As a group of homeless children open a pile of donated presents, a stream of tears flow down 14-year-old Armando Ibarra’s face. Armando hasn’t opened his yet as the others – about 20 children who live in a string of motels along Highway 99 in Fresno – tear into large, brightly colored packages that make the room buzz with excitement.
This scene at Tree of Life Café & Bakery in downtown Fresno is so different from their everyday realities of living on a strip of Parkway Drive known infamously as Motel Drive.
“It kinda sucks,” Armando says, trying to explain his tears, “cuz’ some of the motels are nasty and infested and have rats and stuff. I have rats, but it’s not that much. Cockroaches, spiders and all that stuff – it’s just disgusting. Especially sometimes their sheets are not that clean and all that. Sometimes they get sick. Especially around where they live, there’s a lot of dirty people, like drug addicts, homeless.”
Armando has a home, but he can relate to the children’s plight. His grandfather and mother were homeless for a short time. He lives near the motels and has befriended many of the children living there. Armando says he wants to do more to help but that he’s just a kid.
Fortunately there’s an adult who is helping. His name is Richard Burrell, and he’s a former Fresno gang member who grew up in the motels where the children he helps now live. He started a nonprofit, Live Again Fresno, that provides free meals, after-school mentoring, and community field trips for the children on Parkway Drive.
From gang member to giver
“I grew up experiencing a lot of the stuff that goes on in that neighborhood,” Burrell says, “very broken family, very abusive in different ways – sexually and physically abusive home. I found my unity, my sense of value, in the gang and was involved in the Fresno Bulldog gang for close to 20 years.”
Burrell also became a father.
“This light and this love and this goodness was coming from my kids,” he says, “and it started to stir up stuff in me, like, ‘Will I ever have that?’ Or, ‘Can I be a loving father? Can I be a good husband?’ ”
I didn’t have unity. That’s a big deal to me. I really, really value unity, teamwork, family.
Trying to answer those questions, he says, felt like someone asking him to speak Italian when he’d never learned how.
“I didn’t know what a good father was. I had never experienced that. … The feelings that came along with that – I just started drinking. I started drinking a lot.”
He combated addiction by admitting himself into a rehabilitation program, where he got sober and says he had a spiritual awakening. Not long after, he faced a new challenge when doctors discovered tumors in his intestines.
Thinking he was going to die while crying on his couch one desperate night, he prayed that God would give him something positive to do in the meantime. Burrell says he was then led to the Fresno motels in 2011, where he saw children playing kickball in a parking lot with drug dealers and prostitutes. It saddened and startled him.
I don’t want to die in that motel. I don’t want to be stuck with my family out there.
“I didn’t feel qualified to preach the Gospel to these kids or really teach them anything, but I have children – I know children need to eat. So we started an after school lunch program out of the trunk of our car.”
He says more than half of approximately 50 children that he and his wife, Roxanne, met there six years ago still live in the motels.
“This is one thing that people don’t know: They don’t know that these kids even exist in motels. … When we drive down the 99, we just don’t imagine that this could happen in our country, in our city, in our backyard. To know that there are that many children who are homeless that live in our city – on one street.”
‘It’s really hard. I hate it.’
Sabrina Portillo and her five children are among the many Burrell is helping. The Christmas party at Tree of Life on Tuesday was the first time the family of six had eaten together at a restaurant.
Portillo has been living in one of the Parkway Drive motels for nearly a year with her three youngest children – ages 4, 6 and 7. They share a small room with one king-sized bed. Portillo moved into the motel after leaving an abusive relationship and staying a month at the Marjaree Mason Center shelter for victims of domestic violence.
Portillo hates it at the motel but says it’s better than “being hit and treated like crap every day.”
“And my kids seen that – I have three girls and two boys,” she says. “I don’t want my kids to think that’s a healthy relationship. It’s not.”
Her rent at the motel – $655 a month – exceeds her income of $557. She uses coupons to buy products like shampoo and conditioner at discounted prices and resells them for more money to pay the rest of the rent. Working is hard since she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and stage-three kidney failure.
“So ultimately the doctors told me I’m dying. I don’t want to die in that motel. I don’t want to be stuck with my family out there.”
Her 7-year-old son Mark doesn’t like living in the motel, either.
I don’t like it because we don’t have that much food and stuff.
Mark Portillo, age 7, about living in a Fresno motel
“I don’t like it because we don’t have that much food and stuff,” Mark says.
He’d like to live in a house because it would “gotta’ lotta’ room for our stuff.”
“We have a bunch of clothes that we have to put in a pile.”
Things aren’t better for Mark at school.
“Something bad at school: people bully me,” Mark says. “They call me names. They call me fat.”
Portillo is grateful for what Burrell is doing to help her family.
“He has been a positive male role model. There is no positive male role models out at those motels. It’s awesome to have an outlet.”
‘It’s always us’
On Wednesdays, Burrell and Live Again Fresno volunteers help the children with homework and offer informal counseling, and on Fridays, they go play in the park. They also go on trips to bowling alleys, Fresno Chaffee Zoo, restaurants, and Bulldog Stadium for Fresno State football games.
Burrell says the children are our future leaders and “we’re going to do everything in our power” to make them positive ones.
At the Christmas party, Burrell makes a speech to the children as “Christmas Time Is Here” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” plays in the background.
“It’s never you guys on your own,” he says, “it’s always us, because it’s family, right?”
Then he leads a prayer where he thanks God for placing people within their lives that “add to the value of it.”
“That adds to laughter, that adds to love, that adds to family, father God. Lord, I know that each of the individual parts here are kind of like a mosaic. All these different pieces of light and love and laughter and goodness coming together to create this bigger picture, this whole picture.”