2015 Threads of Hope Awards Honorees
Honoring those who strengthen the fabric of our community.
The holiday season is a time of giving, so what better time to recognize East Bay residents who give selflessly? This month, we honor the people who are changing our community for the better—whether it’s collecting clothes for the needy, feeding the hungry, or volunteering tirelessly. We also recognize a philanthropic visionary whose impact is nothing short of astonishing. Diablo’s 2015 Threads of Hope honorees embody the true spirit of the season.
Jessica Aguirre: weeknight co-anchor, NBC Bay Area News at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.; and host, Class Action, a weekly segment on the status of public education in California. Mario Alioto: executive vice president, business operations, San Francisco Giants. Mark Flower: senior vice president and regional director, Wells Fargo Private Bank. Steve Lesher: vice president, Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation, and external relations manager, Shell Oil Company. Jo A.S. Loss: executive director, The Volunteer Center of the East Bay. Carole Wynstra: president, Walnut Creek Library Foundation.
teenagers and youth.” —Carole Wynstra President, Walnut Creek Library Foundation
When Laura Graham started writing college applications, she had more on her mind than crafting the perfect essay. Her main worry was what would happen to 1Closet, the clothing donation charity she launched and built through her high school years.
Graham, 19, created 1Closet in 2011, when she was a sophomore at Bishop O’Dowd High. The inspiration came from a conversation with her father, who told her about the limited resources for children in the foster care system. Graham, a fashionista who had been searching for a meaningful hobby, decided she should help.
She started by collecting clothes from her friends and classmates, and then arranged a clothing drive at San Ramon Valley High in Danville. “They donated designer clothes—really nice new clothes,” Graham says.
Graham spent the next few years setting up clothing drives at more than a dozen East Bay schools, then sorting, boxing, and delivering thousands of garments—often to Boys and Girls Clubs, homeless shelters, and other places that serve teenagers. To date, 1Closet has distributed more than 60,000 garments.
But when it came time for college, Graham faced the challenge of finding a teenager to take over 1Closet and keep it going. She met with 10 candidates during a 10-month search. In the end, Graham selected Riley Glasson, a junior at San Ramon Valley High at the time. Glasson came armed with fresh ideas, and Graham was relieved to find out that Glasson has two younger sisters who would keep 1Closet going when it came time for Glasson to leave for college.
When Graham moved away, Glasson, now 18, slipped into her place, implementing new ideas such as a permanent donation drop-off site at Hyatt House in Pleasanton. The bin collects roughly 200 pieces of clothing each week.
Today, Graham is a sophomore at the University of Arizona, and Glasson is a freshman at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Glasson’s younger sister Carly, who is 14, keeps 1Closet rolling.
As 1Closet’s advisors, Graham will continue to mentor volunteers while Glasson plans to spend breaks from college sorting and boxing donations. —Stacey Kennelly
How you can help: 1Closet is looking for a storage facility close to Alamo and rolling bins that can be used for sorting garments. It’s also searching for an additional facility where it can host pop-up shops so teens in need can shop for free. Visit 1-closet.com for more information.
Sherry Smith knew her husband would be a top candidate for one of Diablo’s Threads of Hope awards as soon as she read the application form. Sherry thought of all the organizations David has volunteered with over the past 35 years—including the city of San Ramon; the Eugene O’Neill Foundation, Tao House in Danville; Hospice of the East Bay; and the Rossmoor retirement community.
And she thought of all the hundreds of hours he has spent helping his neighbors and his community.
“He would never ask for the attention, but he has really created a legacy,” says Sherry. “The effect of his work will be felt by people for many years after he’s gone.”
David Smith moved to the East Bay in 1980, when he opened a law practice in San Ramon. At that time, the now-thriving city was still three years shy of incorporation, and Smith realized that San Ramon needed a sense of community. So he led a board that supported construction of the first San Ramon public library, and helped launch the annual arts event now known as the Art and Wind Festival, which draws up to 20,000 people each Memorial Day weekend.
“He is the kind of leader we don’t see often enough,” says Herb Moniz, San Ramon’s city manager from 1989 to 2011. “He never puts himself first, and he is always able to work with others and get things done.”
In the 1980s, Smith was a director of the nonprofit Eugene O’Neill Foundation, after O’Neill’s Tao House in Danville became a National Historic Site. In 2012, he joined the board of Hospice of the East Bay and was instrumental in creating a strategic plan for supporting the organization’s Bruns House facility in Alamo.
After moving into Walnut Creek’s Rossmoor retirement community, Smith was dismayed to learn that some of the residents occasionally found themselves in dire financial straits. So five years ago, he launched the Rossmoor Fund to help his neighbors deal with unexpected emergencies. The fund also provides legal seminars to help seniors with a range of issues, including learning about elder abuse.
“Envisioning the Rossmoor Fund is a perfect example of the kind of person that David Smith is,” says Claire Wolfe, the founding director of the fund. “He is a very caring man and a person of great integrity.”
Smith is a quiet man, and he smiles and shrugs when asked why he goes to such lengths to help others. “I’ve always felt that giving back is something I should do.”
How you can help: Donations can be made to the Contra Costa County Library at ccclib.org; Hospice of the East Bay at hospiceeastbay.org; the Eugene O’Neill Foundation, Tao House at eugeneoneill.org; and the Rossmoor Fund at rossmoorfund.org.
—White Pony Express
It’s just before 10 a.m. on a Monday, and the wheels of White Pony Express are spinning, as a dozen volunteers sort the fresh bread, produce, and meat that was donated early this morning by local supermarkets and food shops. The volunteers organize the donations with the enthusiasm of Snow White’s dwarfs, before delivering the goods to a range of local shelters and meal services programs.
“It’s important that we carry a positive attitude,” says White Pony Express founder Carol Weyland Conner. “We are committed to giving people in need the kind of good quality food that you and I eat. We are in a position to provide adequate nourishment for all.”
To distribute food, White Pony Express has created an impressive and intricately organized system. Goods are separated by each shelter’s needs. Some facilities don’t have a kitchen, so they prefer premade sandwiches and food that doesn’t require on-site prep. Other locations need fresh produce and dairy products, so White Pony Express makes sure those items are delivered in refrigerated trucks.
Conner is a former psychologist and leader of Sufism Reoriented, a spiritual order headquartered in Walnut Creek. She created White Pony Express in 2013, as her city was planning its centennial anniversary for the following year.
“I was thinking about what a beautiful place this is and how well we live here—but we still have so many people in need,” says Conner, adding that in Contra Costa County, one resident out of 10 lives in poverty. “I believe that in an area this affluent, we can fix that.”
Conner reached out to local supermarkets and food providers to see if the food they would otherwise throw away might be given to those in need. Right away, donations started pouring in: Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, and dozens of local businesses agreed to give away the inventory that would ordinarily be trashed due to sell-by dates and overstocking.
“We have taken it one step at a time, and tried to meet each need by opening our door wider to increase circulation and help more people in need,” says Conner. “We quickly realized that we needed refrigerated vehicles. We reached out for support from everyone we knew and found a business with an extra vehicle they could donate.”
Today, White Pony Express has five refrigerated vehicles and two vans, which deliver a staggering amount of fresh, high-quality food to shelters around the county. Since its inception, White Pony Express and its 400-plus volunteers have distributed enough food for about 1.6 million meals.
“We have found that this all unfolded in a positive way,” says Conner. “There are so many people who want to help. We have been able to start to fill a need by always saying yes. Yes, we can take that food, and yes, we can make sure it goes to people who can use it.” —Peter Crooks
How you can help: Donations of goods and money are helpful, and White Pony is always in need of volunteers. Visit whiteponyexpress.org for more information.
—Pledge to Humanity
Gaby Ghorbani spent her childhood in an upper middle–class home in Guadalajara, Mexico, but she never got used to seeing the poverty around her. She remembers a specific afternoon, at the age of 10, when her dad picked her up from school.
“I was nice and comfortable in the car, and I saw this kid alone selling candy and gum,” says Ghorbani. “I could not stop thinking, I’m on my way home to eat, and he is in the street. I didn’t feel comfortable anymore. That moment sparked something in me that never left.”
Since then, Ghorbani has been working to encourage empathy and giving in other kids, first with her childhood friends; then with her own children (who grew up taking vacations that included giving away food and visiting orphanages); and now, through her youth service organization, Pledge to Humanity.
Pledge to Humanity has involved thousands of teens in volunteerism since its founding in 2009. The nonprofit partners with local school clubs, leadership classes, sports teams, and other youth groups to help them identify the causes they are most passionate about and offer the tools, expertise, and encouragement to bring hands-on service projects to life.
Following the young volunteers’ diverse interests, Pledge to Humanity has both a local and global focus.
Locally, projects have included making and distributing sandwiches to the homeless, collecting and donating clothing and toiletries to shelters and crisis centers, volunteering at soup kitchens, assisting in senior homes, and supporting U.S. troops.
Globally, the organization funds the construction of schools and wells through a partnership with Free the Children, in places such as Ecuador, Haiti, India, Kenya, and Mexico. Each summer, Pledge to Humanity takes students from the East Bay on overseas service trips to see these programs in action and add to the effort.
Through every project, Ghorbani aims to teach kids that service is not just another check mark for the day, like karate and tutoring. It’s an attitude. “I want kids, particularly kids from our area, to know that they are fortunate to have what they have: to be aware of what’s out there, have empathy, and have the desire to say, ‘I can do something,’ ” she says.
This made a lasting impact on Brianna Lane. As an eighth-grader at Stone Valley Middle School, she joined Ghorbani in serving the homeless at Glide Memorial Church and making sandwiches for Monument Crisis Center. Now, she is studying nonprofit management at the University of Southern California. Lane says, “It was an opportunity to do something beyond a fundraiser. We saw how we were affecting people’s lives.” —LeeAnne Jones
How you can help: Pledge to Humanity welcomes monetary donations to support various ongoing programs. Current areas of focus include funding extracurricular activities for local foster children and building schools in Kenya and India. Visit pledgetohumanity.org for more information.
—The Taylor Family Foundation
This past summer, Elaine Taylor was working in the kitchen of the camp she helped create for sick children when she realized that the song “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” by Journey was playing again. Loudly.
“It was just blaring,” she says. “I was in the back plating food, so I couldn’t tell what was going on in the dining room. I wondered, ‘How do these kids even know this old song?’ ”
When she headed out to the dining room, she found all the campers and counselors from the Celiac Camp program standing on their chairs, singing along at the absolute top of their lungs. “It was a great moment,” says Taylor.
So great, in fact, that Taylor invited 242 of the campers to her annual fundraiser, Day in the Park, and asked them to sprinkle themselves among the tables without explaining why they were there to the event’s guests.
When singer-songwriter Shana Morrison came out and started singing the song, all of the kids stood up on their chairs and joined in, belting it out.
“People loved it,” says Taylor. “I got the most response from people about meeting a camper at their table and seeing the campers in action.”
That show of spirit at Day in the Park encapsulates what has made Taylor so successful at building amazing positive momentum in this community. Taylor has so much heart that she can recognize—and create—moments in which people transcend the usual limits of their lives and feel good about themselves as they reach out to others.
Thousands of families have benefited from the efforts of The Taylor Family Foundation, which Taylor and her late husband, Barry, cofounded to help families affected by pediatric AIDS. Beginning with a Day in the Park fundraiser held in their Lafayette backyard in 1990, the foundation has raised more money and helped more kids each year. In 2001, the foundation helped implement the creation of Camp Arroyo, a state-of-the-art facility in Livermore that offers free summer camp programs to children with a wide range of serious illnesses and disabilities.
At its 25th annual Day in the Park event in August, the foundation raised $1.14 million.
In recognition of a quarter-century of tireless work on behalf of some of the most deserving members of our community, Diablo magazine is proud to honor Taylor with the 2015 Steven J. Rivera Threads of Hope Visionary Award.
Q: You just finished your 25th Day in the Park. What are your memories of the first event?
A: I thought I was going to throw up every 30 seconds because I had to get up and speak in front of everyone! I was so terrified of speaking in public.
I think 150 people came to the first Day in the Park, and we raised $56,000. It was exciting because we did well. We had it in our backyard in Lafayette, and having it at our house was nice. We had it there for the first 10 years, and when we announced we were moving Day in the Park to Camp Arroyo, people told us it wouldn’t work, that the event’s charm came from its being held in our yard. But the event didn’t miss a beat; we still get tons of people every year.
Q: What was your original vision for The Taylor Family Foundation?
A: I knew I wanted to raise money for children with AIDS because back then, no one was focusing on kids. [In the late 1980s,] kids were entirely underserved: At that time, the hospitals I was working with told me there were about 900 children in Northern California with HIV/AIDS.
I really did want to help those children long term, but I never thought about building a camp. I wanted to create this fundraising machine that could support the everyday urgent needs of children with AIDS. I did a ton of due diligence research about pediatric AIDS before having an event. I wanted to make sure there was a good program to support in the Bay Area.
In the first few years, we started branching out and seeing that these kids had so many needs. There was a woman in Petaluma who was sending kids to a summer camp on her own credit card, so we supported her and took away her financial burden. And we kept learning about the needs the kids had and how only the sickest ones got to go to camp, so we started moving toward building a camp that could serve all the kids and their families.
By the time we opened the camp, there were less than 300 kids in the Bay Area with AIDS.
Now, there are only about 35. When we opened the camp, we realized that we could serve those 300 kids in about six weeks.
Thanks to our collaboration with the East Bay Regional Parks District, we had this beautiful camp; it wouldn’t be right to not use it for four weeks out of the summer. So we started to think, What else is there in Northern California that is considered an orphan illness [a rare disease] for children? Helping children locally was always in our mission statement.
That opened the door to camps for the Children’s Skin Disease Foundation, one of the biggest orphan illnesses ever. And we built up the Sickle Cell Camp, Heart Camp, Brain Disease Camp, Crohn’s and Colitis Camp, and Celiac Camp.
Now, we only do one week of AIDS Camp. I used to always tease and say, “I can’t wait until they put me out of business.” But it’s happening; thanks to medicine and science, pediatric AIDS is a manageable illness, like diabetes. I never thought I would say those words 20 years ago.
Q: What kind of response do you get from families whose kids can attend camp free of charge?
A: The families love it. We actually have family camps so everyone can come enjoy it. During the week, there is a strong educational platform for adults. For our Brain Tumor Camp, a dietician or an insurance specialist comes in, and tells these parents about the programs that are available to them that they might not know about.
But we also make sure there is a lot of fun—ropes courses, horse therapy, and bocce games—because the parents also never have a chance to have fun.
The thank-you notes we get are so lovely. We have a big book of them at camp. We never publish them, but if you come visit, you can read them.
Q: Your husband, Barry, passed away in 2013. What can you tell us about his importance to the foundation’s mission?
A: He was my North Star. The thing I miss more than anything is that he was my compass that would guide me in the early days of the foundation. He was so well-connected in the community, and he had no problem asking for money for this cause that he believed in.
The foundation really was our life for a long time. Our dinner conversations were always about marketing plans or new programs for camp. Sometimes, I would say, “We don’t have many friends.” Barry would say, “Yes we do; we have the foundation. We have so many friends in the foundation.” He was right.
When he wasn’t well, he used to come to camp and just watch what was happening. He loved that. Camp was his good place; he really felt that the grounds were hallowed out there—like a religious or spiritual place.
I think that if Barry had been at the 25th Day in the Park, he would have been in heaven. It was everything he always thought that the program could be.
Q: After 25 years, you are stepping back a bit, moving to Central California, and passing the day-to-day leadership torch to other people in the foundation. Is that worrisome?
A: It’s not worrisome because I am passing the torch to such capable hands. Our executive director, Angie Carmignani, has been with the foundation for 15 years. Her commitment is 150 percent; she lives and breathes the foundation to the point where I have to remind her to take a vacation.
All of our board members have been there quite a long time now. They know what the
vision is. The foundation’s mission will stay true: No one is going to come on and change it. I have no apprehension or fear that if something were to happen to me, the foundation would close down.
It took a long time to accept that because the foundation has been like a child to me.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to make a difference but doesn’t know where to start?
A: We have had a few people over the years ask for advice, and this is what I tell them:
1. Know what you want, and stay true to what you want. Be specific about what cause you want to support and how you want to help. And don’t get wooed away from your mission.
2. Don’t get smitten by what you have done.
3. Build an incredible group of people who support what you want to do. The most important thing is to find smart and competent people who have the strengths that you don’t have. —Peter Crooks
How you can help: The Taylor Family Foundation is looking for eight to 10 year-round volunteers for Day in the Park supervisory positions. The foundation also needs someone with experience researching grants. Also, gas and grocery gift cards make excellent donations. Visit ttff.org for more information.