Local heroes 2015

Six community members to be thankful for

Every year, the Chico News & Review gives thanks to a handful of locals who go above and beyond by volunteering their time to various causes that make our community a better place to live. It’s a fall tradition around here that allows us to write about some amazing people and their worthy endeavors. Once again this year, CN&R readers knocked it out of the park by nominating some stellar candidates. We chose six people to feature. We thank them for supporting the local autism community, pulling weeds and herding cats (it can be done!), providing a safe place for homeless folks to sleep in the winter, serving as the “fairy godmother” for at-risk youth, and preserving our history. Cheers to them and to a few others in this special Local Heroes issue. And happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers.

Going all-in

Josie Blagrave

Josie Blagrave knows it’s sometimes tough for the parents of autistic children to do things most people take for granted—like taking their kids to a movie or other events with members of the general public who might react negatively should the children behave erratically in some way.

“It only takes one nasty look to send people home,” she said.

Blagrave knows that from first-hand experience these days; she and her wife, Jaime, finalized the adoption of autistic twin 7-year-old boys, Fabrice and Andrew, this summer, two years after welcoming them into their home. But Blagrave’s had strong ties with the local autism community for more than a decade.

That’s because she’s the director of Chico State’s Autism Clinic and coordinator of the Kinesiology Department’s adapted physical education grant program. She’s worked with local autistic kids since 2003, helping them develop motor skills and embrace physical fitness. During a recent interview, she beamed while describing working with the clinic’s kids.

But the energetic and fast-talking brunette quieted and lost her smile when expounding on some of the heartbreaking stories of families whose bad experiences in public drove them into relative seclusion. She recalled meeting parents who’d never taken their children to Bidwell Park.

Josie Blagrave

Photo courtesy of Josie Blagrave

“I think families get boxed into a little bubble; they don’t feel comfortable [being in public],” she said.

That’s where The Yellow Door comes in. It’s a local organization Blagrave co-founded in 2011 with a former student and member of Chico State’s Greek community to help support individuals with autism and their families and also to help educate the community and promote understanding.

Inspiration for the nonprofit’s name came from a conversation Blagrave had with an autistic boy who liked doors and when asked what color he would pick for one, answered “yellow, because it’s like opening a door of sunshine.”

Blagrave, aided by numerous other volunteers, including Chico State student Rhea Menegon, will soon be gearing up for The Yellow Door’s fifth annual Chico Walks for Autism event, a 5k walk through Lower Bidwell Park in April. The event has been hugely successful, attracting 600 participants its first year and growing to upward of 1,300 this year, including folks from as far away as San Diego.

“It’s a vehicle to make money and give it back to the community,” Blagrave said.

The Yellow Door has a fund set up at the North Valley Community Foundation with roughly $20,000 in earnings, an impressive feat that Blagrave noted started with her depositing her own donation of $100 to get things rolling. Over the years, money from the organization has been spent in a variety of ways to help the community, including paying for a wheelchair for a child in one case and therapy through a horseback-riding program for another. It’s paid for a camp for kids and also for events for families, such as a private screening of a movie at Cinemark 14.

As for the walk itself, to say it’s a bright spot for the local autism community is an understatement.

Nicole Earl, whose teenage son, Carson, has autism, said the event gives families an opportunity to celebrate their kids in a supportive environment.

“It brings so many of our families together. Autism can be very isolating, because of behavior issues. It’s hard,” Earl said. “It’s good to be in a crowd of people who are understanding. It’s a day where you don’t have to worry about people looking at you funny in the park.”

Carson was one of the first children to attend the Chico State Autism Clinic. He was just 3 years old then, so mother and son have known Blagrave for more than a decade. Earl credits Blagrave with “saving her entire existence” in those early days by taking on Carson’s issues and also introducing her to her best friend, another mother whose child was then newly diagnosed with autism as well.

She and the rest of the autism community are immensely grateful for Blagrave and all of the ways she’s opened her heart to both parents and kids. “She just has this capacity for love that is really stunning,” Earl said.

—Melissa Daugherty

Caring together

Mark and Cynthia Gailey

Last year, Mark and Cynthia Gailey—locally known for their tireless environmental and homeless advocacy work, respectively—celebrated 30 years since they met, and 25 years of marriage. During a recent interview in the living room of their home off of Mangrove Avenue, they explained how a shared love of nature—and a touch of fate—brought them together.

Mark and Cynthia Gailey

Photo by Ken Smith

Mark and Cynthia moved to the Chico area separately in the early 1980s—he from Arcata and she from Davis. Cynthia said she’d grown up enjoying nature excursions with her family, but missed the opportunity to do so her first few years in town.

“This is gonna make me sound really old,” Cynthia began with a laugh, “but a girlfriend and I were bemoaning the fact there were no men in our life to take us hiking and backpacking, so we decided we’d just do it ourselves. Our second time out, I met Mark while he was working as a seasonal ranger at Lassen Park. It was our big ‘we don’t need men’ trip and I ended up meeting my future husband.

“It was a lot of fun seeing him in his Smokey Bear uniform,” Cynthia said of their instant connection.

Back in Chico, Mark was already involved with the Butte Environmental Council, and regularly participated in—and later organized—Bidwell Park and Lindo Channel cleanups while working as a teacher and administrator at several local schools. He later served on BEC’s board of directors for a decade.

Mark said he’s rarely missed a cleanup event since he started, though bad information about a recent effort made him unable to locate the larger group. Undeterred, he rolled up his sleeves and collected six full bags of creek-bed clutter.

“He does that every time he goes out for a walk or a bike ride,” Cynthia said. “He comes back with several bags already sorted into clothes to be washed and donated, trash and recyclables.”

Mark also served on the board of the Blue Room Theatre for several years, and remains involved as a tutor at the school he ultimately retired from, Pleasant Valley High.

Cynthia said she mainly focused on her career as a nurse until she retired a few years ago and began looking for something to focus her energy on. She may have found her cause when a rash of crimes in their neighborhood spurred her to start a Neighborhood Watch group. The group’s ire and suspicion was initially focused on the homeless population, and its first action—borrowed from Mark’s playbook—was to clean up a large encampment in Lindo Channel.

“As we were cleaning up, I saw and met some of the people who lived down there, and a lot of them joined up and helped out,” Cynthia said. “They were so hard-bitten and down on their luck, and I felt a human connection that changed me.

“I had been so up in arms about these people, but I saw the horrible conditions they lived in,” she said. “I wondered how they could ever pull themselves out of it when they’re so hated and persecuted by society. My compassion for environmental issues and the creeks and for human beings all came together, and that’s how I became aware.”

Soon after, a cold snap in December 2013 caused Cynthia to wake up in a panic one morning, worrying about the welfare of those forced to sleep outside. She opened a newspaper and read a letter to the editor saying the Chico Homeless Action Team and Chico Peace and Justice Center were opening the center’s doors as an emergency cold weather center—the first version of Safe Space, now a shelter that operates seasonally at rotating churches. Gailey immediately got involved and began serving as Safe Space’s coordinator. The shelters will open for a third year on Nov. 29.

In addition to the Gaileys’ humanitarian and environmental efforts, they love music and theater. The couple participate in a weekly Celtic music session—she plays bass and sings, and he plays guitar and bodhran—that sometimes does charity gigs under the name Molly’s Favourite. They also organize twice-yearly group trips to Ashland, Ore., to see plays.

—Ken Smith

Jack of all trades

Michael Bruhn

It’s fair to say that civic engagement doesn’t serve as a guiding principle for most college-age men. But 24-year-old Chico State student Michael Bruhn finds his relative youth—most volunteers are “up there in years,” he observed—advantageous when it comes to, say, luring cats into cages.

Michael Bruhn

Photo by Howard Hardee

Shortly after he began volunteering with Chico Cat Coalition about five years ago, the organization had to relocate about 70 feral cats to a new shelter facility. Bruhn and his partner caged most of the animals that day, but there was one holdout that wouldn’t come down from an insulated space above the ceiling.

The seasoned volunteers Bruhn worked with suggested leaving food out for the cat and waiting; maybe it would come down by morning. “I didn’t want the cat to be breathing in that foam insulation,” he said, “so I climbed up and kind of poked it with a stick until it came back out of the hole, and caught it with a net. … Everyone was really happy; they thought catching all the cats was going to take a week.”

Now, even though he’s more fond of dogs, Bruhn’s become known as “the cat guy”—the wrangler in Chico Cat Coalition’s efforts to trap, neuter and release feral cats. Bruhn’s calm demeanor helps when making his approach, he said, which is simple: “You go up to a cat with some gloves on, and if it tries to hiss and bite you, just get it into the cage.”

But Bruhn has broader interests. As a longtime runner, he’s always had an affinity for Chico’s green spaces, so naturally his first volunteer effort was removing invasive plants with Friends of Bidwell Park. Today, he’s something of a volunteer Jack of all trades, donating up to 25 hours a week of his time when school’s out for summer. He takes up a wide range of causes through Chico Animal Shelter, Chico Native Plant Society, Friends of Comanche Creek and the Stream Team. He’s also a volunteer crew leader with the city of Chico’s Park Division.

When working with animals, Bruhn strives to provide each one with a clean environment and some attention. “When you go to the Chico Animal Shelter, especially, you see all these poor little animals all alone, and they want you to play with them,” he said. “So, I try to spend a little time with each of them.”

When it comes to the park—even when he’s just running through—he knows that a little care can make a difference. For example, if he sees an invasive plant, he’ll remove the berries to make sure the seed doesn’t spread.

“It’s not like a super strong emotional passion that drives me,” he said, reflecting on why he volunteers. “It’s more that I just want to help out. I like making the animals happy, I like making the park cleaner, and I like restoring native ecology.”

—Howard Hardee

Preserving the past

James Lenhoff

Jim Lenhoff has owned and curated the Cherokee Museum—originally an old stage coach stop—since the 1960s.

Photo by Ken Smith

The front door of James Lenhoff’s Victorian home in Oroville retains the original, working buzzer that visitors have pulled since the home was built in 1878. Much of the house is deliberately unrestored, with fading original wallpaper and the occasional crack in plastered walls emphasizing its aged beauty. All around are remnants of eras past—framed newspapers, a square piano and the land-line telephone that still serves as Lenhoff’s primary method of communication well into the Digital Age.

The house likely would be gone and forgotten decades ago were it not for Lenhoff, as he and his wife bought it as well as the one next door to save them from demolition in 1961. The same can be said for a number of other local historic landmarks that Lenhoff successfully fought to save for posterity, including the Oregon City Schoolhouse, the Bangor Community Church and Oroville’s Mother Orange Tree. He’s also played a role in preserving sites outside of the county, including San Francisco’s Old Mint Building.

Lenhoff still remembers the spark that lit his life-long love of history more than 60 years ago: “When I was in grammar school, my family moved to Oroville from the Bay Area [circa 1940],” he said. “Someone took me gold panning on the Feather River, hiking on Table Mountain and to the ruins of Cherokee. Everything kind of grew from that.”

After graduating from Oroville High School in 1949, Lenhoff got his teaching credential from then-Chico State College, and he worked at area schools for 43 years. He has also written for several publications and started or joined a number of historical organizations. He is the oldest surviving charter member and longtime former president of the Butte County Historical Society. He also served as president of the California Heritage Council, a position through which he met and got to know former President Ronald Reagan, then the state’s governor.

He explained he managed to save several sites by having them declared as state or federal historic landmarks “so they couldn’t come in and tear things down all willy-nilly.” Several of the preservation campaigns involved years of intense research, lobbying, politicking and a heroic level of stick-to-it-iveness.

Lenhoff’s work has helped protect several buildings in downtown Oroville, including the Oroville Inn. “Thirty years ago I applied to get it on the National Register of Historic Places, and because of that they weren’t able to tear it down all these years. Now an investor has finally come along to restore it.”

Though Lenhoff has logged countless hours toward preservation efforts, he said the work has been fulfilling in immeasurable ways: “If you don’t know about the past, your few years here are very limited,” he said. “But when you’re interested in things that came before you, it broadens your whole life, and that’s been my reward over the years.”

Lenhoff currently organizes—and sometimes hosts—history talks at Mugshots Coffee House in Oroville (2040 Montgomery St.) on the third Thursday of each month.

—Ken Smith

The fairy godmother

Kathy Bakke

For young people experiencing homelessness, life can be filled with uncertainties. And at the 6th Street Center for Youth in downtown Chico, the staff and volunteers try and answer the most immediate concerns by offering a safe, dependable place to get basic needs met—providing clothing, food and place to take a shower, as well as resources for transitioning to “healthy independent living and adulthood,” as their mission statement says.

One of the many constants at 6th Street is volunteer Kathy Bakke. And listening to staff and the youth talk about her, it becomes clear that Bakke brings much more to the center than her skills as a cook and art instructor. Over her three years of volunteering, she’s become a welcoming source of comfort and almost motherly warmth, helping the center feel like a home.

“Maybe what’s most special about [Kathy] is the way she interacts with the youth here,” said Lauren Thomas, program coordinator at 6th Street. “She makes people feel heard and validated …. She remembers tiny details that the youth mention to her and brings it up next time she sees them. She’s hilarious and kind and flexible and present.”

Kathy Bakke

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Bakke came to Chico in 1978 with her husband to raise her two kids and work in community care licensing—for group homes, foster care, etc.—with the California Department of Social Services. When she retired, she wanted to volunteer somewhere in the same field.

“I knew Youth for Change [a community partner with 6th Street] because they were all in my caseload,” she said. “When I retired, I missed the kids I worked with.”

Bakke majored in art in college, and started at the center by leading various art workshops—painting, macramé, jewelry, etc.—before moving into the kitchen. Now she cooks the main late-afternoon meal at 6th Street twice a week, buying all the ingredients for the menu on Mondays, and augmenting the center’s leftovers on Thursdays.

“Kathy is one of the most selfless, generous people I have met,” Thomas added. “We call her our 6th Street fairy godmother because she has this magical way of taking care of things, of noticing needs and addressing them in this really sweet and subtle way. If our toaster isn’t working quite right, Kathy appears with a new toaster. If she chats with a youth who mentions she’s interested in beading, Kathy shows up with a box overflowing with various strings and beautiful beads for anyone to use while they’re here.”

While Bakke says that she has to keep a certain amount of professional distance between her and the center’s young members, she says that her relationships with them “are mostly listening and enjoying their company,” adding that “they’re grateful and very polite.”

As tokens of their appreciation, Bakke said the center’s youth have made her a bag as well as an apron with “words of appreciation and drawings.” When asked if she wore the apron when she cooked at the center, she said, “No, I hung it up in my house … I would not want anything to happen to it. It’s a little piece of art.”

—Jason Cassidy