2012 Threads of Hope
Honoring those who strengthen the fabric of our community.
The consumer-driven holidays emphasize giving and receiving, but those who donate their time and energy, without expecting anything in return, give the biggest gifts. From mentoring kids with troubled backgrounds to starting a nationwide initiative that gives foster children warm blankets, Diablo’s 2012 Threads of Hope award winners embody the true spirit of the season.
Jessica Aguirre: Weeknight coanchor, NBC Bay Area’s 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news, and host of Class Action, a weekly show focused on improving the state of education in California.
Mark Flower: Senior vice president, regional manager, Wells Fargo Private Bank.
Stephen Lesher: Vice president, Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation, and manager of communications and sustainable development, Shell Oil Company.
Amy Macewen: Marketing and advertising manager, Oakland Athletics.
Carole Wynstra: Vice president of marketing, Walnut Creek Library Foundation, and past president of Diablo Theatre Company.
An East Bay doctor provides disadvantaged youth with early medical training.
When Tomás Magaña was a pediatric resident at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, his patients included teenagers who didn’t think they’d be alive in 10 years. The boys had lost friends to gang shootings or looked to prison as their destiny. For the girls, becoming a teen mom and not finishing high school was often the norm.
At the same time, these kids expressed a desire to do something more with their lives. “These were very at-risk kids, and as we were doing their assessments, they’d talk about wanting to do something in health care, but they didn’t know how,” says Magaña. “They didn’t know what the path was.”
Magaña, 48, knew exactly where these kids were coming from. He grew up in East Los Angeles, the child of a single mom, and he had to find his own way to college, a career, and upward mobility. “I never conceived of the idea that someone like me, the first in my family to go to college, could be a doctor,” says Magaña.
But it was his time providing health services through Amigos de las Américas and his experience as a volunteer medic during graduate school that solidified his commitment to aiding people from poor, underserved communities. He went on to receive his medical degree from UC San Francisco, and in 1995, he and a colleague at Children’s, Barbara Staggers, founded Faces for the Future. Magaña continued to work as a doctor while putting in hundreds of volunteer hours to get Faces up and running.
Now called Faces for the Future Coalition and headquartered at Oakland’s nonprofit Public Health Institute, it runs an after-school enrichment program that allows disadvantaged teens to shadow medical professionals for academic credit. Applicants are judged not on past academic performance but on their interest in health care and their determination for a better life.
The two-year program provides them with life-skills training, mentorship, and other services to help overcome personal challenges and stay in school. Of the roughly 500 teens who have gone through Faces programs in Oakland, Hayward, and Southern California, 100 percent have graduated from high school and gone to college.
The long-term benefits for the community are huge, says Magaña, who currently works as a pediatrician at St. Rose Hospital in Hayward and as an assistant professor for UC San Francisco and Samuel Merritt University. Faces trains young people whose diverse backgrounds reflect patient populations, and adds skilled workers to an industry that confronts massive increases in patient loads.
On a personal level, Faces allows Magaña, a father of two teenage sons, to be the kind of mentor he never had. Recently, after he spoke to entering students at the UC Davis School of Medicine, Magaña met with a young man named Leonel Mendoza. Mendoza had grown up in Fruitvale, gone through the Faces program, and received a letter of recommendation from Magaña when he applied to medical school. Now, he is a first-year student. “It comes full circle,” Magaña says. —Martha Ross
How you can help: You can donate to the grant-funded coalition at facesforthefuture.org/donate.html.
A teen starts a nationwide initiative to bring comfort to foster children.
Four years ago, while looking for a good spring break read, 15-year-old Sarah Williams found Hope’s Boy on her mother’s bookshelf. She was deeply moved by Andrew Bridge’s memoir about growing up and experiencing neglect in the foster care system—and she couldn’t shake the thought that while reading about kids lacking basic necessities such as shoes and blankets, she was wrapped in a cozy throw.
“A blanket represents comfort, security, love: It is what these kids have been robbed of,” she says.
Having made fleece blankets with her volleyball team, Williams knew she could teach the easy, no-sew pattern to others. She enlisted the help of family, friends, classmates, and the senior citizens she met through volunteering with Open Heart Kitchen. (Sylvia Moon, an Open Heart volunteer and 2008 Threads of Hope honoree, was an early mentor. “Sylvia showed me that volunteering is more than something you have to do; it’s something you want to do because it makes the quality of life better for someone else.)
That first year, volunteers created 1,500 blankets, and Williams partnered with Foster a Dream to give them to children at the nonprofit’s
annual Winter Wonderland party.
Williams’ project, known as Creative Kindness, quickly grew. Businesses and organizations donated money and materials, and Williams invited Bridge to headline an event in Pleasanton, where he signed copies of Hope’s Boy, and joined attendees in making blankets. Soon, Williams realized that to create the most impact, Creative Kindness needed to be self-sustainable.
She developed “legacy blanket kits” packed with everything needed to create a blanket: fleece, scissors, pattern pieces, and directions. When volunteers complete a blanket, they send it directly to a foster care agency (Creative Kindness’ website has resources by zip code), replace the fleece, and pass the kit along. There are 2,400 kits around the country, bouncing between friends, neighbors, and Girl Scouts, with an estimated 20,000 blankets created to date.
“I didn’t think this would lead to something national. I was just a kid who wanted to help other kids,” says Williams, now 19 and a sophomore at Scripps College. “But it was never my project. It was a project that needed to be done, and it found me. It guided me from step to step. I guess if you do the right thing, doors open.”
Williams’ inspiring work opened doors to a college scholarship from Coca-Cola, a $10,000 grant from Sleep Train’s foundation for the legacy kits, and the opportunity to carry the Olympic torch in London.
“Sometimes, I think about what my life would be like if I hadn’t read Hope’s Boy,” she says. “What book would I have read? Where would I be now? I don’t know. I can’t imagine. I’ll be making blankets for the rest of my life. It is such a part of me now.” —LeeAnne Jones
How you can help: Learn how to create and launch a legacy kit in your community at creativekindness.org.
Decades before the fame, Lorrie Sullenberger began changing the world for one girl.
I don’t remember life before lorrie,” says Sara, a 32-year-old mother of three.
Sara is referring to Danville resident Lorrie Sullenberger, whom she met through Big Brothers Big Sisters back in 1985, when she was just four years old. For years, Lorrie picked Sara up every Friday for a dinner date, but over time, their relationship grew into much more than the simple Big Brothers Big Sisters code, requiring Lorrie to keep her word to her little sister.
“I always refer to her as my godmother,” Sara says. “She’s been an amazing influence in my life.”
If Lorrie’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because she is married to Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who became a national hero and an accidental celebrity by safely landing US Airways Flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River. Sully still can’t go anywhere without being recognized, so he is thrilled that his wife is finally the one getting the spotlight. She has spent the past three decades being the kind of unsung hero that Diablo’s Threads of Hope Awards recognize.
“Lorrie’s story is long overdue,” says Sully. “She has kept every promise, she always showed up, and she has always done what she said she was going to do.”
THIS IS LORRIE
Lorrie Sullenberger knows what it feels like to be disappointed by a grown-up.
“I have this very clear memory that my dad was supposed to pick me up and take me out for the day,” says Lorrie, 54. “I had my little bag packed; I was excited; I waited in the front yard for him. And he never showed up. That happened over and over again. The guy just couldn’t ever show up.”
The oldest daughter of an alcoholic father, Lorrie reflects on a childhood that was far from idyllic. “I was a very unhappy little girl,” she says. “There was very little stability at home. I was overweight and had very little self-confidence.”
Lorrie struggled emotionally during her school years, seeking out strong female role models wherever she could. By the time she was 25, Lorrie worked in the marketing department at Pacific Southwest Airlines and lived in an apartment in Pleasant Hill. She decided it was time to give a young girl the kind of guidance she wished she’d had during her childhood.
“I knew I couldn’t change the world,” Lorrie says, “but I wanted to break that cycle of dysfunction that I grew up with, just for one child. I knew if I could break that cycle for just one kid, it could have repercussions for years to come.”
Lorrie went to the East Bay chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, offering her time as a “Big” to the youngest little girl she could help. After Lorrie completed a thorough screening, a social worker paired her with her “Little,” four-year-old Sara (pronounced Syrah, like the wine). Sara’s father was in prison, and her mother was dealing with a traumatic brain injury. “Sara was this engaging, precocious little girl,” Lorrie recalls. “We were a hit right off the bat.”
Sara and Lorrie started with a weekly playdate. Every Friday night, Lorrie would pick Sara up and take her to dinner at the Taqueria Mexican Grill in Walnut Creek. Sara and Lorrie forged the ideal Big and Little friendship, and soon embarked on all kinds of adventures together.
“I would take her to Half Moon Bay to the pumpkin patch, then we would come home and carve pumpkins, and roast the seeds with salt,” says Lorrie. “To this day, she loves pumpkin seeds.”
Lorrie knew that she was helping Sara, but the relationship worked both ways.
“I would be tired at the end of the work week,” says Lorrie. “And I would pick Sara up and spend the evening seeing the world through her eyes. And by the end of the night, all of my problems were gone. I would feel so refreshed.”
ALONG COMES SULLY
Eight months after meeting Sara, Lorrie attended an event at Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center in Fremont. Sully was on hand as a pilot to answer the public’s questions, and the two hit it off. Of course, Sara was part of the package.
“Sully and I had a standing date every Monday, and Sara and I were still on for every Friday,” says Lorrie. Before long, Sully joined Lorrie and Sara for a Friday night trip to the taqueria. “The first time Sully came to dinner with us, Sara looked at him and said, matter-of-factly, ‘My daddy is in jail.’ Sully’s jaw just dropped,” Lorrie recalls, laughing.
Sully was impressed by Lorrie’s devotion to Sara. “It was apparent, given the instability in Sara’s life at home, that Lorrie was a stabilizing influence in her life,” he says. “And Sara was just such a neat kid; it was a pleasure to get to know her.”
When the Sullenbergers got married, Sara was the flower girl, wearing a dress made from the unused train of Lorrie’s wedding dress.
ONE BIG FAMILY
Lorrie moved in with Sully in Belmont, while Sara and her mom moved from Concord to Vallejo. Nonetheless, Lorrie drove through commuter traffic every Friday for years to keep her dates with Sara. Lorrie and Sully had Sara for most holidays, took her to Disneyland, and included her on other vacations. After high school, Sara even moved in with the Sullenbergers and their two daughters in Danville.
“I was one of theirs; I never felt like I was this outside kid. They welcomed me with open arms. Lorrie’s family was my family,” says Sara. Looking back, she realizes that Lorrie was much more than a buddy to carve pumpkins with. Lorrie was a role model.
“Lorrie gave me someone to be accountable to,” says Sara. “I was worried what Lorrie would think about me when I got in trouble as a teenager. I thought a lot about Lorrie when I was going to become a mom. Most of my parenting skills came from her.”
Lorrie laughs about Sara’s typical teenage trouble. Lorrie is much happier thinking about the countless good times—Sara’s bat mitzvah, eighth-grade commencement, and high school graduation. She relishes the memories of all the birthdays, holidays, and Halloween costumes.
“Lorrie always made a big deal out of my birthday,” says Sara. “In fact, she still does.”
NEW SPOTLIGHT, SAME SULLENBERGERS
When Sully landed Flight 1549 safely in 2009, the Sullenbergers’ lives changed forever. TV networks jockeyed for interviews, and hamburger franchises called insistently for a Sully sponsorship.
“We had to learn to be public figures, and learn a new way of living very quickly,” says Sully. “We felt an obligation to use our newfound celebrity for good.”
The Sullenbergers focused on organizations such as St. Jude Hospital, which their daughters always supported with a portion of their allowance. The Sullenbergers have also long been animal advocates, fostering litters of puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind and kittens for Animal Rescue Foundation. And Lorrie has continued her work with Big Brothers Big Sisters, becoming a national spokesperson for the organization.
“With or without Sully’s celebrity, we would be telling Lorrie’s story,” says Joanne Gold, who nominated Lorrie for the Threads of Hope Awards and is the former chief development officer for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bay Area. “Lorrie is the perfect Big Sister to inspire others to volunteer their time, or to inspire people to donate the funding we need to connect the matches.”
Dawn Kruger, quality assurance manager of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bay Area, adds that Lorrie and Sara’s story is a perfect example of the kind of positive relationship the program can provide, which isn’t always apparent to the public eye.
“Our Bigs and Littles can be invisible in the community. They might be standing behind you in line at the movie theater, but you wouldn’t realize that they met through Big Brothers Big Sisters,” says Kruger. “It’s wonderful that Lorrie understands our mission and that she can share her story on a high platform.”
Clearly, the celebrity has not gone to Lorrie’s head. When discussing the wild ride she and Sully embarked on following the “Miracle on the Hudson,” Lorrie recalls a moment just before one of their first national interviews aired, on 60 Minutes.
“We were hosting a party in our backyard, waiting to watch the interview with some friends, people I’ve known way back since the 1980s,” Lorrie says. “A friend asked, ‘Whatever happened to that little girl you mentored?’ Sara was in the pool with her three boys. I pointed and said, ‘There she is.’ ”
Lorrie tears up, reflecting on the image of Sara, all grown up, happy, and healthy. “I could not have been more proud at that moment. I knew I could not change the world, but I could break the cycle for one girl out there,” says Lorrie. “My payoff is watching her with those boys. I know those boys will have a different life because of her parenting.” —Peter Crooks
How you can help: One of Big Brothers Big Sisters biggest challenges is finding male mentors. To volunteer or donate, go to bbbsba.org.
A reassuring presence in the tumultuous world of childhood cancer.
With his gentle, grandfatherly voice, it’s easy to imagine Gerald Brody guiding a young cancer patient through her algebra homework.
Two days a week for the past 12 years, Brody has worked with kids, grades seven to 12, in the Children’s Hospital Oakland school program. Sometimes, the retired Chevron engineer and high school math teacher presents one-on-one lessons in the fourth-floor hospital classroom. But usually, he’s in a patient’s room, often in the isolation unit, because the children are too sick to leave their beds. He tutors them in their academic subjects or just plays chess with them. Sometimes, he’ll offer a lesson in mechanics by showing the inner workings of one of his antique pocket watches.
“The number one thing is that you take kids where they are,” he says. “If they can work, I help them. If they’re too sick or in too much pain, I just play games with them.”
Brody, 74, might see patients just once if they are in the hospital a short time. But with many, he develops long-term relationships, such as with a cancer patient who was determined to keep up with her college-prep studies during her two years of treatment. The young woman recently graduated with a business major from UCLA, “in large part because of Jerry’s support,” says Susan Martinez, Children’s director of guest relations.
As a volunteer, Brody doesn’t delve much into the kids’ physical and emotional struggles. Still, he can’t help but form emotional connections.
“Most of the time, they make it,” he says. “That’s what you have to keep your mind on. They finish up with their treatment, they go home, and periodically, they come back for a visit, so I know there are successes. Occasionally, there are kids who don’t make it, and yeah, that is hard.”
Brody has always loved teaching. During his 30 years at Chevron, he tutored his children and kids in his Kensington neighborhood. When he retired from Chevron, he fulfilled a lifelong dream by teaching math at Hayward High. After retiring from career number two, the grandfather of three found a way to continue the work he loves through Children’s Hospital’s school program. He is always inspired by the courage of his students. “Most of these kids undergoing long-term treatment are by necessity very brave,” he says. That’s why he keeps coming back: “Coming here is the highlight of my week.” —Martha Ross
How you can help: The nonprofit hospital always accepts applications for volunteers, ages 16 and older, as well as financial and in-kind donations. For more information, go to childrenshospitaloakland.org.
A longtime volunteer pioneers an innovative new recycling program.
Eric Rudney watches proudly as Ariel carefully drops tiny bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and lotion, and a wrapped soap inside a waxed-paper bag.
“I’ve made so many of these,” says Ariel, a young woman with developmental disabilities, who is a client at Las Trampas, Inc. She staples a card to the bag, which will be given to someone in need. Printed on the card is Las Trampas’ mission: to support adults with developmental disabilities, to discover their capabilities, and to help them lead full lives in their homes, at work, and in the community.
Rudney, a Danville resident and 20-year Las Trampas volunteer, came up with the Reuse, Recycle, Repeat gift bag idea while on vacation in Vietnam, where hotel shampoo comes in big bottles, not the American, miniature ones.
“I thought, ‘How many of those bottles just get thrown into the landfill?’ ” says Rudney, who realized it would be easy for Las Trampas’ clients to assemble the gift bags, which could then benefit other people. The Las Trampas staff loved the idea, and soon, adults from the program began volunteering their time to collect new and partially used bottles from the Claremont Hotel Club and Spa, Concord Hilton, Crowne Plaza Concord, Lafayette Park Hotel and Spa, and Walnut Creek Marriott. After assembling the toiletries into gift bags, they deliver them to East Bay nonprofits such as Shelter, Inc., and Monument Crisis Center.
“Our clients have assembled more than 1,000 of these bags since the program started,” says Ron Kilgore, associate executive director at Las Trampas. “They are really helping the community. We keep getting calls from people saying, ‘We need 400 more bags.’ ”
“It’s a win-win-win program,” says Rudney, who is making a video about Reuse, Recycle, Repeat to send to Las Trampas–type nonprofits across the country, especially in such tourist-heavy areas as Las Vegas.
Rudney’s philanthropic efforts extend far beyond his work with Las Trampas. He is the chair of the Foundation Board at Chabot Space and Science Center, and chair of the Leadership Council for the Family Heart and Nutrition Center at Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland, and is actively involved with the Wheelchair Foundation, Diablo Regional Arts Association, and Hospice of the East Bay.
“Giving back is what makes a community,” says Rudney. “I am simply trying to do my part.” —Peter Crooks
How you can help: Due to drastic budget cuts, Las Trampas is in need of funding for all of its programs. You can make donations online through lastrampas.org.