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2010 Threads of Hope

As we enter the holiday season, Diablo celebrates East Bay residents who strive to make our corner of the world a better place.


Whether they give beautiful blankets to cancer patients or dedicate decades to repairing homes for the less fortunate, these people do it with love and devotion. Each of these selfless men and women is a thread, and together they weave a tapestry of hope and generosity that helps sustain and inspire us all, even through the most difficult times. We are honored to have this opportunity to say thank-you.


Selection Process
For the past 16 years, Diablo has asked readers to nominate exceptional volunteers who work for charitable causes in the East Bay for our annual Threads of Hope Awards. After considering each nominee’s length of service, hands-on involvement, and impact on the community, a panel of judges representing East Bay businesses and philanthropic organizations chose the six winners profiled here. The winners will be honored at a private reception at the Blackhawk Museum.

The Judges
Jessica Aguirre, weeknight coanchor, NBC Bay Area’s 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news; host of Class Action, a weekly show about education.
Mark Flower, senior vice president, regional director, Wells Fargo Private Bank.
Stephen Lesher, vice president, Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation; manager of communications and sustainable development, Shell Oil Company.
Karla McCormick, program director, Volunteer Center of the East Bay.
Giles Miller, director of development, East Bay Community Foundation.
Carole Wynstra, board president, Diablo Theatre Company.

{ SonRise Equestrian Foundation }

Melanie Buerke

 In times of pain, she turned to horses. Now she shares that comfort with children.

 Dust rises from the ground as the horse starts off at a trot. The rider is not your typical equestrian, though: She’s a student at SonRise Equestrian Foundation, which gives free riding lessons to youths who face physical and emotional challenges.

SonRise founder Melanie Buerke learned from experience how much horses can help people through difficult situations. Raised by a single mother after her father abandoned the family, Buerke turned to horses for love and companionship. After her mother fell ill four years ago and Buerke took on the role of caretaker, she became motivated to help others.

“I never imagined that the pain and sorrow I had been through could be used for this,” says Buerke, 45. “We do end-of-life visits with terminal patients. We have a program for able-bodied kids facing social or emotional obstacles. We work with hurting kids. They may look normal, but they have been traumatized in some way.”

Buerke, who volunteers full-time at SonRise, sees it as her job to develop long-term relationships with the kids. “When they come to the ranch [in Castro Valley], they have no social skills,” she says. “It’s like watching a rose open up. The horses don’t judge them, so the kids can blossom in an environment that’s nonjudgmental and that doesn’t put them down.”

The instructors at SonRise work very closely with the horses, some of which were once abused and neglected themselves. The foundation has given more than 600 free riding lessons to kids and nursed several horses back to health.

Buerke says that seeing the students’ joy—she calls it “the trot smile”—is the most rewarding part. Jasmine Lee, 11, a mostly nonverbal child, came to the ranch afraid of horses and started screaming “No!” Once she got up on a horse, however, she was transformed. She held the reins and listened to Buerke, and when she got off, she gave Buerke a hug. Jasmine’s father, with tears streaming down his face, told Buerke, “This is truly a miracle.”  

For information, visit sonriseequestrianfoundation.org. 
—Nancy D. Brown

{ Rebuilding Together East Bay North }

 Bill Cain

 From city hall to the underside of a leaky sink, he has seen the need for home repairs and delivers them to residents

Bill Cain is a quiet leader. He’s not one to sing his own praises, yet there are many to be sung. “He’s a diplomat, a great listener, and one of the strongest leaders I’ve seen,” says John Stevens, executive director of Rebuilding Together East Bay North. “But he’s extremely modest.”

A Berkeley resident and structural engineer for the East Bay Municpal Utility District, Cain cofounded Rebuilding Together in 1991 and has been at its helm for a staggering 20 years. “Not only would the organization never have developed if it wasn’t for Bill,” says Stevens, “but there were many times it would not have stayed together without his leadership.” For six months in the mid-1990s, for instance, Cain served as coexecutive director on an unpaid basis to steer the organization out of rough waters.

Anchored in Berkeley, Rebuilding Together East Bay North has repaired and renovated more than 1,500 private homes and community facilities in Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Richmond, and San Pablo. Cain, 62, was serving as the mayor of Albany when he helped launch the organization.

“I got hooked the first day,” Cain says. “As a city council member, I frequently got inquiries like, ‘How do I get my house fixed? I can’t afford it.’ People are aging, and as they age, sometimes their financial situations deteriorate. We give them a place to go for repairs so that they can stay in their homes much longer and not have to go to an assisted-living facility.”

Projects are carried out by teams of 15 to 65 volunteers, who do everything from removing lead paint and cleaning up yards to roof repairs, electrical overhauls, lift installations, and repairing potentially dangerous gas lines. “I remember one house in Emeryville where we got in and smelled gas,” says Cain. “We tested the gas pipe going into the water heater, and it had five leaks in a three-foot section. So, we replaced all the piping.”

While Cain is often on the bureaucratic side of things, as vice president of the organization’s board of directors, he never hesitates to get his hands dirty. “He’s out there holding ladders for people, working alongside everybody, encouraging them,” says Stevens. “He’s not ego driven. He’s driven by the cause.”

For information, visit rtebn.org
—Hannah Craddick

 { 5 Dollar a Month Club }

 John Coward + Dave Henderson
Concord / Martinez

Back from drugs and desolation, two men devote their lives to helping the homeless.

 John Coward and Dave Henderson will tell you they were destined to do the work they do. It just took them a while to get there.
Every day, Coward, 61, and Henderson, 50, drive around Concord and Martinez, feeding the homeless. They’re naturals for the job because they understand life on the margins. Henderson spent 10 years as a patient in psychiatric hospitals and two years homeless. Coward was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and he had repeated scrapes with the law before getting sober in 2005.

“John and I joke that he does the addicts and alcoholics, and I do the nuts,” says Henderson. “I know for me, no one bothered to talk to me, to come and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? What can we help you do?’ [The homeless are] a forgotten bunch.”

The two men began working with the homeless independent of each other. Henderson started three years ago, when Pastor Bill Gurnett of Landmark Missionary Baptist Church in Martinez asked for volunteers to work with people on the streets. Coward began two years ago, after his wife, Jerilynn, bought a Labrador retriever from a transient man. Coward would take the dog, Sandy, for walks, and people who lived under the bridge near their Concord home recognized her. Using Sandy as an icebreaker, Coward began delivering sandwiches. One day, a man in Martinez told Coward he should link up with Henderson.

In the year and a half since, the 5 Dollar a Month Club, which got its name from the way people can donate, has served meals every day. They hand out 40 to 60 bagged lunches, stopping at Hillcrest Park and other Concord and Martinez locations, and on Sundays, they serve an additional 50 to 75 at the Martinez waterfront. (Food is donated by grocery stores.)

“Me and my girlfriend were sitting on the curb one day, and [Coward] came and asked if we were hungry,” says Stacey, a homeless man in Concord. “We said no, but he could just tell. He went home, made sandwiches, and brought them back for us.”

Coward and Henderson feed the same people day after day, and after building trust with them, the two are sometimes successful in getting them to seek help. “What we try to do is just develop relationships with them,” Henderson says, “and let them know that there are places they can go.”

Coward was a plumber for 31 years, but he never felt the same satisfaction as he does feeding the hungry. “I never felt the glory fixing a pipe,” he says. “Now, who I am is what I do.”

For information, visit 5dollaramonthclub.com
—Justin Goldman

{ P.A.R. for Kids’ Sake }

 Cindy Everson

 Two children with autism would push some mothers over the edge, but she wanted to  do more.

 Cindy Everson can still remember the moment she knew things were going to get really tough. She already had one autistic son, Shane, who at four years old was just beginning to learn to speak and chew food. Then, one day while she was in the kitchen feeding the kids, her other son, 14-month-old Joe, started screaming.

“I looked around, and my kitchen cabinet door was open, and I thought to myself, OK, this is going to tell me right here and now if he’s autistic,” Everson says. “I went and I closed it, and he was quiet. And my husband remembers that day because I called him and I said, ‘We have a problem.’ ”

That was 10 years ago, and to this day, Everson’s friends tell her they are amazed at the effort she expends caring for the boys. Joe, now 11, is on the lower-functioning end of the autism spectrum: He has difficulties with speech and an obsession with escaping that requires the Eversons to keep locks on all the windows of their Pleasanton home. Shane, now 14, is much higher functioning—he is a student at Pleasanton Middle School, where he attends regular classes in addition to the special education program—but he also has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and struggles in social situations. Both children have highly structured daily schedules, and it’s difficult to take them on outings to the movies or a friend’s house.

For many parents, the intense effort required to care for two autistic children would be all consuming, but Cindy Everson and her husband, Eric, decided they wanted to do something more to help others. In 2002, Eric suggested they put together a golf tournament to raise money for autism research.

The first P.A.R. (Providing Autism Research) for Kids’ Sake tournament took place in Sunol, and despite a rainout that forced rescheduling, it raised $35,000. The following year, the tournament moved to Ruby Hill in Pleasanton and raised $65,000. Cindy runs the 20-member organizing committee meetings at her home, often halting the proceedings to calm her kids. In total, the tournaments have raised more than $750,000, providing money for the UC Davis MIND Institute (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders), the School of Imagination in Dublin, and Exceptional Needs Network, as well as roughly 70 grants for Bay Area special education teachers each year. In addition, Everson organizes an annual comedy night at Tommy T’s that also raises funds for autism research and, just as important, awareness about the disorder.

“Every 20 minutes, a child is being diagnosed [with autism] in the United States,” Everson says. “It’s crazy. It’s just so prevalent. Obviously, we started this because it’s a personal thing and it’s our life, and to see support from the people around us is a big deal.”  

For information, visit par4kidssake.com
—Justin Goldman

{ Blankies for Grown-Ups }

Susan Gray Mason
Walnut Creek

Having endured the loss of several relatives to breast cancer, she sends patients comfort and cheer in their time of suffering.

Susan Gray Mason knows how important comfort can be to someone fighting a serious illness. The retired Walnut Creek resident endured the loss of her mother, cousin, and two aunts to breast cancer, and she saw firsthand how chemotherapy treatments can chill both the body and the soul of a cancer patient.

“[The medical staff] usually wraps them up in white flannel to keep them warm,” says Mason. “It’s all very sterile, so I thought, why not give them a bright cheery blanket or quilt instead? They add some color and let patients know that someone is thinking about them even when they’re all alone.”

Blankies for Grown-Ups produces 300 to 400 intricate, unique quilts and blankets every year for adult patients with breast cancer and other serious illnesses. In addition to being handcrafted by volunteers using donated supplies, these blankets are produced in a manner that holds true to old quilting customs. Traditionally, women gathered at quilting bees to exchange news and conversation while working on a quilt that often was given as a gift. In this spirit, Mason holds quarterly Blankie Days at John Muir Medical Center’s Concord campus, where 50 to 100 volunteers generally show up—some of them lugging sewing machines.

“It’s quite an event,” Mason says. “We get new quilters who want to learn and high school kids doing community service who’ve never sewn before.”

Additionally, Mason gets quilters from the Diablo Valley Quilters Guild  and the Guild of Quilters of Contra Costa County to donate their work to the cause. During one session in August at Concord’s ThimbleCreek quilting store, 30 Diablo Valley guild members leaned over tables pinning quilts or sat side by side at sewing machines. The colorful patterned quilts that resulted from the gathering reflect the makers’ artistry as well as their kindness.

Like these informal quilting bees, Blankies for Grown-Ups is a low-tech effort that runs on goodwill and the spirit of sharing. There is no board of directors, no official nonprofit status, no website. Mason simply says, “You put something out in the world, and it does what it needs to do.”

For information, visit groups.yahoo.com/group/blankies/.
—Deborah Burstyn


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