Opinion Columns & Blogs

Earth Angel who’s been through hell

The Rev. Cynthia Rae Eastman has experienced more hard knocks than should be borne by any one person: A teen runaway, homelessness, multiple surgeries and poverty have all shaped her life.

Yet Rev. Eastman has found a sense of redemption and purpose from her fifth-floor subsidized housing apartment in downtown San Luis Obispo’s Anderson Hotel. Here’s the arc of her life, her story.

Eastman, 57, doesn’t give exact reasons why she felt she had to run away from her Belleville, Ill., home as a teenager, other than to allude to a “tumultuous home life” and a cryptic: “It’s not for nothing you walk out the door.”

By 1989 she was an undereducated, underemployed working welfare mother of a teenage son living in Maui. It was there, while telling her son, “Education is the key to getting out of poverty,” that she decided to take her own advice. “I decided to walk the talk and went to college.”

The decision paid off. After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1994 and a Masters in Education in 1997, she taught art and English as a Second Language at Fillmore, Salinas and Half Moon Bay high schools. And then her health failed.

While teaching at Half Moon Bay, she had a kidney removed. It was the first of 13 cancer-related surgeries she would undergo. Yet, thinking she would get better at the time, she cashed in her teaching retirement of some $7,000 in 2001 and headed to Mexico, where she believed it would be cheaper to live and get better. It wasn’t and she didn’t.

She returned to Maine (where she had earned her BFA) the following year and worked there and later in Florida as a live-in care aide for Visiting Angels while taking long-distance interfaith classes from the New Seminary in New York.

By 2007 she moved to Ojai, where she found that she needed three years’ paid experience in live-in care, which she didn’t have, and she found herself signed up for Social Security Disability Insurance and living on the streets. It was also the year that she incorporated Common Ground Worldwide, which achieved nonprofit status the following year.

As a minister, she set the three tenets of Common Ground Worldwide as interfaith spiritual support, education on world cultures and religions and peer mentoring programs that deal with domestic violence and homelessness.

Between staying in a seasonal shelter and living on the streets of Ojai, she met a man, a fine carpenter by trade as it turns out, by the name of Victor Keith Stolz.

He acted as her protector — when he wasn’t doing crack.

It was through his carpentry skills that Eastman had foldable bookcases built and filled with donated books dealing with topics from inspiration to domestic violence. Those are then donated to women’s shelter programs through Common Ground Worldwide. Her goal is to have bookcases in two women’s or homeless shelters in each state’s capital.

Stolz subsequently died, and Eastman made her way to the San Luis Obispo Women’s Shelter in spring 2007. While there, she had surgery to remove a cancerous thyroid.

She also enrolled in Leadership San Luis Obispo class XVIII, became involved in Senior Peer Counseling training and joined the Interfaith Ministerial Association.

More recently, Eastman formed a group of knitters and crocheters — known as “Earth Angel Volunteers” — who meet the first Saturday of each month at 1 p.m. in the Anderson Hotel and knit caps, hats, scarves, gloves and mittens for homeless and/or abused men, women and children. From October through the holidays, the Angels created more than 300 knitted items that were handed out at homeless and women’s shelters from Solvang to Templeton.

Yarn shops donated skeins and needles, acts of generosity that Eastman hopes will continue. (Common Ground Worldwide can also use volunteer board members, funding and mentors.

She can be reached at 202-9533 or at commongroundworldwide@live.com)

And so Eastman lives in what she calls “genteel poverty” at the Anderson.

Yet she knows she’s fortunate to have a roof over her head at all. Subsidized housing is stretched thin if not nonexistent for those newly in need. Our friends and neighbors who have fallen through the cracks during this recession are showing up in record numbers at shelters around the county. The Prado Day Center, the only such facility in the county, is regularly opening its doors at night as a warming station.

Dozens of others sleep in their cars outside the center’s gates.

As someone who has experienced the grim realities of living on the street, Eastman is well aware of the added stigma that when you’re homeless, you’re invisible.

“It’s like being a refugee in your own country,” she says as she further sets her sights on easing the burdens of others.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.