Every year, Diablo asks readers to tell us about unsung heroes in the East Bay—individuals who are changing our region for the better through their volunteer work. This year’s Threads of Hope honorees include an octogenarian doctor who treats patients for free, a photographer who captures families’ precious moments, a nonprofit founder
driven to help Tri-Valley teens, a tireless proponent of foster care youth, and a woman dedicated to making seniors’ dreams come true.
Diablo readers submitted dozens of nominations for outstanding volunteers. This panel of community leaders selected this year’s Threads of Hope honorees:
Managing director of donor services and senior development officer, East Bay Community Foundation
Senior vice president and regional managing director, Wells Fargo Private Bank
Founder and director, Pledge to Humanity
Board member, Walnut Creek Library Foundation
Moment by Moment
By Peter Crooks
Karen Henrich clicks through a slideshow of photos on her computer in her home office in Alamo. The pictures show a Walnut Creek family in a garden—a young mother, father, and daughter sharing moments of joy, love, and connection. The portraits were taken weeks before the daughter passed away following a battle with cancer.
Henrich has spent 14 years providing photography to thousands of Bay Area families. The project began as a favor for a friend with a sick child, but Henrich realized her skills could meet an underserved need. She created Moment by Moment to capture "the love, hope, determination, and courage" of families with a child facing terminal illness or a life-impacting condition. "The photos provide an important document of that time they have together as a family," says Henrich. "The session can be extremely therapeutic, and the photographs have incredible ongoing meaning."
Thanks to relationships with various hospitals, Henrich is able to schedule free photo sessions for families with ill children. Often, the shoots occur in the hospital, but even with tight environments, fluorescent lights, and limited time, Henrich and her team of photographers are able to create beautiful portraits. "It’s all about finding a natural moment," Henrich says. "No one is forced to smile if they are uncomfortable or tired. But we try and capture that feeling of connection between the family members."
Moment by Moment gives the family a flash drive filled with pictures and gift cards to help them print the images. Henrich estimates that her organization will provide photo sessions to 750 families in 2019, a number that has grown each year since she created the nonprofit in 2006.
Jessamyn and Robert Picton own an East Bay–based photography business and have been donating their services to Moment by Moment for several years. They say the experience has been invaluable. "So often, I’ll be driving away from a session, and I’ll get very emotional," Jessamyn says.
Adds Robert: "Our work with Moment by Moment … helps us remember to be thankful for all that we have, and to remember that we need to make an effort to help others."
How to help: Financial donations go toward purchasing flash drives and gift cards for families in need. momentbymoment.org.
Youth Homes Auxiliary
By Peter Crooks
"When I was a little girl, I loved to play store," Edie Henchey says. "I could play for hours, showing items to my family and friends, then ringing them up at the register."
That childhood love of retail may help the Walnut Creek resident stay interested in running the Youth Homes Thrift Shop in Pleasant Hill after many years. Her countless hours of work have provided foster children with birthday gifts and backpacks stuffed with school supplies: 100 percent of sales from the thrift store benefit children in the Youth Homes program. The East Bay nonprofit has two fully staffed homes in Concord, one in Pleasant Hill, and one in Lafayette; each contains six beds for children in foster care.
"The kids in our program have been through incredible trauma," says Beth Goldberg, chief development officer for Youth Homes. "The money that comes from the thrift store and the fundraisers that Edie and the Youth Homes Auxiliary Foundation organize pays for things that most of us take for granted, like trips to the beach. They help the kids get away from their trauma for a little while, so they can feel like kids."
Henchey became involved with Youth Homes in 2009, when she moved to Rossmoor from Kentucky. Within a few years of joining the Youth Homes Auxiliary board, Henchey became the organization’s president.
"We would put on crab feeds and fashion shows, and weeks of work would result in a few thousand dollars raised," she says. "It became clear the real money was in the thrift store."
Henchey led a group of volunteers in renovating the shop, stocking it with gently used clothing, books, and small furniture items. Since the 2014 remodel, the store has raised $100,000 each year for the kids in Youth Homes facilities.
In addition to her support of Youth Homes, Henchey also spends one afternoon a week working at Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation’s thrift store and another day meeting one-on-one with teenagers at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility, which houses delinquent teens.
"I’ve always wanted to help children and animals," she says. "They’re the ones who can’t speak up for themselves."
How to help: "We always need volunteers to work in the shop," Henchey notes. "We need donations as well. Those clothes in the back of your closet have great value." Donations are accepted at the Youth Homes Thrift Shop (15 Vivian Dr., Ste. B, Pleasant Hill) from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Saturday. youthhomes.org, youthhomesauxiliary.org.
Order of Malta Clinic of Northern California
By Peter Crooks
At age 89, Dr. Tom Wallace shouldn’t be expected to work full-time. After all, he already spent nearly half a century as a practicing neurologist—much of that time in Livermore and Pleasanton—before retiring to care for his late wife, Coni, in 2001. After Coni passed away in 2012, Wallace was attending Mass one day, and a fellow worshipper told him about the Order of Malta free medical clinic across from Oakland’s Lake Merritt. "He suggested I volunteer there," Wallace says. "A priest behind us overheard our talk. He told me, ‘You should do that.’ I thought, Perhaps I should."
For five years, Wallace has been working four days per week at the clinic, which treats patients without health coverage for free. Its name references one of Catholicism’s oldest orders. "The mission has always been to help the sick and the poor," Wallace says. "It’s no different today than it was in ancient Jerusalem."
Soft-spoken and congenial, Wallace has treated more than a thousand patients since 2014. "There is a real sense of love," he says of the relationship between the clinic’s staff and patients.
Justin Close, an Oakland-based chef in his late 40s, was in need of medical services last year after spending a few days with a high fever. Having let his health insurance lapse due to financial constraints, he went to the clinic for help. "I had double-lung pneumonia, which meant I had no oxygen going to my blood," Close says. "My heart was beating so fast, I almost had a heart attack. I blacked out before the end of the appointment."
Wallace treated Close and had the patient rushed to Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, where he was put in an induced coma for one week and given a lifesaving combination of medication and treatments. When he came out of his coma, Close was confused and had lost 30 pounds.
"I was in a situation where I was shocked, but Dr. Wallace’s manner was very soothing," Close recalls. "He told me, ‘Just take it one day at a time and listen to your body, and you’re going to live a long time.’"
Close is grateful for the care he received. "If anyone should be nominated for sainthood," he adds, "it’s Dr. Wallace."
How to help: "We always need volunteers—nurses, doctors, and those who can help with filing systems and things that need to be controlled carefully," Wallace says. "We could really use a social worker to come in a few hours per week to assist patients after they leave, especially helping them to get health insurance." orderofmaltaclinic.com.
An Elderly Wish Foundation
By Emilie White
When Sharon Beswick Pappas attended one of the first meetings of An Elderly Wish Foundation with her husband in 2001, she was immediately drawn to the organization’s goal: granting ill seniors a "wish" in their final years to bring them some joy and put smiles on their faces. "I had a special calling to gerontology nursing, which is taking care of the older population," says Pappas, who retired in 2013 after working for 42 years as a registered nurse. "When I heard about this nonprofit and what they were doing for people at the end of life, I fell in love with it. It was a perfect fit."
Pappas was eventually invited to join the foundation’s board and has worked tirelessly to help the group grant some 200 wishes to date. She is also its connection to the East Bay Community Foundation, which gives locals the opportunity to set up funds to benefit regional nonprofits.
Pappas delights in telling stories about the various wishes granted by the foundation—from reuniting a participant with old friends, to watching a favorite team in action, to thanking caregivers for their work. Often, granting the wish becomes a community effort. When one recipient wanted to take a trip to New York to experience a Broadway show with his wife, the couple’s neighbors offered their Marriott points for a free hotel stay. Then, JetBlue provided a complimentary round-trip flight, and the theater gave them tickets to the show and built a ramp for the man’s wheelchair, so he could come onstage to meet the cast. "The serendipity of it is amazing," Pappas says. "That’s one of the best things that happens."
After almost 20 years of working with An Elderly Wish Foundation, Pappas remains convinced of the importance of the organization’s mission. "This is something unique, because it highlights happy," she says. "A lot of programs for seniors are for people that are ill, that have a chronic illness, that are living under financial problems, or dealing with loneliness. We can’t take away that stuff from people, but we can give them a wonderful experience."
How to help: Those interested in supporting An Elderly Wish Foundation can donate via its annual Heart to Heart Ball, held on February 22, 2020. Additionally, the organization is always looking for recommendations of potential recipients. elderlywish.org.
By Marybeth McCullum
It’s not unusual for Linda Turnbull to have strangers pour out their hearts to her. She has walked alongside parents who have kids struggling with addiction and depression, and she’s cried with parents who have lost children to overdoses and suicide. The trust she has earned comes from 25 years of commitment to Teen Esteem, the nonprofit she founded in 1994 when she saw how teens’ risky choices often led to heartache and pain.
Determined to reach young people before they made decisions that would derail their futures, Turnbull developed a curriculum and began speaking and leading discussions in local schools. Today, she oversees 15 trained speakers who conduct programs for students from kindergarten through high school. And demand for Teen Esteem’s services grows each year. Turnbull’s goal is for all students in the Tri-Valley to hear that their value is based on who they are, not what they do, and that they deserve to be treated with respect.
Turnbull sums up her work as: "giving kids confidence … and [empowering them] to make choices they will ultimately benefit from." As she puts it: "I want to help kids in our community write a great story for their lives."
As Teen Esteem’s executive director, Turnbull leads a team that addresses issues relevant to students. "She is the most dedicated, devoted woman I know," says advisory board member Rebecca Pine. "She is passionate about our youth and the issues they face, and works 24/7 for their benefit."
Teen Esteem continually updates its content, focusing on contemporary topics such as vaping, drugs and alcohol, social media, and relationships. The group’s speakers discuss potential consequences of risky behavior and share real-life stories during engaging and interactive presentations. Speakers are especially sensitive to students struggling with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. They emphasize to kids that their lives matter, they are loved, and there are people in the community who care about them.
Students feel the impact. "The presentation was life-changing for me, because I would have committed suicide," one wrote. "If I wasn’t inspired, I wouldn’t be here."
How to help: Teen Esteem is looking for volunteers to assemble key chains printed with the phone number for the Contra Costa County crisis hotline, to give out to middle and high school students. Email email@example.com, and Teen Esteem will supply all the materials. teenesteem.org.