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Last updateSat, 11 Jan 2014 11am

If you belong to any local business or social organizations, you’re familiar with the practice of honoring students by giving out scholarships at this time of year. Almost every group raises money to support education for local students.

Some groups identify students to be honored based on a student’s volunteer time with that organization. Others accept applications from all students and evaluate their achievements to select scholarship recipients. Yet others require students seeking scholarships to show their understanding of or support for the group’s interests.

The Palm Springs chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), for example, required applicants to write an essay detailing their support for women’s rights and their intention to use their continuing education to further that support. When I led that group in the early 1990s, we instituted the Barbara Wade Salm Scholarship, endowed by a former member, which is currently administered through College of the Desert.

Last week, I learned that the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) planned to hold a meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rancho Mirage. The featured speaker was attorney Bardis Vakili, from the ACLU of Southern California, who proudly announced the ACLU is opening an office in San Bernardino to provide more coverage in the Inland Empire on issues like voting rights, police conduct and immigration.

The meeting also marked the ACLU’s end-of-season scholarship awards to local students. While the discussion of the ACLU’s efforts to protect voting rights was interesting and informative, what impressed me most was hearing the backgrounds and aspirations of the four students honored.

Robert Rippetoe is graduating from Xavier College Preparatory High School. Xavier, a private, nonprofit school, has tuition and fees which generally are beyond the reach of many local residents. However, their stated goal is that “no qualified student will be denied admission, or once enrolled, be compelled to leave because of verifiable financial need.”

Xavier senior Rippetoe has been involved beyond academics in the literary magazine and the Junior State of America. He is on the JV swimming team and the varsity water polo team. He has also been president of the Robotics Team. What more can one say about a student who claims calculus and statistics are the subjects he enjoys? Rippetoe is enrolled at Colorado School of Mines and wants to pursue engineering, specializing in earth sciences. Perhaps he’ll bring his skills back to save the Salton Sea!

Rebecca Farhi is graduating from Cathedral City High School, part of the Palm Springs Unified School District. She is a California Scholarship Federation Sealbearer, due to her scholastic achievements. Farhi is an athlete in cross country and track; is active in YMCA’s youth and government program; and participates in CCHS’ gay-straight alliance. She is planning to begin college here at home at COD and then hopes to transfer to the University of California at Berkeley for a degree in environmental or political science. Maybe both.

Diana Espinoza is from Indio High School and graduating in the Top 10 of her class of more than 400 students. Academics are not her only claim to fame: Espinoza is also a top athlete, one of the best distance runners in the Coachella Valley. She has helped Indio’s cross-country team win the Desert Valley League finals during the past two track seasons. Espinoza is also a musician (oboe and flute) and active in the Associated Student Body. She participates in the Indio Public Library’s story time, and plans to attend the University of California at Santa Barbara, majoring in library science and education.

Bridgid Elliott-Pope is heading to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles to pursue her passion for art, majoring in visual communications, after she graduates from Palm Desert High School. Born in the Coachella Valley, Elliott-Pope says she was influenced to love reading by her parents—both teachers. She has traveled around the United States and recently spent three weeks in Europe. “I try to be loving in every aspect of my life,” she says, “even in the smallest of endeavors.”

These students demonstrate the qualities we hope all high school graduates will embody: seriousness about their studies, involvement in extracurricular activities and ambition. Although they have very different backgrounds and interests, they all express the hope to make a difference, not only for themselves and their families, but also for their communities.

One of the first scholarships given by Palm Springs NOW was to Fran Ferguson, who returned to school to complete her education after a divorce, while raising two children. Ferguson subsequently spent five years as executive director of Shelter From the Storm, the local shelter for battered women and their children, and then moved on to be the eastern region manager for the Riverside County Office on Aging for 15 years prior to her retirement in Palm Desert. NOW took great pride in Ferguson’s use of her education to make a difference locally.

With all the talk of failures in our educational system, it’s easy to forget how many students are out there plugging away to make a better life for themselves, their families and their communities. It’s also easy to forget the educators who are helping them, motivating them, preparing them.

We need to continue to support all of the organizations that give out scholarships to local students to help them to attain their dreams. In the words of local ACLU president Brad Oliver, upon congratulating this year’s ACLU scholarship recipients: “We want you to use your education to make a difference, and we want you to come back home.”

Amen.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

There are some things we don’t readily share with friends and neighbors—like having paid one’s way through college by dancing around a pole. Or that romance with the golf pro. Or the nip/tuck during a “vacation” last summer.

Or that my grandmother once performed an abortion on herself using knitting needles.

With restrictions increasing on the rights granted by Roe v. Wade, women are being encouraged to talk about their experiences so that young women know what it was like—and what it could be like again.

It wasn’t until 1960 that “the pill” was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for contraceptive use. In 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut struck down a state law that prohibited the use of contraceptives, because the law violated the “right to marital privacy.” Prior to that, even married women could not get doctors to prescribe contraception.

And if you were single? Forget about it.

June Pariano of La Quinta remembers well what those times were like.

“It was around 1969 in Racine, Wisc., and I was 23 or 24 years old.

“At that time, insurance did not pay for the pill, but broke as we were, I found the money and chose a doctor whose office was close to our apartment. When I went in and asked about a birth-control prescription, he gave me a sermon about how women were put on this earth to bear children, and it was ‘against nature.’ He finally agreed to give me a 6-month prescription and said he would not renew it.

“Six months later, I went to another doctor who asked me, ‘Don't you want to have children?’ I was so angry that I was being questioned about such a personal decision.

“I joined NOW (the National Organization for Women). We organized, wrote letters, drove to the state capital and fought like hell to get the politicians and the churches out of our bedrooms. Now it seems the politicians want to expand government to bedrooms again!”

Although abortions have always been a last resort for women (witness my grandmother), who have used everything from bleach douches to wire coat-hangers, it wasn’t until 1973 that the Supreme Court said the “right to privacy” protected a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy prior to “viability.” Before that, other options for American women were to go to another country, if they could afford to, or to seek out illegal abortionists—therefore risking their very lives to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

I did just that, in 1967, and would not wish the experience on anyone. It was sleazy, unprofessional and frightening—but not as frightening to me as continuing the pregnancy. I had given up a child for adoption when I was 17, and did not want to go through the daily agony of wondering whether I had done the right thing yet again.

I’ve never regretted that abortion, and react strongly to those who blithely say, “You can always give the baby up.” They’ve obviously never gone through it.

Dori Smith is a retired public-relations professional living in Palm Desert.

“In 1984, I helped my best friend’s daughter get a legal abortion when she was 18, and I realized how hard it is for any woman to even make the decision. She was so grateful. She went on to college, has two children and a great marriage, and even works with children now. She wouldn’t have been able to if we hadn’t helped her.

“Back in 1965, I got pregnant at 15 in my first sexual relationship, the one time we didn’t use any protection. I was so afraid. When I told him, he was scared. We didn’t know what to do.

“Abortion was illegal, so I asked him to find someone to do an illegal abortion. We never could find anyone. I finally told my mom after four months, and my parents gave permission to get married. I thought I was in love. What do you know at 15?

“We shouldn’t have been parents at that point in our lives. I was such a young mother; it was difficult for me to give my son as much as I could later with my daughter. I was so young and immature.”

Would Dori have made a different decision if she had been able? “Of course, it’s difficult to separate a living human being from what I wish I could have had as a choice back then. Because I was married, I couldn’t attend my senior prom, and I didn’t finish college until I was 32.

“I’m mentoring a young woman right now who’s 15. I think about myself dealing with those huge issues at that age. If my mom had just talked to me about sex and birth control. That’s what bothers me about those against abortion—they’re also against sex education. It’s as if they want us to be punished for having sex.”

Priscilla Scheldt Richardson of Cathedral City was married with two sons, 9 and 12, when she got pregnant in 1981 at the age of 38.

“Babies were being born with severe conditions to women my age. I’m so grateful I had a doctor who believed in my freedom to decide whether to continue a compromised pregnancy.

“He said there was no point to an amniocentesis unless I knew I would terminate the pregnancy if the fetus was damaged. Otherwise, he wouldn’t risk my health or the fetus with the test itself.

“My then husband and I talked carefully and decided what was most important was to protect the quality of life for our existing sons.

“As it turned out, the fetus was normal—and we went ahead with the pregnancy. My children know this story; they understand that was our thinking at the time, and they respect that.

“Some might call our decision selfish, but having that choice is so important to protect. Without that choice, our lives might have been entirely different.”

Women who have gone through these decisions are married, divorced, widowed. They teach your children, play tennis with you at the club, volunteer at local charities, participate in your organizations. They’re your friends and neighbors.

Share your stories.

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

Published in Know Your Neighbors