Our local heroes

We give thanks for those who work selflessly to make Chico—and the world—a better place

Carol Chaffin Albrecht

Carol Chaffin Albrecht

Photo By Christine G.K. LaPado

GMO volunteers:
Those interested in helping get the initiative on the ballot can sign up on the website at www.labelgmos.org, and there will be signature-gathering training at Chico State on Thursday, Dec. 1, 7 p.m. See site for exact loction.

Each year at this time, the CN&R reaches out into the community to find people who give of themselves more than most. This year we highlight four individuals and two duos—one a husband and wife, and the other a father and son. These are people we can be thankful for this holiday season. In addition, this year is the first time we’ve written a posthumous tribute to a local hero. Rob Atkinson, who died suddenly last month, certainly deserves praise for all he did for the community, as do all the others whose stories fill these pages.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Nutritious-food activist

Carol Chaffin Albrecht

“Our family has been deeply touched by her and we will never be the same,” read one of the numerous emails the CN&R received nominating Carol Chaffin Albrecht as a local hero. “She is dedicated to the health of this community through showing us ways to use local food in yummy ways,” offered another. “She is full of wisdom, and is always willing to share it,” said yet another.

Chaffin Albrecht—co-owner of Oroville’s Chaffin Family Orchards—is also co-leader, along with Kim Port, of the local chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people about the importance of eating nutrient-dense whole foods and other healthful foods consumed by traditional, nonindustrialized cultures. The foundation’s guidelines are decidedly in favor of such practices as biodynamic farming, locavorism and consumption of raw milk, and against eating processed foods, for instance.

It is Chaffin Albrecht’s tireless volunteerism as the foundation’s chapter leader and food-preparation instructor that prompted the outpouring of nominations. One respondent referred to her as “the health educator hero in my life.” Chaffin Albrecht became chapter leader in 2009 after the cooking class she’d planned on attending at the foundation’s annual conference was canceled and she took a chapter-leader training course instead.

“What I knew how to do was teach,” offered the former Butte College foster- and adoptive-parenting class instructor, days after returning from the recent conference in Dallas, where she was one of four recipients of a Food Activist Award. “So I started a local chapter with classes, instead of just a regular meeting.” Classes include instruction on how to make such things as bone broths and fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kombucha. Chaffin Albrecht is also big on bringing cutting-edge, food-savvy speakers (such as anti-GMO expert Jeffrey Smith and famous farmer Joel Salatin) and films (Farmageddon, Milk War) to town.

Among the many acts of local food activism that Chaffin Albrecht has become involved in, she recently was instrumental in rescuing a local 4-H club that was down to four members from becoming defunct by partnering with it. The win-win situation now provides programs in beekeeping, traditional cooking, sustainable poultry farming and so on for foundation members and their children, as well as for 4-H members.

Chaffin Albrecht’s most important tips for healthful eating?

“Eat lots of healthy fats—butter, coconut oil, olive oil, lard [pork fat] and tallow [beef fat]. Don’t be afraid of fats.” Also, “don’t eat packaged foods. I don’t care what the label says—don’t eat it.”

Additionally, she strongly recommends drinking raw, unpasteurized milk.

“Every healthy culture that Dr. Weston A. Price studied ate raw animal foods,” noted Chaffin Albrecht. “You can’t get your kids to eat raw liver or termites, like in some African cultures, but you can get them to drink raw milk.”

Learn more at www.meetup.com/Chico-ButteValleyWAPFChapter .

—Christine G.K. LaPado

Raul and Justin Gonzalez

Photo By Howard Hardee

Like father, like son

Raul and Justin Gonzalez

Like millions of other American households in late 2005, Raul Gonzalez and his family were bombarded with news coverage of New Orleans reeling from Hurricane Katrina.

As a code enforcement officer for the Chico Police Department and a volunteer at the Chico Fire Department, Raul was no stranger to community service. He found the images so disturbing he had to help, and decided the Gonzalez family would forgo its winter vacation that year so he could fly to New Orleans and work with the Red Cross.

Raul’s son Justin, just 6 years old at the time, was equally moved. Inspired by Salvation Army bell ringers during a grocery-store stop with his mother, Lori, Justin decided he, too, would help the needy in New Orleans by beginning his own holiday fundraiser.

“He originally wanted to buy gifts to send with me when I went on my second tour of duty in New Orleans,” Raul said during an interview. “He decided early on he wanted to buy bicycles for kids who didn’t have one. I thought it was a pretty lofty goal, so I kind of put it out of my mind. I figured he would raise $15 and we would buy some Hot Wheels.”

Justin began going door to door in his neighborhood, armed with a prepared statement that related what the fundraiser was for. At 6 years old, it was a daunting undertaking.

“I was pretty nervous at first, but I had a little paper I read letting them know where [the money] was going to,” said Justin, now a 12-year-old in the seventh grade at Chico Junior High. “After a while it became natural to talk to adults and be polite and respectful.”

The Amber Grove neighborhood was especially responsive to the cause, and soon Justin had raised enough money to buy 10 bicycles. When Raul got word that his second trip to New Orleans would be postponed until after Christmas, the family decided they would make a local donation instead. The Chico Fire Department’s Adopt a Family program, which Raul and Justin had previously participated in, was the natural choice. The program identifies needy families and children throughout the year, and come Christmas time Santa (riding a fire engine) brings gifts to those selected. That year—and every year since—Justin handed the bikes off to children who are often overjoyed with the gift.

“Last year I had a chance to deliver a bike to a kid whose parents and siblings had passed away, and I got to personally deliver it to him,” Justin said. “He was really happy, and his reaction just moved me.”

Last holiday season Justin delivered his 200th bicycle, and Raul estimates he has raised enough money for an additional 40 to 50 bicycles this Christmas. The significance of his son’s early achievements is not lost on Raul.

“We think it will lead to bigger things for him in life,” he said. “Only God knows where he’ll be in 20 years, but I have a feeling this will lend itself to gaining confidence and compassion, seeing a need and finding a solution for it.”

—Howard Hardee

Rob Atkinson

PHOTO courtesy of Diane friedman

A dear friend of the library

Rob Atkinson

Rob Atkinson, who died unexpectedly on Oct. 9 at the age of 65, was a man of many talents. At various times in his life the longtime Chico resident was a salmon fisherman in Alaska, a professional ceramicist, a real-estate agent and manager of the Sierra Nevada Taproom. He was as well a prolific organic gardener, a lover of cats, a certified animal-disaster-care volunteer, and a poker ace whose card-playing buddies greatly miss him at their weekly games.

He was also a husband, a father and a writer of fishing tales who loved books. This last attribute was what led him, during the final eight years of his life, to volunteer as manager of the Saturday book sales at the Chico branch of the Butte County library and serve on the board of Chico Friends of the Library.

Managing the library’s book sales is like running a small business. The sheer volume of books to be sorted, priced, categorized, boxed and unboxed is daunting. By all accounts Atkinson poured himself into the job, separating quality works from trash, culling out those volumes worthy of being placed on the library’s shelves, and organizing books that weren’t sold to be sent to other libraries’ book sales, U.S. soldiers abroad, the county jail and to local clubs and businesses needing books.

So many donated books came in, said his wife, Karen Riddarpang, that he had to sort them every day to keep up with the flow. He was ever on the lookout for first editions and other valuable books, which he would send to an online dealer to sell on commission. “He had all sorts of ways to make money for the library,” she added.

Regular users of the library would see Atkinson, instantly recognizable because of his thick white beard, just about whenever they came in, and especially on Fridays and Saturdays, doing most of the heavy lifting that comes with organizing thousands of books.

In an “In Memoriam” piece in the CFOL’s November newsletter, CFOL President Marian Milling writes, “What many people may not know about Rob is that he was a ‘soft touch,’ going out of his way to help others. … If the Friends asked for kids’ books for Fall Festival or paperbacks for the community market, Rob would see that neatly packed and carefully selected books were ready. He would come in extra time to meet folks at the back door and make sure they got the books saved for them.”

Most library users probably don’t realize that, while Butte County provides the library’s operating funds, with help from the city of Chico, there’s no budget for buying new books. The approximately $50,000 the weekly book sales generated under Atkinson’s leadership each year was an invaluable contribution to keeping the library shelves filled with quality new books and other media releases.

“He was the book sale,” said Joan Olmstead, another longtime library volunteer who served on the CFOL board with Atkinson. “He was devoted. We’re going to need four people to replace him.”

—Robert Speer

Diane and Howard Slater

PHOTO courtesy of the Slaters

Dynamic duo

Diane and Howard Slater

Within seconds of talking to Diane and Howard Slater, it becomes clear that they are too modest to just jump right into their autobiography, especially when it comes to their years of selfless service as volunteers for the Torres Community Shelter. “I thought I was going to stay out of this, in fact I would have preferred it,” Howard said jokingly. Clearly he’d rather his wife be recognized. And Diane is the same, deferring to her husband.

After a few firm tugs Diane reveals that she grew up in Walnut Creek before moving to Pleasant Hill and then Chico 35 years ago to get her undergraduate degree in social welfare and corrections. She also married her local boy, Howard, who has lived in Chico his entire life.

In 2002, Diane was offered a spot on the board of the shelter by founding chairwoman and good friend Mary Flynn, which she accepted, choosing to follow her heart and help out the people of her adopted home town.

Howard joined in as well, complementing his wife’s efforts by doing construction and other volunteer work for the shelter. Howard, a successful builder and contractor, is also an adviser to construction management students at Chico State, and he volunteers helping women and children who have been affected by domestic abuse heal their physical and emotional wounds through the Catalyst Domestic Violence program.

Diane has spent eight years working on fundraisers for the Torres shelter, events like the Empty Bowls Dinner and the annual Christmas Tree Auction, where pre-decorated Christmas trees and other local art and unique gifts are auctioned off at a party featuring hors d’oeuvres, desserts and a no-host bar.

“These two mean so much to us,” said Brad Montgomery, executive director of the Torres Shelter. “Both of them are heroes; I mean, they’ve pretty much been with is in one form or another since the beginning.”

Despite Diane’s resignation from the board in December 2010, both Slaters remain committed Torres Shelter volunteers, and the selfless Diane insists she couldn’t do it all without her hubby. “Whatever I do, he always helps out if I ask him to,” Diane said. “Whatever fundraising events that we did, he would always be involved with me.”

From their very beginning painting beds in the Torres shelter to the long nights of getting barely any sleep while preparing for the Christmas Tree Auction, the Slaters’ efforts have been exceptional. It’s the contributions of people like the Slaters, working hard behind the scenes and steering clear of the limelight, that are the mark of real local heroes.

—Dane Stivers

Natalie Huberman, in one of the classrooms she helped build in Togo.

PHOTO courtesy of Natalie Huberman

Following her heart

Natalie Huberman

When the CN&R last checked in with Natalie Huberman, the pretty, well-spoken Pilates teacher had a dream: She wanted to build a school in a village in the West African country of Togo. That was nearly three years ago. This month, she broke ground on the third and final stage of her project, which she expects to be completed by the end of the year.

“I was bound and determined to do this,” said Huberman recently over a cup of tea in downtown Chico.

Huberman’s dream started to take form during a vacation she and her husband, Robert, took to West Africa. They visited the small village of Dédéké in Togo, which is wedged between Ghana and Benin. Some of the villagers expressed a desire for new classrooms to replace their thatch-roofed ones. Suddenly, Huberman found her calling. When she returned to Chico, she started the nonprofit LeapingStone (www.leapingstone.org). With the help of dedicated Chicoans who joined her Board of Directors as well as Togo-Americans she met via the Internet, LeapingStone started attracting donations.

“The people of Chico have been extremely generous,” she said. The nonprofit raised nearly $11,000 during this year’s Annie B’s Community Drive alone. That gave LeapingStone the push it needed to enter the final stage of the Dédéké school project. The first stage included three classrooms; the second added latrines and hand-washing stations for the students; and the third includes three more classrooms and an office for teachers. The $11,000 was actually enough, Huberman noted, to add a second set of latrines and hand-washing stations, which were recently finished.

Huberman, whose background is not in philanthropy or business, but rather acting and dancing, said a lot of the experiences she’s had running LeapingStone have been eye-opening.

“I was willing to listen, and I was willing to admit I didn’t know things,” she said. “And when money came in, I protected it like a mother bear. I never viewed it as my money; it’s the donors’ money, and then it’s the village’s money. That’s part of why I don’t take a salary—I don’t feel it’s appropriate.”

Huberman hopes to visit Dédéké in the next couple of months to see her building project completed. Every time she returns—she’s been there three times now—she says it’s “always a reason for a party.” When she sees the fruits of her labors, it brings it all home.

LeapingStone’s mission is more than just about building buildings, however. Huberman’s also been working with the villagers to sustain the community. For example, LeapingStone has helped a group of women start their own nonprofits to raise money to buy school supplies.

“They want to be autonomous,” she said. “They’ve just never had anyone show them how. These people are subsistence farmers—that’s what their parents did; that’s what they learned how to do. If you don’t give people the skills, they might not be able to think outside the box.”

—Meredith J. Graham

Pamm Larry

Photo By Christine G.K. LaPado

Label-GMOs crusader

Pamm Larry

“I have been [on the road] for the past three months,” said Pamm Larry during a telephone interview on Nov. 10, the day after the final wording of the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act—the state ballot initiative she’s spearheading—was filed with the Attorney General’s Office. “Right now I’m in Modesto. I was in Sonora last night. I’m on my way to San Jose, and then I’ll be in the Green Festival in San Francisco over the weekend.”

After that it’s on to panels in Southern California, with countless events and talks to follow over the next several months as the tireless process of getting an initiative on the ballot for the 2012 election unfolds. Not too shabby for a woman who describes herself as “just a grandma from Chico.”

In just 10 months’ time, this local grandma has gone from being a concerned citizen wanting to know which foods on store shelves had been genetically engineered, to starting the Committee for the Right to Know and being the instigator of a statewide grassroots “Label GMOs” movement.

“This is my first foray,” Larry said. “I’ve done marches; I’ve signed petitions; I’m concerned about the environment and people; I’ve done other kinds of things on a smaller scale, but nothing like this.”

Larry moved to Chico from the Midwest 33 years ago to go to school and “get away from the winter.” She’s been a Chicoan ever since, staying here to raise her three daughters and work as a midwife, organic farmer, businesswoman and couples therapist. But now her job is as a full-time volunteer for this initiative.

“This came out of my passion for the people on the planet,” she said, choosing her words carefully, “and for informed consumer choice over corporate nontransparent profits.”

Larry said she hatched the idea in January, then took about six weeks to research the initiative process, and to talk to local political types and reach out for information on grassroots organizing. She put together a website (www.labelgmos.org), developed a strategy and got to work in early March.

“A lot of people thought it was a crazy idea; most told me it would never happen,” she said.

Soon enough, however, with support of organizations and individuals including the Organic Consumers Association, the Center for Food Safety (which drafted the initiative), Dr. Emanuel Bronner (of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps) and Lundberg Family Farms, things started taking hold. Focus groups were organized and surveys were conducted, and once it was determined that the initiative had a good chance of succeeding, the drafting commenced

“It’s truly been a labor of love,” Larry said. “When I say labor, it’s been like giving birth for sure. The people who have been writing it, they’ve done an amazing job.”

The state now has 60 days to process the initiative before volunteers can start collecting signatures to get it on the November 2012 ballot. They’ll then have until April 18 to meet their goal of gathering 800,000 signatures.

“It’s just time for this to happen,” Larry said, “People are just primed.”

—Jason Cassidy