Threads of Hope: 2008
Photography by Robyn Twomey
Each year, as we present our annual Threads of Hope, we are overwhelmed by one fact: The East Bay is filled with resilient, resourceful people who go to incredible lengths to help others. Their compassion and dedication give us hope that we can weather the most uncertain of times. We call these people our Threads of Hope because their volunteer work strengthens the fabric of our community. We invite you to read their stories, each of which demonstrates the power that individuals have to make our world a better place.
Peter Pan Foundation
Leslie Noel’s life story is like the old Broadway adage: The show must go on. She has suffered severe illness and personal tragedy, yet at 27 years old, Noel is the founder and director of the Peter Pan Foundation, a nonprofit that puts on musicals starring local kids and teens to raise money for Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland.
Noel was an aspiring singer who dreamed of going to Broadway when she woke up on the morning of her 17th birthday unable to move her lower body. The Lafayette resident was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare nerve disorder that rendered her temporarily paralyzed from the waist down and on the right side of her face.
After a lengthy rehabilitation, Noel performed for several years in a variety of Bay Area theater productions. In 2002, she organized her first revue for Children’s Hospital. More than 500 East Bay teens have participated in Noel’s shows in the past six years, and productions of Grease and other toe-tapping musicals have raised more than $40,000 for the hospital.
In 2007, Noel established her nonprofit foundation to recognize Steffen Ryge, who had been one of Noel’s dedicated students and played Peter Pan in a revue. Ryge was killed in a car accident two months after his Acalanes High graduation. Noel was devastated, but when Ryge’s parents asked her to sing at his funeral, Noel agreed to perform—and realized that Ryge would have wanted the foundation to exist.
Noel remembers the time Ryge visited Children’s Hospital to sing to the kids, which is something Noel’s performers do regularly. “Steffen wore his Peter Pan costume,” Noel says, softly. “He was so good with the children and spent a lot of time coloring with them. One of the kids thrilled Steffen by saying that it was the best day of his life, being able to color with Peter Pan.”
Despite all that she has gone through, Noel is as effervescent as Mary Poppins when working with her musical protégés. At a recent rehearsal at Walnut Creek’s Red House music studio, Noel directed a chorus of eight girls who were harmonizing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
“That was awesome!” gushed Noel, riffing a happy jingle on her electric keyboard. Her students beamed with pride and exchanged high fives. Next, Riley Sbrana, 16, and Adrienne Bengtsson, 13, crooned “Mooning,” a duet from Grease that they performed at the foundation’s annual Memorial Day production at Diablo Valley College.
“Before I met Leslie, I had some experience playing music but no experience performing before an audience,” says Sbrana, a junior at Monte Vista High, who recently helped Noel write a holiday musical, ’Twas the Opening Night Before Christmas, which debuts this month.
“She encouraged me to perform,” Sbrana adds. “It turned out to be the best thing I could have done—and gave me more self-confidence than I’d ever had.”
Wardrobe for Opportunity
In more ways than one, Nick Horn was the ideal volunteer for Wardrobe for Opportunity. According to Lauren Farasati, who worked for Horn for more than 20 years, her former boss used to give his old suits to employees who needed nice clothes for work.
“He was never one for business casual. Nick never left his office without his jacket on,” she says of Horn, a longtime president of Lincoln Financial Advisors. “He used to say that we dress for the things that matter.”
That philosophy dovetails nicely with Wardrobe for Opportunity, an Oakland nonprofit that has dressed more than 14,500 poor people looking for jobs since 1995.
Horn’s contributions extend well beyond his love of sharp clothes. He has advocated tirelessly for the nonprofit’s program for men both within and outside of Lincoln Financial (he stepped down as president at the local branch of the Fortune 500 company three years ago). The result has been countless donated suits, as well as more than $120,000 in donations in four years, according to Wardrobe’s executive director, Michelle Augenstein.
What’s more, Horn personally volunteers his time, frequently helping to dress and coach clients, who face huge obstacles in finding work. He appreciates the directness of Wardrobe’s mission and describes the surge in pride and confidence in clients when they see themselves dressed in a new suit.
“You see it all the time. A guy’ll come in, and maybe he’ll have a little attitude,” Horn says. “Then, he’ll put on this coat and tie, and look at himself in the mirror, and he’ll stand up a little straighter and start viewing himself a little differently.”
Many have been in prison, have limited education and job skills, or are overcoming other personal problems.
“Nick is exceptional with the clients. He’ll talk to them about what kind of work they’ve been doing and what kind of interviews they’ve had,” says Hank Ramirez, the men’s program coordinator at Wardrobe. “He’s such a warm man. Even though he was the top executive for a big company, you’d never know it—he could be the janitor.”
For his part, Horn says his commitment to public service stems from his deep religious faith, as well as something more selfish. “It’s very hard not to feel good if you can help someone else.”
George Mark Children's House
The little boy was too weak to leave his room and join Ellen Kalm at her piano. So, Kalm went to him.
Kalm, 82, is a volunteer music therapist at the George Mark Children’s House in San Leandro, where children from babies to teens are seriously ill or dying from cancer and other illnesses. Kalm tries to go to George Mark once a week and every holiday, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. If the children are well enough to leave their rooms, they join her in the playroom, where she plays the piano and sings everything from lullabies to the Beatles. Listening, clapping, or moving to music, Kalm says, helps the children cope with pain, and reach places deep in their hearts that might be locked in fear and sadness.
The little boy Kalm visited was three. She found him sitting on his mother’s lap, being rocked. He couldn’t lift his head off his mother’s chest and struggled for breath. Kalm is only about five feet tall so she didn’t have to bend far to touch his hand and look directly into his brown eyes. She smiled and, in a gentle, grandmotherly way, sang a couple lines from the rock classic “Louie Louie” (the boy’s name sounds like the song). The sound of her voice made the boy smile and his eyes, beneath long, curling lashes, brighten.
Kalm hasn’t always lived in the Bay Area. As a young teen, she lived through the Holocaust, an experience that she says helps her relate to these children. “Everything I have ‘suffered’ has been a learning experience,” she says.
Her happy girlhood in a well-to-do Jewish family in the French border region of Alsace-Lorraine ended when the Nazis assumed power and sent her father to Dachau. Kalm’s mother bribed and begged to win her husband’s release from the concentration camp, but Kalm and her parents spent the rest of World War II in hiding. The family survived to make it to the United States, but Kalm’s father, physically crushed by his time in the concentration camp, died soon after. Her mother, emotionally crushed by the loss of her husband and the events of her life, died shortly after that.
“I was very angry with God for a long time,” Kalm says. “These were two very good people. Why did He leave me alone when all my friends and everyone else were killed?”
Even in her darkest times, Kalm had music. She fell in love with Mozart when she began studying piano at age five in her hometown. Music always filled her imagination, even if she didn’t have a piano to play.
Renowned psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, who mentored Kalm after she arrived in the United States, suggested she combine her love of music with her interest in psychology. Kalm spent the next few decades working in state, county, and nonprofit hospitals, playing piano, singing, and holding and moving with people of all ages who were dealing with a range of conditions: severe mental handicap, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease. Our innate response to melody and rhythm, Kalm says, comes from the maternal heartbeat we hear and feel while growing in our mother’s womb.
Through her work with such people and her own journey to heal from the wounds of her past, Kalm developed an approach that she sums up this way: “There are three things that we must ask ourselves: Who am I? What am I here for? Can I cope? If we can answer that in ourselves, we can help other people.”
Kalm has a heart condition that means she, like the children she works with, doesn’t know how much longer she’ll live, but she has made peace with it. “It’s easy for me now because I know God exists, and I am absolutely convinced that not everything that is faced can be dealt with, but nothing can be dealt with unless it is faced.”
Open Heart Kitchen
Most people are eager to get home and relax after a long day at work. Not Sylvia Moon. After eight hours in accounts payable at the Livermore school district, she heads to Open Heart Kitchen and serves dinner to senior citizens—Monday through Friday.
“I find I can come here dog tired from work and get a second wind,” says the cheerful 68-year-old, wearing an apron that she hand-embroidered.
For Moon, community service isn’t optional—it’s second nature. Her parents instilled in their four adopted children the value of volunteerism. Growing up in the Methodist church, Moon embraced a biblical verse from the Book of Matthew as a personal call to action: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat...”
It’s only fitting then that most of Moon’s free time is devoted to Open Heart Kitchen. The charity serves 160,000 meals a year to low-income seniors, children, and families in the Tri-Valley.
“I told them, ‘Why don’t I just come by on my way home from work, and if you need me, I’ll stay, and if you don’t, I won’t,’ ” says Moon about her initial involvement. That was four years ago, and she’s never been sent home.
Open Heart Kitchen Executive Director Linda McKeever says demand is rising this year among people who never thought they would need free meals. “Sylvia is always ready to provide this help,” she says.
Also buzzing about the kitchen are teenage volunteers who are trained by Moon. She gets excited when teens return because they enjoy it—the love of service being passed on to a future generation.
“Sylvia is very warmhearted and genuine,” says 16-year-old Erica Tong. Tong has her own embroidered apron—a Christmas present from Moon. “She’s good at motivating others and is always there to lend a hand.”
Operation Lamorinda Soldier
it was supposed to be a short-term project.
To earn his Eagle Scout badge, Lafayette resident Justin Batcheller decided to send care packages to local soldiers deployed in war zones. Two years later, his project has morphed into Operation Lamorinda Soldier, a nonprofit for which he is the executive director.
“I’m able to interact with these soldiers who are doing something that I could never do. There’s no way I could go over to Iraq or Afghanistan and risk my life day after day after day,” says the 17-year-old Campolindo High senior and member of Troop 204. “This lets me understand just how real it is.”
Postal and military red tape meant that Batcheller could spend up to two hours at the post office for each overseas shipment, sending more than 500 packages. That doesn’t include gathering the supplies, including new socks for soldiers, toys for Iraqi children, and sweatshirts and shorts for Iraqi postsurgery trauma victims.
Still, the effort has been worth it, says Batcheller, who has developed a deep respect for the soldiers he has helped. Soldiers such as Campolindo grad Ben Grover, an Army Ranger who served as a captain in an infantry division in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Lt. Commander Dr. Jeffrey McClellen, who worked at a trauma unit near Fallujah.
Community response to Batcheller’s program has been enthusiastic, even in an area known for Lafayette’s war memorial of white crosses. “Whether they say this war is wrong or right, everyone seems to be able to get behind the idea of helping out these soldiers,” he says. Most would agree that he has provided an invaluable service.
“I think the biggest thing for me personally, and my own mental sanity with all the stuff that was going on, was the connection with people from back home,” says Capt. Grover. “It keeps you grounded, keeps you going strong.”
The Selection Process
Readers nominated nearly 50 exceptional volunteers for this year’s Threads of Hope Awards. A committee of Diablo editors and managers narrowed the list to 11 finalists. Then, a panel of judges representing East Bay business, government, and philanthropic organizations chose the five people profiled here. The judges considered each nominee’s length of service, hands-on involvement, and impact on the community. The five winners were honored at a private reception at Blackhawk Museum.
Abbey Banks: director, donor engagement, East Bay Community Foundation.
Mark Flower: senior vice president, regional manager, Wells Fargo.
Susan Haley: grants manager, Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation.
Gloria Omania: district director, state senator Tom Torlakson.
Jacqueline Tokos: field representative, Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher.
To nominate an outstanding volunteer in our community, click here.