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Threads of Hope

Diablo kicks off the holiday season with our annual celebration of community volunteers; plus, we give our first Visionary Award.


As another year winds down, it’s time to offer appreciation to those who help our neediest neighbors by volunteering selflessly.

Since 1995, Diablo has recognized outstanding volunteers by telling their stories in the December issue. These Threads of Hope Award honorees are nominated by readers, then selected by a panel of judges from the East Bay’s business and philanthropic communities.

This year, we have added a new award—the Steven J. Rivera Visionary Award. Named for Diablo magazine’s founder, this award will be given to people who have created foundations here in the East Bay, demonstrating their long-term dedication to changing the world for the better.


Ian McKinnell/ Photographer’s Choice/Getty images

The Judges

Jessica Aguirre: weeknight co-anchor of NBC Bay Area News at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m., and host of Class Action, a weekly segment on public education in California. Mario Alioto: senior vice president, business operations, San Francisco Giants. Mark Flower: senior vice president and regional director for Wells Fargo Private Bank. Steve Lesher: vice president, Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation, and manager of communications and sustainable development, Shell Oil Company. Jo A. S. Loss: executive director at the Volunteer Center of the East Bay. Carole Wynstra: president of Walnut Creek Library Foundation, and past president of Diablo Theatre Company.

Tony and Elaine La Russa / Margaret Dixon / Jane Emanuel / April Rovero / Zachary Smith / Neil Stratton


Photography by Nico Oved

The Visionary Award

Tony and Elaine La Russa

Animal Rescue Foundation // Alamo

The first recipients of the Steven J. Rivera Threads of Hope Visionary Award are Tony and Elaine La Russa, for their work creating and building Walnut Creek’s Animal Rescue Foundation. ARF’s origins date back to 1990, when the La Russas saved “Evie,” a feral cat that ran onto the field at the Oakland Coliseum and interrupted an Oakland A’s baseball game that Tony was managing. A year later, the La Russas created their nonprofit foundation and hosted the first Stars to the Rescue benefit concert in Walnut Creek. ARF was off and running, rescuing 8,000 animals in its first 12 years.

In 2003, ARF opened a 37,700-square-foot no-kill rescue shelter, which has helped place more than 21,000 dogs and cats into local homes over the past decade. ARF has also created a range of programs in which animals help children, at-risk teens, seniors, and military veterans.

As Tony La Russa’s career as a baseball manager flourished—he led teams to three World Series titles and was inducted into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2014—the ARF story went national. “The great majority of people I have met over the last 10 to 12 years say hello to me as an ARF guy more than a baseball guy,” Tony tells Diablo. “And that becomes more true every year. Wonderfully true.”

We asked Elaine La Russa to explain ARF’s vision and journey.

—As told to Peter Crooks

ARF started as a seed, not as a formed idea. The vision was always to do as much as we were financially able and physically able to do—and then do a bit more.

Tony and I had always donated to animal rescue groups wherever we lived. We were dirt-poor for a long time while Tony was in law school, but we always managed to send some money to animal-rescue causes in the area. As he had more success in his career, we were able to donate a bit more.

We came to the East Bay area when Tony was hired by the A’s in 1986. When we moved in, I called a local animal shelter and said that I had some things to donate—new sheets and towels still in the packaging. I was told they would not be able to reuse them because the facility did not have a washer and dryer. So I offered to buy a washer and dryer, and they said, “We’re not hooked up to electricity.”

That’s when I thought, I just need to do it myself. I was tired of running into dead ends. I realized that to start changing the world, I had to make a difference in this community.

I kept thinking that until I saw “Evie” run on the field during the [May 1990] game at the Coliseum. This black cat ran on the field, and the television announcers were making a joke about it, but you could tell by the body language that the cat was experiencing sheer panic. I knew we had to save that cat.

When Tony called after the game, I asked, “Did you get the cat? Where is the cat?” I knew if that cat was taken to a shelter, it would be killed. It was that cat running on the field that night that got us going. We started by saving “Evie.”

We grew a little bit and set our goals a little higher each year. I never would have dreamed that we would open an incredible no-kill facility in less than 13 years, but we did. When our shelter opened, it was the most beautiful place in the world because I knew how many animals it would help. But we were setting our goals even higher because you can never do enough; you can always save another animal. It is our goal to place 2,500 animals in 2014—that’s a 25 percent increase from last year.

Right from the start, we knew that it was important to show our supporters that we weren’t just sparing animals but that these animals have a purpose in society. We have always had the slogan, “people rescuing animals, animals rescuing people.”

The satisfaction from seeing how these animals help people in our community is incredible. You see our All Ears Reading program and realize that children can learn to read when there is an animal present because the animal helps the children relax and concentrate in a way that they can’t when they are in a classroom, when they are stressed. We’ve had girls who were in our at-risk program say, “I am going to college, and it’s because I had that cat to take care of at a time in my life when I was ready to kill myself.” We’ve seen the animals help veterans and seniors. I think the animals help us more than we help them.

I’m amazed by the support we have received. Everyone from Gary Bogue writing about ARF in the early years to [Styx band member] Dennis DeYoung helping us put together the first Stars to the Rescue concert to raise money. We’ve seen some of the most talented people in the country—Emmylou Harris, Wynonna, Carlos Santana, Robin Williams, and so many others—come to us and say, “How can I help?” They have helped change ARF from a local cause into a national cause, and believe me, almost every other part of the country is in desperate need of a program like this.

It has been incredibly satisfying to know we have made a difference. Of all the great experiences that we have had, the one that occurs the most frequently is the most satisfying: Whenever I am out in the community, I will inevitably run into someone who tells me, “I have the greatest cat in the world,” or, “I have the greatest dog in the world.”

I never get tired of hearing that.

How you can help: Donations (money, pet food, supplies) are always welcome, and volunteers are needed for events and at the shelter. For information, go to arf.net.


Margaret Dixon

Oakland Police Activities League // Stockton

Willie Griffin was crying the day his grandmother dropped him off at the Black Officers Association in Oakland. It was Grandparents Release Day, an annual event in which police officers provide grandparents with free babysitting.

“He did not want to be there,” recalls Margaret Dixon, the Oakland police officer who organized the event.

Griffin was only four but already suspicious of police, who had taken his father away in handcuffs more than once.

Dixon, who grew up in West Oakland, tried to put the boy at ease. “I would play with him and let him color, and he would calm down,” she says. “But then he would start again.”

Eventually, he fell asleep, and his grandmother returned and took him home. But Dixon could not forget the skinny little boy. She started visiting him at home, bringing food for the family, and taking him to her track team practice with the Oakland Police Activities League.

From the Judges: “Margaret is a hero not just for the number of kids she has helped but the amount of time she has dedicated.” —Mario Alioto

Griffin grew up to become a star running back at McClymonds High. He won a football scholarship from the University of Washington (he signed his acceptance papers with Dixon at his side), and earned a degree in social work. Today, Griffin mentors at-risk kids in Portland, Oregon. He’s one of Dixon’s many success stories. In addition to the other volunteer projects she took on, she still made sure to smooth the waters for people like Griffin.

Just consider this partial list of programs Dixon started at the Oakland Police Activities League: Building Strong Minds, a mentoring program for girls; the youth track team; Adopt-a-Family, which provides help for needy families over the holidays; and the annual Christmas meal for the community.

During her 25 years as a cop, Dixon did it all: patrol, traffic, safety, fugitive apprehension. But what Dixon liked best was working with kids. She used to carry baseball cards and teddy bears in her patrol car to break the ice. “I was always trying to befriend them because I knew there was this disconnect between the community and the police.”

After Dixon retired, she started a second career, teaching criminal justice at Merritt College. But she continues to coach, mentor, and get ready for the next community
Christmas dinner.

“I had a sergeant who came into the office once and said, ‘You can’t save all of these kids. You should be happy if you can save just one.’

“These days,” she says, “I am satisfied if I can save one. But I will never stop trying to save them all.” 

—Robert Burnson

How you can help: Oakland Police Activities League has a year-round need for mentors. For information, go to oaklandpal.org.


Jane Emanuel

Arts Education and Crisis Center // Lafayette

You might have trouble keeping up with Jane Emanuel.

The grandmother of six and Lafayette resident volunteers at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, where she’s been a docent for more than 15 years. She’s in her first term as chairwoman of the city’s arts commission and leads art tours around town. Plus, every week, she volunteers at the Contra Costa Crisis    Center, where she answers the crisis hotline and leads support groups.

Start at the Bedford, where a wall holds the framed thank-you notes written in Braille that Emanuel has received from blind students she taught to weave. Nearby is another note, this one from a student from an underserved community.

“I got inspired by what you said about art,” reads the girlish cursive. “There are no wrong answers: Art is anything you see, think, and feel.”

Follow Emanuel outside, and you may catch up as she pauses to tell you the story behind the public installations on her tour. She stops at a ceramic-and-concrete sculpture outside the city plaza building and explains how she uses it to demonstrate line, shadow, and texture to kids.

“I like to ask them what’s happening [with a piece],” she says. “It develops critical thinking. And I do my darndest because so many schools have almost no art at all.”

Minutes later, she hops into her Prius and zips over to the Contra Costa Crisis Center, where she’s been a volunteer for 24 years. The center—a Walnut Creek–based nonprofit— operates 24-hour crisis phone lines, offers grief counseling, and organizes support groups for children and adults.

From the judges: “The value that Jane has added to the community through arts education is phenomenal.” —Jo A. S. Loss

Even in this intense setting, Emanuel is upbeat. She works a weekly shift answering calls from the crisis hotline, talking people through some of the lowest moments of their lives. She also leads support groups and counsels the  bereaved, including children, whom she admires for their expressiveness and willingness to “put themselves on the line.”

The crisis calls that hit Emanuel the hardest are from veterans and young men who feel out of step, lonely, or like they “don’t fit,” she says.

“I may be the only one that person talks with all day,” she says, as her tone softens. “Sometimes, that’s all it takes: one phone call or one conversation. You never know how spending a little bit of time with somebody can change his or her outlook.” 

—Stacey Kennelly

How you can help: To donate to the Bedford or become a volunteer, visit bedfordgallery.org. For more information on how to donate to the Contra Costa Crisis Center or become a crisis hotline volunteer, go to crisis-center.org.


April Rovero

National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse // San Ramon

April Rovero pulls a stack of photographs from her bag and slowly flips through them. A high school student poses in his football uniform. A teen in a prom dress beams at the camera. More smiling faces flash by as she shuffles the images. Rovero uses the photos to help increase awareness of the dangers and prevalence of prescription drug abuse, a cause she tirelessly champions through countless high school presentations, community meetings, and daily conversations.

The snapshots represent young lives cut short—lives like that of Rovero’s son, Joey. Nearly five years ago, Joey passed away from a deadly mix of alcohol and prescription drugs.

A lifelong athlete popular with his peers, Joey graduated from San Ramon’s California High and attended Arizona State University. Just before heading home to the Bay Area for the holidays, Joey went out to celebrate with friends and returned to his apartment early in the morning. More than half a day later, after hours of trying to reach him and have someone check on him, Joey’s girlfriend (who was already home for winter break) convinced friends to break down his locked bedroom door.

They found Joey dead. The coroner’s report said Joey had one Xanax pill, a pill and a half of Oxycontin, and a little over the legal amount of alcohol in his bloodstream, which had slowed down his central nervous system and killed him.

“The coroner said that none of the individual ingredients was even close to being at a toxic level,” says Rovero. “But the combination for him that night was deadly.”

Rovero was shocked to learn that prescription drugs were involved.

From the judges: “April has faced a parent’s worst nightmare, and done something extremely positive to combat the epidemic of drug abuse.” —Carole Wynstra

“I asked [Joey’s girlfriend], ‘Is there any chance drugs may be involved?’ I’ll never forget; she’s nodding her head yes. She says, ‘He went to a dirty doctor nine days ago.’ ”

Rather than be sidelined by her grief or remain angry at the doctor who prescribed Joey the drugs (the doctor is currently awaiting trial on second-degree murder charges related to Joey’s death), Rovero took action to try to prevent another family from experiencing the same devastation. In 2010, six months after Joey’s passing, Rovero and her family founded the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse to spread awareness about the dangers of opioid narcotics and other prescription drugs.

“There’s an unlimited amount of work to be done on the subject. There are so many elements that contribute to this problem,” says Rovero. “I cannot possibly do everything that’s needed to make a difference, but people are finally getting the message.”

Over the past four and a half years, Rovero and the nonprofit coalition have worked tirelessly to shine a spotlight on the dangers of prescription drugs and other opioid narcotics. Rovero spends her days educating the public, whether it’s going into schools and speaking with teens; presenting in front of rotary clubs, community service meetings, and regional assemblies; founding local task forces; or working with youth groups to get students spreading the message among their peers.

Her biggest obstacle is the stigma surrounding drug abuse—the myth that it only happens with “bad” kids or in places outside affluent suburban communities.

“There’s such a denial factor. That’s the thing we are trying to break down,” says Rovero. “The truth is, no family is immune to the impacts of prescription drug abuse, and it’s not just teens who can find themselves in trouble with these drugs. Adults can also become addicted to the medications they are prescribed for a legitimate physical or mental health condition.”

Rovero, who retired from project management in telecommunications more than a decade ago, credits her personality and professional background for being able to move past her family’s loss and focus on the coalition and spreading awareness. But she also senses a deeper purpose driving her life.

“My husband said, ‘You know, Joey could have died all sorts of ways. But the way it happened was actually positive in that it gave you a mission that helped you deal with this tragedy,’ ” says Rovero. “And it’s been so true. He and I were the perfect combination to bring this problem to light and make a difference together. Joey’s life has meant so much more than, Here’s a college student that overdosed on prescription drugs. That was not the end for him.

“He’s made a difference.” 

—Kristen Haney

How you can help: While the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse welcomes donations, its biggest need is volunteers. Find out how you can help by visiting ncapda.org.


Zachary Smith

Alzheimer’s advocate // Moraga

Grandma Judy no longer remembers her 21-year-old grandson, Zachary Smith. At first, she started to forget conversations and lose possessions that were precious to her. As her memory loss progressed, her family made the difficult decision to move her from her Orinda home to an assisted-living facility in Danville.

“Alzheimer’s disease is an incurable, terminal illness. When you go through it with someone, you feel helpless,” Smith says.

But Smith, who grew up in Moraga and spent much of his childhood at Grandma Judy’s home, has turned his grief into action. As a senior at Orion Academy in Moraga, he started volunteering at the Lafayette office of the Alzheimer’s Association, and today, he is one of the Alzheimer’s Association’s leading young advocates.

He spends his summers working in the Lafayette office, and travels to Washington, D.C., each spring to encourage politicians to pass relevant legislation and increase funding for Alzheimer’s research. He also helps organize theater-style listening sessions in Northern California and Nevada, where community members can share their Alzheimer’s-related concerns with elected officials.

Aside from the emotional toll a loved one’s memory loss takes on families—Smith has seen hundreds of people outside of his own family grieve—he fears how the cost of caring for rising numbers of patients will affect his own generation.

From the judges: “Zachary has done something wonderful because he loves his grandmother but has taken his volunteering to the next level, to a national level.” —Mark Flower

“Alzheimer’s is our disease,” says Smith, who maintains a Facebook page where young advocates keep in touch. “And that’s one of the reasons I want to get young people involved—because this is going to be our problem.”

Smith does the work in the spirit of the Grandma Judy he knew before Alzheimer’s and describes her as a woman who gave selflessly without accepting praise. “The fact that I have a chance to make a positive impact is very gratifying. It helps to alleviate that feeling of hopelessness.”

When Smith graduates with his public policy degree from the University of Redlands next year, he plans to devote his career to fighting the disease.

“It feels like everything has fit into place,” Smith says. “As hard as it is to [watch my grandmother] go through Alzheimer’s, it has shown me what my future [work] is going to be.”  

—Stacey Kennelly

How you can help: Sign up as an Alzheimer’s Association advocate at alz.org/advocate, or visit alz.org in early 2015 for a schedule of Alzheimer’s Association walks. (Walnut Creek’s takes place in the fall.) If you or someone you know may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, call (800) 272-3900 for help.


Neil Stratton

Contra Costa Kops for Kids // Concord

When Neil Stratton retired from the Walnut Creek Police force in 1995, his wife told him, “Don’t stay home and bother me. Find something to do.”

That something was Contra Costa Kops for Kids, a nonprofit agency that has provided mentoring and sports clinics for thousands of kids.

At first, it was called the Contra Costa Police Athletic Association, with an original purpose to organize the California Police Summer Games of 1998. But Stratton had a grander vision, after seeing a situation that troubled him.

“One thing I saw during my 32-year career was young people throwing away their lives,” he says. “I thought, We are going to turn it into a program where officers mentor youth.”

After the successful summer games, the agency started handing out grants, sending kids on cop-led fishing trips and to sports clinics.

Its first year, Kops for Kids reached 200 kids, Stratton says. Last year, the number was 7,000—and Stratton, who has served as the agency’s executive director and president, is still doing a lot of the work as program director.

One of the agency’s successes is the rebirth of the music program at Las Juntas Elementary in Martinez. Before Kops for Kids, the school’s music program was on life support. Then Larry Williams, a retired FBI agent and amateur violinist whose granddaughter attended the school, offered to give free violin lessons. Only problem: no violins.

From the judges: “Neil’s work with kids in this community is a great human interest story. It is inspiring to see all that he has done.” —Steve Lesher

That’s when Williams called for backup. In 2004, Kops for Kids provided the first of three $1,000 grants to buy a fleet of violins. Today, Las Juntas alums can be found in the orchestras of Martinez middle and high schools and beyond.

Currently, the agency’s main thrust is putting on Positive Mental Attitude seminars, in which cops, active and retired, explain “things kids should know but they can’t be told enough,” Stratton says. Topics include the importance of setting goals and how to get help with depression and bullying.

Last year, the agency put on 194 seminars; Stratton led 150 of them.

Usually, kids are receptive. But not always. A few years ago, students at an alternative school greeted Stratton with taunts of “oink, oink” and “pig.” Nonetheless, he returned to put on three sports clinics.

At the end of the last clinic, “I told them that my job was done and wished them well,” Stratton says. “And they said, ‘You mean you aren’t coming back? But we like you.’ ”

—Robert Burnson

How you can help: Contra Costa Kops for Kids hosts a fundraising walk in May and a charity golf tournament in September. For more information, go to contracostakopsforkids.org.

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