Five who’ve survived and thrived
Chico State alumni following their passions to make an impact
When members of the Chico State University class of 2009 walk down the aisle this weekend, they will join hundreds of thousands of other alumni who’ve earned their degrees and gone on to successful careers.
Success often is measured by material gain, but that’s not the only criterion. The richness of a life also can be gauged by the impact made on others.
Journalism students of Leslie Layton-Flores profiled alums who’ve made—and continue to make—a difference by following their passions. Here are five of their stories.
Reaching kids with a smile
Jory John, BA ’02
When Jory John was an opinion writer for Chico State’s student newspaper, The Orion, he created a unique and high-tech method for revising his work. After writing his piece, he’d print it, fold it and stick it in his back pocket. Once a day, John would pry the paper out and re-read it. He’d then revise it. Back in the pocket it went. This would continue for days on end “until they took it from me forcefully,” he said.
Asked about him recently, Orion adviser Dave Waddell fell back in his office chair and smiled at the sound of John’s name.
“I knew he wasn’t someone who’d end up in a conventional newspaper job,” Waddell said. “He was very popular because of his unique sense of humor … and lots of people read him. Jory always marched to the beat of his own drummer.”
Since graduating from Chico State seven years ago, John has accomplished many things: owning a T-shirt company, contributing to the San Francisco Chronicle, publishing children’s books, sprinkling his own brand of humor onto his amusing Big Stone Head blog. The focal point of his work is 826 Valencia—a student learning center/pirate store in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Yes, you read that right—a pirate store, fully stocked with peg legs, eye patches and gold earrings to serve the shopping needs of what John called “any working pirates in the Bay Area.” It fits well with a book he co-wrote in 2008, Pirate’s Log: A Handbook for Aspiring Swashbucklers, which comes equipped with a reading light for when the student pirate is “below deck.”
Founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dave Eggers, a long-time hero of John’s, 826 Valencia has a staff of committed volunteers who teach large groups of children how to write, edit, rewrite and publish their work. This comes in addition to helping them with homework, resolving peer conflicts and generally improving their lives. John has ascended to programs director at the nonprofit facility.
“We don’t let kids slip through the cracks,” John said by phone from his San Francisco office.
Seeing how Barack Obama’s election had “overturned [the children’s] world,” John decided to have the center’s students write letters to the president. John contacted staff members at 826’s sister facilities (six cities in five states) to mobilize them for the same assignment. When the letters had all arrived in San Francisco, John found himself editing hundreds of little treasures. One child told the president she “hopes he’ll put America back together again—no pressure though.”
After all the letters were edited, they were combined in a fun book titled Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country: Kids’ Letters to President Obama. White House press staff could not confirm if President Obama had read the book, but hundreds of young aspiring writers, buzzing with ideas and dreaming of change for their communities, had their voices heard on a grand stage.
In 2002, after three years of cartooning and column-writing for The Orion, John graduated and left his Chico cocoon for San Francisco. John had already become a writer for the syndicated Dennis the Menace cartoon strip, contributing jokes that appeared each month. Still, San Francisco is a tough city to succeed in as an artist, especially when your art is made with a keyboard.
Now 30, John credits his initial volunteer work at 826 with allowing him into what he calls the “San Francisco Literary Network”—an unofficial, exclusive who’s-who of accomplished Bay Area writers with a penchant for sniffing out phonies and casting them down with the plagiarists.
He continues to develop concepts for children’s books, but his true focus is on 826’s kids; he considers the learning center his “dream job.”
One thing is clear about Jory John: The man has never dreamed of dollar signs. While discussing his post-graduate life, the interview was interrupted often by kids coming to John with questions about their assignments. Naturally, he helped them before continuing.
“These kids haven’t reached the conformity stage yet,” John stated. “They can still blossom creatively. You know, when I leave the office at the end of the day, I’m exhausted in the best way.”
Solving mysteries of life and death
Amy Zelson Mundorff, MS ’99
Chico State alumna Amy Zelson Mundorff is not your average woman. On Sept. 13, 2001, two days after the World Trade Center collapsed, she went back to work at the New York medical examiner’s office ready to identify about 20,000 body parts. She has identified victims of mass disasters from American Airlines flight 587, the Staten Island Ferry crash and the Boxing Day Tsunami in Thailand.
She is a working mother: Her daughter spent a good part of the first eight months of her life on a shoulder strap worn by Zelson Mundorff as she peered over and identified victims.
She has consulted on TV and films, plus written for more than 20 publications. Zelson Mundorff was deemed a New York City hero by Mayor Mike Bloomberg in 2002 and honored here in Chico as a distinguished alumna last month.
“I don’t feel like I’ve really been out long enough to deserve this [Chico State award]. I’m excited they’re recognizing me,” Zelson Mundorff said in a telephone interview before coming back to campus.
Zelson Mundorff, 40, graduated in 1999 from Chico State with her master’s in forensic anthropology after graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in anthropology. She is now working on her Ph.D. at Simon Fraser University.
Forensic anthropology, a science that identifies individuals through the study of the skeleton, is often used in criminal cases. But to Zelson Mundorff, it’s more than just science—“everything we do is for the families.”
Indeed, Zelson Mundorff has brought closure to many families who’ve lost loved ones as well as helped criminal cases get to the next step in becoming solved. “Once you identify who the person was,” she said, “the lives around that person can move on.”
Zelson Mundorff looks at identifying victims like putting a puzzle together, each one unique. “You don’t always know what it’s going to be, so it keeps me on my toes,” she said. “I’m always learning.”[page]
Chico State anthropology professor Eric Bartelink was a graduate student with Zelson Mundorff who was hired to help her in New York right after 9/11. He describes her as a “total sweetheart” with a disarming smile and a friendly personality. But she is also strong and serious when she has to be.
Bartelink saw Zelson Mundorff—all of 5 feet, 2 inches—standing on rubble at Ground Zero while firefighters and policemen loomed over her waiting for her to tell them what to do. “She wasn’t intimidated,” Bartelink said. “She’s good at taking charge when she needs to.”
It’s not an easy job. Zelson Mundorff and Bartelink worked with smelly remains in a giant tent while heavily clothed in safety gear, which made it even more uncomfortable in the summer heat. Refrigerated trucks kept coming with more body parts and fragments.
“There are a lot of people who think they want to do this kind of work, but then they’ll smell something or see certain things and they can’t do it,” Bartelink said. “You have to be strong-stomached.”
Frank Bayham, an anthropology professor who was department chair at the time Zelson Mundorff was at Chico State, remembers her as an assertive person who had confidence in her abilities. “You work all the time and get good students coming out that are rarely recognized,” Bayham said, calling her Chico State honor “well-deserved.”
For a woman who is always on the edge of disaster, Zelson Mundorff has also had many happy moments. While working on her master’s, she often felt isolated with her studies at home and decided to take a Wilderness EMT class to get outdoors and be around people.
It was through that course that she met Kurt Mundorff, who nine months later proposed to her while standing on Mount Rainier in Washington during one of their outdoor excursions. They’ve been married nine years and live in Vancouver, B.C., with their daughter, Sarah, who’ll turn 2 on the Fourth of July.
“She’s just the most delightful child I have ever been around,” she said—so delightful, in fact, that Zelson Mundorff brought her along to a conference in Vancouver dressed in a skeleton-suit jumper.
“It was great,” she said.
Profiting others through nonprofits
Alexa Valavanis, BA ’00
When Chico’s Alexa Valavanis arrived in Guatemala in 2003 to work at Valhalla, an organic macadamia-nut farm, she saw the massive needs of the Guatemalans, but also their generosity. She lived next to a family that had little, yet near the beginning of her stay they invited her over and shared everything they had, including their last tortillas.
She realized that the indigenous people of Guatemala relied much on foreign aid, and in time sought to make them less dependent. With the assistance of a Nigerian doctor who was working at Guatemalan clinics and two other colleagues, Valavanis created the organization Seeds of Life to encourage independence and build a more sustainable, organic business model for local nonprofits.
“Richness has nothing to do with money,” Valavanis said. “Traveling throughout the world made me want to get into humanitarian work.”
Her work with Seeds of Life, which would later merge into the Calacirya Foundation, inspired her work with the North Valley Community Foundation in Chico, where she has been the CEO since July 2005.
NVCF provides support and funding for nonprofits in Butte, Glenn, Tehama and Colusa counties. During her tenure, the foundation has increased its net assets from $2 million to $6.4 million, an increase of 200 percent. The result has been that NVCF has been able to increase by 900 percent the amount going back to the community in grants and scholarships.
Valavanis, 32, calls NVCF an “incubator for social innovation.”
NVCF has helped sustain established nonprofits, as well as helping new nonprofits get off the ground. Valavanis said she feels lucky to work with people in the nonprofit sector, whom she calls an “endless source of inspiration.”
Endless inspiration is reflected in her tattoo of a black infinity symbol on her right wrist. On her left inner arm, curly-haired Valavanis sports a tattoo of the Chinese symbol for love.
Under Valavanis’ leadership, the foundation has built the North Valley Nonprofit Council, which works with more than 400 organizations in this area, and the Nonprofit Leadership Institute, which provides monthly training programs. NVCF has added an International Philanthropic Arm of Service that helps fund projects in India, Guatemala, Zambia, Sudan, Kenya and Belize.
Valavanis began working on community giving as a student at Chico State. A former women’s basketball team member, she wanted to bring more awareness to athletics and encourage school spirit. While working on her bachelor’s degree in journalism with an emphasis in public relations and a minor in multicultural and gender studies, she and her identical twin sister, Alisha, helped create Wildcat Pride.
CC Carter, director of Chico State’s Cross Cultural Leadership Center, recalls that when the twins introduced the proposal for the club, he thought it was as solid and sound as any professional proposal. “I never doubted their skills to make it happen,” Carter said, adding that Alexa’s work with Wildcat Pride helped lay the foundation for her work at NVCF. “She took those skills and implemented them in a much larger and meaningful way.”
Scott Winter, as a partner of the professional development firm LearningChange, has worked with Valavanis on many projects within NVCF, including the Nonprofit Leadership Institute. He says that she wants to figure out the best solutions to problems nonprofits face and accomplishes this by supporting other people’s passions.
“If the NVCF continues to succeed,” Winter said, “it will make people want to be part of a winning foundation.”
Originally from Indiana, Valavanis moved to Southern California when she was 10. After college in Chico, she worked for international kindergartens in Shanghai, China. She took a one-week trip down the coast of China by train, eventually finding her way to the Chinese island of Hainan. From there, she started her journey through Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, spending six months traveling and writing stories along the way.
Her office at NVCF reflects her experiences. On a table are three candles on top of a cream-colored cloth from Shanghai. Valavanis keeps a journal from her time in Guatemala on another table. She bought it in Antigua, Guatemala, at her favorite breakfast spot, Doña Luisa’s.
“Travel,” she said, “is the greatest way to expand your perspective.”
Mentoring by example
Pedro Caldera, BA ’96
An academic counselor at Red Bluff High School told Pedro Caldera that he shouldn’t even try for colleges or universities—he should consider trade schools.
This didn’t stop Caldera; rather, it angered him, enough that he knew he wanted to go to college and work in the educational system.
As a former teacher at Chico High School and currently the assistant principal at Chico Junior High, he sees students all the time who don’t believe they can go to college, especially Latino students. Caldera enjoys his profession because he gets to work with students who might need additional help to be successful.
“I love what I do, from 7:30 to 5. How many people can actually say that—that work is a second home?” he said. “But I do love spending time with my family. They’re number one.”
While in his office at Chico Junior High on a recent Friday afternoon, he received a call from his wife, Norelia Caldera, and she was asking when he was going to be home. Only minutes later, he called her back to find out how many years they’ve been married. It will be 11 years this Fourth of July. He has two children—Pedrito, 8, and Mia, 6—whose pictures are on a shelf behind Caldera’s desk.
Three days older than his wife, Caldera was born in Napa on Sept. 25, 1973, and moved to Gerber, 10 miles from Red Bluff, a month after he was born. His father, who originally came to California through the Bracero program, worked as a farm laborer and had three more children with his wife, Valentina, after settling in Gerber.
The community was small and adjusting to the increased presence of Latino farm workers living there year-round, as opposed to seasonally.
“There was a lot of racial tension or just plain hatred toward people of color,” Caldera recalled from his childhood. “And when you look back at it, through a little bit more of understanding, it wasn’t that it was hatred, but there was fear of the unknown, fear of not knowing what these brown people, like myself, were because they were different.”
Teachers made a difference. At Red Bluff High School, similar to his experiences in grade school, there were instructors who wanted to help.
Take Mr. Span. Caldera’s grade point average was below 2.0 until his junior year of high school, when his French teacher saw something in Caldera. Mr. Span told Caldera that he was a smart young man and showed him how to work with the educational system.
There was also Mr. Alwart: “He tells me, ‘Pedro, you’re a smart young man, do you really want to be another generation that gets stuck working at the mill, because you’re actually better than that.’ He was the first one to say it flat out.”[page]
Caldera graduated from Red Bluff in 1991 and went to Shasta College before continuing to Chico State. He received his bachelor’s in Spanish and Latin American studies in 1996 and eventually his teaching credential in 1997.
He worked at Chico High for 10 years teaching Spanish and English Language Development. He got to work with all the kids he wanted to have a connection with in a career in education.
“Being a teacher allows me to help those who want to be helped and even those who don’t want to be helped,” he said.
He helped inspire many students, including Bertha Campanero and her younger sister, Evangelina. Bertha, 25, a Chico State graduating senior in math education, was a student of Caldera’s during his second and third years at Chico High, when he began to prepare students for two different Advanced Placement tests, Spanish Literature and Spanish Language.
She described him as a role model many Latino students could relate to.
“For minority students, these [teachers] are their only positive role models,” Campanero said, “and if they only see non-Latino teachers, then they don’t believe they can achieve those kinds of levels in education or positions because they don’t physically see it.”
Caldera also told his students about the statistics of dropout and teen-pregnancy rates for Latinos—but also how they could fight those statistics. “The odds were against us,” Campanero said, “but Mr. Caldera made it so we could beat those odds.”
A sign that Caldera has in his office at Chico Junior High says, “The most important thing you can give someone is … a chance.” He does this every day with students.
Giving and giving and giving
Nancy Fox, BA ’64
On a recent Thursday, Nancy Fox was bustling around Chico State’s Turner Art Gallery. Grasping a pint-sized water bottle, she bounced while greeting those arriving for a Chico Rotary Club meeting. She paused to talk to fellow Rotarians—about the next project, about a volunteer idea, about how to address the crowd at the night’s meeting.
Fox recalls that her sixth-grade teacher at Hooker Oak Elementary told her that he pitied the man she would marry. Now, describing herself as a “non-sitter,” Fox says she knows exactly what her teacher was talking about. “I don’t know how my husband lives with me sometimes,” Fox said.
Fox, 66, enjoys being involved in many Chico activities, charity organizations and fundraisers. She is currently working on projects for Chico Rotary that involve helping veterans, sending care packages to soldiers overseas and supporting the Kirshner Wildlife Foundation in Durham. Fox is a former Rotary board member, and now is a chair fundraiser and team leader with 30 members in the group that she directs and organizes.
Fox was honored last month as a distinguished alumna of Chico State, an award that is given out during Founder’s Week celebrations. She was surprised and honored.
“It’s a real humbling experience, especially when you look at the other two women preceding me [as Distinguished Service Award winners: Sheryl Lange and Judy Sitton],” Fox said. “Being in this category of women makes me feel really good.”
She served as chair and vice chair on the University Advisory Board at Chico State for 10 years. She and husband, Jack, are supporters of the Chico State golf teams and have established an endowed scholarship for student-athletes.
Fox is now focusing most of her attention on community work. For example, she recently helped organize the Casablanca fundraiser for CASA—the Court Appointed Special Advocates program that assists children.
After Fox graduated from Chico State in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in education, she taught school for seven years. She started out in Sacramento and then moved, because of her husband’s military career, to Athens, Ga.; Cincinnati; and Taipei, Taiwan.
In Athens in 1966, Fox ran straight into school integration. She applied to an elementary school that was beginning the process of integrating its faculty. Administrators had hired their first African-American teacher and were having difficulty finding other teachers willing to work in an integrated school. Fox accepted a full-time first-grade teaching position.
“Why should I have cared?” Fox said. “I was a 20-something white girl from California who had no problem with integration.”
In 1971, Fox, settling in Cincinnati, decided to start a family. She soon tied her teaching background into volunteering.
She noticed a school that was close to a low-income housing development where there was no running water or electricity. “There were about 200 families living there with so many needs,” Fox said. “I offered to work with their children on readiness things and [school] preparation.”
Fox went to the school board and told them of her plan to use old school equipment and start a program with stay-at-home moms. She called the program “First Step”—“it was like a child development center for kids from birth to kindergarten.”
The organization took off, and she continued to check in with it for the next 20 years.
Fox thinks that most of her desire to volunteer is something she got through “osmosis.” Her father, Bill Carpenter, continued to run events in Chico and volunteer into his 90s.
“What Nancy does hasn’t come to her in recent years,” said Sitton, one of her dearest friends. “She has done it her whole lifetime. She isn’t just focused on one thing; she gives to education, children, adults, the community and back to the campus.”
Fox, who moved back to Chico in 1982 to be closer to family, says she gets more out of volunteering than she puts into it. She loves to choreograph events and watch it all come together. She says people don’t realize how important local volunteers are to a community.
“Chico is an amazing town with amazing people,” Fox said.