Westsiders making a difference 2013
The late Mildred Cursh set a strong example of service for her daughter to follow.
Cursh volunteered for years with Prison Fellowship International, an international organization that provides chaplain work for prisoners and services for the families they leave behind. She also worked with the Concerned Parents Group of Venice’s Oakwood neighborhood, formed in the 1980s to combat the proliferation of drugs in the area at the time — for many, a pipeline into the criminal justice system.
When her mother died 11 years ago, Antoinette Reynolds established the Mildred Cursh Foundation, a Venice-based nonprofit that provides mentorship and other assistance for children of incarcerated parents. The foundation offers after-school tutoring, a food pantry and spirit-lifting educational and summer break events.
“My mother was the real hero,” said Reynolds. “She wanted her work with families who had relatives in the criminal justice system to continue, so I decided to create this foundation in her name.”
Reynolds said some of the children who visit the nonprofit talk about the loneliness they feel with one or both parents in prison, or how one parent has to work two or more jobs in order to provide for them.
“We try and bridge the gap that may exist by keeping them involved with different extracurricular activities,” she said.
Reynolds has also worked with Angel Tree, a project that provides holiday gifts for children on behalf of parents who cannot because they are in prison.
Hunter Cressman, a 2009 graduate of Loyola Marymount University who volunteered at the Cursh Foundation, had its learning center at the First Baptist Church in Venice added to the school’s Ignatians service organization’s list of volunteer assignments.
“Antoinette Reynolds is my tutor and mentor,” Cressman said in a statement about his service. “I hope one day to be as committed to service as she is.”
Also in keeping with her mother’s passions, Reynolds also works at the Phoenix House in Venice, a drug and rehabilitation organization. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
— Gary Walker
Aspiring actresses working at restaurants in Los Angeles are about a dime a dozen. Socially conscious aspiring actresses working at L.A. restaurants are not.
In 2010, Arun Storrs, a catering coordinator at Whiskey Red’s in Marina del Rey, started The Kumari Project, a nonprofit devoted to helping orphans in Katmandu lead stable and fulfilling lives.
Storrs can relate to the experiences of these orphans because she was one of them. Adopted from Nepal by Caucasian parents, Storrs grew up in Eugene, Ore., before attending Yale University and moving to Los Angeles to pursue acting.
“They don’t really know what happened to my parents,” she said, “but it said in my file that my birth mother had died three days after I was born in the hospital.”
Nepal “is this magical place that is so raw and terrifying, disgusting and dirty,” said Storrs, whose adoptive parents had taken her there on visits, “but also the most beautiful mountains in the world are there. The people there don’t think twice about offering you everything they have, even though you have twice as much.”
Storrs has volunteered annually at Bal Mandir, the very Katmandu orphanage her birth father gave her up to, since her junior year of college.
Now 27, Storrs wants to create a safe house in Nepal to shield 25 orphaned girls from the kind of instability that often leads to abuse and exploitation. Hoping to open the shelter this summer, Storrs has organized a series of fundraisers to reach her $60,000 goal, starting Tuesday with an event at Whiskey Red’s.
Following in the footsteps of Audrey Hepburn, who famously devoted herself to Third World causes, Storrs has a simple reason for prioritizing needs beyond her own: She feels blessed.
“I’ve lived the American dream. I grew up in a beautiful community and went to a great college. I’ve always felt a strong sense of social responsibility to use my resources on [the kids’] behalf. They really need advocates,” she said.
— Michael Aushenker
The Kumari Project’s S’mores and Whiskey Wonderland fundraiser is from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at Whiskey Red’s, 13813 Fiji Way, Marina del Rey. $25. Visit thekumariproject.org.
Nobody personifies the community spirit of the Venice canals better than actors Orson Bean and Alley Mills, who take being a good a neighbor to a whole new level.
The couple owns three connected houses on the canals — “a compound, like the Kennedys,” jokes Bean — and have frequently used their ample living space to temporarily house local artists, actors and friends of neighbors who’ve fallen on hard times.
The couple has also written checks and drummed up other support to help keep the Pacific Resident Theatre on Venice Boulevard afloat.
For more than a decade, Bean has funded, produced and starred in a light-hearted hour-long production of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” that’s free to all but especially designed for kids and families who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend live theater. This year’s production runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Venice Lutheran Church after a special staging tonight for disadvantaged South Los Angeles youth.
“But don’t say all that,” Bean, 85, cautioned. “They won’t want to see me play Scrooge.”
Bean, who has worked in film and television since the 1950s, and Mills, best known for her starring role on “The Wonder Years,” said they’re not really doing anything special. If anything, the couple (known to occasionally invite strangers to coffee on their front porch) is just behaving as canal residents would in the more freewheeling days of the 1960s and ‘70s.
“The canals have definitely gentrified, but the spirit of Venice lingers. We hang tight in this neighborhood,” Mills said.
Bean, a canal resident for more than 40 years, grew up in a house full of life and discussion, his father being a founding member of the ACLU’s New England branch. But Bean says it’s more a sense of well-being that makes him who he is.
“I wake up every morning feeling grateful that I’m not in the obit page, feeling happy and horny, and I like to share it — the happy, not the horny, I mean.”
— Joe Piasecki
Bean’s production of “A Christmas Carol” runs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 5 p.m. Sunday at Venice Lutheran Church, 815 Venice Blvd., Venice. Kids sit up front.
The tragedy of homelessness is doubly sad when it comes to children, especially when they are living alone and vulnerable on the streets.
Often runaways are fleeing dangerous and difficult situations at home, and these teens or even pre-teens seek shelter wherever they can find it. On the Westside, that often means along the Venice boardwalk.
Since December 2011, homeless youth in the area have been able to find a helping hand at a Safe Place for Youth, a resource center founded by Venice resident Alison Hurst at the First Baptist Church on Westminster Avenue.
Hurst has long been active in assisting homeless children in Venice. Before founding the center, she was a volunteer street outreach coordinator for a group that distributed, food, clothes, toiletries and other necessary supplies to kids living on or around the boardwalk and connected them with social services.
“Allison is an inspiration because she helps vulnerable, homeless, sad and scared young people who are completely on their own and are disconnected from their families for any number of reasons,” said Linda Lucks, a longtime Venice resident.
Hurst says there are many misperceptions about homeless youth, with some people writing them off as part of a criminal element or as lazy drug addicts.
“Many are in school and have jobs,” Hurst said, but do not have a relative or family member willing to take them in.
“Rare is the case that there us a lovely family to send them back to,” she said.
What keeps Hurst going, in part, is the reward of getting to know the teens that come to A Safe Place for Youth.
“It would be very difficult to continue this kind of work it weren’t for how wonderful these young people are,” she said.
Hurst also said the kids aren’t the only ones who benefit.
Helping them “has enriched my life beyond my wildest dreams,” she said. “They are the real heroes because of what they endure.”
— Gary Walker
It isn’t just finishing 52 marathons in 52 weeks that makes Julie Weiss a superstar, it’s why.
The Santa Monica accountant took up running several years ago as a way to stay healthy, but her ambitions quickly grew and, with the help of her father, she began training to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
After missing a Boston-qualifying finish time by just two minutes at the 2010 Long Beach Marathon — her 18th attempt — Weiss received devastating news: Her father had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and was given only weeks to live.
Maurice Weiss nonetheless insisted that his daughter continue to train. He died that November, a week before Weiss achieved her goal in Sacramento.
While recovering from the blow of losing her dad to an illness few people knew much about, Weiss decided to use the passion they had shared to raise awareness about pancreatic cancer and funds for a cure by attempting a marathon a week for a whole year.
“My father was my biggest fan when I was running, so I decided to go for it. I knew it could make a big splash and make some noise about a disease that is so severely underfunded,” she said.
Wearing out 12 pairs of purple shoes along the way, Weiss ran one marathon per weekend in different cities throughout the world and wound up raising from various sponsors more than $200,000 for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
Weiss, who chronicled her journey at marathongoddess.com, said the stories of others battling pancreatic cancer inspired her to complete the monumental physical feat.
When things got tough, “I’d think about the fight they’re up against and that would give me the energy to finish,” she said.
Weiss crossed her 52nd finish line in March at the Los Angeles Marathon, but continues to work as a speaker and fundraiser for the cause.
On May 21, faculty at University High School celebrated completion of a $3-million state of the art music studio, in many ways thanks to Art Shane.
The music instructor, who has taught for 12 years at the Westside high school, was instrumental in establishing Uni High’s new Magruder Music Complex.
What future beneficiaries of the facility may not realize is the difficult road Shane traveled since 2005 to achieve this feat, having been diagnosed several years ago with Parkinson’s disease.
About eight years ago, Uni High’s music department was relocated to an old shop room due to seismic safety concerns about its previous home. Shane began applying for state funds through the voter-approved Career Technical Education Facilities Program. After years of work despite medical challenges, Shane finally succeeded in persuading the California Department of Education to match a $1.5 million LAUSD commitment toward building the Magruder. Now Uni High students can create motion picture and animation soundtracks as well as record albums, radio plays and advertising spots at the studio space.
Shane, who has lived in Mar Vista since 2000 with his wife and two daughters, looks forward to teaching pupils at the new facility.
“It brings current music technology within reach for high school students,” he said of the studio, where formal coursework begins in January. “They don’t have to wait until community college. The ideal scenario is that Uni students will be trained to do the engineering.”
Shane is himself an accomplished musician, who relocated from New York to Los Angeles in 1986 after matriculating into USC’s film scoring program. As a keyboardist and accordionist, he has played jazz clubs all over L.A. and will be playing French music on Tuesday at the Sofitel Hotel in West Hollywood.
Shane said he takes glee in knowing his efforts will benefit budding musicians for many years to come.
“The campus has really been transformed,” he said. “It’s gratifying to see that you have some impact on the next generation.”
— Michael Aushenker
At 89, Lee Lodawer has become something of an institution at the Veterans Administration’s West Los Angeles Medical Center. She’s volunteered there five hours a day, five days a week for longer than a decade — more than 20,000 hours in all.
“When I first met her, I actually thought she was an employee,” said Shirley Bearden, the VA’s voluntary service specialist and Lodawer’s current supervisor. “They can throw a room number at her and she can tell you exactly where it is.”
Lodawer’s parents were not religious, yet they instilled in her the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (“healing the world”). Lodawer started helping out at the VA through husband Isadore “Izzy” Lodawer. After marrying in 1977, the World War II Air Force vet began assisting his fellow service members at the medical center.
“They were just so cute,” said the VA’s Marianne Davis, who supervised Lodawer for 10 years. “They would have lunch together. They were totally devoted to each other. They would split off to their different assignments. Lee would hold down the desk; Izzy, the medical library.”
Lodawer’s husband died in 2010, but she continued to show up.
“She’s one of the best,” Bearden said. “Ms. Lee has put in over 20,000 [volunteer] hours at the VA.”
“People love her,” Davis said. “They bring her flowers and gifts all the time.”
Lodawer, who made a home with her husband in Marina del Rey, said she misses him profoundly and feels compelled to continue their work.
“I have a lot of respect for all of these veterans, so I try to make life a lot easier for them,” Lodawer explained.
“She brings sunshine to the front lobby,” Utilization Review Nurse A.J. Brown said of Lodawer, one of the center’s 2,500 volunteers. “It’s always refreshing to see her looking very put together with that big smile, greeting and assisting veterans and visitors.”
— Michael Aushenker
Marie Atake was at a coffee shop one day when out the window she saw an animal control truck picking up a large stray dog. A woman at the scene told her the 125-pound shepherd mix had been abandoned by its owner, and the animal control officer said it would likely be euthanized at the pound.
Atake, who weighed about 40 pounds less than the dog, adopted it the next day. That was more than a decade ago.
The experience inspired Atake, a Marina del Rey resident who had been working as a video game company executive, to start Forte Animal Rescue — an all-volunteer dog rescue and adoption agency that has since saved 1,100 dogs from being euthanized at public animal shelters.
Some years, Forte spends as much as $40,000 of her own money to keep the effort going.
“Seeing those dogs and the families they make happy, that makes it all worthwhile,” she said of the rescue group, named for Atake’s fateful first pet.
Most of the dogs that come to Forte are rescued from animal shelters by volunteers who get attached to them, Atake said. The organization currently can handle about 45 dogs at a time, using a network of foster homes and boarding facilities to house them until they can be adopted. Rising boarding and veterinary care costs have been a struggle.
“The people who volunteer at the shelters, they’re the heroes,” Atake said. “They come in every week and care for animals they get attached to, and sometimes when they return those animals have been killed. I don’t know how they do it. So when we save these dogs, we are giving moral support to the volunteers at the pound.”
Forte Animal Rescue hosts a weekly dog adoption from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. Saturdays at Centinela Feed & Pet Supplies, 3860 S. Centinela Ave., Mar Vista. For more information about the group, visit farescue.com.
— Joe Piasecki
An author and illustrator who also heads his own publishing company, David Malki produces some of his most important books for free.
As a regular volunteer for the youth literacy nonprofit 826LA at its Mar Vista Time Travel Mart location, Malki helps students of local public elementary schools bring their imaginations to life as published authors.
Two or more times a week, Malki leads visiting students through a writing exercise in which they’ve been hired to work for a book publishing company in immediate need of new titles. With some creative prodding, the kids leave as published authors.
“My role, depending on the day, is either as an illustrator for the stories they come up with or on the microphone to play the curmudgeonly Mr. Barnacle — the publisher who is never satisfied with anything but is gradually won over by the stories they come up with,” said Malki, a Mar Vista resident.
Malki, who created the syndicated comic Wondermark as well as the game “Machine of Death” and the companion book “This is How You Die,” also illustrates monthly book projects complied by older students in 826LA’s afterschool programs.
“David’s positivity is infectious and his passion for our programs and our students is undeniable,” said Lauren Humphrey, who coordinates 826LA volunteer efforts in Mar Vista. “He brings not only his artistic and comedic talents to the table, but also the ability to inspire and encourage the students who leave our center as proud, published authors.”
If that wasn’t enough, Malki has hosted Westside fundraisers for the nonprofit and donates $1 from every sale of the “Machine of Death” card game to 826LA.
“Volunteering can seem like taking your medicine — what you do to be a good person, not because you want to — but I’d go there every day if I could because it’s fun,” Malki said.
— Joe Piasecki
David and Inge Scheinfarb love being on the water. It’s a passion they share not only with their three adopted children, but also scores of disadvantaged youth and disabled military veterans whom they teach the art of sailing through the Challenges Foundation.
The Scheinfarbs’ Marina del Rey-based nonprofit was founded in 1998 by Army veteran Nicholas Coster, who handed the organization — and its 64-foot wooden sailing vessel docked at Slip F800 — over to the couple in 2011.
Investing their own money, the Scheinfarbs refurbished the aging craft and expanded the mission of the foundation. Local donors, including local restaurant Killer Shrimp, later pitched in.
“We’ve completely reworked it. Though our main focus is still veterans, we added a community and a youth program,” David Scheinfarb said of the program.
The couple currently takes Veterans Administration hospital patients on sailing trips about twice a month, with other trips serving children involved with Boys and Girls clubs, scouting groups, a school for the disabled and the Sheriff’s Youth Activity League.
An Iraq War veteran, Navy reservist and emergency rescue diver, David Scheinfarb is a deputy sheriff based out of the Marina del Rey station. Inge Scheinfarb is a real estate agent. They adopted their three special needs children from South Korea and have each previously served as president of the Los Angeles chapter of Disabled Sports USA.
“Dave and Inge have funded [Challenges Foundation] out of their own bank accounts and put in their time and effort to provide this memorable experience and opportunity for members of the local community,” said Bryan Cole, a business associate. “These are two people who have a passion for helping others.”
Asked why they were willing to take over the foundation on their own dime, Inge Scheinfarb had a simple answer.
“We didn’t want to see it sink,” she said of the boat and its purpose.
— Gary Walker