2011 Threads of Hope
Threads of Hope awards honor those who go out of their way to lend a helping hand.
As the song says, we all need somebody to lean on. Fortunately, as Diablo has discovered time and again since we started presenting our Threads of Hope Awards in 1995, the East Bay is full of selfless, compassionate people who are there to lend a hand. Whether they’re donating school supplies or baby clothes to less fortunate children, offering a welcoming smile to cancer patients, getting homeless people off the streets, or raising environmental awareness, these volunteers offer a reminder that even one person can really make a difference.
Jessica Aguirre, weeknight coanchor, NBC Bay Area’s 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news, and host of Class Action, a weekly show about education. Mark Flowers, senior vice president, regional director, Wells Fargo Private Bank. Stephen Lesher, vice president, Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation, and manager of sustainable development, Shell Oil Company. Karla McCormick, program director, Volunteer Center of the East Bay. Carole Wynstra, board president, Diablo Theatre Company.
California Cancer and Research Institute Help Desk
If Sam Sirott feels awkward advising women four times his age on appropriate dress and cell phone manners, he does a good job of hiding it. The 17-year-old speaks with only the slightest of nervous stumbles as he gives an orientation to three volunteers for the concierge desk at the California Cancer and Research Institute in
Pleasant Hill. Sirott set up the information desk 18 months ago so that new cancer patients visiting the institute would find informational materials from the American Cancer Society, directions to doctors’ offices, and most importantly, a smiling volunteer’s face.
“If you’re facing cancer, it can be really scary, so it helps to just have a friendly face in the lobby—someone smiling to say hi and give you that little bit of direction if you need it,” Sirott says.
Sirott came up with the idea from volunteering at his father’s oncology practice inside the Pleasant Hill Medical Institute and hearing his dad complain that patients couldn’t find his office once they entered the building. Sirott drew additional inspiration from watching his grandmother undergo various medical treatments.
“I just know that if she had to come in here by herself, she would be totally lost, so that really gave me something to relate to,” he says.
What Sirott initially thought would be a summer project has turned into a year-round commitment: scheduling, training, and recruiting volunteers—a commitment the Las Lomas High senior must juggle along with academics and athletics. Still, Sirott is proud of what he’s accomplished and plans to hand off stewardship of the program to another volunteer before heading for college next year. He’ll be leaving many inspired people behind.
“It’s so impressive that he managed to pull all of this together,” says Sandy Goldberg, Diablo Valley Oncology’s outreach manager, who helped Sirott start the concierge desk. “He’s really very organized, very composed, and very mature for his age.”
How you can help: To volunteer at the California Cancer and Research Institute’s information desk, e-mail Sam Sirott at email@example.com.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there was one thought that new mom Lisa Klein couldn’t shake: What about the babies? “I felt for these moms who probably had very limited resources to start with—and then this happened,” she says. “They evacuated with the things they had on their backs. I wanted to help their babies.”
Responding to a Louisiana church’s clothing drive for displaced newborns, Klein rallied friends and gathered 200 pounds of clothes in four days. Then, she realized that a similarly simple but high-impact project might help fulfill needs in her own community of Oakland.
Loved Twice, which she founded in 2005, collects gently used clothing and items for babies up to one year old, from onesies and sleepers to bibs and blankets. More than 200 volunteers—often from companies such as Chevron, Google, and the Oakland A’s, which host sorting parties in support of Loved Twice—pack them into “boy” and “girl” boxes, each containing approximately 75 items that comprise a yearlong wardrobe.
The boxes are delivered, through social workers, to mothers at more than 40 hospitals and shelters in underserved neighborhoods throughout the Bay Area. Klein estimates that Loved Twice has outfitted 4,000 babies since its inception.
“For a lot of the families we serve, putting food on the table and having money to get children to doctor appointments is difficult, so to be able to provide clothing is more than a challenge,” says Rashawnda Lee of the Early Intervention Services department at Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland, which receives boxes from Loved Twice.
A tireless crusader, Klein, 42, not only organizes events, oversees the network of volunteers, and stores piles of donated clothing in the basement of her own home, she also takes every phone call and email that comes in.
“I’ve always set goals for myself, but I didn’t plan all this,” says Klein, who grew up in a home that valued service (she started volunteering at the library and Jewish community center). “But I think I am the person who should be doing it—or else it wouldn’t have come together like this. I love helping those babies.”
How you can help: In addition to needing clothing, Loved Twice seeks financial donations to secure a small warehouse for storage and hosting volunteer events. For information, visit lovedtwice.org.
Pacheco/Martinez Homeless Outreach
I meet Doug Stewart at the Martinez Amtrak station, where he is handing out clean socks and bottled water to people who live in tents and sleeping bags near the train tracks. It’s 9:30 on a cool Thursday evening, and Stewart, 40, is starting his volunteer shift, helping some of the 4,800 homeless residents of Contra Costa County.
Five nights a week, the founder of the nonprofit Pacheco/Martinez Homeless Outreach program roams Concord, Martinez, Pacheco, and Pleasant Hill, offering the homeless various forms of assistance. Tonight, there is one bed available in a women’s shelter in Richmond, and Stewart’s goal for the night is to find someone who needs it.
But first, Stewart hands a man called Bear a pair of white cotton socks. Bear slips them over his calloused feet, exhaling a sigh of comfort and relief. “I have not worn socks in a month,” Bear tells me, sliding his socked feet back into a pair of too-big sneakers.
Meanwhile, Stewart talks with a man from Monterey, who just arrived in Martinez armed with a pint of vodka. The man is giving Stewart a description of the delirium tremens that kick in when the booze runs out.
“Have you ever been to a rehab program?” Stewart asks, in a non-judgmental tone. “You’re not going to be around very long when you drink that much. Do you want me to help you get into a program?” The man responds that he has been in rehab—seven times. But he has enough vodka in the bottle to get through the night, so while he takes Stewart’s card, he declines an offer of help.
“You can’t help everyone,” Stewart tells me, as we get into his SUV and drive toward Concord. “The sad thing is, he’s going to be in really bad shape in the morning. Now would have been the time to get him in the hospital.” (Two days later, the man called Stewart for help and was put into a county hospital program in Hayward.)
Stewart has volunteered with the homeless since 2004, after an arm injury ended his career in construction. What started as a part-time effort quickly grew into a full-time project: Stewart patrols his region five nights a week, from 8 p.m. until three or four in the morning. The other two nights a week, he stays home but responds to calls from the police to assist with emergencies. His efforts have saved taxpayers thousands of dollars, as Stewart has been able to help hundreds of people avoid trips to the drunk tank or jail, instead getting them into shelters and hospitals.
“I started doing this to help about 20 people in Pacheco, but it has grown into something so much bigger,” says Stewart. “I have received such appreciation from the homeless that it has driven me to do as much as I can for them.”
Stewart lives off his union pension from his construction days, but spends most of his money on socks, snacks, and supplies for the people he helps. I ask Stewart to tell me his greatest success story to date.
“A few years ago, I found a guy sleeping under a bridge in Pleasant Hill. He was so out of it—he didn’t know his name, or where he was from,” Stewart recalls. “I got him to the hospital, and he started to have these little flashes of memory. He remembered that he was from Michigan. I checked into it, and it turned out he had lived in Michigan and gone off his medication. He just disappeared; his family had been searching for him for four years. We got him back to Michigan, and he’s with his family again, back on his meds, and doing well.”
Not all his stories end so well. The people he’s trying to help can be unpredictable and, sometimes, violent.
“During the first couple months I was doing this, I got stabbed,” says Stewart, who looks a little huskier than he really is because of the flak jacket he wears under his sweatshirt. “I was stupid. I let a guy reach back into his sleeping bag, without asking him to keep his hands in sight. He pulled out this cheap little pocketknife and punched it into my gut. Ever since, I have been much more careful.”
After my ride along, I asked Stewart’s wife if she worries about her husband being out on the mean streets every night.
“When I met Doug, he was already doing this, so I knew it was part of the package,” says Bailey Stewart. “I was working as a barista at Barnes and Noble, and Doug would come in for coffee wearing his homeless outreach shirt. At first, I thought he was on parole or something: Why else would he have to work with the homeless all night? Then, he gave me his card, and it said he was vice president of the Pacheco town council, and he explained that he volunteered helping the homeless. I fell in love with him right away. He’s completely selfless and has such a big heart.”
We arrive in Concord, and Stewart parks behind the Elephant Bar. We walk along the marshy frontage path just north of I-680 to a homeless encampment built under the freeway. The ramshackle setting is like a scene from a postapocalyptic movie. Cardboard lean-tos and camping tents compose a makeshift village on a floorboard of litter and refuse. Feral cats approach, looking for scraps, as eight or nine people shuffle around in the shadows. A lighter flame glows in the darkness, deep underneath the freeway’s ceiling.
“Stay right behind me,” Stewart says, under his breath. I wonder if I should be wearing a flak jacket.
Stewart recognizes one of the campers, a fortyish woman who comes out from the cavelike darkness to ask for clean socks. Stewart gives her a pair, then explains that the Concord Police are planning to sweep the encampment in a few days, so now is a good time to check into a shelter, get into rehab, or ask for help. The woman is tweaking on crystal methamphetamine but coherent enough to thank Stewart for the tip. She tells Stewart that she doesn’t trust the encampment’s newest resident, a 22-year-old woman who showed up that night.
Stewart approaches the younger woman, Alice. She’s high from a hit of meth she inhaled just before we arrived. After a short talk, Alice admits that she’s an addict in need of help.
“What drugs do you use?” asks Stewart, in a caring, quiet tone.
“I smoke crystal, snort coke, and shoot heroin,” says Alice, in a childlike, spaced-out voice. She says that she recently had a baby, but her son was taken away when his blood test revealed heroin and cocaine. “I can’t remember what color his eyes are,” Alice whispers, staring off into space.
“Do you want to go to the shelter?” Stewart asks Alice. “They’ll have a clean bed for you. You can take a shower.”
“Yes, please,” says Alice. We walk back to the car, and Stewart starts filling out paperwork. He drives Alice to the psychiatric emergency ward at the county hospital in Martinez, where she is evaluated and deemed nondangerous. Finally, at 2 a.m., Stewart checks Alice into a shelter in Richmond, filling the last bed available in Contra Costa County. He comes back to the SUV with a satisfied look.
“I’ll call and check on Alice tomorrow,” says Stewart. “I always check in the next day to see how they are doing.” (Three weeks later, Alice is still in the shelter and attending substance abuse classes.)
Stewart thanks me for my interest in his cause and drops me at the train station. Then, he drives away, into the night, and gets back to work.
How you can help: Financial donations are best, and checks can be mailed to Pacheco/Mtz Homeless Outreach, 2161 Pomona Ave., Martinez, CA, 94553, or go to homelessoutreach.net to make a PayPal donation.
Madison & Mackinsey Mascali
Packs With Love
On a warm late-August day, 375 colorful backpacks cover the Mascali driveway in Danville. Some are decorated in army print, while others are graced with cartoon characters, flowers, peace signs, and hearts. These aren’t just any backpacks; Madison Mascali, 14, and sister Mackinsey, 11, along with other local kids, will be
stuffing the packs with back-to-school supplies, donated by members of their community, and sending them to East Bay children in need.
The Mascali girls came up with the idea when they noticed, during frequent visits to a Burger King that their father owns in Richmond, that none of the kids they saw had backpacks.
“We realized how fortunate we are,” Madison says. “We get a new backpack every year.”
So in 2006, the girls started Packs With Love, a nonprofit that has donated more than 1,500 backpacks to underprivileged children in the West Contra Costa school district, Shelter Inc. in Concord, and Teen Challenge in Oakland.
On “stuff day” at the Mascali house, 42 kids ages five to 15 arrive to volunteer—many for the first time—and the girls tell them to write words of encouragement on note cards before picking out a backpack to fill with supplies. One by one, the kids grab cards and doodle messages like “Make good effort,” “Jesus loves you,” or “Some kid out there thinks you’re special.” Then, they pick out pencils, markers, notebooks, and other donated school supplies.
It’s the deliveries that are most rewarding, the girls say. Two days after stuff day, they fill their mother Carol’s gray-blue Honda Odyssey with backpacks and set off for Richmond—where one recent delivery was half a block from a shootout.
“As the police told us to get on the floor, I remember Kinsey saying, ‘These kids need a lot more than backpacks,’ ” Carol recalls. “That gave me goose bumps.”
Upon their arrival, Marín Trujillo, community engagement coordinator for the West Contra Costa Unified School District, greets the Mascalis.
“Backpacks are a symbol of equity,” Trujillo says. “We have a school uniform policy to make it easier to clothe children, but a lot of our families still struggle to find backpacks.”
The girls often receive letters from students saying the packs save them from embarrassment on the first day of school. One boy sent his $10 monthly allowance as a thank-you.
“We’ve heard that kids keep our notes in the backpacks all year,” Mackinsey says. “It makes us feel really good to know that we can make them think someone out there loves them.”
How you can help: Donate new or gently used backpacks, or school supplies such as markers, colored pencils, and notebooks. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for drop-off locations or to arrange a pick-up.
It all started with a newspaper notice in 1990, inviting people to come to a meeting to help start an Earth Day event. “I had been reading about environmental issues and how they were changing the world, so I went,” says Sheilah Fish. “Only five people showed up, including two high school students. I said, ‘I could try to create a festival.’ ”
Fish built the festival, Contra Costa Earth Day, from an initial small gathering at Todos Santos Plaza into a booming success that brought thousands to celebrate environmentalism at the Concord Pavilion.
In 2000, she followed up by meeting with various Bay Area Earth Day organizers, who decided to create a network of junior high and high school students to promote environmental awareness. Unfortunately, all the programs except one failed to get off the ground. The one? Contra Costa’s EarthTeam, cofounded by Fish and Cindy Spring.
As it turns out, EarthTeam is more than just the lone survivor of a noble but ill-fated idea. It quickly grew into a hugely influential program, offering educational programming for teachers, with an emphasis on helping educators of students in low income communities. In the last decade, EarthTeam has served more than 25,000 teens with programs such as the GreenNews, an online magazine written and edited by students, and Something in the Air, an asthma-awareness program.
“Sheilah has played such a role in environmental awareness in our area for youth,” says Katharine Barrett, EarthTeam board president, who nominated Fish for a Threads of Hope Award. “She is an eternal optimist, and she is so good at demonstrating the positive opportunities in working together—students, teachers, community members, nonprofits.”
Fish, a retired marriage and family therapist, is quick to divert credit to her colleagues, such as Barrett, who has dedicated countless hours to the project, as well as Lana Husser, a former Richmond High teacher who retired early to facilitate EarthTeam’s Green Screen, a local access television program starring students.
“I’ve always needed to feel like I’m a part of a team that has a heart connection, working toward a common goal and trying to change the world for the better,” says Fish. “There have been so many wonderful, dedicated people who have helped over the years, and they all deserve thanks.”
And just as you’d expect, Fish, the unflagging community organizer, encourages others to volunteer, too. “Just find something really small to do, and go do it. A thousand miles starts with one step.”
How you can help: Find out more about EarthTeam’s outreach programs, volunteer opportunities, and need for donations at earthteam.net.