They are some of the unsung heroes among us who have been doing valuable work in our local communities through a number of unique ways. Whether by advocating for the homeless, standing up for animals or through another admirable means, they have taken it upon themselves to make a difference in our area. For the first time this Thanksgiving, The Argonaut is honoring several local heroes as nominated by you, the community.
Edizen Stowell: Connecting the community through images
If it weren’t for Edizen Stowell, many people in Venice might not have a visual record of the different happenings and news events that have taken place in recent years.
Stowell can be seen with her camera at any number of functions throughout the community as she is the owner of Venice Paparazzi, a photography based website dedicated to documenting various events in Venice.
Since 2006, Stowell has tirelessly been taking photos at Venice events and creating on-line galleries where people can visit, and many times, obtain free photos of themselves, supplying the community with a historical archive for this time period.
“It’s about connecting people; that’s what photos do, they connect people and document our lives,” she said.
Stowell has additionally created a program called “Send a Photo to Someone You Love,” where homeless people are given a makeover and then have their picture taken, printed and put in a stamped envelope to be sent to their family.
The arts community of Venice has also been impacted by Stowell’s efforts, as she is a co-founder of the Venice Art Crawl, a monthly free event of pop-up art galleries. As a result, hundreds of local artists have had a chance to showcase their work.
Furthermore, Stowell produced this year’s Dog-o-ween event, hosting a red carpet photo booth, costume contest and dog parade for local canines.
Enrique Fernandez: A neighborhood promoter
Enrique Fernandez has been a mainstay in Mar Vista Gardens for several decades. He recalls growing up in the Del Rey public housing complex in the 1970s, when it was a time of close ties between family and friends in “the Gardens” but also fewer opportunities for Latino youth as well as gang violence, which exploded in the 1980s.
As a volunteer youth coach at the complex where he was raised, Fernandez was instrumental in working with Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s office in helping to secure lighting at the soccer and baseball fields at Mar Vista Gardens.
He worked with officers at the Pacific station of the Los Angeles Police Department to create a safer atmosphere at Mar Vista Gardens and initiated the Del Rey Cup, a two-day soccer tournament that features teams from Del Rey as well as throughout Los Angeles.
“One of the things that I wanted to do was to make people in Mar Vista Gardens feel like they were a part of Del Rey,” Fernandez, who works for a downtown law firm, said.
After being recruited by former Del Rey Neighborhood Council President Mark Redick, Fernandez sought the Area G seat on the council, which includes Mar Vista Gardens, where he advocates on behalf of his constituents.
Marianne Brown: Passing on the green thumb to schools
After nearly two decades of teaching at the UCLA School of Public Health, Marianne Brown began a new career working outdoors.
For seven years, Brown has been active in planting gardens at Walgrove Avenue Elementary School, Mark Twain Middle School and Venice High School in Mar Vista.
Sustainability has become synonymous with Mar Vista, and Brown, whose daughters attended the three Mar Vista schools, said it is a pleasure to be in a community that welcomes and celebrates healthy living.
“I’ve always liked working outside and I like working with children so the two just went together,” Brown said. “I feel really fortunate to work in a community that values healthy living and sustainability.”
She has also been working with local teachers and fellow master gardeners to incorporate lessons from gardening into lesson plans at the abovementioned schools.
Melya Kaplan: Giving a voice to the animals
If formerly homeless or abused cats and dogs in Venice could speak, many of them would likely say thank-you to longtime resident Melya Kaplan.
Kaplan is the founder and executor director of Voice For The Animals, a nonprofit organization that advocates for less fortunate animals to save them from inhumane treatment and untimely death.
In addition to programs that respond directly to public need such as the Animal Emergency Hotline and the Elderly Companion Animal Rescue and Adoption, Kaplan’s organization has spearheaded other programs to educate the community about the dangers facing these living creatures who cannot speak for themselves.
“It’s all about protection for the animals and taking care of the animals; it’s about educating people about respecting the animals and understanding their needs,” she said.
Kaplan recalled that she was inspired to start Voice For The Animals after seeing many homeless cats and dogs wandering the streets of Venice when she first moved to the community.
“Nobody wants to be homeless – not a human, not an animal. Everybody deserves a home,” she said.
Voice For The Animals has expanded its outreach to other parts of the city including East Los Angeles and Skid Row and among their services is providing medical care for pets of homeless veterans.
Recognizing the need for enforcement, Kaplan also led two successful Los Angeles Police Department trainings on animal cruelty in 1996 and 1999. She is one of the founders of the Animal Cruelty Task Force which is under the auspices of the LAPD and works to prosecute violent crimes against animals.
Bernard Harris: Service with wings
Dr. Bernard Harris is a retired anesthesiologist who has taught inexpensive first aid classes at Santa Monica Airport for over 10 years. In addition, he offers his services as a pilot for Angel Flight West, a nonprofit organization that provides free, non-emergency air travel for children and adults with serious medical conditions. Angel Flight West operates out of the Santa Monica Airport.
According to a friend, Harris has conducted approximately 25 to 50 complimentary flights a year for the non-profit, transporting patients to appointments with their physicians or to hospitals. Another program affiliated with Angel Flight is Earth Angel, which provides medical patients with automobile transportation to their physical therapy or hospital.
A Santa Monica resident, Harris is the conductor of the train ride that runs at the Travel Town Museum and is enjoyed by both youths and adults.
Sue Levitt: Watching out for youth
Sue Levitt couldn’t bear the idea that homeless youth were not getting services they needed simply for not having proper identification.
The Mar Vista resident had learned of such issues as a member of Safe Place for Youth, an organization in Venice that works to find, stabilize, and assist homeless youth under the age of 25 and improve their lives.
After accompanying an injured young woman who spent hours waiting for surgery because she had no ID, Levitt wanted to ensure that other youth at SPY would not face the same problem. She began to help the youth who have been released from the foster care system obtain the proper identification for employment or medical care. SPY also offers the youngsters a warm dinner two times a week.
A single mother of two grown children, Levitt wanted to get involved with SPY to help make a difference for people less fortunate than herself. She has been grateful for the relationships she has formed with local youth.
“It’s beyond amazing,” she said.
Every Thanksgiving, Levitt, an employee of Coldwell Banker in Marina del Rey, works the mobile eye clinic in Santa Monica helping kids and adults get new glasses at no cost.
She has also been involved with other organizations such as the LAPD Pacific Division Boosters Association, where she is a past president and has held summer swim parties for the cadets. Levitt is a past president and current member of the Venice Marina Lyons Club where she organizes the annual Bingo game which is a big fundraiser for the club.
Booker Pearson: Stepping up for the homeless
When Westchester Park was becoming a magnet for homeless people to camp overnight, resident Booker Pearson looked at the human side of the problem.
The chair of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa’s Homelessness and Vehicular Living Committee, he began working with City Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s office, People Assisting the Homeless and other groups to assess the needs of those living in the park and initiate a plan to connect them with resources as well as transitional housing.
Part of the process was conducting a count of the number of homeless and people living in RVs in Westchester Park as well as at the Ballona Wetlands to get a better sense of the issues they were facing. He says it began with compassion and recognizing that above all, they are people, who due to a variety of complications were spending their nights outside.
“It helps us all,” he said about assisting the homeless. “It increases the quality of life of all our neighbors and it’s a win-win for all of us.”
As a result of the efforts involving Pearson, PATH and Rosendahl’s office, 22 out of the 30 homeless individuals who were sleeping in Westchester Park were moved into housing. Pearson was additionally active in helping a family of five who were living in their van find housing. Working with homeless youth has been a passion for Pearson, who has been involved in the Upward Bound social service organization for 20 years.
“When you can get a family housed it’s probably one of the best feelings you’ll ever get in your life,” he said.
As a local homeless advocate, Pearson was appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Commission. This Thanksgiving, Pearson will join others in serving meals to the homeless as he has done for many years.