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November 24, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Our Town: The angels inside us Our Town: The angels inside us (November 24, 2004)

by Don Kazak

When a Palo Alto woman was raped in her home Nov. 5, it shocked the community. Not even the arrest of the suspected rapist did much to alleviate the great unease some felt.

But a group of people quietly went to work. Two groups, actually: the PTAs at Duveneck Elementary and Jordan Junior High, where the two children of the victim attend school.

The PTAs combined to sign up 50 volunteers to provide dinners for the woman and her children.

"We just do this," Camilla Olson, president of the Jordan PTA, said of the type of quick-response that flies below the radar of media awareness most of the time.

"It takes one worry away when they're preoccupied with other matters," said Dana Tom, president of the Duveneck PTA.

The effort to help goes far beyond providing meals.

Because of the great trauma of the sexual assault, the woman and her children are staying with friends for now because she understandably doesn't want to return to her rented home. The PTAs kicked into gear and their members are searching for a new home for her.

The PTAs have also collected enough money to provide a home-security system when a new home is found, and to provide help in moving.

And to give her an added sense of security after the move, "We'll have an adult staying over (with her)," Olson said.

Olson said the woman "is remarkably strong. She is clear that this was a crime and she is not projecting shame" that rape victims often feel.

"She was so touched, her heart was touched, by the caring of the community," and for the support she received from Palo Alto police officers as they investigated the crime, Olson added.

"She is so appreciative of the help she has gotten," Olson said. "She didn't expect it."

There is no diminishing the horror of the crime, but the healing process has begun.

The help the woman is receiving "can make a world of difference," said Dr. David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford who has worked extensively with victims of traumatic events.

"It's a very constructive thing that the community is rallying behind her," Spiegel said. Rape "is a profoundly damaging experience, likely to stay with her for the rest of her life." But with help, the acute crisis may last just a few months before a sense of normalcy begins to return, he said.

And the more help she receives, the better for her. This is especially important because the children who count on her for emotional support.

But crisis-response is not something one normally associates with PTAs -- unless one looks closely.

"The PTA charter is to help the students' lives, at school, at home and in the community, to help families when they are facing trouble," Olson said.

This includes providing meals and other assistance -- paid for by the members -- when there is a death in the family or when a family is dealing with a serious illness.

The help also extends to the more mundane level of confidentially providing funds to children in cash-short families for yearbooks and fees for school outings.

"The PTA has always felt that no child should be left out of an activity," said Barbara Spreng, president of the Palo Alto PTA Council.

Olson said the Jordan PTA has provided donated clothing and computers to children who need them, again quietly so no stigma is attached.

"Families get referred through discreet suggestions, from school principals or school secretaries," Spreng said.

Parents are also encouraged to contact their home-school PTA if they need some help, Olson said.

The compassion we have for each other during difficult times helps define us as a community. Helping each other speaks to the people we aspire to be, to the better angels inside us.

For the PTAs, this is the best kind of giving, without fanfare.

"There's been an outpouring of support at the school," Tom said. "That speaks to the sense of community we have."

Weekly Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be emailed at

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