Local Heroes brighten lives
The CN&R salutes incandescent individuals of ’08
Thanksgiving is a time of tradition, and one of the traditions at the Chico News & Review is to recognize people who set a positive example with their hearts and hands. We call them Local Heroes, and they’ve included some of the most selfless people in Chico.
This year, we’ve widened the radius to include neighboring communities. The CN&R editorial staff thinks you’ll agree that our honorees’ contributions transcend city limits, and that they, too, help make countless lives brighter.
Nancy Morgans-Ferguson and Karen Kushner, Chico
Caregivers who care
Nancy Morgans-Ferguson and Karen Kushner began the Shalom Free Clinic to help the homeless in Chico get the medical care they needed. Almost two years later, the Shalom Free Clinic is thriving, in a way that they never could have imagined.
Kushner, a physician’s assistant, and Morgans-Ferguson, a church secretary, were prepared for their clinic to serve the homeless population—people in rags, who were dirty and “had bad feet.” But, for the most part, what they’ve gotten are middle-age, working-class families with little to no insurance. Many have such high co-pays they can’t afford the medications they’ve been prescribed.
About two-thirds of their clients come back as volunteers.
The clinic—open Sunday afternoons at the Congregational Church of Chico—offers not only medical assistance, but also housing and legal advice, the services of a nutritionist, family therapy, drug and alcohol counseling, and rape and crisis counselors.
Morgans-Ferguson and Kushner are passionate about the clinic and what Chicoans have made it into. Describing it as a “gift from the community, to the community,” they don’t focus much on their achievement; all they can talk about is how volunteers—some 400 of them—make it happen, and the difference they’re making in the lives of everyday people.
“I like to greet them at the door as if it is my house, know their names, make them feel valuable instead of a burden,” Morgans-Ferguson said. “To tell them ‘You are loved, you are wanted here, come and be with us, you’re not a burden.’ “
Morgans-Ferguson works part-time as the church’s administrative assistant and spends much of the rest of her time—during the week and weekends—at the Shalom Free Clinic. Before the clinic opened, she owned an antique store, but she had to close it when the clinic got so busy. Kushner works for Butte County Behavioral Health full-time during the week, and comes to the clinic at least once during the week as well as every Sunday.
The two laugh remembering some of the crazy lengths they have gone to help others.
Their favorite memory is when they helped a homeless man who wanted to stop drinking. He promised to stop if they could get him into a program. So when a call came after he had left the clinic that day, the two had to find him at “home"—the 20th Street Park—at midnight to let him know he had been accepted into the program. They watched as he gave away his belongings, and then made sure he got to treatment the next day.
They also talk fondly of the time they received a bottle of fancy olive oil from a woman they helped. It was a gift more expensive than she really could afford to give, which made the thoughtfulness so touching … albeit unnecessary. The reward, Morgans-Ferguson said, is “the look on the person’s face walking out the door that says, ‘Wow, you were able to help me, thank you.’ “
Willie Hyman, Chico
Fighter for rights
When Willie Hyman moved to Chico in 1976, he saw an area rich in parkland. That’s only natural, since he is an outdoorsman and photographer. A member of the Sierra Club, he recently received a certificate marking his 35-year commitment, though he no longer goes on lobbying trips for the group.
But Hyman really couldn’t tell you why he came here from his home in Sacramento, especially in light of bigotry he sees as commonplace in the North State.
Hyman, preparing a cup of tea while reminiscing, recalled that back in ‘76, as he was adjusting to his new home, he took part in an effort to save the city’s liberal newspaper at the time, The Bugle. “We did it—we saved it,” he said.
Two years later, he and six others started the Butte Community Coalition, an organization that works toward racial equality. Hyman, who had worked for the NAACP before that, became its first president.
“A friend of mine told me, ‘Willie, God sent you here, because you’ve been involved ever since you got here,’ “ Hyman said with a chuckle. His white hair suggests age, but he’s so spry and healthy-looking that one might guess he’s a decade younger than his 79 years.
These days, the coalition has nine full members and many volunteers who, among other things, monitor the courts and keep tabs on police calls so someone can jet off to the scene when an incident involves an African American.
Hyman, a divorced father of two grown children, is the first to admit he doesn’t sugar-coat things. His gruff manner in mentioning police officers, lawyers and judges—calling them “pigs” and “racists"—hasn’t won him many friends in those circles.
“We do not bite our tongues,” he said of the coalition.
The support Hyman and the coalition offer varies from getting accused men and women good attorneys, to attracting publicity to what they see as wrongful acts, to speaking out about racial inequality. The number of people for whom he’s advocated in the 30 years the coalition has been around is “too numerous to count,” Hyman said, adding: “These people need help, and they’re not getting it.”
This past summer, the group took on a case involving students at Las Plumas High School who found themselves the target of racism, bringing Hyman and his group full circle.
“When we organized [the coalition], we were considering the racism in schools in Oroville,” he said. In fact, the coalition was formed in Oroville and only moved to Chico to be closer to its president. “And that’s what it’s all about today.”
And none of it is paid: “The work we do is from our hearts, our souls and our pockets.”
—Meredith J. Cooper
Judy Sitton, Chico
‘She’s all in’
Judy Sitton, who grew up in Southern California, first came to Chico in 1963, when she was 18 and she and her mother were on a tour of prospective colleges. A “tall gentleman” approached them on the Chico State campus and offered to take them on a tour. It was only when they parted, more than two hours later, that she learned this man, who had introduced himself as Glenn Kendall, was the college’s president.
It was an act of gracious friendliness that spoke volumes about this town, she says. And it was a kindness Sitton has spent years returning in spades.
She met her husband, Gary, in her Psych 1A class her freshman year. He was a sophomore computer-science major. They married in 1967. After graduation—she received her lifetime teaching credential in 1969—they moved to Alberta, Canada, where he got his Ph.D. Then they returned to Chico, where she taught elementary school and he taught computer science at the university for 16 years.
Eventually he formed his own business, Bi-Tech, and started developing accounting software. What started out as a mom-and-pop operation steadily expanded, hiring mostly Chico State grads, and in 1995 the Sittons sold Bi-Tech to SunGard Data Systems. They stayed on until 2000—Gary as president, Judy as executive vice president—before retiring.
The company, renamed SunGard Public Sector, now has 260 employees in three locations at the Chico airport.
Judy Sitton was an active volunteer before retiring, but since then she’s become a major figure in the community, especially through her work with Enloe Medical Center and the new Northern California Natural History Museum.
At Enloe, she’s vice-chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, and she also chairs the 24-member Planetree Leadership Team, the group tasked with setting goals and policies for the hospital’s new, patient-centered model of care.
Sitton is always engaged and expressive, but her eyes really light up when she talks about Planetree. She believes the program is revolutionizing care in the hospital and making it a much warmer and welcoming place for everyone, including employees: “People are excited and really motivated.”
With the NCNHM, she’s been president of the board for five years and a leader in planning and fundraising for the facility, which is now under construction. Her husband is also a member of the board, and the two have made generous financial contributions to the museum, as they have to Enloe.
Sitton also chaired university President Paul Zingg’s advisory board for two years and served on the board of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) for 10 years. In 2003, Chico State University gave her an honorary doctorate degree for her years of service.
Laura Hennum, vice president for marketing and communications at Enloe, works closely with Sitton on Planetree development. Sitton seems “to draw from an endless well” of energy and selfless desire to help, Hennum said. “She’s making a difference, but she’s not taking the credit. She’s all in.”
Roberta Kirshner, Durham
Friend of the animals
It’s 9 a.m. and Roberta Kirshner has already been up for six hours, planning her day at the Durham wildlife sanctuary named in honor of her late son, Barry R. Kirshner.
This isn’t unusual for the 67-year-old animal trainer, a driven woman whose energy belies her small stature. Four or five hours of sleep each night is all it takes for her to run through a taxing schedule caring for the creatures entrusted to the local nonprofit tucked away on a winding road in a country neighborhood.
“We’re the last stop for many, many animals,” acknowledged Kirshner, holding a river otter whose head injury causes motor-skills problems.
Kirshner was just 8 when she started apprenticing with an animal trainer who lived next door to her grandmother in Southern California’s Simi Valley. She smiled, recalling her first experience bottle feeding baby bears and what turned into a life-long passion.
Over the past 15 years, the Kirshner Foundation has rescued everything from local critters to several large cats, such as a gorgeous 600-pound Bengal tiger named Adonas, whose healthy appearance defies his diagnosis of bone cancer. Kirshner would rather not discuss the fact that many of these animals would have been euthanized were it not for the center. Instead, she focuses on their strength, noting what amazing learning tools they provide for the public, and especially children.
“They’ve become great ambassadors for their species,” she said, noting that more than 40,000 people have contact with them each year, mostly during off-site educational events.
Kirshner also makes no mention of her determination to keep the foundation open, but her battle to do so is no secret.
For years, some residents of Laura Lane have been fighting to boot it from the sleepy neighborhood in the orchards, claiming the center violates its use permit by attracting too much traffic. Butte County allows visitors to the site, but its restrictions forced the facility to turn down 84 buses last year. That’s made it harder to run the foundation, which relies solely upon donations for funding.
Last month, the Board of Supervisors gave the organization a two-year deadline to relocate. The task is daunting, further complicated because the animals have to be moved simultaneously. That means a new facility must be up and running well ahead of time, requiring all new enclosures—at a cost of about $218,000.
Last week, Kirshner entered escrow on a property near Butte College more than twice the size of her current 8-acre facility. The hope is that the new site will allow additional visitors, generating more revenue and allowing the foundation to thrive. Her major task now is getting the public behind the effort before an eight-month window runs out.
Despite the tall order, Kirshner remains positive.
“This is an inspiration—to me, too. To take this on is a good, good feeling,” she said. “It will happen with the help of the community.”
Al Stiefel, Oroville
People love Al Stiefel, which is only fitting, because Al Stiefel loves people.
Retired from his career as a machinist, he has dedicated himself over the past 30 years to mentoring youth via Oroville’s Foothill 4-H Club, including 15 years working with special-needs kids; to volunteering with community groups, and to making his voice heard at City Council meetings and on citizen committees. Not surprisingly, he was named Best Community Volunteer by CN&R readers in the inaugural Best of Oroville poll.
Stiefel and his wife of almost 50 years, Shirley, chatted recently over a vegetarian lunch at Chiang Mai Thai Restaurant on Oro Dam Boulevard, offering insight into why Al is so well-regarded. He read a list of his many volunteer activities, jotted on the back of an envelope he pulled from his pocket, stopping after each entry to tell an anecdote or two.
Stiefel shared a story of one special-ed 4-Her who loved showing his pig so much that he wanted to do it again—immediately. “I told him, no, he couldn’t because he’d just shown it,” Stiefel shared, with a mixture of compassionate amusement and pride, “so he just sneaked around and came in the exit.” (The judge figured it out.)
Stiefel spoke warmly of his 4-H days as club leader and “swine leader"—tasks he’s phasing out to focus on directing community service projects for the club. Stiefel still lets young 4-H pig owners—"those that live in the city that don’t have a place to keep them"—use the hog barn on his 90-acre ranch to board their animals.
It became increasingly clear, as he read from his lengthy list in a manner far from self-aggrandizing, that Stiefel has a passion for helping people in need. He volunteers as a wheelchair and chair repairman at Country Crest retirement community, a tour guide at Bolt’s Antique Tool Museum, a house and yard cleaner for “limited-ability” adults, and a recruiter of holiday bell-ringers for the Salvation Army from his 4-H club and church, Calvary Lutheran.
Stiefel, who will be 71 in January, is also a prostate cancer survivor (he’s in remission). He serves on the local American Cancer Society Support Board, and is going into training to talk with hotline callers about prostate cancer.
The list went on, closing with what made Stiefel most emotional: his ongoing attempt (as part of a group of four, including retired school teacher Jim Adams) to try to secure a lighter sentence for Greg Wright, the 18-year-old serving a 22-year prison term for a 2007 incident at Las Plumas High School.
“He’s a special-needs kid,” said Stiefel, choking up. “I tried to get [Butte County DA Mike] Ramsey to put [Greg] on probation, and let him live on my ranch and not be able to go anywhere unsupervised by me … but Ramsey wouldn’t even let me meet Greg.”
Chiang Mai owner Lea Vinavong interrupted at just the right time with the check.
“He is a very nice man,” Vinavong said of Stiefel. “It’s hard to find a man like him. I say that from my heart.”
—Christine G.K. LaPado
Sherry Swim, Paradise
Generations of giving
Community service runs in Sherry Swim’s family. Her parents and grandparents instilled the importance of giving back; her husband shares that philosophy, which they’ve passed along to their seven children and 11 grandchildren.
That spirit is evident in Swim, and in her business. Paradise PIP Printing, a two-room shop off Pearson Avenue, contains donation boxes and jars for various charities, plus plaques for some of the many groups she’s sponsored. She’s especially fond of the “PIP Squeaks"—youth sports teams with the youngest kids the leagues allow.
“She’s so dedicated to the community—she gives you the extra nickel,” Town Councilman Woody Culleton said. “As a business owner, she’s so supportive of community efforts. She’s an all-around good person.”
Topping her nonprofit résumé is Rotary. “That’s one of the most important areas in my life,” she said, “and a good way to live your life because of the tests they have: ‘Is it the truth, and is it fair?’ And yes, we do a lot in Paradise, but we’re also concerned with our world. Just our little club up here did a five-year medical project in Costa Rica, and we’re just finishing up all the details for a water project in Mexico.”
Swim, who’s served on the chapter board, proudly wears her pin denoting a decade of making every Rotary meeting. “I’ve been a member longer, but I only have 10 years of perfect attendance,” she said with a laugh. Only.
She’s currently a board member for the Paradise Ridge Chamber of Commerce and actively supports the Northern California Ballet, the Gold Nugget Museum, the Paradise Performing Arts Center and “all youth activities, whether it’s a mathathon or a runathon or a spellathon, and for sports my rule is I spend the same amount on girls as on boys.”
There’s more: Swim is also “the permanent queen mother” for the Chocolate Fest, a series of events, including a pageant, that benefits the Boys and Girls Club. “We are working on our 2009 contestants now,” she said, even though the festival doesn’t start until May 1. “I personally think chocolate is a food group, so I have no problem being real involved with the Chocolate Fest.”
Swim’s husband, Charlie, a retired parole agent, is active with the Lions Club. “He’s in there doing his part for the world, too,” she said. So are their children—"I think it’s important to pass service along to the next generation.”
Case in point is son Steve, a Chico State alum who not only helped establish a foundation that gives computers to poor families but also is working on a holiday benefit show at Chico’s Blue Room Theatre.
“He asked me one time what I gave him for baby food because he did all these community things,” she recalled. “This is when he was working and a student. I said, ‘You’ve got to give back, you’ve got to give back!’
“One person at a time can make a difference. I really believe it.”