2016 Threads of Hope Award Winners
Meet this year’s amazing volunteers: Six men and women selflessly serving our community—from repurposing crayons for hospitalized children to running a crisis nursery.
Each December, Diablo magazine’s annual Threads of Hope Awards recognize an amazing group of volunteers who go above and beyond to make the East Bay a better place. This year, our lineup includes a hero who repairs bicycles and donates them to foster kids, another who makes new crayons out of old ones for children in hospitals, a couple that boxes food for the hungry, and a Major League Baseball All-Star who helps children with special needs. We also recognize a philanthropic visionary who created a crisis nursery that has helped our neediest neighbors for 35 years.
Scroll down to view videos of each of the 2016 honorees.
Diablo readers submitted dozens of nominations for outstanding volunteers. Our panel of community leaders selected this year’s Threads of Hope honorees.
Weeknight co-anchor, NBC Bay Area News at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.
Founder and director, Pledge to Humanity
Senior vice president and regional managing director, Wells Fargo Private Bank
President, Wente Foundation Board
Former president, Walnut Creek Library Foundation
Sister Ann Weltz
Bay Area Crisis Nursery, Concord
By Peter Crooks
Sister Ann Weltz had an idyllic childhood in the East Bay. Growing up in Martinez, in the 1940s and ’50s, she remembers climbing trees with her friends, foraging for mushrooms in the fields where Sunvalley Shopping Center now stands, and studying with the Sisters of St. Joseph at St. Catherine’s Elementary, where she later joined the sisterhood.
In the early 1980s, Weltz was alarmed to see an increasing number of stressed families. Inspired to help, she opened the Bay Area Crisis Nursery in Concord to provide temporary shelter and safe supervision for children, from infancy through age 11, free of charge. Now in its 35th year, the nursery has provided care for thousands of children over the years and given parents a respite from child care during all kinds of crises.
Diablo magazine recognizes Sister Ann Weltz’s remarkable efforts on behalf of our community with the 2016 Steven J. Rivera Threads of Hope Visionary Award. We met with Weltz at the nursery to talk about her decades of service to children and their families.
Q: When did you realize there was a need for the Bay Area Crisis Nursery?
A: After entering the Sisters of St. Joseph, I taught [science and math in the East Bay] for three years. It was a wonderful experience, but it was during that time that I spent a summer working at a crisis nursery run by Sister Kathleen in Tucson [Arizona]. I fell in love with the concept of a crisis nursery and what it could do.
I read books about interviewing families for abuse. When I came back to teach, I interviewed some of the families in my class and discovered abuses that were going on that nobody was picking up on. It was really an eye-opener to see how frustrated and stressed out they were, and how little help there was to get them through these stressful periods and help them be better parents.
Q: Why was there such a need for crisis nurseries in 1981?
A: In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the extended family’s being in the home to support parents and children was no longer a reality. All of a sudden, a parent might have to work two jobs to support his or her family. All of that economic stress took away the safety nets for families raising children.
Crisis nurseries provide a way for families to get the break they need to remain good parents and be able to give to their kids. We say to a parent, “Bring your child in, and take 48 hours to yourself. Renew yourself, refresh yourself, and come back and get your child. You will be a better parent. We are not part of social services. We’re not here to take custody of your children. We’re here to support you when you are in trouble.”
There are many reasons a parent might need to come to us. For example, one parent gets in a car accident and winds up in the hospital. The other parent can’t take time off from work because they will lose their job. They don’t know what to do because they have children who are too young to be alone. They can bring their children here—and for the next two or three weeks, they can come in and out and visit, take them out to a park, and play with them. But they don’t need to feed them, clothe them, bathe them, and be attentive to them, except when they come to visit. So, they can keep their job; they can take time to visit their spouse in the hospital and have time to get set up to bring the kids back when they are ready.
We don’t put a time limit on them, and we don’t present a bill to them. There is nothing worse than to be told, “Residential care is expensive, so we will bill you for every day the kids are here.” We don’t do that. Everyone has free services.
Q: How did you open the nursery on a Sister’s salary?
A: The original nursery was in a three-bedroom flat-roofed house. I bought it, but I did not have enough money for more than two months’ payments. A guy by the name of Bill Bundy, who was big in real estate and was a sucker for kids, figured out a way for me to buy the property and be able to pay for it with manageable payments.
I also went to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul because I heard they had programs for mothers who were addicted. I told them about my dreams for the nursery, and they got so excited about having this kind of a service that they offered me a $100,000 loan for construction, with no payments for 10 years. All I had to do was pay the interest once per year. They were very supportive and instrumental in getting us going.
We stayed here for 25 years in that one three-bedroom building. In 2006, a gentleman came to our door. He wanted to do a “miracle makeover” like you see on television, but he wanted to use local contractors.
On September 11, 2006, I stood on the other side of the street and watched them tear down the original building in about 14 minutes. Twenty-one days later, I sat in this room and admitted the first child to the new building. The plumbers and electrician and concrete people worked around the clock to make that happen. They all had one thing in mind: We’re going to get this place up for the kids in our community, and it’s going to be free.
Q: Tell me a success story from the early years.
A: I will always remember one mother who came to us for respite care. She was a mother of two children, with another almost ready to be born. She was a recovering drug addict and was having a very difficult time providing for her children. One day, she called and said, “Sister, I want to leave my children with you for 30 days. I want to go to an in-care program for drug rehab. Will you take them?”
She went into the rehab program. The children stayed for 45 days. But when she finished the program, she never fell off the wagon again. She got herself a hard labor job digging ditches and laying pipes. Almost every month, she dropped the kids off for a 48-hour respite. They eventually moved out of the area to the Midwest. But she got a very good job working for her city.
I remember her telling me that her little son went to her once and said, “You are using bad language, and at the nursery we are not allowed to use bad language. You’re not nice when you use bad language, so we need to do something about it.”
Q: How many kids come through the nursery in a year?
A: We have more than 1,000 admissions per year. Many of those come in for 48 hours.
Q: How is the nursery staffed?
A: We have two paid staff round–the–clock at the nursery, which is for birth through age five. We have one paid staff round–the–clock at the Dahlstrom House, which is for six- to 11-year olds. That is one block away, so if there are siblings at both houses, they can visit one another.
In families going through troubled times, often the older sibling has taken the role of the caregiver. They will want to make sure their younger sibling is being cared for—sometimes they will want to watch us change diapers to make sure we are doing it right. They tell us when their little brother needs his bottle. It just takes a day or two for them to realize that there is a caretaker here who is really taking care of these kids. Once they realize their sibling is being cared for, they can get back to being a kid.
Q: How many children can you take care of at once?
A: We have a 20-bed facility in the nursery, but we never go that high. We’re full with about 12 children and don’t take any more respite calls at that point. That way, we always have room for a child in crisis.
We opened the Dahlstrom House in 2003 to meet the need for the homeless citizens in the area. We started noticing the number of children living in cars. That house is a six-bed facility, which we use for respite space.
Q: We’ve been through a couple of recessions since the nursery opened in 1981. How do you get through tough times?
A: We live on faith. We have no income that we count on. We depend totally on donations. I can’t tell you whether or not we will be in crisis at the start of the new year. It looks like we will be every single year, and we see what happens during the giving season.
In 2013, we only had two and a half months’ operating funds at the beginning of the year. There was talk about closing the six- to 11-year-old house to make ends meet. But I went out to speak at churches, and we had a family come through with a very generous donation of three months of our operating costs.
Our priority is keeping the nursery open because the children who come here are too young to get away from abuse, to get away from trouble, to keep themselves safe.
People ask me, “How can you live that way?” I say, “We’ve had 35 years of keeping kids safe. I am never going to give up because it’s hard. Because every year we are here, we keep children safe, and we keep parents from losing custody of their kids.”
Q: What is the biggest satisfaction that you get from the nursery?
A: Seeing the relief in the eyes of parents when they realize that they can get through difficult times knowing that their children are safe. We focus on children—that’s who we provide for. But the most important job is helping parents get back on their feet while their children have a safe [living] environment.
How you can help: Cash donations are the best way to help Bay Area Crisis Nursery. Nonperishable food, BART and gas cards, and children’s books and clothing are also appreciated. bayareacrisisnursery.org
Adopt A Family Bikes, Danville
By Peter Crooks
Riding a bike through the streets of Stockton is one of Joseph Hui’s fondest childhood memories.
“I loved to ride fast,” says Hui, 53. “It felt like I was leaving my troubles behind. Cycling was my way to escape.”
Chatting with Hui in his Danville home, one might not think the soft-spoken Oracle tech staffer had a troubled childhood. But Hui and his two older brothers spent their formative years in the foster care system, living in a state-run dormitory. The dorm had a communal bicycle, and Hui took every chance he could to pedal around the flat streets of his hometown.
Bicycles have also given Hui a way to give back to children and young adults who have had similar challenges. For the past 10 years, Hui, his wife, Mimi, daughter, Sandra, and son, Theo, have volunteered countless hours collecting bicycles and restoring them. The restored bikes are given to children and young adults in foster care and other challenging situations.
“Joseph and Mimi sign up to do the weekend hours; throughout the holiday season, their commitment has never sagged,” says Tania Hanson-De Young, coordinator of the Adopt A Family Bikes program at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Danville. “We could not run the program without them.”
While Adopt A Family Bikes is focused on the holiday season, Hui has turned his passion for distributing refurbished bikes into a year-round project. During spring and summer, Hui restores bikes in his garage to have them ready for students who have gone through the foster system and are attending San Francisco State University.
“The generosity he has shown has impacted hundreds of foster youth at S.F. State,” says Melanie Ramirez-Carpio, lead case manager of the university’s Guardian Scholars Program. “Without his support of refurbishing and donating bicycles, helmets, and locks, many students would not have the transportation they need while in college.”
Even after restoring and distributing thousands of bikes, Hui never tires of seeing the look on each student’s face when he or she receives a bicycle. “I’m so thankful for the opportunities I have been given, and it’s nice to be able to help these individuals as they head out into their adult life,” he says.
How you can help: Take that dusty bike out your garage, and drop it off at Adopt A Family Bikes (location TBD). Skilled “spokeheads” are also needed for bicycle restoration. For more information, visit adoptafamilybikes.org.
School of Imagination, Dublin
By Peter Crooks
When Oakland A’s catcher Stephen Vogt was a minor league player, he and his wife dreamed of life in the Major Leagues—and how that dream might be able to help others.
“We always talked about what cause we might support if I had that platform,” says Vogt. “My wife, Alyssa, had worked with special needs kids, and we realized that this is a cause that isn’t as talked about.”
Vogt did make it to the Majors, in a somewhat spectacular fashion. After breaking in with the A’s in 2013, he was selected to the American League All-Star team each of the past two seasons. Around that same time, the Vogts also realized their dream of helping children, when they were introduced to the founders of School of Imagination in Dublin, a program that offers free screenings and support services for young children with special needs.
“The Vogts reached out and asked, ‘How can we help?’ ” says Mitch Sigman, who opened School of Imagination out of his Pleasanton home with his wife, Charlene, in 2001, before moving into a building in Dublin in 2011. “They have been helping us ever since. The kids love to see him; they call him Mr. Stephen.”
Every month, the Vogts bring their children, Payton, five, and Clark, two, to help at the school. Finger painting, storytime, and Tee Ball are among Vogt’s favorite activities. Vogt frequently hosts families from School of Imagination who visit the Oakland Coliseum for batting practice before A’s games. In April, Vogt hosted the school’s first All-Star Benefit on World Autism Awareness Day. Numerous A’s players showed up to play cards at the benefit poker tournament and auction, which raised $90,000 for the school.
“I’ve heard multiple people say that School of Imagination has saved their family,” says Vogt. “Being able to help raise awareness for a program like this is a real honor.”
Vogt’s philanthropic efforts were also recognized this year when he received the second consecutive Dave Stewart Community Service Award from the A’s. Vogt is the first A’s player to win the award twice.
“I’m proud of what I have accomplished on the field,” says Vogt. “But this little bit of work in the community is more important. I’ve been blessed in my life and am humbled to be able to give back and help others.”
How you can help: Donate to the Vogt Family Fund at School of Imagination to help raise money for scholarships for children in need of early intervention. schoolofimagination.org.
Fran and Vic Smith
Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, Concord
By Sara Hare
Looking back, it’s the Easter baskets that Fran and Vic Smith remember most.
“We do them for the children,” says Fran, 90, a former pediatric nurse who later served as the preschool director at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Orinda for 30 years. “We do all this for the children.”
After a lifetime of volunteerism that has included such activities as sorting through donated books at the Orinda Library, building houses and playgrounds in remote Mexican villages, and boxing food for children at the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, the Smiths light up when they talk about their Easter basket program. This year—their 10th making the colorful baskets for children in need—the Smiths assembled 100 baskets.
“The baskets are useful, too,” says Vic, 94. “The kids always get school supplies, and a toothbrush and toothpaste, as well as a chocolate bunny.”
This project is just a drop in the proverbial basket compared to the contribution the Smiths have made to the food bank during the past 15 years. Two to three Fridays each month, in a 32,000-square-foot warehouse in Concord, the Smiths have served as the heart and soul of the Food for Children “boxing team,” which assembles more than 700 boxes of food a month for children ages four to six.
“When it’s a choice between paying rent or buying food, families will go hungry to keep a roof over their heads,” says Sharon Zeppegno, manager of volunteer services at the food bank. “This program makes sure the children have something to eat. The Smiths understand that.”
Using an assembly-line process, the boxing team fills large cardboard boxes with nutritious, kid-friendly food—cereal, peanut butter, canned tuna, pasta and sauce, rice and beans—then the food bank staff distributes them at nine sites across two counties.
The Smiths have seen families receive their boxes. “I am so impressed with how the mothers share,” says Fran. “If there’s a food item their children are allergic to, like peanut butter, they’ll give their jar to someone else.”
A commitment to sharing has been the thread running through the Smiths’ 67 years of marriage. (They met on a blind date.) “For my 80th birthday, I gave myself a little present,” explains Fran. “My father passed away and left me some money. Vic and I used it to build a playground in Mexico.”
Recently, the Smiths wondered if they should slow down just a bit and talked about not volunteering at the food bank anymore. The members of their boxing team wouldn’t hear of it, declaring a “Fran and Vic Day” to discourage them from leaving. The Smiths decided to stay with it.
“That’s one of the reasons we continue,” says Fran. “We do it for the hugs.”
How you can help: Donations can be made to the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano at foodbankccs.org.
The Crayon Initiative, Danville
By Casey Cantrell
The figures Bryan Ware rattles off are impressive. Since 2014, The Crayon Initiative has turned nearly 65,000 pounds of donated crayons into roughly 20,000 eight-count packs of new, high-quality crayons, which it delivers to 35 children’s hospitals across 12 states. By any measure, the nonprofit has been a huge success.
Just don’t tell Ware that.
More than 500,000 pounds of crayons are tossed out per year, says Ware, who founded The Crayon Initiative. “If those crayons were donated, we could make 2.5 million packs,” he says. “We could impact the lives of 2.5 million kids in hospitals—not just on a one-time basis, but annually.”
And once he gets there? He’ll start looking to collect 10 million packs a year. “That’s how I’m wired,” says Ware. “I visit these kids at the hospital, then I come home and realize I’ve given away all my crayons. So, how do I make more faster?”
Ware’s ambitions belie the program’s humble origins. Five years ago, Ware and his family were enjoying dinner at a restaurant in Danville, when the server brought his two sons a set of crayons. Ware asked the server what happens to the crayons after the kids are done with them and learned that the restaurant was required to throw them away, even if they were untouched.
That night, Ware took the crayons and a spark of an idea home. Soon after, he got busy—partnering with local hospitals, including UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland and John Muir Health; working with an occupational therapist to create a thicker, user-friendly crayon; purchasing specially designed molds; and of course, learning how to make new crayons from discarded ones.
That last part was a lot of “trial and error,” says Ware. Setting up in his kitchen, Ware and a partner melt the crayons by color on hot plates, boiling the wax to kill any bacteria. Then, they pour the wax into the mold and let it cool. In a few minutes, the crayons are ready to be packed away.
The hard work is worth it, though. “I get e-mails and pictures from hospital staff telling me that the crayons helped the kids through their hospital stay,” says Ware. “When the kids leave the hospital, this is the only thing they remember that was good.”
The next step for The Crayon Initiative is to keep doing more. Last October, inspired by the movie Chef, Ware designed a mobile trailer to take the melting process on the road, and he’s currently working with hospitals on a coloring book to give out with the crayons.
“We’re trying to get these children whatever they need. If we can change their lives for just five minutes—that’s what I want do.”
How you can help: The Crayon Initiative is looking for a facility to expand its crayon manufacturing. Visit thecrayoninitiative.org for more information.