Rebecca Reiner likes to write. She spins out short stories, journal entries and poems with all the flair of a budding author. In fact, she’s already planning to write her memoir. At 14, Reiner has experienced more ups and downs than most kids her age.
Since last summer, Reiner has been living with Dan and Leslie Shiner, along with their two kids in a comfortable Mill Valley home (an older daughter is off at college). The Shiners took in Reiner after she graduated from nearby Brandeis Hillel Jewish Day School.
Reiner’s mother Jane Kelly lives 30 miles away in San Leandro with her husband and Reiner’s half-brother. Reiner’s father, with whom she had been living, died in 2003 of a drug overdose, leaving the young teen’s life in limbo.
The world back then was a very scary place for her. But the kindness of strangers prevailed.
With Kelly’s blessing, Reiner moved in with different Marin County families to be close to Brandeis during the week (she stays with her mom on weekends). It was the only way to get a Jewish day school education, far preferable to the rough neighborhood school near her mother.
Reiner’s story touched everyone around her. Brandeis Hillel staff, parents and students even pooled their resources to help Reiner have a bat mitzvah last summer.
Today, Reiner is a freshman at Tamalpais High School. The Shiner family took her in last August and remains her weekday lifeline. “The Shiners are open people,” she says, “and they’re glad to have me in the house.”
Once Reiner moved in, it took time for everyone to get into a groove. Zack Shiner, 18, is a high school senior looking forward to college. Netiya Shiner, 11, starts middle school soon. Leslie Shiner travels frequently for work, leaving Dan to play Mr. Mom much of the time. Throw in two cats and a dog, and it could have been a recipe for chaos.
It didn’t work out that way. Perhaps a little Jewish continuity helped.
“We say prayers before dinner,” says Shiner. “Rebecca has a fair amount of Jewish background, and she identifies as a Reform Jew.”
The dynamic between Reiner and the Shiners has been hard to define, but all agree it’s working. “I feel at home here,” says Reiner. “We eat and hang out. I don’t treat them like my parents, but I’m close enough with them talk to them. I feel part of the family.”
Adds Dan Shiner, “I don’t see the relationship as parent/child. Rebecca had a dad. He was wonderful, and that’s the only dad she’s ever going to have. But anyone who lives in our house adheres to our rules.”
No problem for Reiner. She does her homework, does chores and keeps her room “mostly clean.”
Dan Shiner sees Reiner’s mother as one of the heroes in this drama. “It’s a credit to her mom that she would voluntarily give her daughter up five days a week so she can get a quality education,” he says. “Most parents would have their kids with them even if it’s a detriment to their child.”
Even though she sees her mother only on weekends, Reiner says she’s very close with her.
“She’s not your average soccer mom,” says Reiner, “but she’s one of my best friends. Even though she wants me around, she feels this is the best thing for me right now.”
Reiner plans to stay with the Shiners until she graduates in 2008. It seems like a long time, but with as much love in the household as there is, the years might speed along.
“She brought so much into our lives,” says Shiner. “If every family in Marin were to spend an hour with Rebecca, they would be bidding for her.”
And as for Reiner, she has a maturity beyond her years, perhaps born of pain, but tempered by hope.
Says Reiner: “I always thought, ‘Oh I’m going to have a horrible life if [my father] dies.’ I thought I couldn’t live without him. But my life is better now. With him being in pain all the time, it made things hard and he wasn’t happy. I don’t know if there’s a heaven but the fact that he’s not in pain anymore, I know he’s all right.”