Local heroes

Six people we can all be thankful for

Photo By Tom Angel

Thanksgiving is a time for expressing gratitude, and for many years now the News & Review has taken this opportunity to honor several members of the community whose contributions to others has been extraordinary.

This year we have chosen six local heroes. All exemplify what it means to be a compassionate, caring member of the community. They are: a Chico Observatory volunteer who spends several evenings a week showing people the stars; a man who rescues animals from natural disasters; a children’s choir founder and director; a single mom who organized construction of an orphanage in Nepal; a doctor whose gifts will save lives; and a woman who exemplifies what it means to be an all-around volunteer.

As you read about them, it’s important to remember that none of them works alone. Each of them is surrounded by others who have joined them in their efforts. Each represents the work of many people. We should be thankful for them all.

Looking up
Chico Observatory’s Anita Berkowguides us through the galaxy

Standing on a ladder next to one of the two telescopes focused on the Ring Nebula and the brilliant Mars, respectively, Chico Observatory volunteer Anita Berkow is doing a great job getting the disparate viewers to be as enthusiastic about seeing a dead star as they are for the much-hyped Mars many of them came to see.

“It looks like a glowing green Cheerio,” she says, and the line forms immediately, second-graders and septagenarians wrestling one another on this clear, warm summer night for the next spot in line.

“This is an easy way to get into stellar evolution,” Berkow shared in a recent phone interview. “If we can get it across to the little kids, then you’ve had a good night. How can you not like that? It’s pretty incredible.”

Berkow is about as pleasant and inspiring to be around as one human can be. Friendly, energetic and genuinely interested in hearing what you have to say, she’s the perfect guide for the now 2-year-old observatory. With a never-wavering enthusiasm for the subject at hand, Berkow happily volunteers a huge chunk of her Thursday through Sunday evenings ("I’m there at least 75 percent of the time") to manning the scopes.

While her knowledge of astronomy is strong enough to be trusted with running the lion’s share of the observatory tours these days, Berkow’s background is less academic ("I never took an astronomy class") and more about a recently acquired passion for the subject. In fact, it was an entirely different discipline that brought this new interest into focus: her background working in video production with husband/videographer/local musician Peter Berkow, whom she met at a Funnels show at the old Ping Pong Palace club (now Gold’s Gym) in 1985.

“I just started developing an interest in astronomy about four years ago,” Berkow explained, “I started videotaping the [observatory] when it was just a cement slab and ended up being a volunteer.”

When she was a teenager in the late-'70s, Berkow’s family moved often, first from Southern California to Los Molinos and then to Chico, and the frequent moves took their toll. “I haven’t even finished high school,” Berkow admitted. “I did like to read though, and that’s helped a lot.”

Anita Berkow

Photo By Tom Angel

With the assistance of other volunteers, Berkow immersed herself in the subject. “I have to read about it every day,” she said. “I ask myself, ‘Could hydrogen really fuse into helium?’ It still seems so incredible—I have to go look it up.”

Citing the work of observatory founder and unshakable advocate Kris Koenig (and the commitment of the Kiwanis Club), Berkow sees how his influence not only made the existence of the place possible, but also gave her the tools needed to be a guide.

“If it weren’t for him, this wouldn’t have ever been thought of,” Berkow said, “You can learn more from him about astronomy that from any class. He’s funny, he’s interesting, and he really knows how to make things stick—I think a lot of how I explain and do things comes from him.”

Her perspective is obviously a useful one—she appears able to connect easily with the curious patrons and her heart is obviously in the right place.

“We’ll show them a star they never noticed before, and now they’re going always be looking up at the sky,” said Berkow. They keep coming too. Berkow has noticed, keeping tabs on the guest book over the years, “We get people from all over the world.”

As long as they do keep coming, Berkow will definitely be pointing up with her high-powered laser pointer and making sure people notice what’s up there. Even now, in the middle of our phone conversation, she steps outside to see what the sky might offer.

“Is it clear? Oh, look! There’s Mars. … If you get to a clear area you’ll see the Leonids meteor showers.”
—Jason Cassidy

The animals’ friend
John Maretti goes beyond rescuing kittens from trees

Imagine prying a freaked-out cat from beneath a charred bed or leading a spooked horse around crackling brush. It’s all in a day’s work (an unpaid day’s work, at that) for John Maretti.

Maretti has been a fulltime firefighter for the Chico Fire Department since 1986, and last year, he started the nonprofit, all-volunteer North Valley Animal Disaster Group, evacuating and sheltering household pets and farm animals threatened by fire, floods or other widespread disasters.

Beyond Chico, he’s the national team leader for the American Humane Association. Drawing off his experiences in hurricanes Lili (in Louisiana) and Isabel (in North Carolina), last month he was the “national responder” to the fires in San Diego County, evacuating hundreds of animals.

The reunions were the best. “They’d find out their house was gone, and they’d ask if their animal survived,” Maretti said. “Even the big, strong guys were crying.”

John Maretti

Courtesy Of John Maretti

Maretti and his wife live in Cohasset with their own brood of pets. When lightning fires hit in 1999, they realized that even the most caring of pet owners can forget to include their furry friends in emergency-evacuation plans. “There were people walking down Cohasset Highway with a horse [rein] in each hand,” Maretti remembered. And people who commuted to Chico were phoning, frantic about their pets.

“The last two people we’ve had perish in fires in Butte County have been due to vegetation fires [in which residents] refused to leave because of their animals,” Maretti said. Those tragedies helped pave the way for a close relationship with local fire departments that is the envy of other animal groups and gets him invited to trainings across the country.

Maretti—named “Firefighter of the Year” for 2003 for his work on the animal issue—also leads a variety of courses about the incident command system, fire line safety and radio procedures for North Valley Animal Disaster Group members.

“What they’re doing here in Butte County is becoming the model,” Chico Fire Chief Steve Brown said, calling the group a “respected partner.”

“One of the critical things is having that program integrated into the command system that we use,” he said. In the past, well-meaning would-be rescuers, lacking safety gear and communication tools, have gotten themselves in dangerous situations by misjudging the path of water or fire.

In the midst of a disaster, firefighters simply don’t have the time or staff to recover every pet and put the animal somewhere safe while the fire blazes on. “It’s just a matter of priorities for them. If they can save one kitten or 20 acres, they have to go with the 20 acres. That’s just how it is,” Maretti said.

It’s only recently that the state and federal governments showed any interest in aiding in the rescue of animals, and then only because the floods of 1997 claimed so many valuable livestock in the Marysville area. Maretti, who is currently operating on a budget of nearly nothing, hopes eventually to secure private and government grants to help the cause. For a wish-list, see the group’s Web site at www.animaldisaster.org.

The group was recently called to alert, staging at the Honey Run Covered Bridge, when fires threatened Butte Creek Canyon. The hotline (895-0000) “was ringing off the hook” until firefighters got control of the blaze.

The affable Maretti, who talks at a fast clip that matches his high energy level, plans his free time—which includes marathon running and endurance horseback riding—around his volunteer work.

“He is the power behind our group,” said Sandy Doolittle, its information officer.

Maretti’s ultimate goal is to make the organization obsolete by educating pet owners about how to make their animals part of the family escape plan in case of disaster.

At one San Diego house, Maretti said, “We came in the day after the fire and there was a dog in the back who was chained up. And the house was completely empty. The neighbors came by and said, ‘Yeah, they were out of town, so they called the movers and had them move all the furniture.’ But they left the animals there! You want to strangle them. The cat was stuck on the roof, and it literally jumped into our arms.”
—Devanie Angel

Susan Tevis

Photo By Tom Angel

Living with beauty
Susan Tevis opens young minds and hearts to music

Susan Tevis and her husband Royce were delighted to move back to Chico in the fall of 2000. The couple, who’d been high-school sweethearts in their hometown of South San Francisco, had both gotten their master’s degrees and begun their teaching careers here 30 years earlier and had fond memories of the town.

After leaving Chico, they lived and worked in such diverse places as Michigan and Louisiana, she as an elementary-school music specialist, he as a band director, and she saw many excellent elementary-school music programs in operation. When they returned to Chico, where Royce is the director of bands in the university’s Music Department, she was disappointed to discover how weak public-school music training was here. It was no better than it had been when she left, with no training being provided until the fourth grade and only scattershot classes after that. “There are a couple of secondary schools that have pretty good programs, but otherwise there’s very little,” she said.

At Chico State, she taught Music for Children classes to prospective teachers on a part-time basis. Realizing that these students had no actual kids to work with, she voluntarily helped start a pilot music program at Citrus Elementary School, beginning with kindergarten and first-grade students. It has since grown to include students up to fourth grade.

Then her daughter Alycia, who’s a music major at the university, and a pianist named Nora Thomas, a graduate student there, hatched an idea: Why not start a community children’s choir? They envisioned, Susan said, “a choral program open to all children that aimed for high musical excellence and to develop a lifelong love of music.”

This was in October 2001. They sent fliers to the local schools, and by Christmas they had 40 students, by spring more than 60.

Now, two years later, the Children’s Choir of Chico has grown to more than 100 members divided into three groups: a Preparatory Choir for children in second and third grades, a Concert Choir for fourth- and fifth-graders, and the Chorale for children through eighth grade.

Tevis uses a teaching method developed by the Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály that emphasizes starting with rhythmic folk music to get children interested in singing and playing and then progressing to more classical forms. All of her students learn to read music, she explains.

The group has become increasingly well organized. There’s a Parent Board to help with nuts-and-bolts work, Alycia serves as rehearsal assistant and bookkeeper, Nora is the regular accompanist, and Susan is the artistic director and conductor.

They’ve been able to secure a single $5,000 grant from the city of Chico, the university provides rehearsal and office space and graduate students to help with the training, and the parents hold frequent fund-raisers. Most operating expenses come from tuition, however.

“It’s not a job kind of thing,” Tevis said, laughing. Money is always tight, and her first obligation is to make sure her helpers get paid for their efforts. She also likes to be able to offer scholarships to students who need them.

There are four rehearsals every week, not to mention the many performances before such groups as the Elks, Soroptimist and nursing home residents. On Nov. 9, they children presented a full concert of mostly American music at Trinity United Methodist Church titled “Promised Land,” and they’ll be appearing in the university’s upcoming “Glorious Sounds” concert.

Cindy Kennedy

Photo By Tom Angel

Any child interested in joining the choir should have a parent contact Susan Tevis at 898-5572 mailbox 1. A new semester beings in January, a good time to start.

Why does Susan Tevis work so hard to bring music to children? No doubt because she knows how beneficial it is—how it sharpens their minds and opens their hearts. She herself explained it beautifully: “With the way our world is now, with so much competition and so much violence all around, children need a greater consciousness of beauty, and they get it by feeling it and doing it.”
—Robert Speer

A refuge for orphans
From Chico, Cindy Kennedy saves children’s lives in Nepal

Nearly four years ago, when Cindy Kennedy walked into a somber, grimy orphanage in Katmandu, Nepal, and caught a glimpse of the urine-stained pads on the floor that served as beds for children, she could scarcely control her tears.

Kennedy was in Nepal with her young son Levi as part of a Chico State University internship program. She was invited to view the orphanage in Katmandu through a chance encounter on a bus with a Nepali man who ran the home. The shock of the squalor that the children lived in at the orphanage was so great, Kennedy recalled, “I was just compelled to do something.”

Her desire to provide a safe, loving environment for the orphaned children of Nepal has seen fruition in the last four years, with the establishment of the Namaste House in the town of Pokhara.

Nepal is among the poorest nations in the world. A recent United Nations report states that there are more than 5,000 orphans in Nepal, many from the political unrest and violence that have plagued the country in recent years. Orphaned children in Nepal are at a great risk for being exploited as indentured servants, prostitutes and child soldiers or finding their way into the street culture of drugs and crime.

Returning to Chico in the summer of 2000, Kennedy began her project from square one. As she still had another year of college remaining, Kennedy spent much of the following year researching and making contacts for later plans. A return trip to Nepal during this period affirmed Kennedy’s commitment to the orphaned children, and she began the rigorous process of forming a nonprofit organization.

Little has been done to deal with the growing orphan problem in Nepal, so there is great reliance on organizations such as Namaste House to meet the need.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, combined with increasingly violent social unrest in Nepal, presented Kennedy with some obstacles, but she was able to work around them and continue to make the orphanage a reality.

In July 2003, Kennedy arrived in Nepal for a third time to begin construction of the orphanage. Decreased tourism as a result of the political turmoil in the country left a large hotel available at a very inexpensive price, and it became the site for the Namaste House. The house is now fully furnished and has accommodations for 48 children. Currently, 27 children live at the house; all are provided with full education, medical and dental programs.

Local support of the Namaste House is strong; a recent benefit dinner raised nearly $20,000. But, “there is much more work that needs to be done,” Kennedy said. Future plans include an expansion of the organization’s land to be able to house four times the current number of children, as well as the establishment of facilities for destitute elders.

Marcia Moore

Photo By Tom Angel

Kennedy has devoted much of her life to supporting the Namaste House but is still able to be a single mother and work full-time at a local restaurant. “For me, more than anything,” she said, “[Namaste House] is testimony to the untapped potential that lies within each of us.”
—Matt Graydon

Jump-start your heart
Cardiologist Marcia Moore donates life-saving machines

Enloe cardiologist Marcia Moore has been a heroine to her patients for quite some time. But it took a personal tragedy to turn her into a heroine for the whole community.

When her husband, James Cornyn, a fellow cardiologist, died of cardiac arrest, Moore set out to find some way to pay tribute to him. Through her work with the American Heart Association, she found a way both to honor her husband’s memory and save lives at the same time. Last year, she donated enough money to buy 22 portable defibrillators that were placed in public locations throughout Chico and Paradise.

“I didn’t do this just on my own,” she said. “It was definitely through the Heart Association, [and] it was as much to plant a seed as anything else—to show other people they could do the same thing.”

The defibrillators, which cost about $1,800 each, are like the ones doctors in emergency rooms use, only much smaller and more user-friendly. They are equipped with sensors and a display panel that monitors a patient’s vital signs and tells the person administering aid what to do. Almost anyone can use one of these machines, which look something like fluorescent-green sandwich grills from the outside. Despite their goofy looks, their life-saving potential is extraordinary, Moore said, because for every minute a person is in cardiac arrest, his or her chance of survival decreases by 10 percent.

“Across the board, the rate of survival for a cardiac arrest is about 5 percent. It’s horrible. It’s one of the worst survival rates of anything we deal with in medicine,” she said. “What [a recent AHA study] found is that, with defibrillators, you can increase survival to at least 20 percent, and in some cases [as much as] 50 percent.”

With about 200 deaths attributed to cardiac arrest per year in Butte County, quick access to defibrillators could, in a best-case scenario, save 100 lives per year. “That’s way pie-in-the sky, but what if we could save even one life?” she asked. “Then it’s worth it.”

Moore noted that there is a difference between a heart attack, which happens when blood flow to the heart is cut off, and cardiac arrest, which is when the heart’s rhythm becomes spasmodic, causing it to “quiver like a bowl of jelly.” Many times a heart attack will bring on cardiac arrest, but just as often it could be a drug overdose, stroke or other trauma that disrupts the heart’s rhythm. A defibrillator sends an electrical impulse through the body that basically resets the heart, sending it back into its familiar lub-dub, lub-dub pattern.

For the most part Moore has shied away from seeking publicity for her altruism, but she also realizes that part of the effort to save cardiac-arrest victims is to educate the public about what to do when it happens. To that end, she lobbied the Chico City Council to declare Chico an “Operation Heartbeat” community

“The more widespread this is, the more people in the community will take it on,” she said. “In my life I’ve discovered that you can do something on your own or you can do something to utilize the energy of the people in the community and make a much bigger impact. Especially when it’s something worthwhile, people will do anything to make it work.”
—Josh Indar

Heart of gold
JoAna Brooks won’t take no for an answer

JoAna Brooks

Photo By Tom Angel

If JoAna Brooks has a mean bone in her body, it would have to be one of those really tiny bones located in the inner ear—you know, the stirrup, anvil or hammer.

That’s not in any way to suggest the founding executive director of the Big Brothers Big Sisters is a push-over. Quite the opposite.

The 33-year-old Brooks is such a genuinely nice person, it’s very hard to say “no” to her. And that makes her extremely effective in her role at the nonprofit organization.

Don’t believe it? Listen to what Chico City Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan has to say: “As former president of the BBBS Board of Directors, I’ve had the honor of working with JoAna for almost four years. She is one of my local heroes—inspiring me with her commitment to helping young people in our community. It is hard to say no to JoAna because she’s so friendly and persuasive. JoAna lives and breathes a service ethic that exemplifies what makes Chico a great community to live in.”

That’s typical of the response you’ll get when you ask anyone about the unfailingly pleasant Brooks.

She was born in Modesto but says she actually grew up “all over California.”

“I tell people I’m from California because I’ve lived in Southern California, I’ve lived in South Lake Tahoe, I’ve lived in the Bay Area. I went to three high schools.”

She came to the Chico area in 1990 to attend school, arriving, in the words of her husband Mike, “with all her belongings in the back of an orange Volkswagen squareback.”

How did she wind up at BBBS?

“I got my degree in psychology and then after college I worked for another nonprofit [Rape Crisis Intervention],” she explained. “Somebody I knew was helping start Big Brothers Big Sisters. … She was looking for somebody to write a grant, and I was taking a grant writing class at the time. So I volunteered.”

Brooks was offered the executive-director job for the newly established nonprofit and took it in November 1997.

That’s not the only feather in her cap. She is a member of the Chico Rotary, recently finished her term as a board member of the League of Women Voters, formerly chaired both LEAD (Leadership Education Awareness and Development) at Butte College and the Nonprofit Network, and has been honored for her community involvement with the Chico State Women’s Center’s Maggie Award and Rotary’s Paul Harris Award.

Her No. 1 accomplishment, she said, is her relationship with Mike, who just earned his teaching credential from Chico State University. The two have known each for 19 years and been married for the past 11.

“JoAna does a lot of volunteer work for causes she believes in,” Mike told us. “A year and a half ago, we rode a tandem bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles as part of the California AIDS ride. I wouldn’t have done it if JoAna hadn’t made me. Seven days and 575 miles later, we crossed a line in Santa Monica and finally understood what we had done.”

The couple raised $5,400 for AIDS research and services across California and “finished the hardest thing we’ve ever done.

“In the 19 years we have known each other,” Mike said, “I can’t tell you how many times I have been amazed by what she does and how she handles herself. It’s a little strange to walk down the street and have people I don’t even know come up to us and start to tell me how wonderful JoAna is.

“I already know how wonderful she is. Did you know she actually has a fan club? There are a number of cars driving around Chico with ‘Member of the JoAna Fan Club’ license plate covers. I think Dan [Nguyen-Tan] is one. And though I sometimes tease her about all the recognition, the truth is she deserves every bit of it.”

She says her activism probably stems from her childhood.

“I grew up with a mom who was always volunteering to help out other people, either through our church or in our neighborhood. So I kind of grew up with that idea of helping other people. It’s a chance to work in an environment where I’m learning a lot but also giving back to the community.”
—Tom Gascoyne