Forget Woods and learn about a true American hero

Posted April 06, 2010, at 6:33 p.m.

During Tiger Woods’ press conference Monday, someone asked him if he were going to stop disgracing golf. He promised to act more like a gentleman both inside and outside the rope.

So, Tiger Woods will play the Masters’ Tournament this year and implies there will be no more hissy fits if a shot goes awry — and no evening sex-capades. Tiger made it clear that his wife wouldn’t be there; maybe to spare her time as a public spectacle or just as a shout-out to his myriad mistresses that the coast will be clear.

We could spend our time better ways than watching Tiger’s 2010 Masters performance and speculating about his sex life. We could go online and order the book or film by Diane Nilan thereby devoting a number of our lives’ precious hours to a true American hero.

Diane Nilan has dedicated her life to “people like you and me who are now in the deep hole called homelessness.” She spent 13 years running a suburban Chicago homeless shelter out of an abandoned trash incinerator. Yeah, that irony still stings 20 years later.

What Nilan should be nationally famous for — but she isn’t because she can’t sink a 90-yard putt or sink her career with outlandish infidelities — is her tireless dedication to a particularly vulnerable subpopulation of the homeless: homeless children. In addition to traveling the nation producing an award-winning documentary about these kids, she’s the co-author of the Illinois law that guaranteed homeless children a place in their public schools. Before Nilan the deal was no home, no address — no address, no proof of residency — no proof of residency, no school department has to accept the kid.

The Illinois law was so effective that the feds contacted Nilan, and she subsequently co-wrote the national legislation guaranteeing a child the right to an education regardless of his or her parents’ financial disadvantage.

In my own work with the homeless, we shelter a high school senior touched by Diane Nilan’s work. TJ lived in a storage closet for 11 months trying to get his old high school to take him back after his already dysfunctional family dissolved and left him behind. After his local high school refused him admission and the administration explained that he should just get a GED, TJ walked out of the superintendant’s office and into a lawyers’ office who took his case for free. See, TJ wants to go to college and feels a diploma is imperative. TJ graduates this June.

But “just” helping homeless kids get an education wasn’t enough for Nilan. If you talk to TJ he’ll tell you what Nilan knows: how tough it was to eat, sleep and get homework done living on the street. Nilan knows that the only real way to help homeless kids is to eradicate homelessness. So she sold her townhouse and hit the road for a six month cross-country trip shooting video of kids, documenting their lives, and hopefully making people more aware.

That was five years ago and she’s still out there.

Nilan’s award-winning documentary, “My Own Four Walls,” was completed in 2007 and has been used by hundreds of school departments all across the nation to help them understand the plight of homeless kids. More school departments need to see it, because in the U.S. more than a million kids live on the street or in shel-ters.

I met Nilan on Friday. She was traveling through the East Coast — in the RV she has called home since 2005 — on her way to speak at Columbia University. She’s also preparing to release a follow-up documentary titled “On the Edge,” about the families of the children that are never far from her thoughts.

I asked her how long she’ll practice her nomadic filmmaking and advocacy. She looked at me from under a poster in her camper that shows a little baby’s feet with a caption stating, “these little piggies are homeless.”

Diane’s not kidding herself. She didn’t reply, “until there are no more homeless.” She knows that the Tiger Woods story is more interesting and less upsetting to ordinary folks. She simply said, “As long as I can.”

Learn about Diane’s work at www.hearus.us

Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.

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