A Tribute to Steve Giles

Dana Farrar wrote this lovely tribute to Steve Giles.  She wanted people to know about all his good works in our schools, his many mitzvahs in his temple community which were also truly heartfelt and inspiring, and how the rabbi was truly broken up about losing a close friend and advisor.

Steve at lunch with Helen, Shellie, and Christie.

My friend Steve Giles was a kind person who genuinely cared about people with disabilities and tried to give them a voice when they had none. This meant teaching them to talk as someone once had helped him overcome his own stuttering. In some cases it also meant using his own money to give classrooms or families iPads or other devices to help students communicate when their schools would not provide this badly needed technology.

He also taught students of all the ages the importance of speaking authentically when you talk, and the importance of listening to others. This came in the form of council discussion circles, a mishmash of Native American, Quaker and Buddhist principles that he helped pioneer in the 1970s. But rather than seeking to profit from it as so many were doing, he sought to give it away to as many people as possible. He saw that what was needed in our fractured world was understanding, which could only come from genuine communication and empathy, and that this was the way to create it.

Students were amazed when this man came in and sat on the floor with his drum, his talking stick and told his gentle stories of growing up on a farm in Iowa, or fly fishing in the Sierras. No one had ever talked to them this way before, or listened to their own stories with such respectful attention. To Steve, everyone was a human being with worth, dignity and a unique story to tell. In his world, we were all each other’s teachers sitting in a circle of equals.

As a brand-new teacher, I didn’t know how lucky I was when he walked into my classroom. Within a short time, he handed me a book about council. We were handed a homeroom class of dropout risks to mix with our students with severe autism, and we began to craft what would become an amazing natural experiment-blending the kids who can’t with the kids who won’t. Sure, some nonverbal kids never did anything but beat the drum and at least three of our neurotypicals did drop out anyway. But a few got it. Some of the kids with autism had friends for the first time in their lives, or suddenly became conversational at home and at school. Some of the other students stopped failing classes, stealing and doing drugs, and replaced this with empathy and caring about others. Then they wrote their college entrance essays about all they had learned from interacting withtheir new friends with autism, and with Mr. Steve. I was privileged to do this workalmost every school week for more than six years, and it grew into two UCLA grants. Andit can continue to grow — into a theater program, a curriculum for traumatized veterans and so many things that will let Steve continue to help people. We always said we had so much more work to do – we did, and we do.

Along the way, Steve became my spiritual father, and called himself that. Like my own father, he was trained as a clear-thinking, analytical engineer. But unlike my own father, he acknowledged the rich mysteries of life and liked to explore them, whether that meant talking with a rabbi friend for hours or entering a sweat lodge. He fiercely loved his wife, Ivy¸ and he worried about his brother who was sick and suffering with Parkinson’s. We talked about his daughter, his grandchildren, and he doted on my two daughters as if they were granddaughters too. He and Ivy even schlepped to a piano recital one of my daughters performed on their anniversary.

When I was struggling last spring, he prayed for me at the Wailing Wall. When I asked him which days he had prayed, he simply pointed silently to the calendar–to the exact days that so many things had changed and so many problems had simply disappeared, like prayers flying straight up to heaven. On Yom Kippur, he made sure my name was in the Book of Life, one of his many mitzvahs.

The last time I saw him, less than two weeks ago, he told me how he was at peace, how he was happy he had moved to Simi Valley rather than Sedona and made a home with Ivy. How he loved simply sitting in the yard among the roses. He told me he had truly found his Shalom and we made plans for me and my family to come and visit. I pictured bringing bread and salt to his new home, and breaking it with him and Ivy. He told me he had always worried about making and accumulating money, and now he was only worried about living and enjoying life. He was truly happy.

On my 50th birthday in late October, I felt compelled to have him lead a council for me and my friends, and I’m so glad I did-even though he revealed to my friends how and why he had nicknamed me “The Volcano.” As we sat in the late afternoon fall sun in my yard, he closed the council by asking each of us to bring in someone who couldn’t be with us and say why they should be there. It was very powerful. Some of us brought in Einstein, others dearly departed grandmothers or other elders. I know that whenever I
have a council, or just need someone to talk to, I will bring in my friend and teacher Steve, one of the wisest, most generous and selfless people I have ever known.


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