Shari Rightmer calls it her Forrest Gump moment.
One morning almost exactly 10 years ago, she sat upright in Bunk No. 11 and, like Tom Hanks' virtuous simpleton, declared then and there that the time had come to stop running. Forrest, shaggy from three years in nonstop motion, abruptly decided to go home; Rightmer, her eyes finally open to the power of self-determination, spontaneously decided she would be homeless no longer. Just that easy.
That very afternoon, as if it had been ordained, she found a voucher on her bunk for subsidized housing. That sealed the deal.
Some in her situation, seemingly set free, might have fled any association with the people or institutions of homelessness. Rightmer clutched it to her heart the way she'd clutched her purse — her only worldly possession at the time — the day she moved into the Bakersfield Homeless Center on March 8, 2009.
Since that day a decade ago, Aug. 3, 2009, Rightmer has devoted her life to salvaging and promoting the dignity of the street people her organization serves with food, socialization and respect. "Our collective," she calls them.
Her organization, Shar-On Corp., a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charity, celebrates its 10-year anniversary at 5:30 p.m. Sunday with a free "sandwich social" at its Taft headquarters, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church.
On the menu: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bologna and cheese sandwiches, Kool-Aid, cookies, and Shar-On's unique and entertaining annual event, "Homeless Has Talent." Yes, homeless musicians, comedians, jugglers: Life's circumstances — often a devastating loss of some kind, Rightmer says — might have cost them the security of a home, but it didn't necessarily take away their ability (or at least their willingness) to take the stage.
Today, the organization feeds commercial kitchen-cooked hot meals to between 40 and 70 people a day, 365 days a year, accomplished entirely with volunteers. Rightmer herself is one of them.
Another is Cathy Edgewood, a retired Taft librarian who serves as secretary for the organization's board of directors.
"She helped us with an event but said she was volunteering for just that one thing — one and only one event. She never left," says Rightmer, who can have that kind of effect on people.
The organization subsists on donations — Golden Empire Gleaners is a key partner — and spends what little cash it receives on services and supplies. Last week, Rightmer says, the organization's end-of-day checking account had $5.62.
The organization's operating fund might be small but its presence is big. Its "Doin' Good for Nothin'" team, organized by a group of green-shirted homeless people, can often be seen picking up trash from the streets and alleyways of the westside oil town.
"We're not victims," Rightmer says. "We refuse to take that attitude."
Had Rightmer adopted a why-me mentality, however, no one would have much room to criticize.
Sharon "Shari" Reinhard Rightmer was raised in Bakersfield, near Brundage and H, by an abusive, alcoholic single mother who, Rightmer suspects, had mental health issues. "We were poor white trash," Rightmer says. "I didn't even know how to brush my teeth." She attended Bakersfield High School, and, had she stayed in school, would have graduated with the class of 1975.
She abused alcohol but eventually got her act together well enough to land in Beverly Hills, where she worked as a technician in an orthopedic surgeon's office, wrapping casts on celebrity knees and ankles.
She married Jerry Rightmer, a rock musician whose credits included bass guitar and backing vocals in the Sanford-Townsend Band (which had a 1977 hit, "Smoke from a Distant Fire"). When the band's star faded, Jerry Rightmer parlayed his computer savvy with his entertainment business connections and started a company that developed multicamera digital video assist software for the film industry.
Then hepatitis C overtook him and in 2007 he died. Rightmer, devastated and without the skills to keep the business afloat, lost her income, lost her house, lost her direction.
For the next two years, she lived the sort of existence her "collective" clients would recognize: She sofa-surfed for a while, lived with relatives in Bakersfield and slept in her car. Then, when it all got to be too much, she found herself standing outside the blue metal gates of the homeless shelter. Near-miraculously, the center had an open bed that day.
Her roommates didn't know what to make of her at first. What was an attractive, athletic blonde doing at the Bakersfield Homeless Center? She tried keeping to herself, but some of the women couldn't help themselves: They approached and asked if perhaps Rightmer was some sort of undercover officer. She just didn't seem to fit the profile.
She stayed five months, until her Forrest Gump moment. That's when she moved into a Section 8 apartment in southwest Bakersfield — terrified, at first, but ultimately where she needed to be.
Ten years later she is still at it, fighting the stigma of homelessness in her own small but exuberant way.
The overriding challenge of helping this particular population is this: Many homeless people, she says, "have forgotten who they are."
They feel shunned, ostracized, and some turn away from human contact.
"You get isolated and then you get in trouble. We're here to remind them who they are. You think you're going to eat Thanksgiving dinner with us, but it's the socialization that will help you most, and that's what we offer. The relationships with people, the trust — that's what they need."
Rightmer's goal — and it's ambitious — is to create a program that resembles Solutions for Change, an 18- to 24-month program based in San Diego County that gives its clients the tools to turn their lives around. The program, which addresses family homelessness, requires that newcomers be clean — sober and drug-free — at least 30 days.
Shar-On Corp. is already providing some of the services that are part of Solutions for Change. The Taft organization, with the support of St. Andrew's, offers clients facilities for showers and shaves, as well as support groups and free classes such as art, dance and music. It provides cab service that helps clients make their court dates, document and medication storage, mail service, program application assistance, and, soon, a lending library, among other services.
But Shar-On Corp. needs monetary support to continue its work, let alone grow into the organization Rightmer envisions.