Local heroes 2016

Let’s give thanks to those who help our community

Loretta Steinke

Loretta Steinke

Every year, Chico News & Review devotes its Thanksgiving issue to Local Heroes, people who go above and beyond as volunteers for the causes that help our community. This year, we shine the spotlight on seven locals donating their time to teach at-risk communities how to grow their own food; counsel the dying and grieving; glean unused produce for the hungry; smooth over barriers to services for people on the street; preserve our historic places; and teach art to children in low-income families. Thank you and cheers to them all, and happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers.

In times of trauma

Loretta Steinke

Loretta Steinke’s referrals usually involve serious trauma or death, and due to health privacy laws, she says, the staff at Enloe Medical Center provide only a short description of a patient’s condition, such as, “he was in a car accident.”

“I knock on the door, introduce myself as a spiritual support provider and we just go from there,” she said. “I always offer them prayer. I would say that probably 97 percent are willing to accept prayer, even if they’re not religious. I always tell them, ‘I’ve never known a prayer to hurt anyone.’”

A 79-year-old great-grandmother, Steinke is retired and donates time to a variety of causes about three days a week, though sometimes she’s on call 24 hours a day for Enloe. She’s motivated by the sense of purpose she finds as a chaplain, spiritual support provider and regular volunteer at Butte Home Health & Hospice. In some cases, she comforts patients with advanced terminal conditions. In others, she helps families cope if a loved one has been admitted to the intensive care unit. She’ll make upward of seven visits during a three-hour shift.

Outside of the medical setting, Steinke volunteers for the Downtown Chico Business Association’s outreach program, the Downtown Ambassadors. She walks the streets with a partner to give information to tourists, visit merchants and direct homeless people to local service providers.

“I try to let them know that we think they’re people—human beings,” she said of her interactions with impoverished members of the community. In the winter, she also volunteers for Safe Space, Chico’s seasonal, cold-weather homeless shelter hosted at rotating locations.

In 2009, Steinke’s 99-year-old mother died at Butte Hospice. She started volunteering there the next year.

Later, she was inspired to become a chaplain after visiting two terminally ill women from her synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel.

“I went to my rabbi and said, ‘If I do this, I really need some kind of training—this is hard,’” she said. “I thought she would send me to a seminar or something, but she pointed me to clinical pastoral education.”

She entered training at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento. Normally, completing the course takes two years, but she wasn’t looking for a paid job. “So, I did 11 weeks of training, came back to Chico and became the chaplain of my synagogue,” she said.

From there, she got involved with Enloe’s spiritual support volunteer program. End-of-life visits, especially, take an emotional toll on Steinke.

“Sometimes, when you leave the hospital, you want to crawl on your hands and knees,” she said. “Other times, you wonder, ‘Why did I go? I didn’t accomplish anything.’ And then others, you just float out of there. You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t have compassion, and because you have compassion, you can be reached by grief, sadness, joy and indifference.”

—Howard Hardee

More than gardeners

Jenny Lowrey and Bruce Matthews

Jenny Lowrey and Bruce Matthews

Jenny Lowrey spent decades in corporate America, traveling the country for her high-stress job in the chemical industry. That changed when her health declined, big time. She suffered from multiple heart attacks, strokes and other serious ailments, and when her doctor had “given up” on her, it was a wake-up call. To take control of her life, Lowrey started gardening and learning to eat healthfully. She lost 150 pounds in the process and, as a result, gained a desire to share her success with others.

“I feel like I’ve been given a second chance,” she said.

Lowrey shared her story during a recent interview at Kentfield Gardens, a community garden tucked into a nice neighborhood near In Motion Fitness. It’s a spot where Lowrey, executive director of From the Ground Up Farms (fromthegroundupfarms.org), a gardening education program, spends much of her time.

She and her boyfriend, Bruce Matthews, co-founder of the nonprofit, stumbled upon the site in a kismet sort of way. In 2012, they lost their house in Concow to a fire and moved to Chico, a stone’s throw from the quarter-acre lot owned by Todd Hall that had long served as a community garden. At that point an avid gardener, Lowrey had big ideas for the space and convinced Hall to lend it to them.

From the Ground Up Farms sprouted in 2013. At first, Lowrey and Matthews grew produce and made weekly deliveries to the Torres Community Shelter. Later, they started holding workshops and eventually put in a series of raised beds at the facility, whose clients wanted their own garden. Their efforts have since blossomed throughout the greater community.

The nonprofit’s specialty these days, the couple explained, is establishing gardens at facilities with high-risk populations. With the aid of grant funding and volunteers, they have put in 15 gardens at a range of locations, from low-income apartments to a daycare center. For many people, the growing spaces are transformative. “It’s their garden, and it’s their food, and it’s their yard—and it changes everything, everything. They become nurturing and self-reliant,” Lowrey said.

“It’s so therapeutic,” added Matthews, a retired truck driver who keeps the organization’s equipment in tip-top shape.

The nonprofit has no office (“coordinating by cellphone and at coffee tables,” as Lowrey put it) and relies on a dedicated group of about a dozen volunteers. Everyone affiliated with the operation, including Lowrey and Matthews, is unpaid. Moreover, Hall, a local hero in his own right, pays Kentfield Gardens’ water bill.

Both say they would love to see other nonprofit groups mirror their model and get more folks interested in gardening.

“We want to fan the flames. You can do this yourself. This is easy to do,” Matthews said. “Grow your own food, and you’ll think better and feel better, your health will improve.”

—Melissa Daugherty

‘Waste not’

Meg Bogue

Meg Bogue

Meg Bogue hates wastefulness and loves sharing food, two principles she credits to growing up in a big family and a small farming community. Those values also inform her efforts with Share Your Harvest, which Bogue founded in 2010 and describes as a “wee band of gatherers” who glean produce from North State farmers and gardeners to help feed the hungry.

“Our family was nuts about cooking and canning and eating good food together,” Bogue said during a recent interview. “We used what we could and shared the rest, so waste just drives me crazy.”

Bogue, who lives in north Chico and is an avid gardener, was first moved to start the group by the bounty in her own backyard. A personal vegetable garden or a single fruit tree will commonly generate far more produce than one family can possibly use, which spurred her and a few friends to start planting two extra rows to donate food to local agencies that feed the hungry, such as the Esplanade House, the Jesus Center and Salvation Army’s George Walker Center.

She also aimed to harness some of the tremendous amount of waste produced by larger growers in the North State. She and her husband, Terry, regularly travel the region in the course of running their business, Interquest Detection Canines of North Valley CA, which trains narcotic and other detection dogs for clients from Sacramento to the Oregon border. “We see apples on the ground and all kinds of fruit not being picked everywhere,” she said. “For example, we live behind the largest kiwi farm in Butte County, and a large percentage of those kiwis are never harvested because they don’t meet [commercial] size and shape requirements.”

Several local farms now inform Share Your Harvest when they have excess food: “I have a whole cadre of [growers] who call every year and say, ‘OK, come and get the persimmons, or apples, or oranges,’ and we go rushing out to pick them,” she said. At the time of this interview, Bogue’s minivan was filled with kiwis—as was her garage, she reported.

Bogue said the group collected and distributed a total of 21,000 pounds of food in its first four years. That number has dropped recently, which she attributes to home gardens and small farmers planting less due to drought.

“I realize I was lucky to grow up in a family that had access to all that wonderful food, and it makes me think about all the people who don’t have that access,” Bogue said, adding Share Your Harvest is always looking for more sources of produce, volunteers and agencies to give to. “I hate to think there’s good, healthy food rotting away while children in Butte County go to school hungry.”

Those interested in helping Share Your Harvest can contact Bogue at 899-8797 or megbogue@aol.com.

—Ken Smith

‘The voice of Oroville’

Jim Moll

Jim Moll

When Jim Moll moved to Oroville 42 years ago to take a job as news director at AM radio station KORV, he couldn’t have predicted how far his voice would project, or the impact it might have. Heck, he didn’t even expect to stay in Oroville that long. But he met his future wife, Claudia, at the station, and the rest, well …

“I expected I’d move back to the Bay Area eventually,” said Moll, now vice president of investments at Stifel Nicolaus in downtown Oroville. “I’m glad I stayed right here.”

It wasn’t long after he got that first radio gig that he started getting tapped to emcee local events. After all, he does have the voice for it. “And it’s not something a lot of people feel comfortable doing,” he said. He started announcing at Feather Fiesta Days, various parades and regional high school band competitions. He’s been doing it ever since. He earned his nickname—“the voice of Oroville”—thanks to a 1994 promo video the city of Oroville produced. The voice-over actor they’d hired kept calling it “Orville,” he recalled, and at the last minute, they handed the script to Moll, who nailed it.

But Moll does more than donate his vocal chords. His current passion is the historic Oroville State Theatre. Two years ago, the city of Oroville, which owns the Myers Street building, agreed to turn over day-to-day running of the theater to the nonprofit STAGE (State Theatre Arts Guild), of which Moll is board president.

“We’re so thankful they decided to turn it over to us, to keep it open, rather than just shut it down,” Moll said.

Through donations and member dues, STAGE was able to fund a restoration project over the summer and recently purchased an organ. The theater, which has “fantastic acoustics,” was designed to accommodate an organ, Moll explained. That’s because it was built for silent movies—in 1928, a year before talkies came out. Installing the organ is STAGE’s next big project, and he expects it will take time.

Before joining STAGE about eight years ago, Moll was a guiding force for the Northwest SPCA, of which he served as board president for many years. When he first joined, he said, “we had the most embarrassing shelter, with the most dedicated staff.” During his tenure, the Oroville nonprofit was able to secure grant funding to build a brand new shelter. Just the mention of it brought a big smile to his face.

Moll has also been an active member of the Oroville Hospital corporate board of directors for about a decade. In that role, he’s able to use his voice in another way: to represent the community and ensure residents have a healthy hospital. He’s enthusiastic about its well-being, too, and he’s looking forward to the impending expansion, which he sees as a big need as the community ages.

—Meredith J. Cooper

Ear to the streets

Siana Sonoquie

Siana Sonoquie

In July 2015, Siana Sonoquie was in an intensive care unit for severe head trauma after being attacked on the street by unknown assailants. Despite bleeding on the brain, she survived—though she’s still dealing with the effects of post-concussion syndrome—and two months later decided to make a drastic change in her life. She quit her job of 11 years and began to devote her time to volunteering to help improve the lives of people living on the streets.

“I feel like it was the universe telling me, ‘Siana, you are meant for something else,’” she said during a recent interview.

Sonoquie is one of the many people in Chico who are helping those living on the streets overcome barriers. In just over a year, she’s already fully immersed herself in the community, volunteering time to the Stairways housing program and the Jesus Center as well as the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force and, most recently, the Safe Space winter shelter program.

“She does what it takes to help people,” said Michael Madieros, executive director of Stairways. “She’ll pick you up at 3 in the morning to take you the airport. She’s that person. She does whatever she needs to do.”

Sonoquie, 38, says she tries to meet people where they are in order to find out what their particular needs are. “If you can find an access point—it can be a cup of coffee—that can open a bunch of doors,” she said. “If someone has a bunch of barriers to getting them [what they need]—whether a driver’s license or going to court,” he or she can end up getting stuck in details that are frustrating to anyone but are all but insurmountable to those with little to no means.

In addition to helping with Stairways’ outreach, Sonoquie handles the program’s marketing, and at the Jesus Center she volunteers at the front desk, welcoming guests and directing them to services, answering phones and handling mail.

Sonoquie grew up in Westwood, near Lake Almanor, and moved to Chico in 2002. A single mom living in poverty at the time, she enrolled in the Welfare to Work program and got a position as an art assistant at Fifth Sun Apparel. She worked her way up in the local company’s creative department and eventually found herself making pitches at corporate offices of companies like Walmart and Target.

Madieros said Sonoquie’s experience at Fifth Sun combined with having lived in poverty herself make her uniquely qualified for the work she does now. “She has both of those skill sets. It’s very, very useful,” he said.

“It’s really important that we listen to people,” Sonoquie said, adding that reaching out beyond our comfort zones and modern distractions and seeing the humans around us is crucial to improving everyone’s lives. “Just a little bit of dignity and respect is a gift for us both.”

—Jason Cassidy

Grandmother to many

Joy Murphy

Joy Murphy

Joy Murphy has six grandchildren, but they’re not the only kids who call her grandma. So do the children of Rancho de Soto Apartments in Orland, where she teaches art classes every Thursday evening.

“Being my age and not a [certified] teacher, I thought it would be nice to make things homey and comfortable, so I told the kids it’s OK to call me ‘Grandma Joy,’” Murphy said during a recent interview. “At first, they were bashful about it, but not anymore. It’s really helped us form a bond.”

The Rancho de Soto complex provides housing for agricultural workers and their families, most of whom are Hispanic. It is one of several rentals throughout the North State built and managed by the Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing housing for low-income or otherwise disadvantaged rural residents. Murphy’s late husband, William, helped found CHIP in 1973.

Murphy was born and raised in Orland and, after meeting William, who was serving in the Air Force at the time, the couple moved around the country before returning to the North State so William could attend what was then Chico State College. Over the years, he worked at the school as well as an assistant to former Chico City Manager Fred Davis, and as the city manager in Anderson. During that time, Joy focused on raising the couple’s two children and volunteered as an art teacher.

When William passed away in 2003, Jim Jessee—another of CHIP’s founders—asked her to join the organization’s board of directors, where she still holds a seat and serves as chair of the group’s fundraising committee. She’s also active in Orland city politics as an advocate for affordable housing.

A 2015 grant from Umpqua Bank made it possible for CHIP to buy materials for the art classes—and provide healthy snacks and a meal for attendees—and Murphy volunteers her time. “We try to make it not just a color and paint and paste class, but to do more educational projects,” Murphy said of the classes, which are usually attended by 10 to 15 children ages 3 to 13. She offered examples like making rainbows in jars to teach children about the density of different liquids, and doing “art with the masters” activities to teach the children art history and fundamentals. The class recently celebrated its one-year anniversary with project presentations, snacks and an art exhibit.

“Orland is a very small community,” Murphy said. “A lot of people work very hard on farms, [at] other businesses or commute to Chico, so I understand it can be hard to get people involved. But it’s so important and rewarding that I try to encourage everyone to help however they can.”

—Ken Smith