By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Before going to bed at night, Richie Blandon usually took his school clothes to the kitchen sink. He washed the blue slacks and the white shirt as best he could. Richie never quite got the hang of planning out how long his one set of school clothes took to dry in the open air. In the morning, waiting for the uniform to lose its dampness, Richie, as often as not, wandered into class late. Not that he was in a real hurry anyway.
The 11-year-old's routine tardiness branded him with the teachers.
Richie generally began the day with a detention slip, and it went downhill from there.
Not surprisingly, Richie preferred to spend his time with his father, the person he often identified as his best friend, rather than at school. He described his dad as "funny and nice."
His father, Lennie, did the sort of things that little boys love.
"One time he fixed up an abandoned apartment in back of where we lived into a clubhouse," said Richie. "Another time we played football in the rain and mud for four hours."
Together the father and son roamed the Valley searching for bicycles to steal. Together they modified the bikes. Together they sold the wheels for quick cash.
A life of petty crime and truancy did not greatly trouble Richie. He knew the score. You had to eat.
Richie's only complaint with these living arrangements dealt with his parents' tendency to hock everything in their apartment. When three rooms of furniture were donated to the family, they sold it off, piece by piece. When Richie was given an electronic Gameboy, it quickly disappeared. The headphones he wore jogging, his other school clothes, his basketball-card collection, his running shoes, his boom box--all those gifts and presents given to him by well-intentioned people--all were gone.
"They sold everything. They sold my clothes, toothpaste, whatever," says Richie. "They had to have that crack."
Most of Richie's possessions had flowed from Esther Gould's horn of plenty. A highly educated business consultant, Esther, 55, might be considered a destructive do-gooder or an angel of mercy, depending upon your perspective. Starting in 1994, she mentored Richie's oldest sister, Helen, as part of a corporate program to involve Valley leaders with "at risk" kids.
Back then, Esther's commitment was haphazard; she did not know that good deeds are not meant to be so thoughtless, or cost-free.
"I thought I'd probably take Helen out to lunch a few times and then buy her a graduation gift, and that would about be the end of it," said Esther.
Esther never really connected with Helen. In fact, the girl went from at-risk to in-deep-trouble. Esther did develop a bond with Helen's younger brother, Richie. But as that bond deepened, his family lost whatever tenuous grasp it had on the world; eventually, all six Blandons spun through horrific events of death, separation and depravity.
Simultaneously, Esther's own family imploded: Her daughters, and even her new husband, responded to the woman's charitable instincts in hostile ways that challenged the fabric of her beliefs and closest relationships.
Appalled by the upheaval she had unleashed, Esther often felt overwhelmed; sometimes she even blamed herself for the final destruction of Richie's family.
Today, three full years after Esther Gould first met the Blandons, Richie and Esther are still together--welded more permanently, perhaps, than either could have imagined, or even wished, in the beginning. During these past years, Richie's life has changed almost miraculously for the better.
When you change one person's life, however, you also shift the lives of everyone in the circle, in ways that are sometimes beautiful, sometimes tragic, but in all ways profound. Esther Gould has paid the price of her commitment to the poor we are constantly told we should reach out to help. And so has everyone around her.
A new mood swept the country in 1994. A Republican Congress demoted Uncle Sam, replaced federal philanthropy with a call for personal charity and pocketed the $55 billion difference. A Democratic president agreed, and everyone called it welfare reform.
Whether you agree with Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, or Hillary Clinton's insistence that It Takes a Village, both sides of the political aisle instruct us that as the century begins to turn, individual citizens must weave the safety net, not government bureaucrats.
At the behest of the White House, the Urban Institute examined welfare-reform legislation; the think tank predicted that 1.1 million children will be thrust into poverty under the new guidelines.
No one can calculate with certainty the enormous impact of such a drastic policy shift upon the poor and those who volunteer to take up the welfare slack. The estimates are a guess.
Everyone is whistling a brave new tune.
But you must ask the Blandons, the Goulds and the people close to them about the piper's fee.
Life at Home
Richie Blandon learned about drug addiction at home.
"The cops came to our house a lot. They raided us four times. I let them in. My mom would flush stuff down the toilet. At the time, she was buying 8-balls [roughly an eighth of an ounce, or $130 worth, of cocaine]."