Hometown heroes

Six people we can all be thankful for

Andrew Holcombe

Andrew Holcombe

Photo By Tom Angel

Our cover this week shows a pair of cartoon-style superheroes, but it’s intended to be ironic. For most Americans, after all, the nature of heroism has been dramatically redefined since 9/11, when hundreds of people—firefighters mostly, but also the passengers on Flight 93 who fought back and many of the victims inside the World Trade Center towers—died trying to help others.

The attacks were of course extraordinary events, the kinds of situations that are destined to create extraordinary heroes out of ordinary people. We honor these heroes at least in part because we hope that, if forced by circumstances, we ourselves would have the grace and courage to act with similar heroism.

But there’s another kind of hero, one who might be called an “ordinary hero.” This is a person who, day by day, crisis situation or not, devotes a good part of his or her time and energy to helping others, becoming thereby an extraordinary citizen.

Each year at Thanksgiving, we honor and give thanks for several of these local heroes. As you’ll discover reading the portraits below, this year’s nominees form a diverse and remarkable group.

Andrew Holcombe

Local attorney has given his career to helping level the playing field

Fresh out of law school, Andrew Holcombe didn’t just come to Chico. He was sent here.

Back in 1978, Holcombe began a three-year volunteer program with Vista, a sort of domestic Peace Corps or precursor to the AmeriCorps program, which placed him in Chico to work with Legal Services of Northern California, Butte Regional Office. Once here, his work involved a full range of civil cases, with an emphasis on housing law. He also began working with the Chico (now Community) Housing Improvement Program to develop low-income housing in Butte County.

“I was basically lucky,” says Holcombe, now 49 years old and operating his own practice at 1339 The Esplanade. “When I graduated law school from the University of San Diego, I didn’t have any loans to pay off and could do what I wanted, which was volunteer.”

Holcombe credits a teacher in law school with getting him pointed in that direction. Since then, his career has been shaped and guided by the fundamental principle he learned along the way—namely, to fix the world one must start on a local level.

“I’ve chiefly concerned myself with abuses of power in the landlord/tenant area,” he says. “A lot of people out there feel like they can’t do anything, that the system just grinds them up and spits them out.”

Holcombe has found fulfillment and inspiration in his career by helping level the playing field by allowing everyday people to feel that they have a voice in the complex and often frustrating world of housing law.

After his volunteer program was over in 1981, he was immediately hired as a staff attorney at Legal Services of Northern California. He loved the job.

Not counting a brief break from 1983 to ‘85, when he worked for Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara, Holcombe remained in Chico working with LSNC on landlord-tenant and housing discrimination issues for over a decade. He began his own practice in January 1996 after becoming frustrated with regulations at LSNC.

“They wouldn’t let me represent undocumented people or illegal aliens,” he explains “which I can understand from a government-funded organization. But the idea that I would have to even ask people is offensive to me.”

Holcombe says he learned a lot about practicing law from his boss at LSNC, local attorney Mike Bush.

“Nowadays, I might be able to give some free advice over the phone to about five to 10 people a day. I like being able to do that. … It’s also good for business.”

Holcombe takes enough work to pay his bills but also has the time to pursue volunteer work as well as the hefty amount of pro bono work he tackles.

In fact, Holcombe has done so much pro bono work that he was awarded the President’s Pro Bono Service Award by the State Bar of California in 1998.

Georgie and Ed Szendrey, with friend Ger Vang

Photo By Tom Angel

“His integrity simply cannot be challenged,” says Dave Ferrier, executive director of CHIP, who has had a working relationship with Holcombe for 20 years now. “You can trust him and his dedication to the community. … And you just won’t find a more dedicated person to the cause of affordable housing.”

Another group that knows Holcombe well is the Housing Unit from the Community Legal Information Center.

“Andy volunteers his help, sometimes as a Moot Court judge, sometimes conducting seminars. We just gave him an award two years ago in appreciation of all he has done,” says Cheryl Sperling, from the Housing Unit.

Holcombe says one of his proudest achievements is the homeless shelter that just began construction off Whitman on Silver Dollar Way. “We started with nothing, and there was a lot of opposition,” he explains. “And we’ve come a long way and witnessed some phenomenal growth. To see the community care and support the project now has had such a wonderful effect already, on both those who will be served by the shelter and on those who have been involved.”

“Andy is definitely one of my heroes,” says Chico Councilmember Coleen Jarvis, another champion of the homeless shelter. “And he has been for a really long time. He practices what he preaches. … He lives for issues of social injustice.”

Jarvis adds that Holcombe recently spearheaded a donation program asking locals to purchase square feet for the current construction costs of the shelter at $73 a square foot in order to raise the $150,000 still needed for the project.

“Leading by example I think is one of the best ways changes are made,” Holcombe says. “And the little victories along the way mean a lot.”

Ed and Georgie Szendrey

Couple leads effort to end genocide in Southeast Asia

At first glance, Ed and Georgie Szendrey seem like a typical semi-retired couple. But underneath the casual dress and demeanor the couple shares a heroic quest.

Instead of spending their silver years sipping mai-tais from the deck of a cruise ship, the Szendreys are using their spare time to fight a genocidal communist regime that is killing people half a world away.

They can often be found at the headquarters of the Lao Veterans of America, a small office in downtown Oroville where Georgie Szendrey runs a small video production company. Her husband Ed, who retired about a year ago as chief investigator for the Butte County District Attorney’s Office, also shares the office space.

With the extensive help of friends in the Hmong and Laotian community, the Szendreys formed what they call the Fact Finding Commission in 2001 to document the abuses of the Pathet Lao, the Laotian Communist government that has waged a secret campaign to wipe out the Hmong people in retaliation for their service to the United States during the Vietnam War.

Ed Szendrey said he feels Americans owe a great debt to the veterans of that secret war.

“They’re still very loyal to the United States,” he said. “Our hope is that the U.S. government will intervene. They’re the last bastion of democracy left over there.”

Ever since the CIA involved the Laotian hill people in the war against the Viet Cong, the Hmong, Mien and Khamu peoples have been in constant danger. For the past 27 years, they have been pushed to the brink of destruction by the bombs, chemical weapons and guns of Laotian government troops.

When the Szendreys found out about the plight of the hill people, they could have looked away, but they didn’t. Instead, they, along with commission member and Lao vet Ger Vang, journeyed to the Laotian border to interview refugees, gathering evidence and empowering locals to do the same.

“We interviewed over 30 people in refugee camps,” Georgie said. “They told us the most awful, shocking stories.”

Because Laos is under strict government control, it was impossible for the Szendreys to see the situation first-hand. But they were able to have video and communications equipment smuggled in so the hill people could document their plight.

The videos they received back are not for the faint of heart. Mortars explode, helicopters strafe and bombs drop. A baby in the early grips of paralysis—brought on by contact with chemical weapons—writhes in the dirt on her distended belly, crying for medicine that will never come. Many of the people in the videos are already dead.

Joe Bishop

Photo By Tom Angel

“This is so hard to watch,” Georgie says. “How can this be happening and nobody knows about it?”

After two trips to the Laotian border and dozens of conversations with reporters and U.S. government officials, the Szendreys say they are finally beginning to get their message out. Though their phone has been blocked from calling Laos and they are subjected to almost daily hack attacks to their computer system, the Szendreys forge on, pouring their own money, skills and time into the cause.

If it weren’t for people like the Szendreys, the brave men and women who helped us fight our clandestine war in Laos might have taken our—and the Pathet Lao’s—dirty secrets with them to the grave.

Joe Bishop

Student takes volunteerism to a new level

Talk about extra-curricular activity. Between his studies at Chico State University, Joe Bishop has managed to motivate hundreds of his peers into raising tens of thousands of dollars for a children’s hospital charity.

Bishop, 20, was raised in Ventura County, the child of two teachers. His brother, Andrew, two years his junior, is autistic. Growing up, Bishop helped take care of Andrew. “I was asked to see things from a very different perspective, and I was asked to be tolerant,” Bishop said. “As I got older I realized that it was actually an advantage.”

His parents, he said, “are very giving people, and they’ve inadvertently given that to me.

“I’ve always wanted to give back to people, and I’ve tried to find different ways to do that,” he said. “With the Chico community, and people tending to be incredibly friendly, it was easier to throw myself out there.”

Rick Rees, director of student activities at the university, said it didn’t take Bishop long to get involved in Chico State activities. “Joe is unusual because he comes by his leadership early,” he said. “He’s just hit the ground running at Chico State.

“He’s persistent but not in that way that puts people off,” Rees said. “He also knows how to get in the loop. [And] he’ll stick with it. He doesn’t do things and then quit.”

Bishop was quickly elected to the position of Shasta Hall president and continued to be involved in the Residence Hall Association, Summer Orientation and then the Associated Students. He currently serves on the University Affairs Council and the group that oversees the Instructionally Related Activities fund.

Monica Chesini, the A.S. director of university affairs, said, “Everybody just loves him. He’s very attentive at the meetings and makes intelligent comments.”

For Bishop, Chesini said, it’s not about résumé-building. “He’s motivated from someplace within himself to do wonderful things,” she said. “He’s very inspiring.”

He’s majoring in communication design with an option in media art. At one time, Bishop wanted to be a sports broadcaster and worked at Fox Sports in Los Angeles. But he realized early on that the society is “so business-oriented and corporate-focused” that he didn’t care about making a lot of money.

“I know this sounds somewhat cheesy, but people are my passion,” said Bishop, a Catholic who sings in the gospel choir. “We all really have an obligation as people to give to others.”

Last year, Bishop began directing Up ’Til Dawn, which last year raised more than $30,000 for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. He expects to bring in $40,000 to $50,000 this year. There is already $20,000 in pledges, and the fund raiser doesn’t end until February.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” laughed Bishop, who is featured on a video promoting the charity nationally. He visited St. Jude’s and met volunteers from the 120 colleges that last year raised $2 million for the hospital, which performs its research and treatment and is building a genetic research center almost completely with private donations, not government funding or grants. Catastrophic childhood diseases such as cancer are researched and treated there, and the uninsured are never asked to pay.

“I was just amazed by this hospital, this program. I just couldn’t help but want to bring it to Chico.”

At Chico State, a 10-person board promotes the program to their peers, who form “teams” of six to eight people and write letters to others they know asking them to donate money. “Anybody they have a personal connection with—friends, family,” Bishop said, as opposed to local businesses, which get hit up for donations all the time. As a result of Up ’Til Dawn’s grass-roots approach, the donations average $25. “It adds up.”

Ali Sarsour

Photo By Tom Angel

The drive will culminate in a Feb. 20 event in which volunteers will stay up all night in symbolic connection with parents who sit “Up ’Til Dawn” with their sick children.

“We’re healthy and we’re pretty fortunate,” Bishop said. “I think it’s something I need to do. [Volunteering] has become a part of my life, and I can’t see not helping nonprofit groups.”

He’s only a junior in college, but Bishop has already set a goal of helping autistic kids. “I’d like to start the Andrew Bishop Foundation,” he grinned.

Ali Sarsour

Moslem has ‘very Chico’ recipe for solving problems

Ali Sarsour has a simple recipe for peace in the world. It’s one he’s developed in Chico since coming to live here in 1970: “I keep telling everybody that the best solution to every problem is to have a potluck together!”

He’s been attending, and facilitating, quite a few potlucks since Sept. 11, 2001. As the most visible spokesperson for Chico’s Moslem community, he felt a deep responsibility “to speak up” during the dark days following the attacks.

“I remembered what happened in 1978 and ‘79, during the Iranian hostage crisis, when so many people who were brown-skinned were being harassed” by narrow-minded, ignorant hoodlums in Chico, he explains.

Following 9-11, he thought it was important to speak up quickly so “the hoodlums wouldn’t have a chance to act this time.” Blessedly, he wasn’t alone. “I’m grateful so many people did speak up,” he adds.

Sarsour was one of the most visible local peacemakers following the attacks. He embarked on a heavy schedule of speaking to local churches and civic groups about Islam and Moslems, took a leadership role with the newly formed Human Relations Network, worked closely with the Chico Peace and Justice Center and, yes, organized or attended quite a few potlucks.

But it wasn’t as if his good work began with 9-11. He’s been serving the Chico community for nearly as long as he’s been here.

Born in 1947, he grew up in the town of Al-bireh, near Ramallah in the West Bank, then a part of Jordan. The Six-day War of 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank, took place at about the time he was graduating high school. He came to this country to attend Yuba College, but after two years transferred to Chico State University.

He quickly became involved, first in the International Club, then as the student director of ethnic affairs and, later, of the student union. He played a major role in starting the annual International Festival on campus, still a popular event. He came up with the idea of revenue sharing for campus clubs, which is still being done, much to their benefit. And he sponsored legislation allowing student officers to be paid for their work.

But most of all he’s been a proponent of tolerance and acceptance of Moslems at a time when they have become the most stereotyped and vilified group in America. As he points out, there are more than a billion Moslems in the world. It’s foolish to believe they all think alike when it comes to politics.

“I guess by default I’m the most visible Moslem in town,” he says. “It’s important just to be there, to be present as a normal person.”

And present he is. As Bob Trausch, the director of the Chico Peace and Justice Center, points out, “Ali never says ‘no.’ Whether it’s making food"—Sarsour is famous for the Arabic banquets he donates to various causes—"or showing up to speak, it’s always with a smile, always with a gracious word. He’s a sweetheart.”

That’s why Sarsour was one of two people—the other was Pastor Ellen Rowan of Trinity United Methodist Church, also one of our “local heroes” this year—the center selected this year for its “Peace Endeavor” award. And it wasn’t just for his tireless work since 9-11, Trausch explains, it was for his more than two decades of contributing to his adopted home.

As U.S. citizen since 1984, Sarsour is the manager of a local Radio Shack store. He returns often to Al-bireh, where he has friends and family and deep, deep roots. Chico is home, but so is his ancestral town. “I feel fortunate,” he explains, “that I feel at home in both places.”

Ellen Rowan

Outspoken, progressive pastor set to retire next June

Ellen Rowan

Photo By Tom Angel

Kathy Patton said she hadn’t been to church since junior high school.

“A few years ago I saw in the paper a notice for Good Friday services that were going to be interfaith,” she recalled. “I thought that would be interesting, so I went.”

Pastor Ellen Rowan was one of the speakers. A year earlier, Rowan had gone to India to serve with Mother Teresa for a few months in Calcutta.

“Her speech just grabbed me,” Patton said. “I didn’t know who she was, her name or who she was affiliated with. I had to find out.”

She did so, and today, three years later, Patton serves as church secretary at Trinity United Methodist on Flume Street, where Rowan is the pastor.

Ellen Rowan is an engaging and comforting woman. It is a pleasure to be in her presence. Her silver hair, cut short and practical, frames her cherubic face, and her silver-rimmed glasses outline her blue-gray eyes that communicate nearly as eloquently as her strong, sure voice. She comes across as confident, compassionate, non-judgmental and intelligent.

In other words, Pastor Rowan makes a mighty positive first impression.

Two years ago Rowan, along with 15 other members of a United Methodist team, spent 12 days in Chile working at a rural agricultural school, where they helped Aymara Indians learn about desert agriculture and built classrooms, offices and other school structures.

But perhaps most impressive is Rowan’s defiance three years ago of the United Methodist Book of Discipline that forbids pastors from blessing the union of gays and lesbians.

At that time, Rowan and 66 other United Methodist ministers participated in the union of a lesbian couple in Sacramento. They each faced removal from the clergy and loss of retirement pensions. At the time Rowan explained that forbidding gay marriages “is contrary to everything else in our Book of Discipline. We are taught to welcome everyone. Jesus broke the rules and accepted everyone—women, people of mixed color. People were important, not rules.”

Rowan said she was surprised by the local reaction and backlash.

“I probably lost 30 members of the church here and have another half-dozen waiting until I leave before they come and join the church. This church was so open, and this church had told me that if they can pay the fees I can do same-gender unions here. What’s the big deal?”

Raised in Preston County, W.Va., Rowan has been preaching and serving the church for 36 years.

“I’m the real coal miner’s daughter,” she said. “I was one of the few women when I started. I had this little church in Morgantown when I was finishing my work at [West Virginia University]. Then I moved to Kansas City to go to seminary school, and I had a church there.”

From Kansas, Rowan moved west to Berkeley to attend Graduate Theological Union for doctoral studies. She had a church in Fremont and then, in a shift that had to cause some emotional whiplash, she was sent to Gridley. That was 20 years ago.

After returning to the Bay Area for another a few years, Rowan came back to Butte County in 1991, where she has preached at Trinity ever since.

“I’ll be here till I retire on June 30,” she said. When she does, she will head back to roots in the blue shadows of West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains.

Her proudest accomplishments?

“This is very prosaic and mundane, but I’ve always first of all gotten the buildings in shape wherever I’ve gone,” she says with no trace of irony. “I’ve gone to run-down buildings on at least three occasions. The first thing is to get everything looking good.”

She is proud of her pastoral care as well.

“I do a lot of that, and I am good at that, I think. Crisis ministry, people who are in trouble, people who are sick, people who are dying.”

Rowan is refreshingly candid. Her honest nature won’t allow false modesty.

She is also proud of her volunteer mission work with Mother Teresa in 1996 in Calcutta. She said her encounter with Mother Teresa was “life-changing.”

“I’ve never been in the presence of a person who exuded so much love, so much power. She embraced the whole of humanity with her love. She had some ideas I didn’t agree with. Like on birth control, abortion and world population. But what a powerful person; She helped me understand Jesus. I think I had a struggle knowing that Jesus was human and the son of God. I looked at her and said, ‘Uh, there it is in female form; a woman of God. Truly, truly, truly.' "