That was Liliko Ngata, 41, on a recent Saturday afternoon in East Palo Alto. Liliko and I were at Project WeHOPE (a local homeless shelter), doing laundry for residents. She – a resident herself – had been guiding me through the process, but I was laughably incompetent; I assumed she was questioning my ability to fold bedsheets. Alas, her question’s meaning was far more profound.
My starry-eyed perception of charity had faded that day, after just one hour of washing underwear. I didn’t know if I was “up to this” after all; but having grown up in Palo Alto, with everything provided to me, I felt obligated to give back. So, I spoke with Liliko – or Savage, as she’s known at the shelter – one week later to find out, what exactly is “this?” As it turns out, “this” is a story: a fable of family, service, and hope, which all takes place in a fairy-world called Silicon Valley.
Savage, that story’s protagonist, is a somewhat of an enigma – a Tongan by heritage, a New Zealander by birth, and an American at heart. She walks with a powerful stature, but a calm, unassuming aura. When asked to describe herself, she simply mumbled, “I prefer to think of myself as a mystery.” I don’t know if she ever intends to solve that mystery.
Eight years after her birth, Savage’s family moved from Auckland, New Zealand to South San Francisco, to seek medical treatment for a family member. The Ngatas were industrious – both parents worked, while Savage and her seven siblings attended school – but paying for medical bills, food, housing, and eight children (all in a foreign country) wasn’t as easy as it sounds.
“Yeah, it really sucked,” Savage chuckled, with a genuine smile. “You live paycheck to paycheck. And it’s not enough. There’s times when there was nothing.”
Savage graduated from high school in 1994, and began taking classes at Skyline College; things seemed to be moving upwards. How, then, did she end up at Project WeHOPE?
“It’s a long story.” Indeed, a story running from 1994 to 2017 is bound to be long. But of course, things were not so simple for Savage. From what I gathered, her narrative was filled with deeply personal struggles; her past ripe with pain and perseverance. I understood the hesitance.
In fact, I would have understood if our conversation had ended right there. Here Savage was: a complex woman, homeless after years of mystery surrounding her next meal, her next paycheck, and her mother’s health. And I had the nerve to say, in essence, “why are you poor?”
But instead of leaving, Savage waved at something in her story – a wave quite like that of a fairy-godmother’s wand: “Let’s just say… I’m glad I came here to Project WeHOPE. Because, you know, people here needed some happiness in their lives… You know, I’ll take care of them.”
Savage has only been living at Project WeHOPE for two months, yet everyone looks to her for conversation and comfort; for smiles and soothing. Regarding her past, I could only glean so much: “Something happened, and I needed a break.” But whatever forces influenced her situation, she considers them more divine than damning.
“I was sent here by God,” she states. “I care about myself and I care about people, and I care about everybody. I just want to be known as a person who likes to help.” In her humble tone, Savage focused on the shared humanity among her fellow residents: “Homeless people are looking for a way to continue life… a better way to better themselves. I can be myself around them; they’re just like me.”
At this point, I felt like a genuine fool. I had thought myself a moral exemplar, simply by folding someone’s underwear. In truth, Savage was the one setting examples. She was the one building relationships and impacting lives; all while fighting her own battles. What could I – some naïve kid from Palo Alto – possibly give her?
I asked Savage if Palo Altans should do something about local poverty; or, if people like myself should just accept their ignorance and privilege. She responded unambiguously, “no. They need to step up.” She actually admonished those in Palo Alto who have the resources, yet neglect their moral obligations: “Employees, employers; they just do what they do. Poor people who save up money – they’re more likely to help out. But the rich people, I don’t see them do anything. They just sit in their little corner, run their business, and see how much profit they can make.”
I was caught off guard – on the one hand, I completely agree with Savage. After all, I only came to Project WeHOPE after realizing how privileged and self-absorbed I was myself. But on the other hand, how could she say that the rich aren’t doing anything? Bill Gates donates billions of dollars to humanitarian causes; Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan pledged 99% of their Facebook shares to philanthropy; and Chan is empowering the East Palo Alto community with her new educational initiative, The Primary School.
Here’s how: if Savage has taught me anything, it is that service is not about money. Of course, large-scale donations and initiatives – like those of Gates, Zuckerberg, and Chan – are tremendously valuable, and necessary. But apathy is not a money problem; apathy is a heart problem. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus observes wealthy citizens, making lavish offerings to a local temple. Then, a poor widow arrives and gives her measly amount: “Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on’” (Mark 12:43-44, NIV). Savage would agree – it is not only what we give; but how, and why we give.
Which raises an important truth: homeless people are human beings; not tip jars. Please, give your money; give your clothes; give your food. But know that real charity does not see humans as charity cases. True service is found in relationships and empathy. True service is recognizing what society often ignores: humanity.
When asked what your average Palo Alto resident could do to serve, Savage was straightforward: “Come. Go around, see all the places in East Palo Alto. Not just the homeless shelters; but also the poor people who can’t live in shelters. People have to do their homework and see for themselves.”
Savage was imploring others to step up and do something about local inequality; but to do so in an honest, personal way. Love to cook? Cook dinner at a local shelter. Good with finance? Assist those looking for housing. Run a business? Find someone a job. But above all, do your homework. Get to know those whom you help; you might find you’re the one being helped after all.
At the end of my talk with Savage, I was left as all her friends are: better off for it. I told her I would try to be real – about my privilege, my giving, and myself. I would continue serving at Project WeHOPE, and bothering Savage while she runs the show. I would await the day when she completed her online courses, found a home, and moved out of the shelter. Until that day, I would continue to unravel the mystery of Liliko Ngata – if possible. But as I walked away from our conversation, thinking of how her story would end, that profound question still rang in my ears: “Are you really up to this?”
Note: Firstly, while "Savage" is her real nickname, the subject's full name has been changed to protect her privacy. Secondly, this piece was written several weeks before publishing. A couple weeks ago, I stopped by WeHOPE again, only to find Savage's laundry room seat empty. I was told she had found a job, been placed in housing, and moved from the shelter. I wish her all the best.