Seventeen near-fatal accidents, drugs, alcohol, six drunken driving arrests, a hardcore biker-influenced lifestyle, long stints in jail, an understanding boss and a praying grandmother all are key elements of Keith Kimbro's life but the biggest game-changer of all was an encounter with God.
Keith, 63, is the founder and president of the Sons of Thunder motorcycle club which meets at Christian Life Center. Clean and sober since 1988 and armed with the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, Keith's faith bubbles over as he recounts the events in his once-troubled life.
"When you are not with God you have this big hole in your heart and you are trying to fill it with girls, drugs and alcohol. That spot in your heart is where God should be; nothing can take that place but the Lord Jesus Christ. I learned it the hard way."
A retired soft drink bottling company production worker who worked for 30 years, Keith now ministers to his neighbors and isn't shy about sharing his faith. He says he has this passion in his heart for helping others. He says those bikers who used to ride with him and also did alcohol and drugs know they can talk to him and that he understands.
Born in Merced, Keith grew up in the Planada and Le Grand area and lived on a ranch. He said he was very sickly as a child but fancied life as a cowboy. His family moved to Corcoran when he was a sixth-grader. He got into riding minibikes, and saw the biker movie "Easy Rider" with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, where the outlaw motorcycle rider's life was glamorized and made a big impression on him.
"Bikes really impressed me. I chopped my bicycle and in junior high school started drinking with my buddies. My dad had an alcohol problem and I thought it was just normal. I thought everyone drank. Drugs were all over the place and I started smoking pot, then uppers, downers, and LSD. I was pretty wild and I almost died a couple times," Keith says.
Keith recalls he wanted to get all he could out of life but picked the wrong lifestyle.
Over the years Keith has been in 17 life-threatening wrecks and admits he could have died. Here's where he concedes God has had His hand on him and was watching over him. In one of the accidents with his motorcycle, he broke his back twice and broke many ribs.
During all this, Keith managed to stay close to his grandmother who lived in Atwater. She was a woman of God and she would witness to her grandson when he helped her in her garden. He says she would always tell him he wasn't living right and he needed to get his life together. Then she would read many passages of the Bible to him.
"My grandma would read me Scripture verses pertaining to how I was living and would tell me this is the word of God. For more times than I could count she would witness to me and advise against the druggie-biker lifestyle. My mother and grandma were always praying for me."
Keith says his grandmother saw that he successfully completed drug rehabilitation at Parkside/Phoenix and was living a clean and sober lifestyle. She died before he became a Christian.
A woman friend of his coaxed him in 2009 to attend Sunday services with her at Christian Life Center. He said he wasn't searching for God at the time, but he soon responded to an altar call where he surrendered his life to Christ.
"I felt the Lord on me really heavy. I felt my grandmother and know she saw me get clean and sober. I know she would be proud of me."
When Keith was wrestling with accepting the principles of embracing a different lifestyle and resisting the right path, God spoke to him.
"He said 'I have had my hand on you all these years and protected you. But if you go back and use again I will take my hand off you and you will not survive.' I had goosebumps. I knew it was the Lord and it gave me strength. God gave me a warning and I have never relapsed once. And I got my life together, Keith says."
Later, his mom gave him a big surprise. She gave her son the Bible that his grandmother had read to him years ago.
Keith also credits retired Superior Court judge Robert Quall with giving him another chance to straighten up and avoid a certain five-year sentence to state prison for repeated offenses if he messed up again. He says his boss was understanding about him having to spend his nights at the county's honor farm correctional facility and then come to work during the day. He spent 30 years with the company.
It was at this point that he realized that the lifestyle he followed would not have a good ending and could lead to death or prison. He says many of the guys he grew up are gone now, and were shot, murdered or killed in accidents.
When he came to CLC, Keith says there wasn't a Christian motorcycle ministry although other churches in Northern California had them. Soon thereafter he drew the design for the T-shirts and jackets for the "Sons of Thunder" motorcycle group, which now has about a dozen members. Bikers don't have to join CLC to join the motorcycle club which holds regular rides, when the coronavirus pandemic doesn't intervene. They do, however, need to belong to a Bible-based, Christ-centered church.
Keith says over the years a lot of guys he associated with in earlier years have come to the Lord. He said now it's not a matter of what you ride; it's who you ride for.
"It's not me. It's the Lord."
As a 5-year-old Lucy Bartolo witnessed things no one should have to endure. Her rough beginnings embittered her at first but faith in God has turned her around and given her a resolve to better the lives of others, especially those with special needs.
Lucy and her mother decided to escape to the United States from the gang cartels in the Mexican village they were living in but her rescuers turned into tormentors. The "coyote" who was taking Lucy and her mom across the desert forced her to watch her mom's sexual assault.
Then Lucy was kept in an empty room for three days with a woman who hit her repeatedly. Finally Lucy was drugged and three days later found herself somewhere in San Diego, waking up in the arms of her mother who made it to this country after more ransom was paid to her captors by their relatives.
About six months after this ordeal, Lucy's brother Cande was born. Wheelchair-bound and non-verbal, Lucy's brother is severely handicapped and doctors told them he would not live beyond 5 years of age. He's now 20 years old.
"That's why I am a special education teacher. Over the years I have been able to appreciate that things happen for a reason. It's part of the journey; you have to go through hardship to appreciate everything God puts in your life and learn from it," Lucy says.
Now 26, Lucy has been an eighth grade resource specialist at Tenaya Middle School for four years. She graduated from UC Merced in 2016 with bachelor's degrees in sociology and anthropology with a minor in psychology. She is finishing up another master's degree in instruction and curriculum from Christian-based Concordia University and is working on another master's degree in technology and curriculum.
She is hoping this newly acquired knowledge will help her design technology that will help people like her brother communicate. He now is able to use a special typewriter which speaks for him.
Lucy says she saw her mother lose her faith and said she was angry and questioned everything. Lucy says her mom didn't know how to answer her daughter's questions about why bad things were happening but ultimately did regain her faith, apologizing to God for straying away from Him.
"My mom told me if I did good in school I could escape from the 'projects' in San Bernardino where they were living, which had frequent drive-by shootings. God put me on Earth to be a special education teacher, to support my students emotionally and physically however I can. Now I appreciate the little moments and being able to wake up one extra day and follow the path God has for me," Lucy says.
Lucy has been worshipping at Christian Life Center for two years. In pre-pandemic times, she was helping with youth programs at CLC and taking part in couple's activities.
"Most of all I can appreciate what God has given me, opened doors for me and He has helped me with my journey to be a teacher," Lucy says.