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The Right Moves

Downtown Ventura is ground zero for the county’s homeless problem, a place where alcoholism and mental illness collide. Yet steps are being taken—elegant movements in a positive direction, made by people like Sherry Cash.

By Andrea Kitay—Photos by Gary and Pierre Silva

Mind focused solely on the movement of her form, Sherry Cash flows through the Ventura Aikikai dojo, a local Aikido training center. Though her roots are in Aikido and Tai Chi, Cash teaches Functional Integration, part of the Feldenkrais Method, helping s

 

n a recent crisp fall morning, local philanthropist Sherry Cash greeted me in the lobby of her Moving Arts Center with a big grin on her face. Standing in the white and pale green studio she shares with Ventura Aikikai, the Guild Certified Feldenkrais Method Movement Educator gave me a warm hug, as though we’d known each other all our lives. Over the next few hours I came to understand how this natural warmth has moved so many of Ventura’s homeless.

After a quick tour, we sat cross-legged on the soft, canvas-covered mats surrounded by buffed pine planks, sunlight streaming in through a roll-up door. Sherry described her journey advocating for the homeless—a journey that began with helping her own homeless, mentally ill, alcoholic brother. Today she is an active and vocal member of several local groups, advocating civic harmony and community balance through action, resource coordination, and education. A self-described naturally “helpful” person as a child, Cash’s story reads like a local version of a cross between Ghandi and Mother Theresa.

“I want to clean up our downtown with compassion, learn and work within the system to help the homeless.”

Was there an ah ha moment that inspired you to work with the homeless in Ventura?

When I first started helping my brother, I would see him drunk in the afternoon, leaning against a lamppost. I’d say, Hey, want to get a taco? And he’d respond, “Impeccable timing!” I could keep an eye on him and let my mom know he was doing well. As I helped him, I was appalled at all the things I found he and other homeless people going through. That and writing an essay on the homeless, which I spent hundreds of hours on, were really my ah ha moments. During that period, I became an informal advocate for people who were standing in line for services but were ignored, people pushing in front of them as if they were invisible. That doesn’t happen anymore because we’ve all come together in the town so much, but in the beginning I felt compelled to speak up and give light to how bad a reception they were getting.

Do you find it difficult to work so closely with homeless people and not get wrapped up in their problems?

Not at all… We know each other and we’re in the same community, but I have great boundaries. I have this helping nature, but it wasn’t until I did my own discovery that I could turn and do the same work with boundaries, so that it doesn’t deplete me, so I don’t lose my identity or enmesh myself in somebody else’s problems in order to work on my own problems.

Tell us about the Feldenkrais Method.

Developed by Moshe Feldenkrais, the Method helps people feel more comfortable in their bodies and often has a peaceful, calming effect. There are two aspects: Awareness Through Movement lessons, taught in a group setting, and Functional Integration lessons, which involve the teacher moving the student as he or she remains passive, either lying on the floor or on a low, firm table.

How does your work at the Moving Arts Center weave its way into your work with the homeless?

When you study physically for thirty years, as I have, you become grounded enough to be in the moment and say, This is how it is right here, right now. At the many community meetings I attend, there is energy coming from all sides and I have to stay on my toes, practice an Aikido technique called Randori, or I might miss something. In Randori, you’re one person with multiple people attacking you. Talk about adrenalin! When I jumped into my community, I was right back into Randori. In the beginning, I was angry. But what I learned was that I am really good at working with groups, at seeing gaps and looking at systems. As a layperson, I ask, How is our community run? I know how a dojo is to be run: You take care of it and clean it and honor it. I want to clean up our downtown with compassion, learn and work within the system to help the homeless.

How do you manage your time between studio work and philanthropic activities?

I balance it out. When I first looked for help in town for my brother, no one could help us. There was no coordination back then. Since I’ve joined the Steering Committee for the Ventura Social Services Task Force, they don’t see me in Plaza Park nearly as much. Now it’s humming pretty well on its own with the one-stop at Ventura County Public Health on Loma Vista (3147 Loma Vista Road, Ventura). Every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., people can get linked up to their medical and other services there. The city has also hired someone to do outreach in the streets with some of our Task Force funds. So it’s not just me helping one person all the way through anymore; there is tons of help. The rest of the time, I’m at large, moving all over town and the world. One of Moshe Feldenkrais’ quotes that touches me deeply is, “The Feldenkrais Method makes the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant.” And that, I want more of.

How do you define success?

I don’t have an attachment to that idea, and I am realistic about alcoholics. They have only a one to two percent recovery rate, so real success isn’t about getting them sober, it’s about leaning a little more to the positive. It’s about getting into relationships with them and helping guide them to appropriate services.

What is your wish for the community as a whole?

I am trying to help educate the community about what we’re learning, which is that people who give handouts are, lots of times, actually interfering. Where we are directing our energies is helping the homeless with greater issues than a single meal. They have to have supportive services, such as mental health help, medical help, assistance getting SSI and other benefits. Then things start to get better. They can start to open their own mail, contact their families, get to their own appointments. They all want housing and a roof over their head. People will say about the homeless: “It’s their choice.” But I haven’t met one person who didn’t want that. We think the schizophrenic man under the pile of dirty blankets wants to be out there, but it’s not true.

11-01-2009

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