South Portland Bus 21 rolled to a stop at the intersection of Ocean and Sawyer streets just before 9 a.m. Tuesday. It’s the closest Valerie Kibala, an African immigrant, can get to Cape Elizabeth via public transport, but it’s still 2.5 long miles to her cherished job as a housekeeper at Cape Memory Care.
She made it in less than five minutes.
“Thank you, thank you,” Valerie said to Ann Lilljedahl as she climbed out of Ann’s car and headed into work on time.
“I’ll see you tonight,” replied Ann with a smile.
“Thank you, thank you,” Valerie said once again.
Welcome to an American Dream in progress, with an assist from four Maine woman of a certain age who have nothing better to do than to help make it come true.
“Make sure you mention Priscilla!” Ann instructed me more than once during my brief ride-along. “She deserves all of the credit!”
That would be Priscilla Warren, without whom you wouldn’t be reading this and Valerie would be one very tired woman.
It all started one stormy day back in January. Priscilla, on her way from her home in Cape Elizabeth to do a few errands in South Portland’s Mill Creek shopping center, noticed an African woman, her face buried beneath a thick scarf, valiantly leaning into the wind and snow as she trudged along Route 77 toward the center of Cape Elizabeth.
Some people wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Priscilla hit the brakes and made a U-turn.
Catching back up to Valerie, Priscilla lowered the window and hollered through the gale, “Would you like a ride?”
Valerie, 48, had just landed her job at Cape Memory Care, a facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other memory-related impairments. She’d resigned herself to getting there come hell or high snowdrifts, and now here was this complete stranger pulling over and asking if she wanted a ride?
“Yes, I would,” Valerie replied gratefully.
Forecasters had the storm continuing through the day and into that night. So, as she dropped Valerie at the door, Priscilla asked what time she got out of work.
“Five o’clock,” replied Valerie in her heavily accented English.
“I’ll meet you right here,” replied Priscilla.
So it began. Each morning, as Valerie stepped off Bus 4 at Ocean and Sawyer streets (to make that connection, she first must ride Metro Bus 4 from her home on Douglass Street to downtown Portland), there was Priscilla waiting to drive her the final 2.5-mile leg to work.
And each evening, as Valerie emerged from work exhausted from eight hours of making beds and other housekeeping duties, there again was Priscilla, waiting to ferry her back to the bus stop.
Along the way, Priscilla learned that Valerie has a 9-year-old daughter with her here in Maine … that she was a social worker in her homeland… that the never-ending violence there forced her to flee in 2009 and leave behind her husband and five other children … that she’s desperately seeking asylum in the United States so her family can be reunited …
The weeks and months, not to mention the miles, flew by. Suddenly, it was early August and Priscilla, along with her husband, Mel, were packing for a month-long road trip to visit their daughter and son-in-law in Utah. But what about Valerie?
Enter Ann Lilljedahl, Priscilla’s neighbor in Cape Elizabeth; Suzanne Anderson of South Portland, the mother of Priscilla’s son-in-law; and Carol Keundel, a close friend of Priscilla who also lives in South Portland. The three told Priscilla not to worry – they would divvy up Valerie’s daily commute for the month or so that Priscilla would be gone.
Then, in late August, still in Utah, Priscilla got sick. So sick that she’s now in an intensive care unit there, recovering from surgery she had last week.
“She’s coming along,” reported Mel by telephone on Tuesday. “She’s getting up and walking around, so that’s a real good sign.”
Priscilla’s also on the phone – a lot.
“I asked her who she was calling the other day,” Mel said with a chuckle. “And she said, ‘I’m just calling to make sure they’re still taking care of Valerie!’ ”
That they are.
Suzanne handled all the morning rides until she finally headed for Utah to help out there. Since then, Ann and Carol have carried the load themselves four days a week, with volunteers from Valerie’s church picking up the fifth.
Valerie’s reaction to this out-of-nowhere kindness?
“I say, ‘Thank you, God! Thank you, God!’ ” she said with a broad smile as she rode in Ann’s front passenger seat. “If these women no give me rides, no job for me. And my life would be difficult.”
Still, you’ve got to wonder: Why would four perfect strangers do such a thing not once, not twice, not three times, but for as long as Valerie keeps getting off that bus? We’re talking 350 individual rides – and counting – since Priscilla first peered through the slush on her windshield and wondered, “Where could she possibly be going?”
Priscilla has kept at it, according to Mel, because “that’s Priscilla. When somebody needs help, she’s there.”
Carol does it because her late husband immigrated with his family from Germany to the United States in the 1950s. “I know what they went through and the help they received.” she said. “So I thought, ‘I can do that too!’ ”
Ann does it because she’s a walker herself and cringes at the thought of tacking those 5 miles onto an already exhausting day. Besides, while Operation Valerie has lasted twice as long as she expected, Ann said, “I couldn’t abandon her now!”
Suzanne does it to support Priscilla and because Valerie, in her opinion, “is an amazing woman. She has to take two buses to work and then, before Priscilla started picking her up, she was walking that whole distance just to get to work. Every single day.”
Appreciative as Valerie is, she has her sights set squarely on the next step in her upward mobility. She has managed to buy a car and has passed her written driving examination, although she recently flunked the road test for her driver’s license and eagerly awaits a second chance.
“My problem is the parking backup,” Valerie said. “Parallel parking backup.”
“I’m sorry to tell you this,” Ann told her upon hearing the bad news. “I’ve been driving for 70 years and I still can’t parallel park.’ ”
She’s too busy providing a lift.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: