On October 30, 2012, the doors will close and Fresh Start will cease to exist. The Walnut Creek charity's name says it all. Its purpose was to offer a Fresh Start to those on the margins of the richest nation in the world. It is a testament, a proof, of the power of one person to make a difference and it is a sad day for the Bay Area.
Susan Prather was the force behind Fresh Start. What an extraordinary woman she was. Charismatic, passionate, articulate, smart and clever. She was offended by a society where the homeless and poor are invisible and where care is defined by warehousing them in de-personalized and exploitive conditions. She coined the term "poverty pimp" applying it to the thousands of people in this country who earned a nice living off of the troubles of others, and whose salaries came from dollars intended to aid those who needed the help the most. Her outrage, at the reality in which $9 out of $10 given to help the poor and homeless never reached them, knew no bounds.
I met Susan through Greg Edmonds. She was a master at public relations. Politicians and bureaucrats in the East Bay came to fear and loathe her. Some also came to admire her. She embarrassed and shamed them and shone a light on all the dark places where they would hide while implementing policies which left people on the streets with no hope. She would call with a good story and quote. She did her homework. Boards of supervisors and social service agencies hated to get a call, "...Hi, I'm calling from KGO to check the facts on an issue of concern to Susan Prather." You could hear the shudder at the other end of the line.
Susan was fearless. For years she prowled the streets of the "iron triangle" in Richmond late at night. These are some of the most dangerous, violent, murderous streets in America, and yet she walked them with impunity. She helped those in need to find shelter and a meal or rehabilitation. She peddled hope.
I got a call one day, in the newsroom, from a man who identified himself as a Vietnam vet who was at the end of his rope. He was homeless, penniless and desperate. Suicide seemed to be his best option. I asked if he would promise not to do anything for a short time. I got a number to reach him. I called Susan. I went back to whatever I was doing. Several weeks later, I got another call. It was the same man. However, now he had gotten medication...he was connected to the V.A. and was getting benefits. He was even living in a small apartment. He was no longer suicidal and had hope and it was all because of Susan.
One night, on the air, Susan called me. She needed help. A clinic in East Richmond had lost its only volunteer doctor and would have to close. Could I help? Would I help? Someone has to keep this vital clinic open. In the middle of some topic, we just stopped and she made her plea for doctors and nurses to volunteer. She called back the next night to announce 4 docs and a couple of nurses had contacted her. The clinic would remain open due to the generosity of KGO listeners. (with a gentle nudge by Susan) It was the start of a wonderful pattern we would repeat over and over again over the next several years.
Susan started Fresh Start in 1998, in Richmond, under the auspices of the Grey Panthers. She moved to the Fellowship House at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Walnut Creek in 1999. With the help of volunteers she created a warm, inviting, caring environment where the least of those in the area could drop in and be welcomed. They could wash their clothes. (She talked a local business into donating a commercial washer and dryer) They could get packages of clean underwear. (Ward's drawers) They could get a meal and they could take advantage of her genius with bureaucracy. She would find programs and grants and ways in which clients were entitled to benefits and connect the two sides. She found shelter for families and sometimes she just provided a hug and the assurance someone cared.
The Thanksgiving Charity drive had been in existence for a number of years and it was extraordinarily successful. Each year thousands of people contributed to help 3 Bay Area charities working with the poor and homeless. One day, perhaps a moment of inspiration from the Holy Spirit, it hit me Fresh Start needed to be a part of this campaign. Now the pie would have to be sliced into fourths. It might mean less money for the other 3 charities, but it was so the right thing to do.
Like the loaves and fishes, not only did it not result in less money, the generosity of listeners increased exponentially. Donations increased so much each charity got more than it was getting before. In the last year of my career, Fresh Start was given $125,200. (This was my only victory over the Feds...They were going to indict me in October of 2008. I had my lawyer threaten the Justice Department. If they did that, and I was fired as would be expected, I would publically call them out and accuse them of being so anxious to get me, they cost those charities hundreds of thousands of dollars. They blinked. They waited until December, when the drive was over, to come after me.)
God, I loved being associated with Susan. I loved the generosity of so many strangers who helped her minister to the least of her brethren. She was so cool and Fresh Start was the bomb. Now it is over.
I want a villain. I want to blame someone. I want to attack Cumulus for blowing up KGO and ending the Cureathon, (over $1 million a year raised for Leukemia research), and the Thanksgiving Charity Drive, ($5 million raised over 18 years). I want to scream about faceless, gutless, immoral corporate stooges throwing Fresh Start to the wolves. Oh, it would feel so righteous.
However, the real villain in this piece is yours truly. Had I cared more about Susan and her ministry...had I not suffered from the sin of pride...had I appreciated all she and the other charities were doing...had I loved her and my family and their work like I said I did...I would not have made choices which broke the law, embarrassed and saddened Susan, hurt my family and friends and I would have stayed on the air still pleading and cajoling listeners to pony up.
The closing of Fresh Start is a tragedy which resulted from corporate suits, who have no moral compass and no community ties, and from an egotistical, judgmental, jealous and ungrateful man who had turned a deaf ear to the Spirit and who lost sight of everything Susan Prather stood for.
I know exactly what Susan would say about someone running for president who doesn't care for half of the people because they are getting government help and are needy. She would be merciless. I also know how much I let her down. Fresh Start should be able to continue without Susan because we are called by the Gospel to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit prisoners and heal the sick understanding when we do it for them, we do it for Jesus and thus God. God bless Bill Lunghi, Robin Lunghi, Susan Prather Lunghi...for a brief shining moment it was glorious and redemptive.