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CodePink Woman of the Month: Natalie Wormeli
by code pink (respost)
Saturday Jan 10th, 2004 12:02 PM
Every month CODEPINK celebrates an outrageous, outspoken, and unreasonable woman for peace. If you know of a woman that fits this description, send information into webmistress [at] codepinkalert.org. Check back for more stories of amazing women!
natalie.jpg
Natalie and friends protesting Tommy Franks appearance in Sacramento
---

kept down
War, Patriot Act stoke activist's fire, but her husband, humor keep her going
By Cory Golden-Enterprise staff writer

Dear John Ashcroft,
Meet Natalie Wormeli.
She likes to joke about you listening to phone calls and scanning e-mail messages coming and going from her Davis home.
That's her in a Grass Valley church hall on a fall day - the one in the bright pink shirt, black pants and sneakers covered in peace signs, sitting cross-legged before more than 100 people with name tags stuck to their chests.
Lying beside her wheelchair, a yellow Labrador retriever named Bruno blinks silently.
Near the door, her husband Ben watches as, eyes shut, Natalie asks members of the Western Nevada County League of Women Voters to rise from their chairs.
Remain standing, she says, if you've donated to a nonprofit group in the last year; keep standing if that group does work outside of the country; and, finally, stay standing if that work was in an "area of conflict," like the Middle East, Pakistan or the Congo.
Almost the entire audience, made up mostly of women with hair in shades of gray, stays on its feet.
"Those of you who remain standing - you're all terrorists as defined by the USA Patriot Act," Natalie says. "Congratulations."
Her audience laughs.
---
Sometimes, Natalie talks about writing a letter to the U.S. attorney general.
Dear John Ashcroft, it might start, exploiting people's fear post 9-11 isn't making the country safer or freer.
Then she'd add: Have you read the Constitution lately?
---
Dear John Ashcroft,
Last spring, the Davis City Council gave 39-year-old attorney Natalie Wormeli its Civil Rights Advocacy Award.
Despite the challenges of living with multiple sclerosis, which since childhood has gradually taken her ability to walk and see, she has become an outspoken proponent of peace and social justice, an inspiration for others to work harder.
These days it's easy to get discouraged, said Alison Kent, a fellow member of Code Pink: Women for Peace, a group that uses creativity - and pink clothes - to draw attention to issues.
"With Natalie there's always a twinkle in her eye," Kent said. "She just keeps encouraging you to keep coming, keep being outrageous, keep wearing pink. That's meant a lot to me."
The passage of the Patriot Act, just over two years ago, prompted Natalie and a longtime friend, Dick Livingston, to revive the Yolo County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. It has since grown from 400 members to 650.
She calls the Patriot Act - passed to beef up law enforcement after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - "huge and broad and sweeping," "a major power play by the Department of Justice" and "horribly written legislation" that destroys checks and balances.
Two Yolo residents have asked her for advice after being questioned by the FBI, she said, frightened they were being singled out in terrorism investigations.
"It's just disappointing, because I'd love to be able to trust the government," Natalie said. "First the debacle of the 2000 election and now this - there's no way to just plain trust the government to do the right thing. That is hugely frustrating."
The bombing of Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq pushed Natalie to help start what has become an active Davis chapter of Code Pink.
To Natalie, the war on terror is a war without end, one that can be used to justify whatever actions the Bush administration decides to take.
"The taking of any lives isn't anything I want to be a part of. But I pay taxes, so I feel like I am," she said quietly. "I think we have to still be out there telling (the government), 'No, it's not a good way to go, this is only making things worse.' We're poking our finger in the eye of all these different nations.
"Those civilians and military (personnel) alike are being killed for no good end result."
---
Dear John Ashcroft,
A school nurse called: Was Natalie, then starting second grade, the sort of kid who'd pretend she couldn't see? No, her mother said.
Later doctors diagnosed the youngest of Betty and Henry Hewitts' five children with multiple sclerosis. Her blood's antibodies were overactive, attacking the covering of her nerve cells.
During seventh and eighth grade, Natalie attended her Virginia school from home, listening to teachers through a speaker. She could read large print, but sometimes her good eye went bad, then her bad eye became good.
Sometimes she used crutches; others, a wheelchair.
Still, Natalie stayed upbeat.
"That part of her is a mystery to me," Betty Hewitt said. "It's no put-on. It's no act."
Natalie sharpened her sense of humor to keep her friends close.
"People would come to visit me, and if I was too gloom-and-doom we'd both be uncomfortable and they'd never come back again," she said.
By high school, she was walking again. She attended classes, and excelled.
If some teachers patronized her and if her parents felt "a little timid" about Natalie's capabilities, Hewitt said her daughter's friends refused to let her do less than they did.
Natalie sang first soprano in the concert choir.
When she performed in the musicals "Godspell" and "Guys and Dolls," the light she saw was the stage; the darkness, its edge.
---
Dear John Ashcroft,
Back at the church in Grass Valley, Natalie explains parts of the 342-page Patriot Act.
"Just because it's unconstitutional," she says, "doesn't mean it's going away."
Judges have been marginalized, she tells the audience. Sneak-and-peak searches mean the FBI can poke around in someone's house for months without notice. Section 215 allows agents to obtain library records or get information from an Internet provider or a doctor.
Agents can go "fact mining," she says, looking for crime without clear probable cause.
In the 1960s, the FBI conducted smear campaigns against civil rights leaders and went undercover among political dissenters, she says. Now, all that could happen again.
Watching the audience's nods and shaking heads, Ben Wormeli feels his throat tighten. His eyes well up.
This, he believes, is what Natalie is meant to do.
---
Dear John Ashcroft,
Ben met Natalie the night she graduated from South Lakes High School in Reston, Va. She was hosting a party.
"It was kind of magical," he said. "She opened the door, and she was wearing this pretty white dress with a green belt. She said, 'Oh, you must be Ben' - and that was pretty much it."
She was smart, warm, funny. Only later did he find out why she didn't look him in the eye; and by then, he was already taken with her.
Natalie liked Ben's easy-going personality, his kindness.
Ben was impressed by Natalie's ambition. She'd been inspired by a high school government teacher and attending meetings about school access for the disabled. She wanted to be a lawyer, she told him - one who stands up for the little guy and who teaches people about their rights.
They shared a love of music. They had similar, left-leaning political ideals.
When he put his arm around her, he wasn't just guiding her along.
Natalie wore that same white dress to their wedding rehearsal dinner. She was 19, he was 20.
Hewitt said she felt some concern about her daughter marrying so young, but never about whom Natalie had chosen.
"Ben is a very unusual and unique and worthy person," she said. "He was not the least bit afraid. He's one in a billion.
"I can't imagine either of them with anybody else."
---
Dear John Ashcroft,
Law school wasn't easy for Natalie. After earning a degree in liberal studies at Marymount University in 1988, she and Ben - then a programmer, now in computer support - came west so she could attend law school at UC Davis.
Her MS caused her to stop law school once, when losing control of her bladder prevented her from sitting through a lecture. As she progressed in her courses, she went from walking to using a cane to using a wheelchair. The fatigue worsened.
"I aged a lot during those years," she said.
Yet by taking notes first with Crayola markers, then with a tape recorder, and working hard, she graduated on schedule in 1993.
It should have been an exciting time.
She did volunteer work and handled pro-bono cases, including one settled out of court between a restaurant and guide-dog owner.
But the full-time job with a nonprofit organization she had hoped for never came.
Sometimes she felt she wasn't taken seriously because she couldn't see. More often she felt no one would spend the money to accommodate her.
In time, Natalie's eyesight faded away for good.
Then another low point, when her first guide dog Lance died at 14.
Eventually she took on another. His name was Bruno, and he was just the second dog in the country to have been trained as both a guide dog and service dog. He provided a much-needed lift.
Natalie and Ben also took an active role in the Davis Musical Theatre Company.
She sang in the chorus for "Carousel," "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and "The Sound of Music" (fellow cast members nicknamed her "Sister Mary Hell on Wheels"). He performed in "Grease" and "The Sound of Music," was stage manager for "Sweeney Todd," played guitar and bass for the band.
Even Bruno landed a role, in "Annie" (twice).
The couple, who chose not to have kids in part due to Natalie's health, takes trips to the ocean and hosts Academy Award parties with theme dishes, like "Lord of the Onion Rings."
Ben's learned, better than anyone else, when to narrate during a movie and when to hush up. It's he who loads Natalie's wheelchair into their hatchback, he who injects Natalie with a drug that, for three years now, has held her MS largely in check.
"He's such a sweet, loving guy," Livingston said. "He doesn't always have time for all the things she wants to do and she'll push him to his limit, but they always talk it through. I always talk to my own wife about that - Natalie's great, but it's Ben who helps make her that way."
Natalie has settled into a part-time job giving small-claims court advice, by phone, for Stanislaus County.
She donates most of the rest of her time to the causes she wears proudly on her pink sleeve and even on her head. For the Locks of Love program, she's growing her hair out so it can be cut, then used in a wig for a child with cancer.
---
Dear John Ashcroft,
Natalie has "huge mixed feelings" about how people respond to her blindness and her wheelchair when she attends a rally.
"If it inspires people, well, then, yay," she said. "If it makes people uncomfortable that's both of our problems."
Recently she heard someone say, as people wrapped up an event, "We've got to get the wheelchair out of the way."
"Not the person; not, 'Can somebody help Natalie?' - but, 'We've got to get the wheelchair out of the way," Natalie remembered. "It didn't make me angry at first. It made me sad. I felt invisible, I felt insulted, and I felt like, why the hell do I even come out?
"If that's all people are seeing, I don't know how much energy I want to put into standing up for everybody."
Ben, however, knows she'll keep at it.
He's more likely to be angry or feel down than her, he said: "She's still the most bubbly person I know ... It's like, 'Yeah, I've got MS, but let's talk about the war or the Patriot Act.' She's just not going to be kept down."
He has seen his wife endure two stays in a convalescent home, and, more recently, hold together when her dad, Henry, suffered a stroke and when her guide dog had a tumor removed from his ear.
"She is pretty much the strongest person I've ever met," Ben said. "It's kind of like, the worse things get for her, the more heart she grows."
Still, there are rough days.
Natalie sighed.
"I guess that's part of my role, teaching people about (disabilities and MS). Whatever. But I think that's the least interesting thing about me."
---
Dear John Ashcroft,
One of Natalie's first memories: being pushed in a stroller by her mom, who was canvassing for the League of Women Voters.
In college, Natalie helped run a food closet and answered calls for a suicide hotline. During law school, her interest in civil liberties grew.
But it has been the Patriot Act and attacks on Afghanistan, then Iraq, that have most provoked Natalie's passions.
She rallies her friends with the same telephone she uses for work and for avoiding any awkward face-to-face meetings. She leaves bemused messages, with self-depricating jokes in conspiratorial tones, on answering machines or on voice mail, or she sends them in audio files through e-mail.
"Give Natalie a phone and she can conquer the world," Ben has said more than once.
Livingston said Natalie has a way with "gentle persuasion." Once he started writing a blues song about her, titling it, "Nagging Natalie."
Many Code Pink or ACLU meetings are at the Wormelis' home, making it easier for her - "I lure them with food," Natalie likes to say.
When Bob Kearney, associate director of the ACLU of Northern California, phoned Natalie on election night in October to ask if she was making calls in opposition to Proposition 54, he was greeted by the sounds of a full-fledged phone bank.
Recently he found 40 people at a Yolo ACLU meeting "loud, boisterous and laughing."
"That comes from leadership," Kearney said.
Judy Tischer of Woodland, who met Natalie through the ACLU, then joined Code Pink, has witnessed her friend's devotion up close:
When a leadership workshop was planned by Code Pink for a campground without accessible bathrooms, Natalie called one of the organization's co-founders, Medea Benjamin, whom she'd never met, and asked her to haul a bedside commode to the event.
Once there, Tischer, acting as Natalie's "human shield," held up a tarp to give her friend privacy.
"She was so involved with learning and meeting people - she just goes past the disability," Tischer said. "It's hard not to keep going when you're hanging out with Natalie. She motivates you with a can-do, humorous response when things are really tough."
Natalie, for her part, said the work has been "very cathartic."
Ben believes there's more to it.
"Some people have a disability or a chronic disease and that's all they can focus on, and that's understandable," he said. "But I think there's something special in Natalie that allows her to look beyond herself, to people on the other side of the world, to people in Iraq that are having their lives ruined.
"It takes a really generous person to put themselves in someone else's shoes."
---
Sometimes Natalie thinks she'd like to write a different kind of letter to the attorney general:
Dear John Ashcroft,
Thank you for giving me something to focus on.
Thank you for giving me a reason to get out, to meet new friends.
---
Dear John Ashcroft,
Livingston speaks after Natalie at the League of Women Voters meeting. His voice rises as he talks about the proposed Patriot Act II and recalls McCarthyism. He skewers the bill that would strengthen the Patriot Act with the expertise of the high school civics teacher he once was.
Next, he and Natalie answer questions.
A woman rises: What can be done to change things?
Natalie suggests writing or calling Congress, joining the ACLU, penning letters to the editor, staying informed and protesting.
"They need to know you're not willing to give up your rights," she says. "They need to know you're not duct-taping yourself into your house.
"They want us to shut up and go home. I don't think we're likely to do that."
When it's over, the audience applauds.
In a black T-shirt with a small Code Pink logo, Ben waits as people approach Natalie.
One after another, they step up. They ask her questions, offer thanks.
Then, when the time comes, he takes hold of the handles of her wheelchair.
With Bruno padding alongside, Ben eases Natalie through the doorway and out, into the waiting warmth of the day.


For more about the ACLU, see aclunc.org or contact roliving [at] jps.net; for more about Code Pink, see codepink4peace.org or contact ctmp [at] dcn.org.
- Reach Cory Golden at cgolden [at] davisenterprise.net



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