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Is there a Ciriaco in your neighborhood?
This story is not about AI. This story is no edge case. This story is about a very real human being, and the very real humanity that underpins our communities.
I love farmer's markets. The fresh fruit and veggies. The local honey. Artisan bread. Here in California our markets are a blessing. I’m doubly blessed because there are two local markets near me—Sunnyvale and Mountain View.
A few years ago, when the COVID pandemic hit, the Sunnyvale market was moved and re-arranged because of street closings. I didn’t go for about a year, until I couldn’t take it any more and braved the fresh outdoor air.
That’s when I first saw Ciriaco. It was sometime toward the end of 2021. I didn’t know his name then. He stood quietly near the fruit stands with a little cut-out cardboard with the words “Please can you help me I can’t work.”
Something about Ciriaco struck me as particularly poignant. He was older, his sun-worn face peeking out behind his mask, and his eyes, gentle, kind, but hurting. He carried himself with dignity, regardless of the unenviable position he was in having to ask strangers for money. I wondered what his story was… who his family was, how he ended up here.
That first time, I gave him a few dollars. The next time I saw him, I bought him a big bag of peaches. Each time I saw him, I would give him either fresh veggies, bread, or other food items from the market, or cash. And each time I felt a pang in my heart. This wasn't right. No one should have to live with this kind of insecurity.
So one day I walked up to him and said, “Habla español?” He said yes. I’m bilingual, so we started chatting. He told me he can’t work because of a hernia that needs to get operated. His children were down in LA, unable to help. I asked him if he has insurance; he said no. Clearly he didn’t have the money for an operation either, if he had to come to the market to ask for donations every weekend.
I reached out on Nextdoor to ask people about community services or low-cost insurance he could access. People immediately responded and I printed out a list of phone numbers and addresses of local organizations for him.
For the next few months, I continued to check in with Ciriaco to make sure he was getting a response from the community services, since he couldn’t speak English. Finally, this past December, he confirmed his insurance papers had arrived! I was thrilled. But he was badly in need of money for his rent.
I asked him how much he needs.
$400/month to help his brother with the rent. $400. That’s a whole decimal point less than what some apartments and houses cost to rent here in Sunnyvale. Took me all of two seconds to think, I should start a GoFundMe campaign.
Not more than two weeks later we had the initial goal of $1200 covered—3 months of rent—so I doubled it just now. The generosity of people, of you, me, and our friends and neighbors, is what makes a community. It’s their willingness to help, to empathize. In the Nextdoor post, one person noted that they had seen Ciriaco at the market and wondered what his story was.
I can’t tell you how grateful Ciriaco was last weekend when I came up to him and gave him the first batch of funds raised. He felt a renewed sense of hope, of motivation to get healthy so he can start working again.
A few days later, a gentleman on Nextdoor commented to me: “What a wonderful person you are… to do this for a soul who is down on his luck. It would be an honor someday to shake your hand.” The warmth of this comment struck me because I hadn’t been thinking about myself or what a wonderful thing it was that I was doing. I just felt that it had to be done. And you know what? It was far easier to do than most of the things we do in our workplaces.
All it took was crossing that cold dividing line between passing by a person on the street, and making that person a human again.
Here’s the campaign if you’d like to support our dear friend Ciriaco, or share with your communities. And you know, next time you’re out and about, look around. Maybe there’s a Ciriaco somewhere in your neighborhood.
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