December 27, 2007
Mensches: Our third annual salute to big-hearted Angelenos
(Page 3 - Previous Page)When Housman, the youngest of six children, was 2, her mother died of breast cancer. Her father moved his law and accounting business home so he could handle carpools and dinner and sick kids, and kept the family focused through team sports -- soccer, tennis, softball, baseball and football.
The transition to middle school was difficult for Housman, who still battles depression, and she fell in with the wrong crowd. But by 10th grade, some tough love from her father and a precocious realization that she didn't want to screw up her future -- along with ongoing therapy -- helped Housman steer clear of drugs and concentrate on school, sports and helping others.
For the past three years, Housman has volunteered weekly from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Teen Line, a phone and online hotline affiliated with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center's Department of Psychiatry, where every night teens listen to callers' problems and offer resources on issues ranging from boyfriend trouble to sexuality to suicide.
"I've overcome a lot of obstacles and a lot of problems, and when I help people, I get a lot of satisfaction and self-confidence," said Housman, who is also the captain of her school's tennis team, editor of the yearbook and an avid snowboarder.
Thin and athletic with a tight ponytail pulling a mass of wavy honey-colored hair away from her tanned face, Housman has large hazel eyes that stay serious and focused even when her bright smile makes an appearance.
It's a face her callers never see, but Housman has found ways to tap into her experience and her natural empathy to win the confidence of callers.
"The most important thing I've learned is the only thing you can do is listen. You can't change their lives, but you can help them by giving them resources, by supporting them and by listening to them," Housman said.
Most of the calls are about relationships, but others deal with abuse. Housman got a call from a 16-year-old girl who eventually told Housman she had been raped by her mother's drug dealer while her mother watched. That one was reportable -- calls can be traced -- and the girl was taken into protective custody. It wasn't the first time Housman had likely saved a life. Every three or four shifts a call comes in from a teen who is contemplating suicide. One night, a girl told Housman she was calling because her boyfriend had dumped her, but her progressively slurring speech indicated to Housman that she had probably just swallowed a bunch of pills. Housman quietly alerted the adult supervisor who is always on site, and the police arrived at the girl's house while Housman was still on the line.
Housman hopes to continue this kind of work in college, and she wants to be a therapist.
"I feel lucky," Housman said. "People don't have resources and don't have anyone to talk to, and I've learned that everyone has problems. Teen Line has completely turned me around, and it's really shaped the way I think, and helped me realize that I am really helping people. I have a purpose."
Simon Shpitalnik: From Ãâ°migrÃï¿½(c) to Activist
by Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor Simon Shpitalnik was 62 years old when he left his native Odessa for Los Angeles. Behind him lay the Holocaust, which claimed most of his family, then service in the Soviet army and a highly successful career as a construction engineer and factory manager.
Before him lay a strange country, an unfamiliar culture and language, and a job market that wasn't interested in older workers.
Shortly after his arrival in 1994, he heard about the Association of Holocaust Survivors in West Hollywood, founded by Russian-speaking Jewish Ãï¿½(c)migrÃï¿½(c)s, joined it, and after a couple of meetings announced that he was quitting because the group wasn't doing anything useful.
"There was only talk, talk, but no action," Shpitalnik reminisced. "So the other people there said, 'All right, we'll elect you president, show us what you can do.'"
So for the past 12 years he has been re-elected president, and fellow members credit him with transforming the once-dormant talking club into an action-oriented group, which has helped change the lives and give dignity to hundreds of men and women now in their 70s to 90s.
At Shpitalnik's initiative, the association has obtained restitution grants to raise its members' living standards above the subsistence level, organized a wide range of social and cultural trips and events, created a sound financial and membership structure, observed Jewish holidays, and conducted political education and voter registration drives, according to veteran community leader Si Frumkin.
In his unpaid volunteer job, Shpitalnik, aided by his wife Bella, is always on call at his home office in Santa Monica, and his constituency has expanded from West Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley, and even as far as San Diego.
In his regular column in the Russian-language Panorama newspaper, Shpitalnik chronicles the birthdays of 20 to 30 members each month, and, inevitably, writes frequent obituaries.
Despite the obits, membership in the association has grown from around 90 in 1995 to a current 400. Notwithstanding the modest income of most members, they have contributed $60,000 to various causes, foremost the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, and most recently $1,000 to aid victims of the Southern California fires.
Many members live in rented apartments subsidized by the federal government, and Shpitalnik, now 75, has embarked on a campaign to prevent landlords from discriminating against the elderly immigrants.