Heroes, like the problems they solve, come in all shapes and sizes.
Not all heroes are the kind who rush into burning buildings or conquer seemingly superhuman feats.
More often than not they are otherwise everyday people who do the always difficult, sometimes tedious and typically uncelebrated work of improving the lives of others.
The Argonaut’s nine Local Heroes for 2014 mix hard work with altruism to do just that — whether it’s feeding the homeless, aiding in the recoveries of trauma survivors or simply stepping up to make their communities better places to live.
Photographs by Ted Soqui
A survivor paying it forward
“You are never who you were that moment before, so you absolutely have to reinvent yourself,” Laura Sharpe says of trauma survivors.
She would know.
The Marina del Rey resident was one of six people in a helicopter that crashed over Catalina Island in May 2008. Three people died, and Sharpe suffered 43 broken bones, burns to 40% of her body and the partial amputation of her foot. She also nearly lost an eye.
“I didn’t walk for three years,” Sharpe said, recalling the first words she spoke after waking from a weeks-long coma: “Divine intervention.”
With the help of six very supportive artist friends, Sharpe documented her agonizing recovery through years of digital photographs and notes that became “Re-Membered: Interpretations of Reconstruction,” a March 2011 exhibit at James Gray Gallery in Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station.
“They were the sparks. The process allowed me to transcend above and beyond my own private pain,” she said.
Then Sharpe felt compelled to be a spark for others. She founded Artists for Trauma, a nonprofit that pairs trauma victims with volunteer art teachers to help rebuild lives through the therapeutic power of art.
The group works with spinal injury patients through the Long Beach VA hospital and the Triumph Foundation, and also takes on individual cases. Success stories include a car crash survivor who learned to breathe properly again by studying Italian opera with a vocal coach.
“This work fulfills the truest meaning of what I was meant to do,” Sharpe said. “We’re not limited by our challenges; we’re challenged by our limitations.”
Visit artistsfortrauma.org. — Michael Aushenker
Feeding the multitude
Anthony Perez was driving through Venice on his way to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in October 2006 when, by stopping to help a stranger change a flat tire, he started down the path to another life transformation.
When Perez realized he had left his cell phone on top of a news rack before continuing along, the Good Samaritan called his own number to find a voice waiting on the other end of the line. A man named David agreed to meet Perez at Munis Liquor on Pacific Avenue to return the phone.
“As I’m talking to him, I find out he’s a Marine Corps veteran sleeping here on the beach. My dad was a vet, and I couldn’t see my dad fighting for his country and ending up homeless,” Perez said.
So Perez took David to the meeting and introduced his new friend to an old friend, actor Danny Trejo, whose story had inspired Perez to be more open to helping others. Perez left David with some cash that night and met him again the next morning, taking along a hot meal.
Seeing David share his breakfast with other homeless people, Perez decided
to keep the generosity coming. He founded the nonprofit Send Me a Penny, which distributes free food on weekends at Venice Beach. Last year the group provided 153,000 pounds of food to people in need.
Send Me a Penny also provides resources for getting people
off the streets for good.
David, who started working again with Perez’s help, is now employed fulltime at an auto repair shop.
“I was just in the motion of doing the right thing,” Perez reflected. “Everything’s been a blessing.”
Visit sendmeapenny.org. — Joe Piasecki
Naomi Nightingale has involved herself in civil rights activism since the late 1960s — largely in the Oakwood community, a historically African-American neighborhood in Venice.
She’s currently an informal liaison between Oakwood residents and the LAPD, a role that came about after a series of community meetings to (moderated by Nightingale) improve relations between police and residents following the 2012 police beating of teen skateboarder Ronald Weekley Jr.
“When people come together on an issue that you’re able to resolve in a collaborative fashion, that makes it all worthwhile,” Nightingale said of what drew her to activism.
Formerly chief of staff for retired Congresswoman Diane Watson, Nightingale also worked in the early 1980s as the director of Project New Focus, a U.S. Dept. of Labor initiative to help women who had been incarcerated transition back into neighborhoods. She helped women gain employment in areas that were unconventional for the time, including brick masonry and sheet metal work.
Former Venice Neighborhood Council President Linda Lucks nominated Nightingale as an Argonaut Local Hero.
“Naomi always brings a sensible approach to very controversial issues,” Lucks said.
Nightingale says her role can at times be a heavy responsibility.
“You have to be careful of what you say because people are paying attention,” she said with a laugh.
But seeing people being treated unfairly continues to motivate her.
“Injustice is something that I find intolerable. I try to bring justice to wherever I see injustice occur, and seeing some of the positive things that come from that keeps me going,” she said.
— Gary Walker
Richard Windebank & Fran Weber
Bringing kids to water
There’s something especially sad about the economic disparities that keep many kids who live a short distance from the world’s largest man-made small craft harbor from getting the chance to enjoy it.
Richard Windebank and Fran Weber are doing more than their part to change that.
Under their guidance, about 350 kids each year take part in a summer sailing program in Marina del Rey that’s jointly sponsored by the Fairwind Yacht Club and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice. Participating youth take turns launching small Hobie Cat sailing catamarans out of Mother’s Beach or tagging along in kayaks, learning the basics of safe boating along the way.
“We’re trying to get lots of kids out in the water, getting exposure to sailing and having fun,” said Windebank, adding that many participants come from struggling single-parent families and are often labeled at-risk youth.
Windebank has helped with the summer sailing program for five years. Weber, also active with the Women’s Sailing Association, has been a driving force behind it for more than a decade and gives additional time through Toastmasters to help club kids prepare Youth of the Year contest speeches and essays.
In March and April, both longtime Fairwind members play leading roles in a separate afterschool sailing program jointly sponsored by the yacht club, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice and the Marina del Rey Sheriff’s Station. That one takes students from Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista and Coeur d’Alene Avenue Elementary School in Venice out on group sailing sessions in full-size boats.
The one thing the participants share in common: “They all love it,” Windebank said.
Visit bgcv.org. — Joe Piasecki
In the past eight years, Mar Vista has become a citywide leader in sustainability efforts, gaining widespread recognition from City Hall and environmental groups for advancing water conservation efforts.
One of the key players behind that success is Jeanne Kuntz.
The 38-year Mar Vista resident is a cofounder of the popular Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase, an annual spotlight on homes with aesthetically pleasing landscapes that utilize native plants, rain barrels and other water-saving features.
On Sundays, Kuntz can usually be found at the Mar Vista Farmers Market’s “Green Tent,” started by the Mar Vista Community Council Green Committee (of which Kuntz is a member) to help neighbors exchange information and ideas about reducing their ecological footprints.
Kuntz is also active in Westside efforts to promote First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity and organized the “Wellness Tent” at Mar Vista’s inaugural Relay for Life in August.
“Jeanne was the heart and soul behind the growth of the Green Garden Showcase,” said Sherri Akers, a past co-chair of the Green Committee who nominated Kuntz as an Argonaut Local Hero. “For the first several years, I would bet that more than half of the gardens [on the tour] were recruited by Jeanne.”
For Kuntz the work “has been an enjoyable, expanding and inspiring experience,” she said. “It has connected me with a family of sorts, and I feel a sense of place in Mar Vista.”
Akers thanks Kuntz for keeping her motivated.
“She is never looking for attention or fanfare, and inspires so many and so much. Jeanne has been a wonderful coach and has helped me avoid burnout,” Akers said.
— Gary Walker
Building community among moms
Mothers get a lot of love, but they usually don’t get much help.
Enter VeniceMoms.net, a grassroots online network of moms helping moms.
Becoming a mother eight years ago marked a turning point in Regan Kibbee’s life. The problem was that few of her friends had taken the same leap, leaving little in the way of discussion and support.
So Kibbee created a Yahoo! Group called Venice Toddlers, which later merged with a group called Venice Moms.
The group functions as a platform for mothers in Venice, Mar Vista, Del Rey and other Westside communities to exchange observations and ideas about motherhood and family, share information about school options and local family-friendly activities, and sometimes even pass along hand-me-downs.
“It provides an opportunity for local moms to share parenting information and tips about local resources, and also connect for playdates and camaraderie,” Kibbee said.
Since Kibbee became moderator of the Venice Moms group in 2008, membership has climbed to a whopping 1,900 local families.
“When you become a mom, you want to connect with other moms. As the group has grown, it’s become more of a digital community,” she said.
Running the Venice Moms group also led Kibbee to become more active in community affairs. She’s fought for slower growth in Venice, and last year was a co-appellate in a successful neighborhood challenge to a controversial development on South Venice Boulevard.
While the group remains nonpolitical, Kibbee does post about city meetings and news impacting local neighborhoods.
“I feel the broader issues happening in and around Venice affect our quality of life as families, and people do respond,” she said.
Visit venicemoms.net. — Gary Walker
The education equalizer
Founder of the Crossroads and New Roads schools in Santa Monica, Paul Cummins began his journey as an education reformer by zoning out during a college history lecture.
At the end of class, “I kind of came out of my reverie and looked at what I had been writing. I had been outlining a curriculum for a high school,” recalled Cummins, who had been working under a realization that much of what he was learning in college he should have picked up during high school.
Cummins founded the progressive Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in 1971, attaching to its varied curriculum a public service component.
Compelled by the belief that students should have access to a quality education regardless of economic status, Cummins established the nonprofit New Visions Foundation in 1994 and the following year opened New Roads School, also in Santa Monica.
More than half of the K-12 student body at New Roads receives need-based financial aid, funded by 40% of the school’s tuition budget.
Cummins received special honors at this year’s My Hero Film Festival in Santa Monica, an event that encourages youth to engage with their icons. The ceremony included a short film in which actor Jack Black, a Crossroads graduate, played Cummins.
Under the New Visions banner, Cummins expanded his social justice work to include the Coalition for Educational Opportunities, which places at-risk foster youth in carefully chosen college-prep schools. He also launched an afterschool program for county probation camp wards, redirecting juvenile offenders to independent schools and colleges.
“There shouldn’t be two different educations in this country — a quality one for rich kids, a deprived one for poor kids,” Cummins said.
— Brian Adigwu
Phyllis J. Hayashibara
Keeping history honest
Sometimes, the students teach the teacher.
Shortly before former Venice High School history teacher Phyllis J. Hayashibara retired three years ago, student Scott Pine brought to class a special issue of the Free Venice Beachhead about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
What Hayashibara learned was the dark historical significance of the intersection of Lincoln and Venice boulevards: It was here in April 1942 that Japanese-American residents of Venice and Santa Monica reported for deportation to the Manzanar internment camp in Central California.
Hayashibara already knew the indignities of such camps: her parents were interned at one in Rohwer, Ark.
Hayashibara’s students wrote letters to then-Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl in support of building a permanent memorial at Lincoln and Venice — “We turned it into a service-learning experience,” she said — and Rosendahl ended up bringing the class to present the issue before the council.
Then the Venice Japanese-American Memorial Marker committee formed to lead the charge on erecting a nine-foot, six-inch obelisk (echoing the 14-foot one at Manzanar), and Hayashibara found herself at the center of the effort.
The committee has raised $100,000, and pending permits from the city and Caltrans the memorial is expected to be in place by next fall.
“This must serve as a reminder that we need to be vigilant about our constitutional rights,” said Hayashibara, who says the real heroes are her fellow committee members: Kay Brown, Don Geagan, Nikki Gilbert, Mae Kakehashi, Arnold Maeda, Brian Maeda, Alice Stek, Suzanne Thompson, Yosh Tomita, Emily Winters.
Visit venicejamm.org. —Michael Aushenker