughout the Bay Area. “They’re known for cutting corners, having unlicensed technicians, not training them properly,” Weaver told Los Altos planning commissioners. “We won’t do that.”

He and his wife fell in love with chic salons — with their state-of-the-art chairs and soothing music — while traveling through Europe and decided to open their own version in Lafayette, a quaint, upscale city in Contra Costa County. Los Altos, with a median family income of about $150,000, seemed like a natural for Pinkies’ second location, Weaver said.

Salon owner surprised

He never imagined his salon would become such a controversy.

“I don’t know if I got special treatment,” said Weaver, who is white with some American Indian ancestry. “I haven’t seen any evidence of that, but I can’t look into people’s minds and see what the motivation is.”

Hung Nguyen, president of the National Congress of Vietnamese Americans, said the knock on so-called discount salons is based on isolated examples and tinged with racial undertones.

Nguyen, whose family members own nail salons in the Bay Area, said it’s ironic that wealthier cities have a greater demand for nail care but are trying to keep out the discount salons — even though they are popular and drive down prices.

“It’s not like night clubs or bars that bring in riffraff,” Nguyen said. “It’s just another service.”

Still, many owners of long-established salons say discount nail salons — which charge up to $20 less for manicures and pedicures — are hurting their business.

“The problem with these discount salons is that they’re sloppy, their workers work long hours and don’t get paid well,” said Diane Walz, owner of Balisimo Salon, a popular high-end salon. “Don’t tell me we need another one of those.”

“It’s like being at a San Jose flea market,” agreed Lu Ann White, a Balisimo manicurist who described one nearby salon as “Hong Kong, U.S.A.” because it sells knock-offs of name-brand items.

Little support

It’s not just competitors who are complaining about the number of salons in Los Altos: 44 of 48 downtown business owners said they don’t want to see another nail salon in town because they worry such businesses won’t enhance the image of Los Altos, according to a recent survey by the Los Altos Village Association, a downtown commerce group.

Palo Alto, by comparison, has 11 salons downtown, half of them specializing in nails. Mountain View has eight salons downtown that offer manicures.

Arlene Kansora, a longtime customer at Los Altos salons, said she started noticing more Asian owners and workers in the past five to 10 years.

She said a ban on new nail salons wouldn’t be fair, especially to Asian women who increasingly opening their own nail-care shops.

“When you talk to the Asian women who work at the shops, you find out many are highly trained and were professionals in their home countries, but they can’t necessarily use those skills here,” she said. “So what are they supposed to do?”

Beauty salon glut?
When it comes to beauty, residents of Los Gatos and Los Altos have plenty of options for makeovers. Here is the numbers of salons per 10,000 residents in selected South Bay cities.

Los Gatos         32
Los Altos          21.5
Menlo Park      15.5
Palo Alto           12.6
Milpitas            10.4
Redwood City    9.7
Cupertino           8.9
San Jose              7.9
Sunnyvale          7.8
Mountain View 7.3
Fremont              7.1
Source: California Department of Consumer Affairs, Employment Development Department

Adopting a cause to aid Haitians

Sheltered S.J. mom becomes advocate for orphans living in dismal conditions

March 19, 2004
Julie Patel, Mercury News
Linda Kohn rarely left her home, much less the country, until she decided to adopt a child from Haiti last year. Now the San Jose mother makes regular trips to the war-torn country to help others adopt children through an orphanage she is helping launch abroad.

“It’s like I’m 38, and I finally get to the point where I know why I’m here,” said Kohn, her eyes filling with tears as she sat next to her napping 15-month-old toddler, Annikah. “I had to step out of my box, out of my security blankets here, to do it.”

It was after her second trip to Haiti in July that Kohn decided to divert some of the energy she put into being a homemaker in San Jose to making a difference in Haiti. During a visit to Cite Soleil, which means City of the Sun, Kohn encountered dreary conditions.

“I watched Christian Children’s Fund commercials with kids who had flies on their eyelids. And that ripped my heart out,” she said. “But it was nothing compared to experiencing it yourself.”

In Cite Soleil, Kohn saw piles of garbage the size of her two-story home. If they were lucky, those who lived in the shantytown built their shacks out of corrugated metal. Most created huts from sheets of pressed garbage, which dissolved when it rained.

Miles of garbage

Upon entering the city, one could see metal roofs glimmering in the sun amid miles and miles of garbage, Kohn said. To deal with hunger pangs, people ate bricks made of dirt and water.

The experience left an indelible memory, prompting Kohn in January to start For His Glory, a non-profit organization that facilitates adoptions in Haiti. She also is partnering with several social workers in Haiti to start an orphanage. She’s currently fundraising for the orphanage and interviewing candidates to serve on the organization’s board.

More than 100 people have died in Haiti since Feb. 5, when rebels took control, and the country quickly turned to chaos in the weeks leading up to the departure of now-exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Months of political strife have destroyed what little social services existed in the country. But it has also drawn attention to the needs of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, said Irwin P. Stotsky, a professor of law at the University of Miami, who has conducted research in Haiti.

“It’s really a nightmare,” he said. “People don’t have food to eat; they don’t have jobs. People die from drinking foul water. It’s like hell.”

Some members of Congress and human rights groups are calling on the United States and other countries to provide Haiti with humanitarian aid.

200,000 orphans wait

“Over 200,000 Haitian orphans await homes, and the orphanages that currently house them are being attacked and ransacked daily by thugs,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.

That’s why Kohn’s effort is particularly pressing.

Her accidental journey began a few years ago after a miscarriage. Kohn and her husband decided to adopt a child, even though they already had six children. She chose Haiti because it doesn’t prohibit already large families from adopting.

And she specifically chose an adoption agency that would deliver the baby to her so she could avoid traveling.

“I had no desire to go to a Third World country,” said Kohn, who home schools her children. “I was so sheltered in my little suburban home.”

But as she celebrated her birthday last year with her friends gathered around the kitchen table, Kohn got a surprise gift from her husband, Rodney — a plane ticket to Haiti.

“I wanted to do something a little different,” he said. “We have six kids, so I wanted to let her just get away and do her own thing. I knew once she got there that she would love it.”

“They were all saying, ‘Oh Linda, you have such a wonderful husband,’ ” Linda Kohn recalled. “Meanwhile I’m thinking, ‘I’m gonna kill him.’ ”

She said in the end, the pressure led her to taking the trip.

“I’m not coming back. I am going to die,” she remembers thinking in May, as she flew to the Caribbean country, smaller than the size of Maryland. She said she was “terrified” in the unfamiliar surroundings, the sweltering heat and abject poverty.

Fear disappeared

Her fear disappeared when she arrived at the orphanage where her adopted baby was in one of the 30 or so cribs lined up against three walls. She rushed about searching for Annikah, who at the time was about 6 months old.

“It was like I had just given birth. I cried and cried,” she said. “I was just so excited to meet her.”

Americans like Kohn adopted 187 children from Haiti in 2002 and 192 the year before, said Chris Bentley, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Although the country ranks about 90th in terms of world population, it ranks 13th in the number of children who are adopted.

The recent uprisings forced the U.S. Embassy in Haiti to close and halt adoption proceedings. But Kohn managed to bring Annikah home just a few days before the height of political turmoil.

The adoption has transformed Kohn’s life in more ways than one.

She plans to return to Haiti, her fifth trip in less than a year, in May.

San Jose man’s gifts to Masai village school add fuel to debate on Kenyan tribe’s future

April 26, 2006
Julie Patel, Mercury News

For centuries, the Masai people of Kenya have lived in huts without power or running water, used plants and minerals to heal themselves, and survived on a diet of cow milk, meat and blood.

So when Patrick O’Sullivan, a visitor from Silicon Valley, entered one of their villages and left behind a school equipped with solar power, laptops and a projector, he sparked an old debate about the tribe’s desire to preserve its culture while surviving in a modern world encroaching on its way of life.

Most Masai parents and teachers were delighted with the new tools for their children. The school’s enrollment doubled from roughly 200 to 410, partly because children tending cattle during the day were able to attend classes at night, thanks to solar-powered lights.

O’Sullivan hired a film crew to document the work and plans to use the video to pitch the project to other individuals and companies that may want to sponsor a school.

O’Sullivan, 62, lives in San Jose and first visited Kenya in December 2004. He followed African politics and history voraciously from the time he was in high school in Ireland. In the 1960s, he attended anti-apartheid protests for South Africa and followed the movement in Kenya to gain independence from Britain.

After visiting South Africa, O’Sullivan — who was approaching retirement — took a safari that led him to Oloolaimutia village. There he saw the Masai people literally tying bricks together to build two more classrooms for their school. The spirit of the Masai and their will to survive stuck with him. He went to Kenya seeking adventure and a taste of culture. He left feeling compassion for their plight.

O’Sullivan — who had worked at Apple Computer and several start-ups — changed his plans to travel more after retirement and instead had a mission: to expand the crowded five-room schoolhouse.

Dickson Mutaiti, his driver and tour guide in Kenya, agreed to help make the arrangements. O’Sullivan asked Mutaiti if he should also send the children a slice of Silicon Valley: laptop computers and a projector.

No amenities

Mutaiti pointed out an obvious problem: There was no electricity in the school, the village or for many miles around. So O’Sullivan consulted with engineers and solar power experts in the Bay Area. He struck a deal by fax with a U.S.-based solar power company in Kenya to install four 120-watt panels on the school’s roof.

Earlier this year, O’Sullivan, his film crew and several friends went to Kenya to check out the school and saw early signs of success. A locked box had been installed over the school’s light switch to keep intrigued students from turning it on an off at every opportunity, O’Sullivan said.

Bellarmine student Sean Riordan, 14, of Cupertino, who took the trip with his father, one of O’Sullivan’s friends, described images of the tribe’s poverty: Schoolchildren each getting a scoopful of bland maize everyday for lunch and a little boy drinking from a cup that appeared black because it was covered with flies. But he also remembered the excitement around the new school.

“It was amazing to see something we take for granted — like seeing a digital picture on the computer,” said Riordan, who helped train the teachers to use the computers. “They thought it was fascinating.”

But with the light came questions for the entire village. Elders — who had spent much of their lives resisting assimilation into the modern world, fighting British colonizers, and lobbying the Kenyan government for the tribe’s right to self-sufficiency — felt their work was being lost in the tide of support from parents and teachers for O’Sullivan’s school.

“Mostly elder people don’t absolutely want the change. They want people to be as they were before,” David Ole Koshal, leader of Oloolaimutia village, said on O’Sullivan’s video footage.

The debate about change is happening in tribes around the world — including the Maori in New Zealand, Native Americans on U.S. reservations and the Hmong in Laos and Merced County. As tribes on the fringe of society face droughts and famine or governments that encroach on their land, most are moving to accept some changes, said Kukuta Ole Maimai, a Masai who founded the Maasai Association based in Kenya and Bellevue, Wash. But they fear education will make more Masai leave their villages and adopt a world view that looks down on the tribe’s way of life, he said.

The Masai population was slashed in half by smallpox in the early 1900s. The tribe survived traditionally by trading cattle and using it for food, shelter and clothing, but much of the ranch land was taken over for game reserves, parks and development.

A drought in parts of Kenya is wiping out Masai cattle, so the Kenyan government recently passed a law allowing Masai to temporarily let cattle feed on reserves. Without the Masai who left their villages to become doctors, lawyers and policy-makers, legislation like this would not have been possible, Maimai said.

A philosophical debate

Beyond the basics of survival, experts say, is a philosophical debate about what makes people happy. Is ignorance bliss; is it better not to be exposed to the materialism, commercialism and competition of the modern world? Would people be happier living the simple life, close to nature and in tribal units that encourage collaborative living?

Or are members of the tribe like the prisoners from Plato’s cave: Before seeing the light, they could not imagine a bigger, more nuanced world? Isn’t knowledge, for its own sake, valuable and a basic right of all humans — nomadic or not? Perhaps when they are educated, they leave for a reason: because they are happier.

Owning the changes

Lea B. Pellett, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., said the more information and knowledge the better, but that the Masai will have to take ownership of the change and preserve what is most important to them from their culture.

“It’s really a difficult set of issues they’ll struggle with for a long time until they finally get a system that is going to provide them with a sustainable society,” said Pellett, who ran an ethnographic field school in Southwest Kenya.

O’Sullivan clearly lands on the side of knowledge leading to happiness. Near the end of his last trip, he noticed a small bed in the corner of the classroom where solar-charged batteries were stored. O’Sullivan was told a village elder slept there at night with a bow, arrow and spear to protect the batteries. Cows had previously been the only objects so prized by the Masai that people slept next to them to protect them – from hyenas and lions.

“There is nobody out there who would want to steal it, but that is the value they put on it,” O’Sullivan said. “To me, it was funny and serious, and I was impressed.”

Girl’s class project a crusade: Tragedy in Darfur moves senior to take action

Julie Patel, Mercury News
March 9, 2005
Talia Recht, 17, hadn’t even heard of Sudan – much less the tens of thousands of innocent people killed in Darfur, the Western region of the African country – before she attended a vigil at a leadership camp last summer.

She was so moved – in part because all four of her grandparents survived the Holocaust – that she spent five hours Tuesday making sure all 1,300 of her schoolmates at Los Altos High School understand the devastation and what they could do from 8,000 miles away to help.

“Innocent civilians have been expelled from their homes, women and children are being raped and thousands are starving to death,” she told students at six assemblies throughout the day with her family members and one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys” in the crowd. “Let’s not wait for another Holocaust or another Rwanda.”

Talia organized the assemblies – which featured guest speakers, a slide show and mini-documentary, and a letter-writing campaign – as part of her senior project. She spent months applying for grants, finding speakers and making 1,300 packets of letters for students to sign and send to U.S. government officials and international leaders. With some of the grant money, she bought 2,500 green bracelets that say “The World Will Live As One – Save Sudan,” which she’ll sell in the coming weeks to raise money for food, medical aid and other relief work.

Talia said she’s spent hundreds of hours on the project – far more than required for the assignment – because it’s for “a cause that I feel is the most important thing I have ever done in my life.” All the while, she put off sleepovers with friends, dance classes and other clubs.

“Most people know what’s happening with Scott Peterson or Michael Jackson,” she said. “How many know about this?”

The United Nations reported more than 70,000 people were killed or died in poor conditions in Darfur’s refugee camps from March to October last year, and tens of thousands have died since then. International crisis groups report that 2.2 million Sudanese are desperately in need of emergency aid.

The conflict in Sudan started decades ago when leaders tried to impose Islamic law on predominantly Christian areas in the country. The two sides have agreed to make peace, but some Islamic rebels are still attacking people in Darfur, according to human rights groups.

Talia also invited Ben Makit to speak at the assemblies. In 1987, he was 7 years old when he and his cousin heard gunshots while playing in their village in Darfur. He ran to the five tiny huts that made up his home and found his mother dead. His father and five siblings were gone.

After looking for them and spending a night alone in the devastated village, he befriended another boy who had also lost his family. They found others like them and that’s how they became part of Sudan’s “lost boys” — a group of more than 20,000 boys whose parents were killed in the 1980s, during the country’s civil war, and who walked hundreds of miles barefoot to Ethiopia and back before being sent to refugee camps in Kenya.

In 2001, he heard his father had died. Four weeks ago, he received a voice mail from a man who said he was his younger brother. He didn’t believe it was him until he called him that night. He used three phone cards talking to his brother for five hours. Makit – who is now studying business at De Anza College – hopes to move back to Sudan after college to be near his brother, find any other surviving members of his family and do what he can to help out.

At one of the assemblies, Makit wiped tears from his eyes as he watched a short documentary about the crisis. Like the people interviewed, he drank water thick with mud. Like them, he walked hundreds of miles barefoot on sand that scalded his feet. Like them, the most he hoped for was to die mercifully from a gunshot rather than from torture or hunger.

By the end of the day, more than 1,300 students, teachers and others signed letters urging world leaders to stop the flow of weapons to Sudan. After the assemblies, some of them found Makit and Talia to thank them.

“You’re awesome for organizing it,” said junior Cortney Johnson.

Talia’s grandparents, Harry and Sally Recht, also congratulated her.

“I’m so proud,” said Sally Recht, 78, who spent five years as a teenager at Auschwitz and other concentration camps. “The world was silent during the Holocaust. I wish there were people like you then.”

Genocide talk hits home

September 20, 2005
By Julie Patel; Mercury News

Seventeen-year-old Anthony Grady has seen hatred spark gang wars in the East Palo Alto neighborhood where he grew up. He’s seen lives lost, families shattered and former classmates sentenced to spend their lives behind bars.

Something has clicked as his class studies the genocide in Rwanda.

Here, gangs fuel the hatred. In Rwanda, it was tribal divisions.

Anthony explained the connection Monday before about 2,300 people who gathered in Cupertino to hear Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who inspired the film ”Hotel Rwanda.” Rusesabagina was lauded for risking his life to shelter more than 1,000 Rwandans during the Central African country’s 1994 genocide. Monday’s event was organized by Facing History and Ourselves, a Brookline, Mass.-based non-profit that trains teachers in curriculum focused on the Holocaust and other tragedies of mass violence.

Rusesabagina spoke of a hatred so powerful it led Hutu extremists to massacre the ethnic Tutsi minority and Hutu moderates after the Hutu president’s plane was shot down. Neighbors slaughtered neighbors, teachers and even family members – 800,000 people in all, in just 100 days.

He described seeing roads blanketed with dead bodies; losing hope to the point where he told his wife and children to jump off the hotel rooftop to avoid being tortured; and tricking his family into almost leaving the country without him so he could stay to help the people he was trying to protect.

After the speech, Anthony asked Rusesabagina how he did it, how he found his ”best self” amid all the horror and ugliness around him.

”With the range of behavior that I see in my own community and, of course, in the story of the Rwandan genocide, every person seems capable of being an ‘angel’ and a ‘beast.’ So I wonder what can help us strive to be our best self?” said Anthony, who now lives in Menlo Park with his father, a mover.

Follow your heart and stick to your values, said Rusesabagina, who lives in Belgium and is working to raise awareness about the genocide in hopes that Rwandans will overcome their tribal divisions.

”I was just being the person I am,” he said. ”I was a hotel manager, and I remained a hotel manager from beginning to end.”

Anthony said the question of being one’s ”best self” crosses his mind when he thinks of his cousin and best friend who went from being a straight-A student to spending time in and out of jail for selling drugs.

”He was someone I really looked up to and look what happened to him,” Anthony said.

As a 6-year-old, Anthony didn’t know about the horrors unfolding in Rwanda, 9,000 miles away on the other side of the world. But even as a child, he had a sense about the high crime rate in his neighborhood that confined him indoors most days after school. With his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures, he would pretend to ”save the world, one criminal at a time.”

Although his dream of being a superhero has been replaced by ambitions to play pro basketball, Anthony said he doesn’t want to be the kind of person who sits back when a major crisis is happening at home or in another part of the world.

He and his classmates discussed the genocide last week after watching ”Hotel Rwanda.” As 17-year-old Mayra Vega wiped streams of tears from her cheeks, she said she understood that world leaders can’t intervene in every country that needs help and that what happened in Rwanda wasn’t officially described as a ”genocide” – the term that compels the United Nations to take action – until hundreds of thousands had already been butchered. But she said the death and destruction in Rwanda, even in the first few weeks, was so intense that it demanded immediate attention.

”Sometimes you just know you need to help,” she said.

Rusesabagina, who met with Anthony and other local high school students before Monday’s event, said young people have been the most receptive to his message, sending him e-mails, starting human rights groups and offering to teach in Rwanda. Rusesabagina said the idealism of the students he’s met gives him hope for the world’s future leaders.

”Don’t change,” he told them.

Countering stereotypes: Saratoga woman fights misleading lessons on Hinduism

May 30, 2005
Julie Patel, Mercury News
Imagine a religion where a goddess is chief of all the elves that wander the Earth and where people play in cow dung and urine during holy festivals.

These are some of the glaring errors and misconceptions about Hinduism that Mona Vijaykar, a Saratoga mom, has spotted in state-approved textbooks, literature and other teaching materials at her son’s school and elsewhere. Over the years, Vijaykar more often has seen subtle mistakes because teachers are unfamiliar with prominent Indian religions such as Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism.

Vijaykar has tried tackling the problem in a grass-roots way: by contacting teachers and asking to speak to their classes about India and Hinduism, explaining the significance of ancient Indian languages or the origin of religious customs.
Take the bindi, the decorative mark some Hindus wear on their foreheads.

“Does anybody know what this mark, a bindi, means?” Vijaykar, pointing to a tiny leaf-shaped sticker on her forehead, asked a class of fifth- and sixth-graders during a recent visit to North Star Academy in Redwood City.

Life? Hope? Happiness? Love? the students guessed.

“I think it’s if a girl is married or not,” offered sixth-grader Laura McVey.

“Yes, that’s true in some places,” Vijaykar said, adding that bindis also symbolize the figurative “third eye” or the “mind’s eye” that helps people understand something — not just see it. She said bindis in ancient India originated from the practice of people putting sandalwood paste on their foreheads to cool off.

One thing bindis don’t symbolize is the caste system. But a popular social studies textbook approved for classrooms across the state teaches students that misconception.

“Caste is often shown with a mark on the forehead,” reads a caption in McGraw-Hill’s “Ancient World: Adventures in Time and Place” under a photograph of a girl with a bindi.

“That’s completely wrong,” said Kishore Sharma, a priest at Sunnyvale Hindu Temple, who received a doctorate in Sanskrit at India’s Banaras Hindu University.

“It’s a cyclical problem,” Sharma said of the difficulty of teaching about world religions. “A teacher learns the wrong thing and reinforces the misconception without even realizing it.”

Muslim stereotypes

Maha ElGenaidi, executive director of the Islamic Networks Group, an educational outreach organization, said she encountered this growing up as a non-practicing Muslim in Ohio in the early 1970s. ElGenaidi held a lot of her own stereotypes because her school and the media portrayed the alleged “fanaticism, radicalism and oppression of women” in Muslim culture. It wasn’t until she read the Koran, the Muslim holy book, a few years ago that she learned those stereotypes aren’t true among everyday people who practice the religion.

“In all religious traditions, people tend to blame the religion for what a few people have done in misapplying the religion or using it for political ends,” said ElGenaidi, who now practices Islam. “Terrorism and honor killings are often times reported as being justified by Islam, when in fact, Islam unequivocally condemns both of these actions.”

ElGenaidi’s group develops curricula on Islamic history and culture and provides presentations in classrooms across the Bay Area. She said teachers are usually open to the presentations when they understand that the goal is to supplement state curricula in an academic way that doesn’t have any hint of proselytizing.

California’s education standards include lessons for sixth- and seventh-graders on the history of world religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and others.

Lack of resources

Vijaykar said many of the teachers she’s spoken with complain about the lack of resources on world religions and are hungry for information. She recalls a teacher at her son’s former school, Redwood Middle School in Saratoga, who invited Vijaykar to class several years ago to add to her lesson on India and world religions. Vijaykar remembers being outraged by a handout on various forms of the Hindu god.

The handout — produced by Teacher Created Materials, an education publishing company in Westminster — listed Parvati as a goddess who is “chief of all of the elves” that roam the Earth. Company officials didn’t return requests for interviews.

“They might as well be talking about fairies in a fairy tale,” Vijaykar said. “It makes the religion sound silly and stupid. And it’s plain wrong.”

Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University, had a similar reaction: “Elves? That’s just false. That’s ridiculous.”

Eck runs Harvard’s Pluralism Project, which develops curricula about world religions with the goal of promoting awareness about religious diversity in the United States.

“Teachers who may not have a lot of training in religions of the world — including those like Hinduism that are extremely complex and multidimensional — should not be the only voice representing it in the classroom,” Eck said. “After all, the traditions they’re teaching are not only practiced by people who live on the other side of the world but by people who live on the other side of the street.”

One book that has launched Vijaykar into heated discussions — mostly with teachers — is “Homeless Bird,” by Gloria Whelan, which won a National Book Award in 2000. It is one of five books related to Indian culture out of 606 novels the state Department of Education recommends for middle-schoolers. Not one of the five books is written by an Indian or Indo-American.

Urine and dung?

Vijaykar’s biggest concern is a scene describing Indians at a religious festival playing with colors made of urine and cow dung.

“It’s disgusting,” she said, raising her voice. “How do you think the Indian students in the room feel when they read this book? They know it’s wrong but how can they challenge a book with such authority?”

Whelan defended her research in an e-mail to the Mercury News, noting that she didn’t try to represent the entire spectrum of India’s diverse culture. “All I have written is all too true in small villages,” she wrote.

But Vijaykar said the book reinforces stereotypes: a girl forced into an arranged marriage at 13 and required by her in-laws to work like a slave.

Vijaykar said the book’s references to the caste system and widow-burning are important to discuss but they shouldn’t be readers’ first and only exposure to the culture.

“It makes you think the caste system and arranged marriages are all this rich ancient culture has accomplished throughout the centuries,” she said.

Vijaykar said she hopes students and teachers of all faiths and cultural backgrounds act as watchdogs in classrooms.

“We’re all experts in our own cultures and religions,” she said, “and if it’s misrepresented, we have to say something.”

End of an Enclave?

By Julie Patel, Mercury News
July 18, 2003

After years struggling to preserve San Jose’s Japantown, business owners and community leaders found ways to help revive the weathered strip, one of only three Japantowns remaining in the nation.

They posted banners. Refurbished storefronts. Attracted new housing developments.

But those efforts don’t address what may be a greater threat to the survival of the neighborhood: children of business owners who don’t want to take over when their parents retire. They are sons and daughters like Mark Kamimoto, presumed successor of Kamimoto String Instruments, and Jessica Mao, potential heir to San Jose Tofu Co.

“They asked me a couple of times if I’d want to,” said Kamimoto, 24, whose father has owned the violin-repair shop in Japantown for 35 years. “I said, `Mm, I want to do other stuff.’ ”

Armed with college degrees and lofty dreams of big paychecks, the young generation has more career options than their parents did when many opened shops after World War II. And like many children and grandchildren of immigrants, they also are less likely to follow in their parents footsteps because many find it unnecessary to cluster within ethnic enclaves, said Lane Hirabayashi, a professor of Asian-American and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

“From the kid’s point of view, if you have a degree in pharmacy from UCLA, why should you go back to Little Tokyo?” said Hirabayashi, who has lived in the Bay Area for much of his life.

Heavy lifting

Jessica, 16, said she does not want to run her father’s tofu shop, in part, because of the physical labor involved.

“It’s a lot of lifting,” she said. “Lifting boxes that are 60 pounds; going nightly to carry beans; and soaking them and delivering them.”

She says she enjoys visiting Japantown “to see how my dad was raised and to see Japanese culture.” She stopped by Japantown last weekend, for example, for the annual Obon festival. But relying on the ethnic hub for one’s livelihood, she says, is out of the question.

“It’s not really necessary for our generation because of the schools we go to,” she said. “We grew up around people with different ethnicities.”

Like others in her extended family, Jessica has other plans. She wants to go to college and study psychology, a profession she first learned about as a 9-year-old shadowing a neighbor on “Take-your-daughter-to-work” day.

“Everyone is more or less into their own thing,” said her father, Chester Nozaki, who has worked for more than 30 years in the tofu shop his grandfather started in 1946. “No one has shown interest except my son, who helps me out here and there. But he’s only 7.”

Change in character

The lack of interest, some fear, could be the ultimate demise of a neighborhood that once thrived with bustling drug stores, barber shops and a post office. Over the years, many of the businesses that once contributed to the self-sustaining character of the six-block stretch on Jackson Street have been replaced by restaurants frequented mostly at lunchtime. The only two other surviving Japantowns are located in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where it is known as Little Tokyo.

“This is a real issue,” said Kathy Sakamoto, director of San Jose’s Japantown Business Association, referring to the growing disinterest in running businesses. “Graduates straight out of college want to earn $80,000, not work for parents for $5 an hour.”

Times were different when Ken Ashizawa helped his father out at Soko Hardware in the 1950s. Ashizawa studied business at San Jose State and took over the store soon after.

“I suppose it was expected,” he said. “Well, I couldn’t think of any way out of it.”

Ashizawa concedes he hasn’t set the same expectations for his daughter, an electrical engineer.

“I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be interested,” said Ashizawa, who occasionally asks his daughter to help out at the store. “I have to drag her here kicking and screaming as it is.”

Such resistance is a natural progression of the immigrant experience, Hirabayashi said. “That’s just how ethnic transitions work,” he said. At first, “you don’t have the language skills or credentials, so you start up a small business.”

The younger generations tend to move away from those ethnic centers as they become part of mainstream America. For Japanese-Americans, that has happened more quickly than other ethnic groups, Hirabayashi said, because the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II in many cases made assimilation a matter of survival.

“Having any knowledge of Japanese cultural practices, Buddhism, or speaking Japanese were things that could get you thrown in jail,” he said.

Fewer Japanese

Not only is there less interest in starting up small businesses, but there are also fewer Japanese-Americans to run them. While the number of Asian-Americans increased by 62 percent in San Jose over the past decade, the number of Japanese-Americans fell 3 percent, according to census figures.

The scarcity of Japanese-Americans may be one reason why a Chinese employee may take over Hideo Kamimoto’s violin-repair shop instead of his son, Mark, who is now working on a master’s degree in history from San Jose State University.

Despite the dwindling interest, there are still some who want to work to keep Japantown alive. James Nagareda began to appreciate Japantown as a high school student in the late 1970s, when he worked at Dobashi Market, across the street from his mother’s cosmetics store. He helped her run the business after he graduated from college.

About ten years ago, he decided to turn his hobby — photography — into a business, now located above his mother’s shop.

His mother only wishes her son had the same passion for cosmetics as he does for photography. As she prepares to retire from the business she started more than 35 years ago, she has been trying to pass the shop off to Nagareda: “She’s hoping I’ll get married and get a wife who wants to take over.”

Eat Your Vegetables

Last year, when Ajay Bhatt was a freshman at the Illinois Institute of Technology, he looked forward to meals as a chance to relax and socialize with his friends from the dorm. The one thing he didn’t do too much of was eat.

“I would be hungrier after going to the cafeteria than I was before,” he says.

Ajay, now a sophomore premed student, is a vegetarian, and often got by on tortillas and boiled vegetables that tasted like leftovers from the night before. Other times, he filled up as well as he could on salads and desserts. On really bad days, he steered clear of the cafeteria altogether. The neighborhood around IIT’s main campus at 33rd and State has few restaurants–much less ones with vegetarian food–and once in a while during the week Ajay would go hungry.

His mother, Darshna, was appalled by his descriptions of dorm food. On weekends, if Ajay was coming home to Schaumburg, she prepared four-course meals of roti, an Indian wheat bread; shaak, spicy combinations of vegetables; basmati rice; and dal, a lentil soup. Often, he’d bring some of his Indian classmates home with him.

“All of Ajay’s friends became like my children,” says Darshna, who’s a senior chemist at Unilever. “When they go home, they are their parents’ children, but when they are in Chicago, they are mine.”

When Ajay couldn’t make it home, his mother spent Saturday afternoons shopping for groceries and preparing food for him, plus a little extra for her husband and older son, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

She would drive into the city from Schaumburg to meet Ajay in the dining hall, which is on the first floor of the only dorm on campus. They arranged it so that she arrived at off hours, before either lunch or dinner. If she came during regular meal times, she’d be inclined to give everyone some of the food.

So, in the deserted cafeteria–in partial view of the surrounding hallways–Ajay helped Darshna unload plastic grocery bags packed with Tupperware full of curries, rice dishes, and breads, and Darshna sat with Ajay and a few of his friends while they scarfed down the food. “People are passing by [the cafeteria] all the time there, so if they saw me, they felt so comfortable they joined us without us calling them,” she says. “Sometimes it wasn’t enough food for a whole meal but everyone gets their share, enough to taste.”

Although sharing meant Ajay wouldn’t have leftovers to eat during the week, he says he didn’t mind. “I had the opportunity of going home whenever I wanted. A lot of my friends, however, were from out of town and didn’t eat home-cooked food nearly as often.”

This year, Darshna wanted to continue cooking for her son and his friends, but she wasn’t looking forward to another year of commuting. While helping Ajay move into his dorm room, Darshna and her husband, Anil, discussed the food dilemma with the parents of Ajay’s new roommate, Sarjan Patel, who was from San Diego and was also Indian-American and a vegetarian.

“Last year students were saying there were more vegetarian foods but they didn’t like the taste of it,” says Darshna. “That’s when we realized that our taste buds are developed with Indian spices. That touch was missing. But we also knew that no one can use Indian spices unless you have some Indian cooks there.”

Then and there Anil and Hemant Patel, Sarjan’s father, called the cafeteria and were connected to Keith Pitner, general manager of IIT’s Sodehxo campus dining services. Pitner, who’s worked for Sodehxo for five years, installed a vegetarian counter last year, but he was still getting complaints about the food. He was delighted that parents were stepping up to offer advice.

A few minutes later, Pitner met with Anil, Hemant, and Rekha Patel, Sarjan’s mother, leaving Darshna in the dorm room to help unpack. Sitting at a table in the cafeteria, the parents expressed their concerns about the vegetarian food at IIT and explained the nutritional needs of vegetarians, noting that they rely on beans and lentils for protein but that students wouldn’t eat the food if it didn’t taste good. This led Pitner to ask the right question–what do vegetarians like to eat?

In years past, he said, “We’d serve rice and beans and maybe an eggplant. There was no thought process involved when thinking about vegetarians.”

That’s slowly beginning to change, and that day Ajay and Sarjan’s parents proposed a solution: Darshna could teach Pitner’s staff to cook Indian food.

Darshna’s been cooking for nearly 30 years. Along the way, she’s encountered some of the problems IIT cooks might encounter, says Anil. “When Darshna and I first came to the U.S., she was a new wife and she wanted to make kobi nu shaak [cabbage curry] for us, so she took out a big green cabbage and when we sat down to eat it, it did not taste good at all. It was not cabbage, it was lettuce.”

Lettuce wasn’t grown in most parts of India until recently, he says. Just as Darshna was unfamiliar with American produce, IIT’s kitchen staff might have trouble identifying Indian spices and ingredients. Having Darshna oversee the cooking would make a real difference, they told Pitner.

Pitner thought it was a great idea: “Parents are busy. For her to take the time, to make that sacrifice, was amazing and my supervisors and I were fine with it.

“The diversity at IIT is unlike that of other colleges and universities I’ve worked in,” he says. “The smallest population here is probably North American.” Of the 825 students who live on campus and eat in the dining hall, about 40 percent are Indian and another 7 percent are Southeast Asian. About half of these students are vegetarian, in addition to vegetarians in the general dorm population. Thus, Pitner realized, a proportionally large number of IIT students have a taste for either spicy food, vegetarian fare, or both.

In addition, he notes, rice or vegetables are cheaper than meat. The only potential obstacle was insurance liability for Darshna, who would be in the kitchen but not on the payroll. When Sodehxo gave Pitner the go-ahead, citing a clause that covered guest cooks, he called Darshna and gave her the good news.

Read more at ChicagoReader.com.

Four years after Hurricane Wilma battered South Florida, some homeowners are still dealing with claims

Sept. 18, 2009

Julie Patel, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Marta Ayala’s colorful artwork is showcased throughout her immaculate Parkland home. Every room also features vivid reminders of 2005’s Hurricane Wilma: cracking paint and yellow water drip marks, some as long as 10 feet.

Weeks after the storm, Ayala and her husband, Carlos, got $12,700 from their insurer, The Hartford, to repair their roof. In 2006 and 2007, they paid for more repairs. Still, they needed buckets to catch dripping water during heavy rains.

Earlier this month, the Ayalas broke ranks with the thousands of Floridians waiting for Wilma insurance settlements. The Hartford agreed to pay $39,000 for a new roof.

“It has been a battle,” said Carlos Ayala.

More than 2,000 homeowners are trying to get payments from their insurers to repair damage from the Oct. 23, 2005, hurricane. An exact count of outstanding claims is hard to get because the state doesn’t track such cases and some insurers will not tell.

Insurers say most of the 400,000 claims from Wilma have been settled.

Reasons for the unsettled claims vary. Some homeowners, like the Ayalas, learn years later how extensive the damage was and that they can ask their insurer for more money, in a process called reopening a claim.

Homeowners have five years after a hurricane to file an insurance claim or lawsuit. With more than a year until the Wilma deadline, lawyers and independent adjusters, also called public adjusters, are advertising that they can help homeowners pursue claims against their insurers.

Some claims remain unsettled because the homeowners don’t agree with their insurers’ offers. These homeowners have been in negotiation, mediation or arbitration for months or years. Some have hired appraisers, lawyers or both in efforts to win settlements.

Insurers say they need time to deal with lingering claims: Some claims are for damage that policies don’t cover, such as wear and tear. Others are fraudulent, insurers say, and must be investigated. Industry critics say some insurers fight, delay or underpay claims.

“If you delay, some people will just go away and you don’t have to pay,” said J.D. Howard, who worked for insurance companies for 15 years. He is now an independent adjuster and executive director of the Insurance Consumer Advocate Network.

Homeowners with insurance problems can complain to the state Department of Financial Services hotline. Financial Services workers can report signs of wrongdoing by insurers to the Office of Insurance Regulation. Critics say the state should do more.

“People are fighting three, almost four years now, just to get a roof over their head. Why that’s something the state should tolerate is beyond me,” said Paul Berger, a lawyer who founded Claims Solvers, a Coral Springs-based public adjusting firm that the Ayalas hired.

Berger cites a provision of Florida law that seldom is followed: Insurers are required to pay interest if the insurer pays more than 90 days after the claim is filed. He said he is seeking interest for the Ayalas and another client, the Ulrichs of Davie.

Unlike some states, Florida does not require insurers to provide a policyholder with all documents related to an insurance company’s estimate.

Sean Shaw, state insurance consumer advocate, has assembled a panel to recommend better ways to handle claims. So far, the ideas include making sure that insurers use licensed adjusters and clearly telling policyholders about their right to reopen claims.

The Ayalas learned they could reopen their claim from a neighbor and hired Berger’s firm in late 2008. Nine months later — after an appraisal, a claim denial and a call from a Sun Sentinel reporter — The Hartford settled.

All that’s left is getting written proof of the settlement. Then the Ayalas will hire someone to replace the roof.

“I feel very comforted,” said Carlos Ayala. “No more stress caused by . . . seeing the leaks and damage.”

Complaints against insurers handling Wilma claims by category

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Floridians made 10,033 complaints to the state Department of Financial Services about home insurers from Jan. 1, 2008, through Aug. 12, 2009. More than half stemmed from the way claims were handled.

Reason Number of complaints
Request for mediation 2,542
Delay in handling claim 1,439
Claim denied 879
Other claim problem 471
Low settlement offer 294
Low damage evaluation 120
Total 5,745

Source: Florida Department of Financial Services

Homeowners’ stories

Alexis Villios: So much lingering damage “we’re terrified if there’s a hurricane”

Boynton Beach resident Alexis Villios didn’t realize at first how much Hurricane Wilma damaged his house. In the weeks after Wilma, he didn’t even file a claim, figuring he’d pay out of pocket to hire a contractor.

About a year and a half later, water started leaking in, and he hired a roofer.

The roofer “told me my roof was in bad shape, there was leftover damage from the hurricane, and more than half of the tiles were loose,” Villios said.

His windstorm insurer, Nationwide, sent an engineer to inspect the roof, but the company denied the claim.

Soon after, the company did not renew Villios’ policy after 13 years. A Nationwide spokeswoman said the cancellation was part of the company’s effort to reduce its hurricane risk.

Villios filed a lawsuit against the insurer in January. Nationwide’s attorney delayed any action in the case until next year while she’s on maternity leave.

Villios is more anxious now, the height of hurricane season.

“We’re terrified if there’s a hurricane, who knows, maybe we’ll lose the upper end of the house and it’s going to be a mess,” Villios said. “I can understand [Nationwide representatives] don’t want to pay, but hey, we’ve been paying our premiums all these years.”

Nationwide doesn’t comment on pending litigation, said spokeswoman Nancy Smeltzer. “However, Nationwide is committed to settling all claims in a fair and appropriate manner,” she said.

R.K. Ulrich: Even after settlement, repairs will be “absolutely barebones”

Hurricane Wilma left a 6-foot gash in the roof of R.K. Ulrich’s house. Rain leaked into her attic. The screen enclosure collapsed over the pool.

After a representative of her insurance company, State Farm, said in a phone conversation that there wasn’t enough damage to meet the $20,000 deductible, Urlich and her husband made piecemeal repairs.

Leaks came back even they spent $17,000 to fix the roof, patch a ceiling and repair the screen enclosure. In 2007, the Davie couple hired the Hurricane Law Group to reopen the insurance claim. Soon, State Farm representatives inspected the house.

The company offered to settle for about $50,000 earlier this year. The Ulrichs countered, saying it would take more than $200,000 to replace the roof and parts of the walls and ceilings, as well as to pay for screen repairs. They filed a lawsuit.

About two weeks ago, State Farm offered another settlement, $113,000. The Ulrichs accepted. Repairs made with the settlement money will be “absolutely barebones,” Ulrich said.

“It’s going to be tight, but we will be able to do what we need to,” she said.

State Farm spokesman Justin Glover declined to discuss the Ulrichs’ claim but said few State Farm policyholders disputed their Wilma settlements.

Brad Thomas: “I worry about [the damage] all of the time.”

Three contractors refused to fix the roof on Brad Thomas’ West Palm Beach home after Hurricane Wilma.

The damage was too extensive, he said he was told. The roof tiles aren’t made any more and others won’t fit, Thomas recalled the contractors saying.

His insurer, Fidelity National Property and Casualty Insurance, insisted that the roof could be repaired, he said. In a 2006 letter, the company said the damage was minor, according to Thomas’ adjuster Paul Handerhahn.

Thomas, who owns an electronic payment processing company, hired a client to fix the roof enough to stop the leaks.

Then he and his brother gutted and rebuilt the walls on one side of the house. The damp walls had become musty and triggered his wife’s allergies.

For those repairs, plus fixes to a broken fence, Fidelity paid almost $13,000, Thomas said. He had spent $25,000 on the roof alone.

So in late 2006, Thomas hired public adjuster Mordecai Claim Service in Lake Worth to contest Fidelity’s settlement. In January, he filed a lawsuit.

A Fidelity spokesman said the insurer does not comment on pending litigation.

Thomas’ roof doesn’t leak now. But he knows that could change in one storm.

“This happened in 2005 and we’re now in the middle of 2009, and I’m still having to take time away from earning a living and time with my family to do depositions and following up,” he said. “It’s non-stop, and I worry about it all the time.”