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Merced woman on selfless mission to improve community

Some days, you'll see her on the streets of Winton, dipping a brush into a bucket of paint with a group of teens, covering up graffiti on a fence.

Or you might find her helping a homeless man in Delhi pick out a clean shirt for a job interview. Or maybe in the Loughborough area, helping a single mother acquire food for the week.

Wherever you find Monika Grasley, she approaches each moment of her industrious life with a resolute revelation: "Everyone, no matter how rich, has a need -- and everyone no matter how poor has a gift. That is why we build and celebrate community."

Those who know Grasley would say the countless hands-on good deeds she performs every day are nothing less than poetry in action.

Grasley, 50, is executive director of LifeLine Community Development Corporation, a Christian faith-based nonprofit geared toward empowering poor and disenfranchised communities by offering a hand up, not a handout.

Case in point: a hallmark of Grasley's organization is the "Bus Boutique," a colorful 1983 Wayne Lifeguard bus which travels throughout the county, distributing garments to the poor and needy. The clothes aren't free, however. Those who get them must either volunteer their time on the bus or barter goods that others can use, such as baby clothes.

Speaking with a tranquil, yet assured voice punctuated by a slight German accent, Grasley explained how she thought of the Bus Boutique idea after witnessing how many people in low-income areas couldn't afford adequate clothing. Grasley said the bus is a small part of a larger strategy called "asset-based community development" -- a philosophy of strengthening neighborhoods by building upon the basic gifts and abilities of their residents.

"So I thought, wouldn't it be great if we could have a bus that goes around the community and helps people get the clothes that they need, but more importantly includes training on the bus for individuals that want to learn skills," Grasley said. "We're teaching merchandizing, we're teaching basic accounting practices, how to do mending, customer service, things like that."

Even though Grasley has a sterling reputation for helping others through tough times, she didn't get there without navigating a minefield of hopelessness and personal desperation in her own life.

Born and raised in Dusseldorf, Germany, Grasley grew up in circumstances that were anything but healthy and nurturing. During her childhood, her father became an alcoholic and her mother contracted polio, confining her to a wheelchair.

The worst part, however, was that Grasley's older brother sexually abused her as a child, starting at age 7. Grasley was helpless, and the abuse continued for four years, with no one coming to her rescue. "It was just not a safe environment, and my parents didn't know what to do," she remembered.

By age 13, Grasley tried to escape her personal demons by running away from home, ending up homeless on the streets of Dusseldorf. "I just floundered around for a number of years," said Grasley. "And a lot of it was shacking up with guys, just so I'd have a roof over my head."

With nowhere to turn for help, by age 16, Grasley had become jaded and cynical about her existence. One day, however, her life would reach a turning point for the better. "I was standing in front of a bar, and I was pretty much ready to commit suicide," she said.

While she was standing in front of the bar, a young man walking by could tell she was upset -- and told her "Hey, Jesus loves you."

"Whatever," Grasley groused to herself, recollecting how her Catholic upbringing and family's religious devotion to church hadn't prevented her from being sexually abused. "I remember thinking, 'If they only knew what happens when we're not in church,'" she recalled. "So that, I think, totally disengaged me from God. Because I couldn't understand why God allowed things to happen as they did."

Still, she figured the young man was "cute," so she agreed to accompany him to a Christian youth rally. The event, which was attended by many other teenagers, left a lasting impact on Grasley, and she finally felt a sense of hope. "I think for me it was a last-ditch effort, saying, 'OK, God, if you are real, then you've got to prove it. Because I cannot live like this,'" she said.

After the rally, Grasley was able to get off the streets, staying with Christians she'd met there. Things slowly began looking up for her as she got older. And over the years she sought help from counselors, a necessary part of putting back together the pieces of her shattered life caused by the abuse.

She eventually enrolled in a Bible college in Germany and graduated. At age 24, Grasley came to the United States, traveling on the West Coast with a group of Christian singers. She eventually met her future husband, James Grasley, 51, while working in Pasadena. The couple relocated to Merced, James Grasley's hometown, 18 years ago.

Still, Monika Grasley's newfound faith in God didn't remove the anger that lingered in her heart toward her brother. Even with the passage of time, Grasley couldn't fully escape her childhood memories of abuse.

And just when Grasley had built a solid, stable life for herself, 12 years ago she was forced to confront her violent past once again. The brother who'd abused her was diagnosed with cancer, and needed a bone marrow transplant to survive. Grasley was the only match.

Grasley wrestled with whether to help her brother, a person she hadn't spoken to in years. And her brother, who was never convicted for the sexual assaults, had also served time in prison for attempted murder. Grasley certainly owed him nothing, let alone a bone marrow transplant.

The dilemma she faced ripped her open like an old wound. "I remember sitting in my office where I worked and calling my pastor, Al Schaap, and saying, 'God is not going to make me do this, right?'" Grasley said. "And his response was, 'Did Jesus only die for the good guys? Or did he die for the sins of everyone?' So I personally had to process through, 'Am I willing to make that sacrifice?' Because I felt my brother had taken my life, in a way."

Schaap, pastor of Gateway Church in Merced, remembered that conversation with Grasley, and recalled that she was mad at him, at first. "I dared to speak honestly with her. But she also knows that I wasn't doing it lightly. And I knew it was a huge thing to say to her," he said.

After much prayer and reflection, Grasley decided to travel back to Germany and agreed to donate her bone marrow. The operation was a success, and Grasley's brother survived. Still, he never even thanked his sister once for her gift -- or apologized for the abuse.

Still, Grasley said she has no regrets about the donation, especially because the experience, as draining as it was, brought some measure of closure. "Even if someone tries to destroy your life in some way, you still can forgive," said Grasley.

Schaap said he was proud Grasley was able to help her brother, because of her commitment to God. "It was a hugely courageous act on her part," Schaap said. "She sucked it up and flew over to Germany for the very one who had abused her."

Even though Grasley has moved forward in her life, healing is still a work in progress. "I don't know if there's ever a final chapter for abuse victims," she said. "The reality is it's part of who I am. And that's part of my gift, because it makes me more compassionate. And it makes me more compassionate to people who are abused. It makes me see people in a different light instead of just saying, 'Well, get your act together.' Because sometimes we just can't get our act together."

In addition to operating the Bus Boutique, Grasley has also performed countless other good deeds in the community, such as establishing community gardens in Winton and Merced.

She also plays an active role in the Re-Entry Assistance Partnership, which provides opportunities for parolees to get in contact with agencies to help break the cycle of prison recidivism.

Her community volunteering has also expanded to other countries. She's visited Kenya twice, where she brought solar cookers to people living in rural areas. A solar cooker is a small box which can be used as a stove or oven in the wilderness, and operates solely on sun power. "It's very simple and it preserves fuel, so they don't have to cut down the wood," Grasley said.

Those who know Grasley, such as Winton resident Ernie Solis, said she's dedicated to improving the lives of others, whether it's by encouraging them with kind words, or advising them about opportunities.

Solis, who is the site supervisor at LifeLine's Winton office, says Grasley has played an active role in keeping such services as English language classes, trash cleanup day and an emergency food pantry in the community. "Winton LifeLine would have folded if it hadn't been for Monika taking over," Solis related. "She makes people feel welcome. People feel they can come here and not be judged."

Grasley has also served as an inspiration to others. Babatunde Osungboye, an AmeriCorp volunteer who works with Grasley, serves as a youth mentor in the Loughborough area. Osungboye, 22, oversees community cleanups, graffiti abatement and other projects in that area.

Osungboye said he admires Grasley's determination and work ethic. "She gives me a lot of pointers, so it makes it easier to get people to communicate."

Schaap said Grasley has a special insight about people in need. "She cares passionately about them," Schaap said. "I think the fact that she's been through so much in her life gives her a heightened radar for those in need. She has a sixth sense that God has given her."

Grasley, however, said all of the amazing accomplishments in her life were due to the support of others -- and the glory of Jesus Christ. "And most of the time I love what I am doing," said Grasley, "because I get to hang out with people that are just incredible."

If ever there's a case of it takes one to know one, Monika Grasley is it.

For more information about LifeLine CDC, visit www.lifelinecdc.org.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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