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Breaking New Ground_

Author: Judith M. Wilson
January, 2013 Issue

New nonprofit organizations are forming in Napa, Marin and Sonoma counties as local philanthropists and activists reach out to make life better for others.

 
 
Sadie, a jet-black cockapoo, races up the road at the back of Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery in San Rafael and approaches the gate at the top with her tail wagging. Her enthusiasm and nonjudgmental friendship fit right in at the spot high above the tombstones and well-tended lawns, the site of Growing Excellence in Marin (GEM). She’s a welcome visitor in this place of fresh starts for people who face significant challenges in their lives.
 

Growing plants and people

A new program of Integrated Community Services (ICS), GEM teaches horticulture, gardening and customer service skills to participants, preparing them with job skills so they can become employed in the community. GEM was built in 2010, but ICS goes back farther. Executive Director Donna Lemmon incorporated ICS, a registered 501(c)3, in 1994 because she wanted to provide services to all disability groups, from those with mental illness, traumatic head injuries and autism to others with learning and physical handicaps or developmental disabilities. “I wanted to develop a program that provided services for all disability groups. It had to be innovative and creative, because everyone we serve has a story,” she says.
 
The belief at the heart of ICS’ work is that people with disabilities, whether physical or psychological, can perform well in the workplace and lead independent lives when they have the proper encouragement and support. “Everybody is entitled to live and work in the community,” says Lemmon.
 
The same belief is inherent at GEM, which provides one-to-one, hands-on job training in a three-to-nine-month program that prepares participants for entry-level jobs as greenhouse, nursery or customer service employees. “I’ve always loved gardening, and we needed a program that could provide some support and training for people who were ready to get to work,” says Lemmon, explaining her inspiration.
 
Candidates go through an assessment to determine whether they’re a good fit. If they meet the criteria, they do a trial work period of 40 hours to determine if they can benefit from the one- to four-month training. “Sometimes, soft skills are as simple as seeing if people can show up to work on time and follow through with structured activities,” says Lemmon. Those who are accepted work with Miguel Cortes, a certified horticulturist who has a degree in environmental horticulture and urban forestry from UC Davis, and Andrew Cullen and Jean Sandoval, two garden educators with backgrounds in social work. “They have experience working with people with disabilities, and they have a love of farming,” says Lemmon.
 
Cortes says that many clients have never gardened in their lives, and so, as a professional who knows how to do things correctly, he has to step back and resist the temptation to intervene when something isn’t quite right. “I have to remember this is a learning environment. We want this to be about them,” he says, observing the need to put people before plants. He adds that he loves to teach and enjoys watching people change as they go through the training. “We see people grow. Horticulture is therapeutic,” he says.
 
Clients grow micro-greens in the greenhouse, placing soil in homemade trays, sprinkling seeds on top and then keeping them moist until they start to sprout, and in outdoor planting beds, they grow vegetables, herbs and flowers, which they offer for sale. The Panama Hotel in San Rafael has a standing order for micro-greens and flowers, and GEM is a vendor each Wednesday at the Corte Madera Farmers Market, giving clients a chance to learn customer service skills. “It’s about building self-esteem through eye contact and simply greeting someone,” says Lemmon.
 
During the last month of training, clients connect with a job developer at ICS’ San Rafael offices, who helps them prepare for the job search, including giving training on writing résumés and interviewing skills as well as shopping for appropriate clothing, if necessary. “We believe in ‘WIT’—whatever it takes—to make sure our participants are provided with the support they need to become successful,” says Lemmon, adding that about 50 clients have gone through the program so far, and Pini ACE Hardware in Novato, Bayside Garden Center in Tiburon and Richmond-based Gardeners’ Guild are among the businesses that have hired them.
 
Funding to establish GEM came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which paid for startup costs for one year. The program also gets funding from the Golden Gate Regional Center, the California Department of Rehabilitation and Marin County Health and Human Services-Community Mental Health, as well as from private sources such as the Crescent Porter Hale Foundation in Mill Valley. In addition, ICS holds an annual fund-raiser, the Blue Jean Ball.
 
GEM also has friends on the staff at Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery, including owner Buck Kampausen, who donated the hilltop lot and helped prepare the site, putting in water and electricity. “We like to give back,” says cemetery manager Jack Thornton.
 
In addition, the office sells GEM’s flowers, so visitors from out of town can purchase blooms onsite and find out about the program from Thornton. “They feel good knowing their money is going to a good cause,” he says. He also hires GEM trainees to help with landscaping and implement new ideas in the cemetery’s gardens.
 
“GEM is one of the hidden gems of Marin County,” says Lemmon. “It’s a wonderful training program.”
 

Little things count

Some lucky kids in Healdsburg are excited about practicing their new reading skills on iPads, thanks to the largesse of the John Jordan Foundation, which funded a pilot project to put the tablets in the Healdsburg Unified School District’s kindergarten, first and second grade classes this school year. Launched in March 2012, the privately funded organization, which is dedicated to “supporting children’s success from cradle to career,” is lending a hand to schools throughout Sonoma County to help close the gaps in the educational system, and that includes funding for everything from technology to chicken coops.
 
“California is essentially a fiscally failed state. Schools are suffering,” says John Jordan, CEO of Jordan Vineyard and Winery in Healdsburg and chairman of the board of the John Jordan Foundation. He believes Californians who are doing well should address the disparities and assist schools, particularly those in low-income areas, so teachers can give their students opportunities that will improve educational outcomes. Putting thought into action, he established his foundation to do just that.
 
With 71,000 students and 177 schools in 40 districts in Sonoma County, the foundation has a lot of territory to cover, but it’s already having an impact. On November 10, the foundation announced recipients of Teachers’ Wishes, a mini-grant program that awarded $300 each to 100 teachers throughout the county, letting them be creative and do things in their classrooms they otherwise could not afford to do. Dr. Steven Herrington, Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools, is grateful for the support. “The John Jordan Foundation’s mini-grants recognize the talent of our teachers and their ideas for improving instruction. Every single mini-grant is bringing new resources into our classrooms and positively impacting students,” he says. “In these difficult economic times, the foundation has stepped up to voice its support for Sonoma County public schools and provided direct support to the educators who make learning happen in our classrooms every school day.”
 
Foundation president Lisa Wittke Schaffner says the response to the call for grant proposals was overwhelming, with 396 varied requests from teachers, ranging from field trips to math tools. At first, she says, “It was hard to imagine $300 would make a difference.” When she reviewed the ideas, though, she saw their value. “The teachers really put a lot of thought into these proposals,” she says. “We’d fund every single one if we could.”
 
Teachers must implement the grants this year, so the results will show quickly. Schaffner believes helping kids who don’t have resources is important, and says, “We’re happy we can be a bridge between our schools and the community.” However, she adds, “We as a community have to step up.”
 
Jordan recruited Schaffner to serve as president and considers the foundation fortunate to have her. A Healdsburg native, mother of one junior high student and one high schooler, mayor of Healdsburg for two years, city council member for two terms and CEO of the Sonoma County Alliance for seven years, she’s uniquely qualified for the position.
 
In her position with Sonoma County Alliance, a partnership of community leaders, businesses and organizations, she worked on behalf of all the county’s residents. “My passion moved toward improving the health of Sonoma County,” she says, explaining that health also encompasses education and income. Her work led to an association with the Sonoma County Office of Education, and she became interested in local schools, so when Jordan offered her the job, “It was very, very exciting,” she says. “The timing was perfect.” (Schaffner was also recently elected to the Sonoma County Board of Education.)
 
The foundation got off to a fast start. “The first thing we funded was accreditation for Catholic Charities,” says Schaffner. Since then, the foundation has made 20 other donations, including the iPad pilot program at the beginning of the academic year, with the mini-grant allocations following on November 1. She also mentions funds for Petaluma Little League and a special tricycle for a child experiencing problems with motor skills, expenditures that Jordan, a lawyer and former naval officer, promptly approved. Jordan personally funds the foundation, and Schaffner says, “John is very, very generous and innovative. He really has a love for the community.”
 
In the future, the John Jordan Foundation will probably consider funding larger amounts, but for the moment, the focus is on small ideas that deliver meaningful results. “It’s the excitement of doing the little things,” says Schaffner.
 

Reaching for the moon

When President John F. Kennedy announced America’s goal to put a man safely on the moon within a decade on May 25, 1961, the country was captivated, and the space race was on. Half a century later, Rutherford-based One Mind for Research celebrated the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s speech with another momentous announcement: its plan to find a cure for diseases of the brain and eliminate the stigma associated with them within the next 10 years. It’s a lofty goal, but with Garen and Shari Staglin of Rutherford a driving force (with co-founder and former congressman Patrick Kennedy), the work is well on its way. “It’s our version of the moon shot,” says Garen.
 
The Staglins founded the Music Festival for Mental Health at the Staglin Family Vineyard to raise money for research in 1995, five years after discovering that their son, Brandon, then a college student, was suffering from schizophrenia. That successful effort grew into IMHRO (International Mental Health Research Organization) in 2008, and One Mind for Research followed in 2011. “It’s a continual evolution of our mission,” says Garen, who calls the new organization an expansion that’s concerned with all disorders of the brain, while IMHRO concentrates on mental illness. He expects One Mind to receive its own 501(c)3 status in the first quarter of 2013, making it a separate legal entity.
 
“We were fortunate to have partnered with Patrick Kennedy,” he adds, explaining that he and Kennedy—son of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, nephew of the late president and a former Democratic congressman representing Rhode Island from 1995 to 2011—worked together on the Mental Health Parity Act, legislation that prevents insurance companies from shortchanging mental health patients by dropping their coverage after five years. Kennedy himself struggles with mental illness and is keenly aware of the stigma that accompanies it in our culture, so when he decided not to run for reelection, he put his name and efforts into joining the Staglins to found One Mind for Research to raise money for more and better research.
 
Vice President Joe Biden endorsed the launch of One Mind for Research and put forth the challenge at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston on May 25, 2011, at a three-day scientific conference; the next step was hiring a CEO. General Peter W. Chiarelli was on the short list, and the time was right because he was retiring from the U.S. Army in 2012. Chiarelli, who had served as the vice chief of staff, was concerned about the large number of soldiers coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, and he found the high incidence of returning soldiers who committed suicide especially troubling. “Some wounds are invisible. [Peter] became very well informed and cared about doing something about this,” says Garen. Chiarelli accepted the position, and One Mind for Research announced his appointment in March 2012.
 
Among the organization’s major goals is the integration of all the different brain diseases under one umbrella for purposes of fund-raising, research and political advocacy, as well as public education. Shari says the range of disorders One Mind for Research seeks to address is “everything from autism to Alzheimer’s” and includes Down syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS) and multiple sclerosis, all of which present physical symptoms, but have their origins in the brain.
 
“There’s an American Heart Association, but no unifying organization across all brain disorders,” Garen adds. He points out that the National Cancer Institute has unified all research on that disease into one entity, but when it comes to the brain, the National Institute of Health has nine different departments dealing with brain disorders—and with no coordination, they’re competing for dollars. He further points out that brain research raises less money than heart and cancer research but, globally, diseases of the brain affect more people. “It’s time to do something about this,” he says. “If the brain isn’t working, nothing else will.”
 
One Mind for Research’s current goal is raising $10 million for research with a principal investigator, and by fall 2012, it had reached the halfway point. Nine sites will participate in the study, seven in the United States, one in Canada and two in the United Kingdom. “We’ll launch the program and be enrolling patients in the first half of 2013,” says Garen.
 
One of the keys to the project is a portal, which is an online platform that lets scientists around the world share research and information. A multi-industry task group that includes General Electric, IBM and a number of other data processing companies and organizations has already completed the design and launched the portal.
 
Although One Mind for Research has an international reach with a main office in Seattle, its heart is in Rutherford, in IMHRO Executive Director Cindy Dyar’s office at Staglin Family Vineyard. The organization does all its filings from her office, and she’s responsible for coordination of its various efforts. “Cindy has to train all these other people and be Mother Hen,” says Shari.
 
Dyar, an Indiana native, came to California five years ago. She met the Staglins when she was living in North Carolina and says, “We had a good fit of nonprofit experience and vineyards.” She finds the commitment of the Staglins, who underwrite costs so donor funds can go directly to research, impressive and observes that Napa Valley is home to significant philanthropy. “I love it in Napa. It’s a wonderful place to live,” she says.
 
Literally hundreds of nonprofit organizations are operating in Napa, Marin and Sonoma counties, and new ones keep appearing as local philanthropists and activists reach out to make life better for others. The commitment of Garen and Shari Staglin, Donna Lemmon and John Jordan is indicative of a generous spirit and shows that we live in a special area indeed.

 

 

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