Local heroes 2017
Thanking those who serve our community
Every year for Thanksgiving, the Chico News & Review shines a spotlight on a handful of local heroes, people who go above and beyond as volunteers for causes that help our community. This year, we feature six locals who donate their time knitting hats for kids, soldiers and vets; hosting benefits for nonprofits; fostering animals; picking up litter; and feeding, housing and advocating for the homeless population.
Cheers to them, and happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers.
Hats from the heart
The bulk of Lou Boelens’ work for this year’s holiday season—making hats to brighten others’ lives—was already done when the CN&R visited her eastside Chico home one recent, rainy morning. Still, Boelens remained hard at work, sitting in her easy chair with a bin full of yarn at her feet and a knitting needle in her hand.
“I’m already starting for next year,” Boelens said, her native Texas drawl still evident despite having moved to Chico with her late husband, Camiel, at age 17 (she is now 82). “I keep knitting year-round … I have to to get ’em all done.”
Boelens estimates she knits about 150 hats a year, 50 each for three beneficiaries: children with special needs at Loma Vista School; veterans in transitional housing at VECTORS House; and soldiers deployed to the Middle East through Adopt a Soldier for Christmas, Chico.
Boelens said a kid’s hat takes about a day to make, and adult ones about twice as long. She said knitting them for soldiers is “the least I can do,” and that she developed a love for children with special needs while working for several years at The Arc of Butte County.
The children are also gifted teddy bears she buys on weekly trips to Thrifty Bargain, after she cleans and washes them at home. That’s also where she gets yarn, likewise bought on her own dime. Additionally, she contributes other comfort items for the soldiers, like ChapStick, puzzle books and cookies.
Boelens started making hats for charity along with a friend, Barbara Schrader, about a decade ago: “We scrounged around and found yarn wherever we could and just started doing it,” Boelens recalled matter-of-factly.
Together the two made hundreds of hats annually and distributed them to several additional organizations. Becky Eitel, who runs the local Adopt a Soldier program with her husband, Scott, said the pair knitted enough hats back then—for her organization alone—to fill at least half of the roughly 750 care packages sent overseas each year.
Schrader passed away in 2015, and Boelens has kept up the effort alone since. She said a few others planned to join her, but they “pooped out.”
“My health is pretty good, but I can feel that slipping,” she said. She added she’s unsure how much longer she can keep hand-crafting the hats, but plans to do so as long as she’s able.
“[The soldiers] absolutely love the hats, and appreciate having something handmade from home,” Eitel said, relating an anecdote she heard from one soldier whose small squad all received boxes with hats one year that made them feel like the big men on campus on base.
“I think there’s a lot of people out there who do really nice things without asking for any recognition,” Eitel said. “They just do it because they love others, and Lou is one of those people.”
Round up the hope posse
You can tell a lot about a person by her social media posts.
At any given time, scrolling through Peggy Mead’s Facebook timeline, you’ll find “a picture of my cat, a picture of my grandkids, ‘I need beds,’ something else, something else, ‘I need bikes’ …”
These appeals aren’t personal. Mead is one of five women who comprise the Chico Posse, a group that since 2015 has connected people in need with what’s needed. Primarily, that’s household goods and furnishings, but assistance also extends to social services: for instance, helping a veteran secure his housing voucher.
Beneficiaries range from graduates of transitional housing programs to disaster victims. Just last week, Mead posted a message on Facebook seeking gift cards to clothe families who lost homes to fire.
“I’m just putting people together is all,” she said, “but it’s a game-changer.”
Her service work—an extensive list extending to the Bay Area before she moved to Chico in 1993—has yielded awards, such as when Assemblyman James Gallagher designated her as the district’s Woman of the Year for 2016.
Mead accepts yet deflects such honors. With each accolade, “I take one for the team,” she said, “because it helps us get recognition and donations, and it puts us on the map; but, ay-ay-ay!”
The group—Mead, Laurie Maloney, Shelly Watson, Holly Parker and Sally Hayes—took the name from Maloney’s husband, former Chico Police Chief Mike Maloney, who called them “my wife’s posse” as their efforts coalesced.
All have full-time jobs. Mead, for instance, is association executive for Chico’s realty board, Sierra North Valley Realtors. As a mark of their joint commitments, they got matching “Posse” tattoos on their wrists—“It was some of the girls’ first [tattoo],” Mead said.
Mead, Maloney and Watson also have matching wrist tattoos commemorating House of Hope, the first transitional living facility for the Jesus Center. Along with a fourth woman, Nancy Wolfe, they spearheaded construction and operation of the home for women and children. It opened in 2013; six other Jesus Center houses have followed.
“It’s an amazing thing; it’s how the patterns of addiction and homelessness are broken,” she said. “I can’t say enough about transitional living.”
House of Hope precipitated the Posse. Mead and the others who’ve served as mentors realized that families leaving for permanent housing typically lacked the means to furnish their new dwellings. Meanwhile, donors kept bringing items after House of Hope had opened, so the women started storing goods in their garages and distributing them.
Their garages filled; now they sublease space in a warehouse rented by Vietnam Veterans of America. Donations still flow: During a quick stop at the warehouse on a recent Monday morning (Nov. 13), the landlord happened by with a flat-screen TV and a bike-tire pump. The Posse, organized as a nonprofit foundation, also receives financial support, with regular contributors including two who tithe.
“It’s grown so much,” Mead said. “It’s now a hand up for anyone who falls through the cracks.”
The show must go on
It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
In 2009, Greg Amaral wanted to give his mother a special present for her 70th birthday. He hired his sister’s favorite band, the popular Bay Area group The Waybacks, blew out the side of a barn to create a makeshift stage, and threw a big outdoor party.
His mom loved it, and so did everyone else who attended. “You should do this more often,” they said.
Amaral agreed with them. He realized he had an ideal site for outdoor concerts and other events—close to town but far enough out to avoid noise and traffic complaints. Little did he know, however, that his mom’s birthday bash was the seminal event at what has evolved into an important performance venue in Chico as well as a major fundraising mechanism for a number of nonprofit service and educational groups.
One of the bands that later played there, the Brooklyn-based Defibulators, came up with a name for the place. Noting that posters advertising their concert directed attendees to “the end of Normal Street,” they suggested calling the venue The End of Normal. (It’s actually on Estes Road, which connects to the end of Normal.)
Amaral, who is in his early 50s, grew up in Salinas and Truckee and moved to Chico in 1983. He put himself through Chico State by working for painters and builders, learning tradecraft as he went. He was a general contractor for several years but eventually began specializing in cabinetry.
In 2004 he was looking to buy a property that had both a house and a workshop when he found the Normal Street site—eight acres complete with house, workshop and beat-up old barn, as well as several acres of almond trees. The place was a mess, covered with junk, and Amaral had to use a bulldozer to clear out the many tree stumps.
It has since become the site of the annual Butcher Shop theater productions, as well as a number of benefit concerts. In particular, it has hosted events for three charter schools—Blue Oak, Wildflower Open Classroom and Sherwood Montessori—as well as community radio station KZFR.
Amaral figures that so far the events have brought in about $150,000.
“I’m a half-ass concert promoter now without even trying,” he said during a recent interview.
Amaral doesn’t charge for the use of his property, and in fact has sunk money into it to make it even more attractive to attendees. He’s built a couple of bocce ball courts along with a large pergola-style roof to protect them from rain. He’s also improved the stage and even created a one-hole golf course, complete with green.
It’s a welcoming place for families, he points out. Parents can enjoy the concerts without worrying about their kids because the place is completely safe.
He has neighbors, but they don’t mind the concerts and in fact enjoy them, he says. His policy is that “anyone who can hear the music from their house gets in free.”
Shelly Rogers exited the living room in her charming home east of downtown Chico and returned with Grampaw, an approximately 8-year-old foster dog who began barking incessantly at this reporter. Once it was clear the terrier mix wasn’t going to cut the yapping long enough for an interview, Rogers took him to another room.
Grampaw came to Rogers by way of the Chico Animal Shelter, which had taken him in as a stray in desperate need of medical care for a massive hernia and major dental issues that led to the extraction of all but four teeth.
“They were rotting out of his head,” said Rogers, who produced a disfigured tooth pulled from the little blond dog.
Now that Grampaw’s healthy, Rogers will begin socializing him so that he can be adopted. When that happens, it’ll be the 53rd time since February 2012 that she’s helped an unwanted dog find a loving home. It’s a point of pride for her that not a single one of those animals has returned to the shelter.
At the same time, she’s also caring for a tiny, roughly 16-year-old bat-faced chihuahua that, sadly, as a senior, also ended up at the shelter. Marietta is not a foster, but rather a “fospice”—a play on the term hospice, as she will live out the rest of her days being pampered by Rogers and her husband, Eric.
“Fospice isn’t for everybody, but if you go into it with the mindset that ‘I’m going to treat this dog like every day I have her is her last day on earth,’ that’s a pretty good way to look at it,” said Rogers, noting that Marietta isn’t sickly—just “super old.”
Meanwhile, she also volunteers with the Neighborhood Cat Advocates (NCA), a local group formed in January 2013 that traps, neuters/spays and then releases feral and unowned cats.
Rogers, one of the NCA’s founders, returns phone messages left with the organization. She also traps cats—the most rigorous of her volunteering duties, since it requires driving to and from the trapping location, the veterinarian’s office, her home where the cats recuperate, and then back to where the animals were picked up. NCA, which is funded through Pawprints Thrift Boutique, has fixed 4,801 cats—thereby eliminating the birth of tens of thousands of unwanted felines.
While the aforementioned volunteer efforts revolve around her love of animals, yet another is spurred by her distaste for litter. For about 2 1/2 years, during breaks at her job as an electric mapper at the PG&E office on Rio Lindo Avenue, Rogers has picked up trash along the adjacent bike path. You may have seen her efforts on Facebook or Instagram under the moniker Trash Walking Chico (see “Trash Talkin’,” Greenways, Aug. 18, 2016).
As to what keeps her motivated to continue cleaning up a seemingly endless stream of refuse, Rogers noted that doing so is surprisingly satisfying.
“You can immediately see the results of your work.”
Little man, big dreamer
Alexandra Trent describes her 6-year-old son, Kieran, as a constant reminder of the good in people.
“I think it’s really easy right now to be really upset about a lot of things,” Trent said. “But then you see kids making the right choices. It kind of restores that faith in humanity.”
Kieran came to her last March to share a dream he had of helping those in need.
“He basically came to me one day and asked me, ‘Mom, I have this dream of having a fancy dinner for the people at the Torres [Community] Shelter,’” she said. “He was saying that he understood that not everyone had access to restaurants or even a home life like he has access to. He wanted to see if he could provide that for the people of the shelter.”
Kieran wanted to follow through and make the dinner a reality. He’d dreamt up even the details of the dinner, wanting to make them his favorite meal, which he says, enthusiastically, is chicken parmigiano. He also wanted to serve broccoli, Caesar salad, and bread pudding with ice cream for dessert.
Kieran envisioned the “fancy” dinner including tablecloths, real china, real silverware and real glasses, he said. So, when the time came to do the work, Kieran got his little legs moving and rallied some sponsors for the event and even helped convince more than 20 volunteers to help prepare, cook and serve the meal, which was held June 25 at the Torres Shelter.
“It’s pretty easy to rally around a 5-year-old who had a dream—a literal dream,” Trent said.
When the day came, Kieran’s passion to help others never wavered. He helped prep food. He helped serve. And he even helped clean up. They fed 145 people, when all was said and done.
“That made me feel good,” Kieran said.
Trent described the dinner as a success and said it’s inspired her son to become more involved in the community. Kieran and his family now volunteer once a month at the Torres Shelter and are looking at possibly putting on another dinner.
The dinner also inspired others, Trent said.
“We’ve had a lot of people tell us they’re now volunteering,” she said. “There’s been quite a few people who have said they felt like there was a barrier and they didn’t understand they could just get up and do something. When they saw a 5-year-old get up and do something, they became inspired.”
Kieran takes ballet classes at a local studio and is almost a celebrity in the place due to his community service. His mom says there’s a picture of him posted on the walls of North State Ballet as a result of the dinner, and it’s inspired the studio to organize drives for donations of items, such as canned foods and socks, to be given to the shelter.
“Having seen kids have compassion is important,” Trent said. “I think sometimes as adults we forget about it. It’s more intrinsic in nature than we remember.”
Putting the social in social justice
At its best, the Chico community is both caring and fun-loving. That could reasonably describe our city’s so-called “vibe.” And Bill Mash is the embodiment of that, equally tireless in advocating for those who are homeless in Chico as he is in supporting and promoting the local music and arts scenes.
Most recently, that duality has manifested in a weekly community news and entertainment program on community radio station KZFR 90.1 FM called (naturally) The Chico Vibe, as well as a newspaper page with the same name edited by Mash in the North State-based Homeward Street Journal.
“What the ‘Chico vibe’ means to me is people coming together for the better of the community,” Mash said over a cup of coffee. “I’ve met just the most beautiful people I possibly could have met doing the work that I do that I would never have met otherwise. The Chico Vibe to me is connecting with all those different people.”
For more than five years in town (and beyond), Mash has donated nearly all of his time to building those connections. His main gig has been providing “a face and a voice to poverty and extreme poverty,” largely under the umbrella of Without a Roof, a website and blog he started to chronicle local homelessness issues and feature interviews with people suffering from poverty via video and audio vignettes. He also hosts a Without a Roof radio show on KZFR (Wednesdays, 5-5:30 p.m.), which explores poverty via discourse with homeless advocates and others in the community.
The 57-year-old Massachusetts native understands homelessness on a unique level, as he’s experienced it himself—first as a teen runaway in Boston, and again during the summer of 2012, when he lived out of his car for a few months after running out of money following an early retirement from Hewlett-Packard. He started his documentation of homelessness around that time, hiking and filming his way through Sacramento, Yuba City, Marysville and Oroville before settling in Chico.
Mash’s Chico Vibe radio show is actually winding down (he’ll host his final hour on Friday, Nov. 24, at 6 p.m.), but that’s only so he can free up more time for the rest of his projects and to do more of what he does best—on-the-street networking.
“Everybody knows [Bill] … He is down on the ground with the people,” said Siana Sonoquie, a local homeless advocate and outreach director for North Valley Housing Trust. Sonoquie and Mash have worked together in helping numerous people get services and off the streets, and she says his media work is very important for local efforts. “He speaks up for people who don’t have a voice. … He gives a platform to those who don’t have a platform.”
“I don’t consider myself a hero. I think everyone can do something on this issue,” said Mash, stressing that the first thing he believes needs to happen to address local homeless issues is for people to force themselves to become educated and aware. “What’s uncomfortable for many people is to meet people where they’re at,” he said. “It changes people’s lives. Because it shows them immediately that you care. And make a connection with them, keep coming back, ask them what they want. Don’t make any preconceptions. [Ask] ‘How can I help you?’ And just help them.”