Threads of Hope
Diablo honors six outstanding East Bay volunteers
The news headlines that bombard us these days constantly portray a planet overrun by war, disaster, and chaos. But if you take a break from your computer screens and cable news shows, and read the following profiles of six outstanding volunteers in our community, you will give yourself an amazing present this holiday season.
These six men and women will remind you that the world is, in fact, inhabited by people graced with courage, kindness, commitment, and integrity. These six are recipients of Diablo’s Threads of Hope Awards. They come from a variety of backgrounds and volunteer for a variety of causes, from preserving our local environment, to helping at-risk children, to giving hope to people with mental illness. Through their selfless efforts, they strengthen the fabric of our community. And, perhaps most important, they embody a faith that it is possible to make the world a better place, starting with our corner of it.
Oakland, Court Appointed Special Advocates
Brian Kirking will tell you he has done nothing extraordinary. “I really didn’t do anything anybody else wouldn’t do,” he says.
But officials at Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) in Oakland disagree. As a CASA volunteer, this single, 44-year-old IT manager became something of a lifeline for a second-grade boy who had to cope with neglect, foster care, trouble in school, and the death of a younger sister.
Back in 2004, Kirking decided he wanted to do volunteer work involving kids. “I don’t want to use a cliché, but kids are the future,” the Oakland resident says.
He was especially intrigued by the idea of being involved in all aspects of a child’s life. That’s why he turned to CASA, an organization that works with abused and neglected children going through the juvenile court process. After going through an intensive 12-week training session—meant to deter all but the truly dedicated— Kirking became part of a story he never could have imagined.
A.J. (names have been changed to protect the juveniles’ anonymity), who was the second youngest of four children, was having trouble in school. On the rare occasions he attended, he refused to listen to teachers and got into fights. Kirking gained A.J.’s trust while navigating the labyrinthine public school system to get him the special attention he needed. Kirking’s success helping A.J. prompted CASA to assign him to also work with A.J.’s three-year-old sister, K.B.
Shortly afterward, however, the court decided to place the children in foster care in Antioch. Despite the long drive from Oakland, Kirking continued his regular visits with the brother and sister. “Then it got complicated,” he says.
Doctors discovered that K.B. had a brain tumor. Kirking attended all of K.B.’s medical appointments and spent weekend nights with her at Children’s Hospital Oakland when radiation treatments required hospital stays. He also maintained his commitments to A.J. and brought him and his brothers to visit their sister. “It was always a highlight for her to see her brothers,” Kirking says.
In November 2005, Kirking accompanied K.B. and her family on a visit to Disneyland to play with Minnie Mouse; he had arranged the trip with the hospital staff and the Make A Wish Foundation. Not long after, K.B. went into hospice care, where Kirking could be seen pulling a laughing little girl in her favorite red wagon down the hallway and in and out of playrooms.K.B. died in January 2006 with her family and Kirking at her side. Her death only strengthened Kirking’s bond with her brothers. Kirking still goes to see A.J. and his brothers frequently, arranges visits with their mother, and keeps the court apprised of their progress.
“Brian just goes so far above and beyond what is required of a CASA [volunteer],” says Minnette Simmons, Kirking’s case supervisor. “He is in a whole other category for volunteers.”
Pleasanton, National Alliance on Mental Illness
Krista Radojevich knows she doesn’t fit the stereotype of someone who spent two weeks in a locked mental ward. As she stood at the head of a hotel conference room this past August in a trim, stylish suit, she looked like she was about to lead a workshop for fellow sales reps.
Instead, she told how she spiraled into bipolar-fueled insanity six years ago, at the age of 22. Her audience was attending the annual conference of the National Alliance on Mental Illness–California (NAMI).
In her spare time, Radojevich speaks in public as part of NAMI’s stigma-busting In Our Own Voice program. She explains how it’s possible to lead a happy, productive life, despite having an illness often associated with vacant-eyed street people. Radojevich’s first symptoms struck in 2001, when she was about to be promoted, remodeling her first house, and planning an extravagant wedding. She also believed she was in communication with God, was spending money she didn’t have, and became convinced that she was the subject of a secret government drug experiment.
About a year later, she was committed to John Muir’s Behavioral Health Center, where three nurses needed to wrestle her into a “quiet room.” She stripped naked because of the delusion that she would sweat to death in her clothes. “I thought my life was ending at 24,” she says.
Radojevich’s physical and mental recovery included the end of her engagement and being off work for nearly a year while she adjusted to medication and overcame the stigma of having a mental illness. By January 2004, she had started the first Tri-Valley support group for people with bipolar illness and depression. She’s proud to be going public with In Our Own Voice: “It puts a face on mental illness and shows that if you do what you need to do, mental illnesses are treatable.”
Concord, Continental Little League
The neighborhood surrounding Ygnacio Valley Elementary School won't remind anyone of W.P. Kinsella's Iowa; there are no farmhouses, no cornfields, no ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson wandering the night. But thanks to an 80-year-old retired PG&E serviceman named Larry Byrne, there is a field of dreams.
The infield dirt is smooth, the vibrant green grass is neatly mowed, and beyond the sturdy outfield fence, songbirds flit from a birdbath to a row of mulberry trees and back again. It’s an idyllic scene—far different from the way it looked when the Continental Little League first moved to the Concord school, just off Oak Grove on Chalomar Road, in 1987.
“You wouldn’t have wanted to play on [this field] at one time,” Byrne says. “There were millions of star thistles out there. There used to be parking spaces. It’s been a long job to make the field what it is now.”
Nineteen years long, to be exact. In that time, Byrne built the fence, the foul poles, and the scoreboard; planted the trees; installed the irrigation that keeps the grass green and the weeds at bay; and gave scores of hours—he estimates 1,000 a year at his busiest—to maintain the field. He even recycles the bottles and cans people throw away and puts the refund moneyback into the field.
He takes care of every little blade of grass,” says Sheri Dardenne, Continental Little League’s treasurer. “He picks up every little piece of garbage. If you’re looking for him, he’s down there.
”Byrne’s influence isn’t limited to maintenance. He has worked with the league for 35 years, coaching for more than 20 of those (some of today’s parents, including league president Bob Cooley, remember Byrne from their playing days), and for the past 25 years, he has thrown an end-of-season all-star game and barbecue called Fun Day. He does it all simply because he loves the kids and because he believes that little league should be a positive experience that fosters confidence and self-esteem.
He’s created an environment where everyone is connected,” says Kevin Macy, a former little league parent who still helps out at Byrne’s barbecue. “Everyone knows that when you go to that complex, it’s a big community event. It’s a positive environment, and he’s got a lot to do with that.
”In 2003, the league thanked Byrne, a World War II veteran, for all his work by naming the field Larry Byrne Veteran’s Memorial Field. His life is so entwined with the field and the league that some parents predict they will have to bury him behind home plate when he dies. Which would be fine with him.
Well,” he says, “at least I can call balls and strikes from there.”
Walnut Creek, LifeGarden
Nature has been a passion for Judy Adler since she was a little girl. Her family’s acre in Atherton was cultivated with roses, blackberry bushes, and cherry trees she climbed to marvel at the earwigs in the branches.
But the world had changed by the time she was rearing her own kids in the 1970s. Freeways and fast-food restaurants were replacing open space around the Bay Area. “After having children, I began to think about the kind of world they would inherit. I was feeling a deep sense of loss,” she says.
She vowed to make a difference, starting right at home. In 1978, Adler and her husband settled on a half acre in Walnut Creek bordering Shell Ridge Open Space. Over the next 28 years, she transformed their plot into a biologically diverse garden that has been acknowledged by the National Wildlife Federation as an official Backyard Wildlife Habitat. Tending her garden taught her about the social and environmental benefits of sustainable land use.Adler’s yard now serves as the classroom and headquarters for LifeGarden, her nonprofit organization that supports environmental education. In this suburban Eden, which she opens to public and school groups, redwood trees lend shade from the afternoon sun and produce natural mulch for the ground below, and a pond houses native water plants, frogs, and birds.
Adler also takes her message out into the community. Since 1992, she has led some 25,000 kindergartners through high schoolers on field trips to Mount Diablo and along the creeks of Walnut Creek. She also leads efforts to restore landscaping along a section of the Iron Horse Trail in Danville by replacing weeds, which need regular mowing and pesticide spraying, with native plants.
With all that, she also advocates for laws and programs that nurture our diverse yet fragile East Bay ecosystem. “I love nature so much, I can’t keep from sharing it,” she says. —Karen Boyden Phelps
Reverend Canon Carl Gracely
Walnut Creek, John Muir Medical Center
Sherryl Stientjes was scared when she found out she needed heart surgery. Fortunately, like so many other people who have needed care at John Muir Medical Center, she had someone to turn to for support: Reverend Canon Carl Gracely.
“He was right there with me every day,” says Stientjes, who is director of medical surgical services at John Muir. “He even came to my home.”
If you’ve spent any time at John Muir, you might have encountered Gracely, or Father Carl as he is often called. Gracely founded the pastoral care programs at John Muir and Mt. Diablo medical centers more than 30 years ago. Since that time, he has touched the lives of “easily thousands” of patients, according to Dwane Michael, the director of pastoral care services at John Muir.
Even today, at age 97, Gracely continues to volunteer with the program, providing spiritual counseling for patients and their families. “He’s the kindest, most gentle man you’ll ever meet,” Stientjes says. “He looks like [a character in] a Bing Crosby movie.”
Gracely took a circuitous route to get where he is today. The Cincinnati native began a marketing career in 1933, working in China for what is now Texaco. After three years, he returned to the States and spent the next 37 years working across the country as a marketing manager. It was not until 1971 that he found his calling. He had been a layperson in a church in New Jersey, and the minister asked him to go on hospital visits. Then, on a trip to the Caribbean, a priest urged him to join the ministry.
“I went back to the bishop in New Jersey,” Gracely says, “and he said, ‘We were waiting for you.’ ”
Gracely moved to Walnut Creek in 1974 and has worked with local hospitals ever since. He now spends about 20 hours a week at John Muir, where he is beloved for his sense of humor and his selflessness. Indeed, he is so modest that he avoids public recognition whenever possible.
“I’m doing my work because I’m called to it, not because I want any applause,” he says. “The people that are in [the hospital] are suffering, and I just want to help the best I can.”
Pleasant Hill, Comfort for Kids
Caren Furrer still remembers the worst day of her life with amazing clarity. It happened 12 years ago on a cool December morning when Furrer took her infant son, Kyle, to his nine-month well-baby visit.
Kyle was a healthy, happy baby with a contagious grin and his mom’s blond good looks. He adored his two older brothers, Jake and Dylan, then ages 5 and 3, and reached his developmental milestones early, already walking and beginning to string together words.
“Kyle was a real fireball,” Furrer says.
Furrer and her husband, Dan, anticipated Kyle getting a clean bill of health at his checkup and were surprised when the doctor noticed that Kyle’s left pupil was larger than his right and recommended they take their son to a pediatric ophthalmologist. In February, an MRI was ordered and the test results turned the Furrers’ world upside down: Kyle had a brain tumor.
Surgery took place at Children’s Hospital Oakland; five rounds of aggressive chemotherapy followed.
In March of 1995, Kyle Furrer celebrated his first birthday. Doctors told the Furrers that Kyle’s tumor had shrunk. In August, Kyle took his first post-surgery steps, and Furrer remembers being cautiously optimistic. But two months later, Kyle’s balance was off, and he began falling. Even before the doctors told her the devastating news, Furrer sensed her son was dying.
In November of that year, the family was referred to Comfort for Kids, a program offered by Hospice and Palliative Care of Contra Costa. Diane Marie Coughlin, a pediatric nurse, was assigned to the family. She helped with Kyle’s care and comforted the family.
“Diane Marie gave our family so much more than just nursing expertise,” Furrer says. “She offered us compassion, security, reassurance, and friendship. She talked extensively to Dan and me and the boys about what to expect, and she allowed Kyle to remain free of pain, in his home, surrounded by loved ones.”
Kyle died on December 4, 1995. Coughlin was the first person the Furrers called.
For many families, the connection could have ended there, but Furrer, now 40, wanted her son’s memory to live on and help others. Four months after his death, Furrer, her parents, her sister, and Kyle’s godparents organized the first Kyle Furrer Memorial Golf Tournament as a fundraiser for Comfort for Kids. Now in its 11th year, the annual event has raised almost $300,000 for the hospice program. Furrer also has served on the Hospice of Contra Costa Foundation board of trustees and as a speaker on behalf of the organization.
The tournament is a family affair for which Kyle’s godparents, parents, and other relatives recruit golfers, secure raffle prizes, and plan all logistics. At the end of the tournament, which regularly attracts 300 golfers, the Furrers present a check made out to Comfort for Kids. “Some parents believe that when their child dies, they also lose all future memories,” Furrer says. “But Kyle’s spirit lives on through our work with the hospice.” - L:inda Childers
The Selection Process:
More than 40 volunteers were nominated for this year’s Threads of Hope Awards, and all have done tremendous work to strengthen the fabric of our community. A committee of Diablo staff reviewed the nominations and chose 10 finalists. A panel of distinguished judges representing East Bay business, government, and philanthropic organizations helped narrow that list to the six you see profiled in these pages. The judges considered each nominee’s length of service, hands-on involvement, and impact on the community. The six winners were celebrated at a private ceremony on November 28 at the Blackhawk Museum.
Many thanks to our judges:
Angie Coffee, senior vice
president/managing director, Greater Bay Bank
Kathleen Odne, executive director, Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation
Gloria Omania, chief of staff, state Senator Tom Torlakson
Erik Ridley, field representative, Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher
Cindy Abramson, Walnut Creek Education Foundation K–12
Patti, Barsotti, Kiwanis International (Division 2)
Carol Lee Bishop, Blackhawk Women’s Scholarship Fund
Edna Chance, ValleyCare Medical Center Auxiliary Thrift Shop
Chia Chia Chien, Chinese American Center of Contra Costa County
Martha and John Cook, I Have a Dream Foundation
Kay Countryman, Gardens at Heather Farm
Jan de Urioste, Wardrobe for Opportunity
Jane Emanuel, Contra Costa Crisis Center
Mark Fischer, American Diabetes Association
Ron Glickman, Camp Kesem National
Stephanie Gross, MOMS Club of Danville
Melissa Hackel, Tri-Valley Haven
Juanita Halliday and Hortense Williams, Shattuck Avenue United Methodist Church
D’Ann Hayes, Peri-Natal Council
Scott Hein, Save Mt. Diablo
John Muir Medical Center Auxilliary
Donna Kaufman, Assistance League of the Diablo Valley
Tony and Elaine La Russa, Animal Rescue Foundation
Mary Lou Laubscher, Monument Community Partnership
Evelyn Lee, Asian Community Mental Health Services
Danae Lui, Delta Community Technology Center
Mary Mix, Stephanie Marie Fazier Memorial Foundation
Mike Murray, German Shepherd Rescue of Northern California
Vincent Nickelberry, Contra Costa Community Services Department
Jerri Pantages Long, Community of Character Program
Michael Parker, Life Skills 411
Michelle Sastri, various organizations serving youth and education
Cheryl Shimek, Girls Inc. of Alameda County
Barclay Simpson, UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
Scott Singley, Contra Costa Mental Health Commission
Pat Snyder, Diablo Valley League of Women Voters and Interfaith Council of Contra Costa
Janice Stompro, Recipes for Research
Jennifer D. Tao, Be the Star You Are!
Vera Turner, Hope Hospice
Ondrej Uma and Marketa Umova, Bay Area Crisis Nursery
Steve Wilcox, various organizations
How to nominate:
Do you know an outstanding volunteer in our community? Consider nominating that person for Diablo’s 13th annual Threads of Hope Awards in 2007.
We are looking for individuals or groups of volunteers who help strengthen the fabric of our community. We honor volunteers who provide vital services in a variety of fields, including, but not limited to, the arts, youth, children and families, education, health, the environment, and athletics.
Nomination forms will be published in Diablo magazine and on our website (www.diablomag.com) in June.
All nominees must be unpaid. We are looking to honor volunteers who have had a significant impact in the lives of one person or in a segment of our community (for example, helped one boy learn to read; helped serve 10,000 meals since 1994).
We also want to hear about the nominee’s greatest achievement in the organization (for example, successfully started a new program; inspires others with optimism or encouragement; helped recruit 50 new volunteers since 1995) and any unique challenges, extra efforts, or special background that inspired the nominee to give selflessly.