2013 Threads of Hope
Honoring those who strengthen the fabric of our community.
A father who turned tragedy into triumph, an Alzheimer’s patient who doesn’t see himself as a victim, a swim coach who teaches teens to help children with Down syndrome, a couple who use their business savvy to help the neediest in our neighborhoods, and four people who fight cancer in inventive and inspiring ways: These are Diablo’s 2013 Threads of Hope award winners, community heroes whose selfless efforts embody the true spirit of the season.
Jessica Aguirre: Weeknight coanchor, NBC Bay Area’s evening news, and host of Class Action Series and Specials, which focuses on improving the state of education in California. Mark Flower: Senior vice president, regional director, 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.
Alamo / All-Stars swim program
On most summer mornings, Janet Herman can be found on the deck of Del Amigo Pool in Danville, where she’s been head coach of the Dolphins for 10 years. Kids’ flutter kicks splash water onto the concrete near her feet, and kickboards bob in the water, as she shouts instructions for the next drill.
Herman looks like a typical swim-team coach—her skin bronzed from another season poolside, her sunglasses always nearby. But two years ago, she decided to take her role as “Coach Janet” even further, when she started a program to give children with Down syndrome a chance to experience the joy of the pool, too.
For six weeks, the Del Amigo swim-team members teach Down syndrome kids everything from blowing bubbles to diving and flip turns. This summer, 35 swim-team teens mentored 27 Down Syndrome Connection kids in Herman’s All-Stars program.
For the Down syndrome kids, Herman explains, “it’s about adapting to the water and feeling comfortable and confident that they can do it.”
At first, the Del Amigo swimmers were nervous, Herman says. Many had never taught a swim lesson or worked with children with developmental delays. But after a few weeks, more swimmers wanted to become mentors than she could use. Parents also embraced the program.
“Here are these teenagers who, in this area, might rather be at the mall or texting,” says one of the Del Amigo moms, Diane Stevenson. “And they are instead giving their time so genuinely to these kids. You can tell that this is going to have a lasting effect in both populations of kids.”
At the end of the lessons, the Down syndrome swimmers race against the clock in Del Amigo’s time trials swim meet while their mentors cheer for them with colorful signs. And the parents of Down syndrome children get to see their kids welcomed into a community in which they rarely get to participate.
“There is such joy in watching your kid in the pool,” says Herman. “I wanted parents of Down syndrome children to see and experience that joy.”
How you can help: Donate to the Down Syndrome Connection of the Bay Area in Danville: dsconnection.org.
Vallejo / Early-onset Alzheimer’s advocate
Three and a half years ago, Lou Bordisso was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, a rare disorder that affects people younger than 65. The diagnosis was both a shock and a relief for Bordisso, who was just 56, because it explained why he was having trouble with routine tasks like balancing his checkbook and keeping appointments.
Not the type to let things lie, Bordisso saw he had a choice: Either he could let the disease “bring him to his knees,” he says, or he could get up onto his feet.
Since then, Bordisso—who has been a Navy psychologist, a bishop, and an author—has become an advocate for Alzheimer’s on local and national levels. He speaks at events hosted by the Alzheimer’s Association, which works to change the image of Alzheimer’s and spread a message of hope to the people and families affected by the disease. As a voice for others with disabilities, he got involved with local and state authorities, after he gave up driving and realized there was no fixed-route bus system on Mare Island, where he lives.
On a larger scale, Bordisso travels each year to Sacramento and Washington, D.C., to advocate for changes in legislation that could help find a cure. He has also served as an Early-Stage National Advisor for the Alzheimer’s Association, a position that allowed him to travel cross-country to speak to medical groups, scientists, and others who might have the potential to eliminate Alzheimer’s.
At nearly six feet tall, with a perpetual wide smile, Bordisso is warm and disarming. He is the kind of thoughtful person who stops to talk to others about life, says Kimberly Weber, a public policy specialist with the Alzheimer’s Association. Weber and others at the association know Bordisso well because he participates in a support group at the Lafayette office every week.
“I think Alzheimer’s can be scary to people, or it means that you’re dying because there’s no cure,” Weber says. “When you talk to Lou, you realize he’s just a person living with something.”
The disease has shifted Bordisso’s outlook on life—for the better. While on public transit, he takes time to notice what is outside the window or to start conversations with people around him. Slowing his pace has also taught him the importance of living day by day.
“I’m happier now because of Alzheimer’s—not in spite of Alzheimer’s,” he says. “I try to live in the present, but I always have hope for the future.”
How you can help: Volunteer for or donate to the Alzheimer’s Association at alz.org.
The Cancer Crusaders
Moraga / Camp Okizu
Lisa Monroe lost her best friend, Suzanne, to cancer in high school. The devastating loss inspired her to start volunteering for Camp Okizu, a facility near Oroville that offers programs for children with cancer and their families.
“Suzanne would have loved Camp Okizu,” Monroe says. “I remember her actually enjoying chemo because she got to be around people she could relate to.”
More than two decades later, Monroe is still dedicated to the cause—and has served it in almost every way possible. She has volunteered at camp, worked with children and their families, helped with community outreach, served on the board of directors, and planned successful fundraisers.
“She is always available and excited to help with things big or small,” says Sarah Uldricks, Camp Okizu’s director of marketing and special events. “We are so grateful to have her as part of the family.” okizu.org.
Walnut Creek / Cancer Support Community
When one of her stylists, as well as a stylist’s family member, fell ill with cancer, Changes Salon and Day Spa owner Bonnie Waters saw firsthand how much support people need to help fight the disease. In 2009, she joined the board of the Bay Area chapter of the national Cancer Support Community.
Waters has proved to be a power player in the fundraising realm, bringing in more than half a million dollars for the Walnut Creek–based organization, which offers support meetings, exercise and meditation classes, and other resources.
“I have seen the emotional toll cancer takes on people,” Waters says. “We would like to expand the Walnut Creek rec center by adding more kids’ programs and increase the classes we offer, such as more yoga. We’d also like to put in a kitchen; eating healthy is a key component in overcoming cancer.” cancersupportcommunity.net.
Danville / Have a Ball Foundation
After having testicular cancer twice and surviving 26 rounds of chemotherapy, Bob Hammer was scheduled to have surgery that would have left him unable to father a child. But just before the operation, in 2001, he met Lance Armstrong’s oncologist at a Livestrong bike ride in Austin, Texas. The oncologist suggested that Hammer not rush into surgery, and on a leap of faith, Hammer took his advice.
The decision proved to be a good one. In 2003, Hammer and his wife, Kim, had a son, and Hammer is still cancer free. In 2005, he started the Have a Ball Foundation, a nonprofit that puts on golf tournaments to raise money for cancer organizations. Since then, Have a Ball tournaments have donated $1.6 million to cancer-related programs. “I’m doing this to say thank-you for my child,” says Hammer. haveaballgolf.com.
Pleasanton / Healing Therapies Foundation
Sandra J. Wing was diagnosed with ovarian and uterine cancer in 2006. After a hysterectomy and six rounds of chemotherapy, Wing has been cancer free since 2007. During her fight, Wing used acupuncture and guided meditation to help sooth the side effects of her treatments. Since then, she has made it her mission to help others who suffer from cancer have access to these therapies.
Healing Therapies, founded in 2008, provides funding for therapeutic healing services for cancer patients throughout the Tri-Valley, because these services are not typically covered by insurance.
“We are always open to new ways of fundraising,” Wing says. “For example, a 15-year-old sophomore’s mom had breast cancer, and he wants to give back to the community. He’s planning a buffet dinner to raise funds.” healingtherapiesfoundation.org.
Danville / The Troy and Alana Pack Foundation
Whenever Bob Pack tires of the gridlock that is the Sacramento political machine, he remembers the encouraging words his young daughter Alana taught him about perseverance.
“I used to run every evening with Alana and Troy. They could run forever, without losing any energy,” says Pack, a soft-spoken man with a gentle demeanor. “I’d get tired and slow down, and Alana would look back at me and say, ‘Daddy, don’t be a quitter!’ ” Those playful pleas have become a mantra for Pack, who has been on a mission to change state laws to keep repeat DUI offenders off the road and to prevent people from visiting multiple doctors to obtain prescriptions for highly addictive drugs for pain.
Pack’s children, Troy, 10, and Alana, seven, were killed by a drunk driver in October 2003. It was an accident that few in the East Bay will ever forget. The children were taking an evening walk with their mother, Carmen, along Danville’s Camino Tassajara, when a Blackhawk nanny who was high on hydrocodone, muscle relaxants, and vodka swerved onto the sidewalk and hit them.
The nanny, Jimena Barreto, was driving with a suspended license and had multiple DUI arrests, but because of scattershot record keeping, she was treated like a first offender at a previous court appearance. Had the judge known that she possessed four previous DUI arrests, Barreto likely would have been in jail the day she killed Troy and Alana.
“All that happened with this woman could have been prevented,” says Carmen, who was seriously injured in the accident. “When Bob started digging, he was horrified to see how many loopholes there were in the law, and he was determined to make changes.”
Pack’s campaign started with meetings with former State Senator Tom Torlakson to discuss the broken system. From there, Pack lobbied state assembly members and testified at state hearings for a more systematic way of keeping state DUI records.
“Even though you never know who they are, you know you might save a life,” says Pack. “Someone won’t drink and drive, or abuse drugs. You are making an impact on someone’s life for the better.”
After hundreds of e-mails and phone calls, and many trips to Sacramento, Pack saw then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sign SB 1694 and SB 1696 into law, just a little over a year after the devastating accident.
The new laws streamlined all DUI convictions into the state’s DMV records and required DUI treatment providers to send program completion certificates directly to the DMV.
“Bob’s energy and dedication to fighting for the safety of our children make him a true champion of California,” says Torlakson, now the state’s superintendent of public instruction.
But Pack wasn’t done. He spent the next five years campaigning tirelessly against the practice of doctor shopping for prescription narcotics (which Barreto allegedly did).
Pack, who had a successful career as an Internet entrepreneur, even used his skills and contacts to build a software platform so doctors and pharmacists can track all narcotic pain prescriptions. He developed the software as a gift to the state, then spent the next three years successfully campaigning for the funding to keep it running.
“That was an extremely complicated process,” says Pack, describing years of meetings with narcotics enforcement authorities, the Department of Consumer Affairs, and various other agencies to create the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System (CURES). Pack’s CURES program went live in 2009.
Even though much of his work to prevent deadly DUIs has been in Sacramento, Pack has also shared his heartbreaking story with teenagers at numerous high schools to warn them of the dangers of drinking and driving. To reach even more kids than he could in person, Pack produced a docudrama, Graduation Day, narrated by Dan Rather, which has been shown at thousands of high schools across the country since its 2007 release.
“We all have different ways of dealing with grief, and Bob’s way has been to go make a difference and help others,” says Carmen. “I’m so proud of Bob for all he’s done because his way is a win-win for everyone.”
Besides, Carmen adds, her husband’s efforts have made the streets safer for the couple’s daughter, Noelle, who was born in 2006. “Noelle is our happiness,” she says.
Pack is not about to stop his advocacy work anytime soon. He has launched a 2014 ballot measure addressing medical malpractice laws. And if the political gridlock in Sacramento ever starts to get him down, he will always remember Alana’s bold words.
“I’ve crawled on the sidewalk trying to save my son and daughter, and watched them die,” Pack says. “I’m not going to give up over a bill not passing or a tax being voted down.”
How you can help: Visit troyandalana.org to learn about Pack’s campaigns.
Walnut Creek / HomeAid Northern California
Home builders Dave and Lori Sanson have volunteered countless hours to help people like Linda, who found herself homeless after serving 10 years in prison.
Linda, 63, had overcome addiction to drugs and alcohol. When she was released in 2011, she wanted to stay sober, finish parole, and get back on her feet. But first, she had to find a place to sleep.
Within a day, Linda moved into Mission Solano in Fairfield, a welcoming new center where she would get her own small apartment, complete vocational training, and attend addiction meetings. Two years later, she’s working, saving money, and spending time with her daughters and grandchildren.
This is the kind of success story that Dave and Lori Sanson live for. The Walnut Creek couple volunteer with HomeAid Northern California, a nonprofit that erects housing so homeless individuals and families can rebuild their lives. Through their De Nova Homes, the Sansons organized construction of the first phase of the $12 million Mission Solano building.
“Building is what we do,” says Lori. “How better can we give of ourselves, our knowledge and time, than what we have expertise in?”
The Sansons are aware of the tens of thousands of people in the East Bay who can’t afford a room to live in. In Contra Costa County, 71 percent of the homeless are families who have fallen on hard times.
“Homelessness is not always what people think: You could become unemployed or sick, and the next thing you know, you’re destitute,” says Dave.
Sweethearts since they were at Northgate High, Dave and Lori grew up in families where volunteering was routine. While starting their company in Concord and raising two sons, the Sansons organized American Red Cross blood drives and donated a warehouse for a foster kids’ holiday party.
In 2004, they led the team that built a house in Martinez for a disabled teenager for the TV show Extreme Makeover. Soon after, they became involved in HomeAid, donating labor to build the Mission Solano center and helming the remodel of a shelter for STAND! For Families Free of Violence.
Dave says finishing the Mission Solano project in late 2008, after the recession hit, was meaningful. “For Lori and me, and our employees, it was a very uplifting situation in an otherwise bad time for us.”
If Linda had not found Mission Solano, she says she might still be homeless, back in prison—or worse. She can’t say enough about the home that was built for her. “It gave me hope.”
How you can help: homeaidnc.org.