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2017 Threads of Hope

Meet five amazing volunteers who selflessly serve our community.


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As 2017 winds down, Diablo wants to recognize some true heroes in our midst by honoring five incredible volunteers who are changing our community for the better in creative and generous way. From a teenager who helps the homeless to the octogenarian who makes sure seniors can stay comfortably in their homes, to a local legend with a huge heart, this year’s Treads of Hope honorees fully embody the true spirit of the holiday season. 
 

 

Kristi Yamaguchi

Always Dream Foundation
Danville

By Peter Crooks

2017 Steven J. RIvera Threads of Hope Visionary Award honoree Kristin Yamaguchi/Always Dream Foundation

Figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi achieved success that few on the planet ever experience: competing against the world’s greatest athletes and taking home an Olympic gold medal. 

But that moment in 1992 turned out to be a beginning rather than an end to a remarkable journey that would have multiple chapters over the next two decades. After Yamaguchi met hockey player Bret Hedican at the Olympic opening ceremonies in Albertville, France, the couple married and spent a decade skating professionally. Yamaguchi dazzled audiences for Stars on Ice, and Hedican played for five different NHL teams, including the 2006 Stanley Cup champions, the Carolina Hurricanes. 

When the couple settled in Alamo to raise their daughters, Keara and Emma, a new path opened up. Between car pool rides, good-night stories, and other mommy duties, Yamaguchi found time to write multiple best-selling books, launch a line of workout clothes, and win another first place award: the Mirrorball trophy on Dancing with the Stars in 2008. This was all while running the Always Dream Foundation, a nonprofit organization she created in 1996 to help underserved children at schools in Concord, Fremont, Oakland, and other Bay Area cities, as well as schools in Arizona and Hawaii.

Yamaguchi is this year’s recipient of Diablo’s Steven J. Rivera Threads of Hope Visionary Award, a recognition given to individuals who have changed our community for the better by creating a new philanthropic entity and making sure its services can be counted on year after year. Past visionaries include Tony and Elaine La Russa, from the Animal Rescue Foundation; Elaine Taylor, from The Taylor Family Foundation; and Sister Ann Weltz of the Bay Area Crisis Nursery.

We sat down with Yamaguchi to talk about the Always Dream Foundation, how her career as an athlete sparked her calling as a philanthropist, and why the foundation focuses on early childhood literacy as its primary cause.

Q: You were just 21 when you stepped onto the world stage and won a gold medal. How much of your competitive drive is in your DNA, and how much came from conditioning—all the training as well as the culture of sports at that level?
A:  It came from both. I was very introverted 
and shy as a child, but what I did was intensely competitive at times. I remember having Easter egg hunts with my brother and sister when I was young, and it was very important to me that I finished with the most eggs. 

Q:  How did the Always Dream Foundation get started?
A:  There were a few inspirations. After the 1992 Olympics, I was touring with Stars on Ice, which worked with the Make-A-Wish Foundation as its primary beneficiary. As a professional athlete, I was able to see—up close and in great detail—the impact that I could have on young people’s lives.
    My parents have always been involved with a number of causes, and encouraged my brother and sister and I to do the same. They would remind me how many people had been there for me over the years. They would ask, “What are you going to do to give back to help others?” 

Q:  Your parents were both in Japanese American internment camps during World War II. They could not have been treated more unfairly during their formative years, and it’s great that they have been so committed to making their community stronger by giving back. 
A:  My father was the second youngest of eight children, so some of his older siblings knew what it was like to live a normal childhood and then have to go live in a camp. My father lived there between the ages of four and seven. My mother was born in a camp, so she really did not know another reality as a young girl.
    My daughter recently had to do an oral history project in school, and she interviewed my parents about the camps. It was really interesting to see her realize what they had been through, how much different their lives had been as children. 

Q:  Was anyone else influential in your decision to give back?
A:  The other person who was an enormous influence was [Pro Football Hall of Fame safety] Ronnie Lott. He was a mentor early on; his foundation [All Stars Helping Kids] is incredible. He came to me and said, “You have to start a foundation. We need a female athlete from the Bay Area.” 
    Being from a sport in which both men and women compete—sometimes together, in pairs competitions—I always pushed myself to work harder and longer than the guys to show how good I could be. Here was a chance to represent the sport as a female skater, put my name on the foundation, and work hard to help those in need. So, when Ronnie Lott encouraged me to do it, I said, “Sure. Sign me up.”

Q:  How did you decide that early childhood literacy should be the focus of the foundation?
A:  Literacy was not the sole focus at the beginning. I knew we should focus on children, specifically those who are underserved. I wanted to provide a positive impact to those children and their families.
    I had been introduced to the cofounder of Always Dream, Dean Osaki, through the Japanese American community. Dean had worked with United Way, so he had the nonprofit connections, and I had the sports connections. At first, we brought in donations with our big annual fundraiser and then provided grants to deserving organizations. We were such a small organization that we would do a lot of research and really handpick the causes we wanted to support.
    We were very impressed by Girls, Inc., and all the services they provide, so we donated the computers for their computer 
program [in Alameda County]. We partnered with a mattress company to provide new mattresses for kids’ shelters. Each of these projects was very rewarding—once you have the power to do something, you want to do more. 
    One of the inspirations for the foundation’s focus on early childhood literacy came from a piece of advice from a family doctor, when our first daughter was about three months old. He said, “Start reading to her every day.” We were surprised and asked, “Can she even understand this yet?” He said, “Reading to her is helping her brain develop. She hears your voice and sees you turning the pages, and she feels a connection.”
    Literacy is the fundamental building block in a child’s education; they have to be able to read to get through every subject in school from the second grade on. We wanted to help provide those tools to kids at a young age and to get families engaged in reading at home.

Q:  Were your children’s books inspired by the foundation’s literacy campaign?
A:  [Laughs] No, it was more being a parent and realizing what a valuable gift it is to read to your child. After reading Goodnight Moon and all of those great books over and over, I said, “I think Mommy needs to write a book for you guys.” 
    I have been very fortunate. The first book, Dream Big, Little Pig, became a New York Times best-seller. It is unbelievably rewarding to go to bookstore events and see how many really cool kids are enjoying the books. 

Q:  What feedback have you received from educators about the impact of the foundation’s work?
A:  We partner with the national organization Raising A Reader on a book bag program. The kids each get a book bag, and they take home three to five hardcover books every week to share with their family. The program lasts for 32 weeks. We have principals from many of the schools we work with come and speak at our events, and we have heard that kids who participated in the book program continued to read at their grade level or above for years.

Q:  Your Always Dream fundraising galas are so much fun. You have been able to use your celebrity connections from skating as well as Dancing with the Stars to put on some unique events. Has there been a favorite event?
A:  There have been so many good ones. One favorite was in 2016, when Sarah McLachlan performed. She was incredible. She’s such a big star and gets asked to do so many appearances. That she would help us and be so gracious about it was unforgettable.  
    We recently did two nights of performances in Hawaii because we work with some schools there and really want our supporters to know that donations are going to help kids in the schools in their community. My daughter Emma and I skated together at those performances. I had not skated much since she was born. I was busy being a mom. But Emma got me back out there, and it was so much fun.

How to help:

Purchase a copy of Yamaguchi’s 2016 picture book, Cara’s Kindness. A portion of sales supports the foundation’s Always Reading program. You can also make a donation at alwaysdream.org.

 

Lee Stimmel

Blue Water Foundation
San Francisco/Bay Area

By Casey Cantrell

On a perfect evening for sailing—a calm sea, slight breeze, not a cloud in the sky—the Benjamin Walters glides through the water. 

Lee Stimmel, 69, stands at the helm of his boat, directing the group of teenagers and volunteers around him as he maneuvers the 43-foot cutter through the Berkeley Marina. The founder of Blue Water Foundation has the look of a lifelong seaman: sun-kissed face, a full beard, salt-and-pepper hair, callused hands.

But he won’t be the one sailing the boat tonight—at least, not for long. Once past the breakwater, Stimmel gestures to the lanky, fresh-faced teen waiting patiently beside him. “You’re up,” he says. 

Without missing a beat, the boy takes over, aiming the boat toward Angel Island. Almost as soon as he does, the sea turns choppy. Waves batter the hull, spraying the crew with bone-chilling water; the boat lists precariously to the right, threatening to tip over. But if the new sailor is nervous, he doesn’t show it. Neither do any of the other eight teenagers on board, who laugh and shout as they busily adjust the sails with remarkable efficiency.

These kids are not seasoned sailors, though. In fact, most have never gone sailing before. They are all detainees at Camp Wilmont Sweeney, a minimum-security youth detention center in San Leandro. Many of them are gang members, carjackers, or drug dealers. According to statewide estimates, a third of incarcerated youths will eventually end up in prison; another third will be dead within three years. 

But out here, they are just kids.

“These kids are so misjudged by all of us, including me,” says Stimmel. “Once they’re in an environment where they’re not in constant danger, they become children again.”

Stimmel started Blue Water in 1990, with the simple goal of sharing the joys of sailing with at-risk youths and providing them with an “alternative to drugs, alcohol, and gangs.” He and a group of volunteers used their own boats to take middle and high school students onto the water, teaching them sailing basics and opening their eyes to a world of undiscovered opportunities.

Twenty-seven years later, the foundation has served more than 25,000 kids and teens, adding more boats and a number of new programs in the process. That includes the Ocean’s Gate Program, now in its sixth year, which works with Camp Sweeney in an effort to reintegrate troubled youths back into society through monthly boat trips on the Bay and a scholarship program.

Stimmel, who regularly participates in the sails, notes that many of the program’s teenagers come from abusive homes or broken families. The trips give them a chance to escape those realities, if only for a short time.

“For many of them, this is the one positive thing they have in their lives,” says Stimmel, who is a partner at the San Francisco law firm Stimmel, Stimmel and Smith. “This takes them out of where they’re from.” 

And in this environment, he adds, they flourish. “They just melt [when you praise them] because no one tells them they’re good at anything—ever,” says Stimmel. “And they are. These are really good sailors.”

Frank Lozano, a probation officer at Camp Sweeney, agrees. “[The sails] transform these kids,” says Lozano, who joins the sails each month. “They’re eager; they’re challenging themselves. It’s a whole different vibe out here. This is one of the best programs I’ve ever been a part of.”

Blue Water plans to expand its sailing opportunities; programs for overnight sails to Monterey Bay as well as a racing team are currently in the works.

Stimmel is modest about his contributions to Blue Water, which operates on an annual budget of $50,000 or less. When asked how much of his own money he has donated to the foundation, he answers, “I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.” 

But his generosity hasn’t gone unnoticed by the foundation’s numerous volunteers. “He puts his baby out on the line, with the kids steering, with things going wrong, with stuff breaking,” says John Gilmore, who has volunteered with the program for a little more than a year. “He’s done this for 27 years, four times a month. He really cares about the kids.”

A short while later, the sea calms down. The sky shifts from red to purple to black, as the sun sets in the west. Across the water, San Francisco lights up against the darkness, the city’s reflection twinkling in the water. 

In a few hours, the group of teenagers will return to Camp Sweeney and uncertain futures. Some have plans for after their release: One hopes to go to vocational school; another has a job lined up at The Home Depot. Nevertheless, each one of them faces staggering, unforgiving odds—an impoverished home, a violent neighborhood, a justice system that’s stacked against them.

But for now, everything is preternaturally peaceful on board. A couple of kids play with night-vision binoculars while others lounge on the deck, dreamily staring at the lights. “The best time will be coming back [to Camp Sweeney] and remembering this,” one of them says. “I’m going to fall asleep to the sound of the ocean.”

Stimmel, who stands nearby, is visibly moved. He knows it’s likely most of them won’t be able to break out of the cycle of crime and violence that swallows up so many others. But he holds out hope that some might make it—and he won’t stop trying to help them.

“You’ve got to save who you can; you’ve got to help who you can,” says Stimmel. “And you’ve got to keep going.”

How to help:

Blue Water Foundation is looking for volunteers to assist with the sailing and scholarship programs. Visit bluewaterfoundation.org for more information.

 

Kitty Cole

STAND For Families Free of Violence
Concord

By Peter Crooks

More than 30 years after the assault, Kitty Cole still gets chills when she talks about it. Cole had been dating the man for a few months, when she saw the first red flag. 

“We were swimming, and he twisted my arm behind my back really hard,” recalls Cole, shivering at the memory. “I told him, ‘You’re hurting me! Stop!’ ”

 It was a preview of things to come. Two months later—after the relationship had ended—the same man attacked Cole in her home in an affluent East Bay neighborhood.  

“He came into the kitchen. I looked at him, and he had these bloodshot eyes. I knew I was in trouble,” says Cole. “He slammed me to the floor, and my arm was injured. I ran to the kitchen phone to call for help, and he pulled the phone out of the wall. I thought he was going to kill me.”

Cole sprinted into her bedroom and was able to call 911. The man lurked in her doorway, staring at her in the darkness, as Cole hysterically reported her situation.

“I remember the operator saying, ‘What is he doing now? Don’t hang up the phone!’ ” says Cole. “When [the attacker] realized that the police were on their way, he tried to drive off but was stopped halfway down the street.”

Fortunately for Cole, the police arrived within five minutes, although it felt like an eternity. Cole, concerned about repercussions, decided not to press charges, and the man was released. The responding officer, Paul Clancy, gave her a card that had the phone number for Battered Women’s Alternatives (now called STAND For Families Free of Violence) and let her know the ways she could get support from the Concord-based nonprofit, including a 24-hour help line and court advocacy.

“Those cards were very useful because we would respond to a call like that about once every week,” says Clancy, now retired from a career in law enforcement that included 29 years with the Contra Costa County Office of the Sheriff and three years as Pinole’s chief of police. “Domestic violence has no socioeconomic boundaries; it affects all communities. [STAND] has been able to help in so many ways. The organization has been a tremendous help to law enforcement.”

A year after the assault, Cole wanted to spend more time volunteering in the community. She asked her friend, the late Margaret Lesher, about nonprofits in the community that needed help. 

“I wanted to get some advice about volunteering for a nonprofit and told her about my interests: helping women and children, the homeless, the hungry,” recalls Cole. “She said, ‘You need to work for [STAND].’ She was right: STAND’s core mission—to save lives, and to get women and children and sometimes men out of their dangerous situation—was exactly what I wanted to give my time and money to.”

More than 25 years later, she is as dedicated as ever to the cause. Cole—who has had a successful career as a business coach, licensed real estate agent, and marketing professional—helped STAND raise roughly $400,000 for its women’s shelter in central Contra Costa County: the Rollie Mullen Center, which accommodates 30 people in an emergency shelter and up to seven families in longer-term transitional housing. Nearly 30 paid staff members provide counseling, support groups, children’s therapy, and workshops for residents to build their parenting and professional skills. 

Earlier this year, STAND—in its 40th year of existence—found itself in a serious financial crisis and was in danger of shutting down. Cole worked with STAND’s board, Contra Costa County Employment and Human Services, and outside consultants to stabilize the situation.

“We depend on volunteer assistance in so many ways,” says Rhonda James, STAND’s chief executive officer. “Kitty has stepped up time and time again. She has been a tireless supporter.”

In addition to the time she has spent networking for STAND and knocking on doors for donations, Cole shares her own story as a battered woman at many events, including the annual Rebuilding Lives luncheon, STAND’s biggest fundraising event. This year’s luncheon had the largest attendance in more than a decade, including a significant turnout from law enforcement. “It’s a testimony that people want to see STAND survive and succeed,” says James.

“What makes Kitty so exceptional is that she has had that pain throughout the years—and she has to reexperience it every time she shares it—but she does share it to help people,” says Clancy, who has become close friends with Cole over the years. “STAND as a whole is a fantastic organization. Kitty in particular, with the compassionate strength that she has, is simply exceptional.”

Cole is gratified that her story has been helpful to so many others dealing with the effects of domestic violence.

“In the past few months, eight women have come up to me and told me that hearing my story made them realize that they needed to get help, or had a friend who was in danger,” says Cole. “That is one of the great rewards of working for STAND, that and seeing our clients get into the workforce and be able to raise their children safely. I remember how terrified I was to go into my house for so long after I was attacked. That feeling of safety that I once took for granted took a long time to get back.” 

How to help:

Tell a friend about the organization so more people in the community are aware of it as a resource. standffov.org.

 

Ruth McCahan

Lamorinda Village
Lafayette

By Morgan Mitchell

During a 2006 city council meeting about the creation of an advisory committee to address development in downtown Lafayette, one woman raised her hand. “How about a representative from the Senior Services Commission?” asked Ruth McCahan.

“There was no one in the group representing older adults,” recalls McCahan, who is now 81. “It’s an important part. Today, 
[seniors are] the largest growing percentage of the population because people are living longer.”

Advocating for older adults in the community has been McCahan’s mission since she retired from her management job at Transamerica. McCahan has served numerous local organizations—including the Lafayette Senior Services Commission—aimed at assisting older adults. Most impressively, McCahan was the driving force behind the creation of Lamorinda Village, a nonprofit that provides support for seniors living in their homes.

After reading an AARP report stating that nearly 80 percent of older adults wanted to stay in their own home for as long as possible—as opposed to being placed in a nursing home or assisted living—McCahan became determined to help. She knew she had struck gold when she stumbled upon Boston-based Beacon Hill Village, the first in a national network of nonprofit organizations aiming to help older adults age at home by providing the assistance they needed to do so. McCahan assembled a task force—a group that began with only eight members but eventually included more than 65 people—to install a Village that would serve Lafayette, Moraga, and Orinda.

Created in April 2015, Lamorinda Village’s efforts are multipronged; volunteers provide Village members with essential services such as shopping, transportation, and home maintenance. For more specialized tasks (like plumbing and electrical work), the Village has a list of “preferred providers”—experienced professionals who have been vetted to ensure they will provide the best and most reliable services. The Village also hosts social, wellness, and educational events for members, ranging from instructional lunches to yoga. 

With such a vast number of services and so many people to coordinate, it is no easy feat to develop a Village. The original Beacon Hill Village took five years to get on its feet, but Lamorinda Village was created in a little more than three. Jane Tiemann, current president of the board of directors for Lamorinda Village, attributes this to the original president: McCahan. 

“She was so competent,” says Tiemann. “She was able to organize various people to take on various tasks and get everybody moving toward the goal of launching Lamorinda Village.”

The first Village in Contra Costa County, McCahan’s creation has already inspired others: Villages in Walnut Creek and Clayton Valley have opened within the past year. “There are many communities in Northern California that could benefit greatly from a Village arrangement,” says McCahan. “There’s a point in life, if you live long enough, that you can’t live on your own. But it’s not 65 anymore.” 

Now that Lamorinda Village is up and running, McCahan can enjoy the organization’s early successes. She recalls one member whose mailbox was damaged. “She said, ‘The mailman can’t deliver my mail unless I’ve got a mailbox!’ ” recounts McCahan. “We had a volunteer who designed and built a new box, and our member quickly had her mailbox.”

But McCahan isn’t slowing down just because her efforts have paid off. She’s got the volunteering bug, and she doesn’t see herself stopping anytime soon. “Ever since I got my first taste of volunteering, I see a need, and I look to how I can address it, how I can do something about it.” Her recent appointment to Contra Costa County’s Advisory Council on Aging is a prime example. McCahan plans to join the work group on affordable housing for older adults—something she sees as a vitally important issue in California. “[Housing is] so hard to come by,” she says.

While she continues to fight on, older adults in the Lamorinda area now have the help they need to stay in their homes, thanks to McCahan’s efforts. As of September, Lamorinda Village has 120 members. “We wouldn’t be here without Ruth,” declares Tiemann. “Any time a Village is established, it’s because someone had the vision and drive to make it happen. That’s certainly Ruth.”

How to help: Learn how you can volunteer for Lamorinda Village at lamorindavillage.org.

 

Aaliyah Washington

Christmas in Richmond  
Richmond

By Peter Crooks

On a Sunday afternoon, Aaliyah Washington stands in front of a group of senior citizens in an assisted care facility in Richmond and says hello. The 16-year-old high-school student speaks quietly as she introduces herself and recites a verse from Proverbs about having faith that God will guide an individual along the path she or he is destined to lead.

And then, she sings. 

Washington’s soft words are replaced with a powerful singing voice as she dazzles her audience with “Walk Around Heaven,” a gospel classic about the anticipation of a peaceful and eternal afterlife. After she sings, Washington sticks around to hang out with the seniors for the rest of the afternoon.

“I love spending time with them,” says Washington, who is a junior at Oakland School for the Arts. “They appreciate having someone to talk to, someone to pray with.”

Washington has been singing for seniors since she was five, and she has been volunteering for one cause or another for as long as she can remember. Volunteering is a family tradition—her mother, Edna Campbell, and her older sister, Burgundie Spears, created the Christmas in Richmond program to help the community during the holiday season by serving hot meals, handing out care packages, and giving toys and presents to children. The program began in 2005—one year before Washington’s family lost their home.

“We had our house foreclosed, but we felt a calling to help others that year and decided to cook dinner for 100 people on Christmas Day,” says Campbell, who has since built a successful career as a real estate agent. “It was a wonderful experience, with so many people pitching in to help. It was the most gratifying Christmas ever.”

Campbell adopted Washington through the foster care system when Washington was two years old. Campbell saw a lot of herself in Washington—both grew up in the suburban neighborhood of North Richmond with birth mothers who struggled with addiction and homelessness. 

“I’m so proud of this girl,” says Campbell, as she shares a meal with Washington in a Richmond café. “She hasn’t lived a selfish day in her life. She has always wanted to give to others.”

In addition to her year-round work with seniors and her assistance to the Christmas in Richmond campaign, Washington started an annual Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless. She was inspired to do so while visiting Southern California at age 12, when Campbell and Washington tried to track down a family member in downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row neighborhood. Washington was startled to see the rampant poverty of the homeless population living between the city’s glassy skyscrapers. 

“I wanted to do something to help, so I organized a performance with my singing group on Thanksgiving Day in a downtown park,” says Washington, who collected 250 bags filled with soap, toiletries, and other useful items to give away. The event was a spectacular success, as thousands of people came to hear Washington and her friends sing.

“We had no idea what to expect, and the response was incredible,” says Campbell. “People showed such appreciation that these young girls cared enough to come and sing and share Thanksgiving Day with them. A man came up to me and told me that he had been addicted to heroin for 40 years and that morning had said a prayer: ‘Lord, if you can’t help me stop, please kill me.’ He said that the concert was God telling him that he could get help.”

Washington has continued her Thanksgiving outreach each year by organizing elaborate dinners for homeless residents in the East Bay. She saves her money all year long to pay for the food and cooks for four days to prepare all the Thanksgiving dishes. She reaches out to local businesses to borrow tables, chairs, and other items to set up the dinners, which are held on the same city streets and freeway underpasses that double as homeless encampments. 

“We set up tables with beautiful centerpieces and put handwritten inspirational sayings at each seat,” says Washington. “Then, we all eat together as a big family.” After the feast, Washington and her singing group, Vocal Rush (which recently performed in an international singing competition at New York’s Carnegie Hall), sing for their guests. 

“As a vocalist, God gave me a tool to use,” says Washington, who plans to pursue a career as an actor and singer. “It is a joy to share my tool with anyone who can use some help and have their spirits lifted.” 

How to help:

Help support Washington’s 2018 Thanksgiving dinner by donating to her campaign at gofundme.com/thanksgiving-in-the-park.

 

 

The judges

Diablo readers submitted dozens of nominations for outstanding volunteers. Our panel of community leaders selected this year’s Threads of Hope honorees. 

Jeri Boomgaarden
Managing director of donor services and senior development officer, East Bay Community Foundation

Mark Flower
Senior vice president and regional managing director, Wells Fargo Private Bank

Gaby Ghorbani
Founder and director, Pledge to Humanity

Christine Wente
President, The Wente Foundation Board

Carole Wynstra
Board Member, Walnut Creek Library Foundation

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