Local Heroes 2009
Five people we can be thankful for
Every year at Thanksgiving time, the editors of the Chico News & Review select five or six people who they believe merit readers’ gratitude for the selflessness in action they’ve shown in their lives.
These Local Heroes, as we call them, exemplify the spirit of volunteerism that is so characteristic of Chico and does so much to make this city a better place to live.
Our nominees this year include a young Native American woman who has overcome a difficult past to become a beacon to other youth; a world traveler who has put down roots in Chico and led the effort to reduce the amount of dangerous wood-smoke pollution in winter air; a gardener and activist who has devoted himself to bringing healthful, locally produced food to low-income people; a retired attorney and seniors triathlete who is also a volunteer pillar at the county library; and a former teacher whose program to recycle computers and other equipment into the schools has given thousands of children access to technology.
Without further ado, please meet our Local Heroes for 2009.
A helping hand for other youth
Shastina Houle is not your average 22-year-old. For one, she is a foster parent and has been one almost since the child’s birth two years ago. Second, instead of being caught up in the party scene, she dedicates her time to helping troubled youth.
Houle hasn’t had an easy life. The pretty young Maidu woman, dazzling with a colorful lip ring and bright eyeshadow, was essentially raised by her grandmother after her mother was killed when she was just 2 years old. After that tragedy, her dad sort of flipped out, got into drugs and was in and out of jail. Her older brothers went the same route.
“Thank goodness for my grandma. She was my rock” said Houle, sitting in the comfortable front office of Connecting Circles of Care, a countywide nonprofit based in Oroville that focuses on helping troubled youths and their families. “I didn’t want to be like them [my brothers or father]. I didn’t want to go to jail or do drugs—I saw the effect they had on my family.”
Her grandmother helped keep her on track in school, even when times were rough. When she was 18, a woman at Feather River Tribal Health approached her about being a peer counselor. That’s when she started volunteering at CCOC, and she never looked back. CCOC has case workers, counselors and volunteers who work with youth ages 8-24 of all different cultures, including Native American and Hmong, and speak their language.
It’s not hard to see why Houle is a perfect fit for working with kids who have problems. Her own life has proven that, despite the odds, people can overcome bad situations. Plus, her attitude is bright and cheery. Her smile is wide, her eyes sparkle—no wonder kids feel comfortable confiding in her.
“In the past three years I’ve known her, Shastina has transformed from a quiet, reserved individual to an outspoken advocate for children’s mental health,” said Laurie Dana, a social marketer who works with CCOC.
“They would come tell me personal things,” Houle said of the youth she worked with. “And then they would come back a week or so later and say, ‘You know, I thought about what you said, and I broke up with that boyfriend,’ or whatever. I didn’t think I could have that big an impact on somebody.
“I had a purpose. I was doing something to change the system,” she added.
Houle became so involved in CCOC, volunteering countless hours and serving as the youth co-chair of the program’s governance board, that two years ago she was asked to join the staff. It was a dream come true—as youth empowerment specialist, she’s able to help kids who have problems she can identify with, without having to find another job to make ends meet. That’s especially helpful with Shawn, her foster child—actually her cousin—at home. She still lives with her grandmother, and these days her relationship with her father is on the mend.
“[CCOC] has taught me a lot about being a parent,” Houle said. “It’s also helped in my personal life—it’s taught me how to deal with my own family, with my own coping skills.”
One thing Houle said over and over during the interview was, “If I can do it, anyone can.”
—Meredith J. Cooper
for healthy children
“I think you need to rethink me being a hero. I’m too radical.”
Those were the first words out of Richard Roth’s mouth after being told he was chosen as one of this year’s Local Heroes.
Roth was already named a hero in February, when he received the Healthy Hero Award from the Sierra Cascade Region branch of Network for a Healthy California. The award was in recognition of his founding the educational nonprofit cChaos (Collaboratively Creating Health Access Opportunities and Services), and for creating and running the weekly Chapmantown Food & Fitness Festival at the Dorothy F. Johnson Center and Southside’s Fire House Certified Farmers Market in Oroville, the only area farmers’ markets that accept EBT cards (food stamps) for payment.
In March, Roth received a similar award from Network for a Healthy California on the statewide level—the Champion for Change Award.
But the 58-year-old shies away from resting on his laurels. “Awards are very nice,” he said, “but [an award] doesn’t do anything.” He prefers instead to focus on being active and vocal in trying to create the change that he would like to see in people’s dietary and exercise habits, particularly children of low-income families.
“Half of all fifth-graders are already overweight,” said Roth, who works a 30-hour-a-week day job at Chico Community Children’s Center as a groundskeeper and maintenance man to help support his “radical” habit of championing healthful lifestyle change focusing on eating more fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and whole grains, and getting more exercise.
“Twenty-five percent of all kids of color are already showing signs of onset of Type 2 diabetes—much higher for Native Americans—from eating so much processed, sugary and fattening foods, and not getting enough exercise,” said Roth. “And our schools send out the kids to sell candy for fundraisers at school! There are two billboards [at schools] on East Avenue right now—one is advertising See’s candy as a fundraiser, and the other is promoting Pizza Night. Why don’t we just send them out to sell cigarettes, or liquor, or pot?”
Pizza, Roth pointed out, is high in fat, sodium and calories, and generally made with highly processed, low-quality ingredients.
“It’s the mom’s responsibility that kids don’t eat [junk food],” said Roth, “but moms are drowning in billions of dollars of facilitated processes that are delivering garbage to their kids. … You’ll never see an advertisement for a turnip.”
Roth strongly believes that “we need to look at every policy and see how it affects the health of children and the potential of them growing up healthy. … Are we going to provide them food that will make them sick or food that will prolong or enhance their lives?
“Feeding highly processed or refined foods and sweets to children is not a responsible act of love,” said Roth. “Just getting to where we can unequivocally say that … would be revolutionary—a brand-new way of looking at health in America.”
(For more info on cChaos, see www.cchaos.org.)
—Christine G.K. LaPado
computers to kids
Helping kids has always been Pat Furr’s main objective when it comes to the Computers for Classrooms organization she started from her own home.
Back then, 18 years ago, Furr would spend several hours working alone using floppy disk after floppy disk to refurbish donated machines that she would then supply to local classrooms. Her determination to make sure school children are computer literate—and have a leg up in a rapidly advancing technological world—is just as strong today.
And, as evidenced by a recent tour of its headquarters, CFC has come a long way. Furr, a petite, friendly woman with a warm smile, runs a tight ship at the facility, located for the past couple of years in the business park off Hegan Lane.
She showed off the offices, complete with a kitchenette, sophisticated work stations where the computer refurbishing takes place, and, just as impressive, a giant storage space, 25,000 square feet, filled with computers of numerous makes and models donated by individuals, companies and public agencies that have upgraded to newer systems.
“Welcome to geek heaven,” Furr said, as she opened the door to the warehouse, revealing the items stacked neatly on palettes.
Each machine is wiped clean of its sensitive data using U.S. Department of Defense standards and installed with new systems. Just this month, 500 Pentium IV computers will head to middle schools in Fresno, Sacramento, Marysville and Chico. CFC operates on a cost-recovery basis, not through grants. The machines are sold at an extremely reduced rate—$135.
A former teacher, Furr moved to Chico from the Bay Area in 1973 to raise her children. If her name sounds familiar, it’s probably because she was a successful local real-estate agent who served as the vice president of the Chico Chamber of Commerce and sat on the Board of Trustees for the Chico Unified School District. She always wanted to earn a master’s degree, so she went back to school at Chico State in the mid-’80s for computer science.
It was during a trip overseas in 1990 that she had an epiphany about the importance of computers. Children in China were concentrating on learning two things: English and technology. Back in Chico, the CUSD had only 600 computers. Today, thanks in part to CFC, the district has more than 6,000. But the organization has gone far beyond Chico, shipping machines all over the world, including such places as Tanzania, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
Over the years, CFC has developed some sophisticated programs designed to make the refurbishing process easier and more efficient. Furr could patent and sell the information, but instead shares it freely so that others can benefit from technology.
Furr pointed out that many children have use of computers only at school or at public libraries, which are struggling to stay open. That’s why anyone who qualifies as low-income can also purchase a machine at the reduced price. She also allows people to earn a computer by volunteering 50 hours refurbishing machines. She estimates distributing 6,000 computers this year.
Furr is short on old monitors these days and is hoping to take in more donations. Reusing, she notes, is a lot more eco-friendly than recycling because of all the resources that go into making a new machine. Donations of broken computers are welcome, too, since the CFC recycles everything down to the gold-plated fingers on the circuit boards.
“We take everything because we recycle,” she said. “Nothing goes to the landfill out of here.”
Taking care of
Chico’s books for 30 years
One of the first things Margaret Bomberg and her family did when they moved to Chico was go to the library.
“We probably moved to Chico one day and got our library cards the next day,” said the fit 72-year-old mother of five, as she sat in her North Chico law office.
That was 1979. Within a year of getting her card, Bomberg started shelving books, and she hasn’t stopped. For nearly 30 years, she has been a volunteer at the Butte County Library’s Chico branch.
“Everyone should do some sort of payback,” she said.
Bomberg is also a member of the Chico Friends of the Library, the nonprofit group that advocates and raises funds for the library, and has served on the CFOL board many times, including two years as president.
“She is outstanding,” said Oliver Allen, senior library assistant and library volunteer coordinator. “She is a very dedicated volunteer [who is] very interested in the betterment of the library.”
A recent article in the CFOL’s “Chico Carrel” newsletter praising Bomberg’s service, suggested that the library should find a way to bottle and sell the seemingly tireless volunteer’s energy, “thus ensuring a sustainable library budget.”
That energy’s source, it should be noted, probably comes from her commitment to exercise. In addition to her full-time work and volunteering, Bomberg has been a triathlete for the past nine years, competing in events around the world.
Allen says that the work of the library’s volunteers is crucial to its existence, with their contributions adding up to the equivalent of having 4 1/2 to five additional full-time employees. “[They’re an] absolute necessity,” he says. “Irreplaceable.”
Bomberg started volunteering just as she was embarking on a career in family law. While working as an elementary-school teacher in Long Beach, she went to law school at night, and passed the bar the same year she moved to Chico. She’s been in practice ever since, and has no plans to retire any time soon.
“Every single person owes it to the community they live in and enjoy to enhance the community by committing to service,” Bomberg said. “I’ve selected what is meaningful to me.”
Plus, Bomberg says, she enjoys being around the patrons, discussing and learning about new books. “I don’t watch television at all,” she said. “I read.”
Bomberg’s current routine is to shelve books on Saturday afternoons. “[It] means that a librarian or library aide can [be freed up] to help people. I want people to be able to enjoy the librarians.”
Bomberg has been around the library long enough to see just how valuable the resource is to the community. “People who have restricted incomes have this wealth of entertainment available to them,” she said. She also notes that the number of patrons is increasing, and that budget cuts and reductions in hours threaten the library’s viability. “It’s so hurtful that on Monday the library is not open,” she said.
When asked how Chicoans could help the library, Bomberg said the first thing is to get a library card, if they don’t already have one. Then, join CFOL. The annual membership fee is $37.25, and club meetings happen the third Tuesday of every month.
A peaceful warrior
for clean air
Luke Anderson’s work to improve Chico’s air quality began two years ago, after he realized that on some winter days he couldn’t go outside because of the amount of wood smoke in the air. And when he learned that data showed Chico’s air quality was among the worst in the state, he decided to look into it further, with the idea of publishing an article.
He contacted the CN&R, and on March 20, 2008, the paper published his piece, “The growing danger of wood burning,” in its Newslines section. He’s a good writer, and the editors hoped he would write more, but by then he’d decided to devote his time and attention to attacking the problem head-on.
Since then he’s been at the forefront of the effort to get the county Air Quality Management District to take a more active stance against wintertime air pollution caused by wood burning. As he put it during a recent interview, “after the story came out, one thing led to another.” He did more research, started holding meetings, set up an e-mail notification system, and began working with local doctors and the Lung Association, groups that are well aware of the potentially deadly impacts of the fine particulates in wood smoke.
In some ways Anderson was repeating himself. Earlier he’d written a book, Genetic Engineering: Food and Our Environment, after which he’d spent a decade working as an anti-GMO lecturer and activist. In fact, he’d first come to Chico, in 2004, to speak in favor of Measure D, the countywide anti-GMO measure that ultimately lost in the November election.
That’s when he met Jacia Kornweise, who at the time was heading up the Satori Healing Center, a meditation-based spiritual-growth facility. A relationship blossomed, and soon afterwards Anderson moved here from Mendocino County to be with her. Their son was born two years ago.
These days, they live in a large, secluded, eco-friendly east Chico house that they share with a half-dozen other people and out of which they operate individual counseling practices.
The son of a British army officer, Anderson grew up “internationally,” as he put it, living in (among other places) India, Southeast Asia and England, where he attended boarding school, before coming to the United States in 2002.
He’s a soft-spoken, articulate, composed man who makes a good case for his cause, which is to replace the current voluntary no-burn system, which doesn’t work, with mandatory no-burn days in the Chico area whenever smoke levels exceed federal standards. The proposal, which comes from the AQMD staff, would exempt those with EPA-certified stoves and no other source of heat, and it has the backing of Chico’s representatives on the board and the Chico City Council.
A non-Chico minority on the board, however, has refused to implement the policy.
So now Anderson is working with city staff to come up with an ordinance the City Council can adopt and begin implementing next winter. “It’s just a matter of time,” he said.
And when it happens, we’ll all breathe easier.