Giving Dignity to the Forgotten

As a filmmaker and storyteller, I’m always on the lookout for remarkable people. I’ve discovered that they are everywhere if you just take the time to listen. Sacramento is no different.

I had been reading the news online like I always do. It was a typical news day and all the articles seem to imitate each other. Just as I was closing the browser window, a headline caught my eye. It said something about creating a hospice for the homeless.

It sounded interesting, so I clicked the link. The article was short. There was a brief video that talked about the facts of this undertaking. A warning light went on in my mind and my storyteller radar went on full alert. Defcon Level 6. There’s got to be more to this story. Nobody simply wakes up one morning and decides to open a hospice center for terminally ill homeless people. So, I dug around the web and found an email address for the Health Communication Research Institute and crafted an email. I simply had to find out more about this person who is taking on such a noble effort right here in Sacramento!

The first time I met with Marlene Fitzwater, we chatted for nearly an hour. You see, as a storyteller, I rarely take news articles at face value, and I was certain that there was a story behind this remarkable woman. After all, the news isn’t designed to dig deep and find out why people do the things they do. But after our first conversation, I knew the world needed to hear this story. There is so much there that is universally inspiring, more than I could even fit into a five-minute short film. We talked about her journey starting with finding out she had stage IV cancer while she was a single mother of four boys. She was working full time as a journalist at the time and had signed up for a Masters program in journalism.

For most people, receiving a diagnosis like this means putting everything on hold and just focusing on getting better. Not Marlene. She discovered through her own experience as a patient that something was horribly amiss with how doctors and nurses communicate with patients. So, Marlene decided there must be a way to change the industry and switched her Master’s program from Journalism to Health Communications. And that set off a life-long career of teaching medical students how to communicate, creating programs that support patients, advocating for homeless and ultimately creating a safe place for them to live their last days with compassion and dignity.

I don’t want to give away everything in the film, but when Marlene says that she can now look back at her cancer as a gift. It was a fork in the road that took her on a completely different journey than if she stuck with journalism. Marlene’s journey is filled with altruism, compassion and understanding that only comes from experiences like hers.

After making this short film about such a remarkable person undertaking such a noble effort, I find myself changed for the better. Marlene didn’t set out to do this, but she has inspired me to be different than I was when I started this. I have always been sympathetic to homeless people, but definitely cautious and distant. I was one of those people who roll up the window at a stoplight and avoid making eye contact with them. I simply cannot be that person anymore. After learning more about Marlene’s grandson, Joshua, I realized that each and every homeless person belongs to a family and they have immeasurable value to someone.

I became a storyteller and filmmaker because I wanted to learn more about the world, to glean something from everyone I met and to see the world in a slightly (or drastically) different way. As a storyteller, I am always on the lookout for remarkable people because I can’t wait to discover something that ultimately makes me a better person.

As you watch this film about Marlene Fitzwater, I challenge you to not only consider supporting the Joshua’s House effort, but to also see people in need with a new set of eyes, knowing that even though they look disheveled, they have value to someone else in the world and a little compassion goes a long way.

Thank you, Marlene for the opportunity to tell your story and for the ways it has changed me in the process.

William Foster
Creative Director
Recount Films

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