Local Heroes

Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Work


    If the definition of heroic is something grand, larger than life, extremely courageous, it stands to reason that a hero must be someone who undertakes lofty, valiant measures that inspire awe. This picture brings to mind someone like Superman, Hercules and the Fantastic Four all wrapped together. Somehow, the element of quiet courage and determination isn’t quite as sexy as turning into liquid flame, stopping runaway trains or leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

    But these heroic Alamedans, who have given heart, soul and passion, not to mention toil, sweat and tears, are not superhuman. They are ordinary people doing extraordinary work, and their selfless efforts are an example to us all. In these pages, meet some Alameda heroes who have truly earned the title.


Family Support Services - Alameda Unified School District

    When an Alameda family is in trouble and has nowhere to stay, the last thing parents want is for their children to lose valuable school time. That’s where lifetime Alamedan Vickie Smith steps in. As a family support services liaison for the school district, she helps families that are in transition keep their kids in school, provides school supplies, clothes, transportation—whatever they need to keep the kids learning and moving forward, even in the most trying of circumstances. In 2006 she helped more than 270 such students in the Alameda Unified School District stay in school, and has helped more than 100 so far this school year.
    Smith tells it like it is for struggling students and families, from her own firsthand experience. She has been at the forefront of major struggles for recognition and equality for African-American and other minority students since she herself was a student at Encinal High School. She co-founded the EHS Black Student Union, protesting to get African-American teachers and an ethnic
studies program. Later, she worked in health care and finance, and when she found an opportunity to put these skills to work at home, she brought it back to the table. Smith helped jump-start talks on diversity and multiculturalism in the schools; the group got grants for a program to help teach kids about their own cultures and understanding others. “They loved it,” Smith recalls; she taught the students about stereotypes, issues of class and race, sexism and internalized oppression. Through her efforts, the students built self-esteem and turned their grades around as well.
    Smith has helped start such programs as Team Diversity in the schools, worked with the CARE, or the Coalition of Alamedans for Racial Equality, and reinvigorated HOPE, or Housing Opportunities Provided Equally, as Renewed HOPE, working to save affordable housing, to organize disparate groups and, as she puts it, “to be a voice for the West End.”
    “There are a lot of needs out there,” she says, in a quiet but firm tone. “I try to be a real resource for the families in need. I’m having some success. But I think there’s still a lot of work to be done.”



Former Principal  - Encinal High

    When Bill Sonneman became principal at Encinal High School six years ago, what was his greatest challenge? “Probably trying to improve the image of the high school,” he says, “so that we weren’t looked down on as some second-rate school.”
    When Sonneman came on board in 2001, he encountered an unhappy and mistrustful environment. In the six years before he arrived, the school had run through three principals, he says. Not s urprisingly, Encinal often suffered unfavorable comparisons to Alameda High.
    But when Sonneman retired at age 60 last spring, school officials, teachers, parents and students lauded him as a committed educator who succeeded spectacularly in garnering respect for Encinal throughout the community. During his tenure, he fostered academics and sent Jet pride soaring.
    In fact, his exemplary work has netted him offers to mentor other principals, he says. But Sonneman, an Alameda resident, says that he’s interested in exploring new realms of influence, even possibly seeking political office within the city. Like a true educator, he adds, “When you’re through learning,
you’re through.”
    But he won’t soon be forgotten among the Encinal Jets, who credit him with building school unity. “I don’t think there’s anyone who can live up to him,” says senior Lisa Diaz, 17. “He held his position of authority, but he was always really warm. He took time to know students’ stories. He made students feel welcome at Encinal.”
“If you’re a Jet, you belong to something,” adds English teacher Maureen Sotello. “It’s a place that kids identify with.”
    “I tell people I sell education, especially Encinal High,” says Sonneman, who called his recent retirement “bittersweet.”
    During his tenure, he boosted Encinal’s profile and enhanced the Jet legacy in creative ways. For example, he invited previous generations of Encinal alumni, some now in their 60s, to return for ceremonies to lead forth a new crop of graduates. Audiences would greet the Jets, former and present, with loud and emotional cheering.Sonneman was also a regular fixture at football games, school plays and other events. He pushed students to excel in the classroom and felt gratified when he attended some of their college graduations. He has been extremely pleased that Encinal has sent students to top schools such as Stanford and Ivy League universities. “We have amazing expectations for the kids that go here,” Sonneman, ever the educator, says.



Senior Pastor - Buen Vista United Methodist Church

    Michael Yoshii grew up with religion that did not resonate with his own inner beliefs; in fact, he dubs his calling to the religious life “a divine accident.” Like many in their 20s, Yoshii found himself seeking answers to the big questions, and through serious philosophical and cultural exploration—via Shintoism, Buddhism and around to Christianity—Yoshii found himself at the Pacific School of Religion with a calling to be ordained. “To me, spirituality and the God path are full of mystery,” he says.
    Yoshii was assigned to the Buena Vista United Methodist Church some 20 years ago and has remained as its pastor ever since. The church, founded as a mission for the Japanese in 1898, still honors its heritage but has become much more inclusive of all people; and is a “reconciling congregation,” accepting of those who wish to join, regardless of sexual orientation. Being inclusive, honoring personal history and “accentuating the unique cultural influences here” are part of what makes the church a community beacon. Yoshii and the church have been repeatedly celebrated for their work on issues of diversity and equality, affordable housing advocacy and many other civil rights for the poor, including relief work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, visiting the Philippines to meet families of those who have disappeared under “military appropriation,” and aiding the African-American population in Alameda that is, as he says, “undergoing a gradually purging.”
    “People in ministry develop their niche. Human rights, civil rights issues have been close to my heart,” he says. “We have faith at the core of our being. So it’s not necessarily dependent on victories to continue to express our care for situations we see before us. It’s about coming to peace around ambiguity.”                         



Executive Director - Boys & Girls Club of Alameda

    George Phillips, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Alameda, has always earned kudos for being a strong advocate for youth. But now he’s pulled out all the stops in a bid to build a new clubhouse and youth center to keep Alameda’s children and teens safe, healthy and engaged in fun and learning during the after-school hours.
    “We want this place to be like the library or the opera—something in the community that people gravitate to and value,” Phillips says.
As Phillips stands on the blacktop of the old Woodstock Elementary School, where the new club will be erected, weeds and old portable buildings surround him. But perhaps by late 2008, the doors will open to a new building: a $10 million, 25,000-square-foot clubhouse, complete with a large gym, game room, computer lab, learning center, arts and crafts room, dance and martial arts studio, and a music room where students can take lessons. It will replace the old Boys & Girls Club on Lincoln Avenue, which the organization vacated in July 2005 because of seismic concerns.
    Roughly 3,400 youths live within walking or biking distance of the new site, Phillips says, “more than any other spot in Alameda.” Chipman Middle School, Paden Elementary and St. Barnabas Catholic School are all within 10 blocks, he adds, and the Esperanza public housing project and the Alameda Point Collaborative are also nearby.
    “All of our activities are a great deal of fun and interesting, but all have a purpose: to produce what we call our product—good solid citizens,” says Phillips, himself a father of four and grandfather of five. The new center will also have a health focus; Phillips says the club hopes to add a dental and health-screening clinic.
    The Boys & Girls Club has always been open to all youths, Phillips says. Currently, African-American youths make up about 70 percent of the membership, with the remainder Latino or Asian and some Bosnians. Most are from lower-income families. “We don’t limit ourselves to children of economic need,” Phillips adds, “but they’re the ones we attract.”
    The buzz on Phillips and his success: He knows how to assemble and inspire a team of leaders who understand the needs of youth. “George really looks at kids first and what he can do for them. He knows the ins and outs of politics in Alameda to get things accomplished,” says Don Sherratt, who has worked in education and now serves as a Boys & Girls Club board member. Besides Sherratt, the club’s powerhouse board of directors includes prominent business people, construction professionals, an architect, a judge and Burnham E. Matthews, the retired Alameda police chief.
    Don Sherratt’s wife, Margie, a former Alameda High principal, is co-chairing the Boys & Girls Club’s March 10 auction, with proceeds going toward the building campaign. Says Margie Sherratt, “George is a smart man who has just embraced everyone in the community—those with means and those without means. He includes everyone’s input.”
    ally Rudloff, a Kane and Associates realtor and board member, praises Phillips’ devotion. “The kids are his life. This club will be showing kids that the community really cares about them.”        



Executive Director - Alameda Food Bank

    I’m just here to turn on the lights, answer the phone and lock the doors,” Paul Russell says modestly, adding, “None of this happens without the volunteers.”
    By “this,” Russell means the organizing of foodstuffs, donations, paperwork and the dispersal of food from the food bank’s bins, barrels and freezers. In a chilly warehouse at Alameda Point, where pallets of canned goods tower above the cement floors, Russell takes a break from the constantly ringing phone and, over the squeal of a power saw from the nonprofit bike shop next door, remembers the path he took to this place. From a background
in retail management and a love of the outdoors, Russell, who majored in religion, always found time to volunteer at soup kitchens, during college and through several moves around the United States.
    “After about eight years of volunteering, I came to realize that [feeding the hungry] was a much more enjoyable part of my week than going to work was.” Russell transferred his management skills to the nonprofit sector and took on the Alameda Food Bank, where every day he gets to live his passion. The first and “most visceral” pleasure of the day is “to make sure no one goes hungry,” he says. “It would be a crime for anyone to go hungry in our society.” Offering assistance with groceries is a way to help low-income families manage their limited finances. He helps 400 to 600 such families every month in Alameda.
    “The price for food is often dignity,” Russell says. “Our culture is one of self-sufficiency. It is always difficult to ask for help.” Toward that end, Russell makes sure that every visitor to the food bank feels welcomed, comfortable and dignified, “so you don’t have to sacrifice a part of yourself to feed your family.”                               



Volunteer - American Red Cross

    In today’s frazzled and competitive college admissions race, too many high school students sign up for good works mainly to impress admissions officers. Jenny Gant, a high-achieving graduate of Alameda High’s class of 2007, knows all about such pressures. “It’s a struggle to get into college. Volunteering has become a haven. People think that’s the ticket,” Gant says.
   “But volunteering is not what you do to get into college,” she stresses. “Helping people is something that helps you.” That’s the crucial message she wants to convey, not just to high school students, but to younger Alamedans as well.
    When Gant joined Alameda High’s Red Cross Club, she learned CPR and first aid and also assumed leadership roles. But she didn’t stop there. As a high school junior, she returned to her former campus, Wood Middle School, and started the first middle school Red Cross chapter in Northern California. Her motivation: to catch students early—to ingrain in them the value of volunteering, before they reached high school
and saw such activities mostly as resume-builders, says the exceptional volunteer.
    Joanne Robinson, Alameda’s Red Cross youth coordinator, attests to Gant’s dedication. She called Gant an “outstanding” leader, brimming with initiative and creativity. “She has great ideas. She knows what she wants to do, and a lot of teenagers don’t,” Robinson says.
    Besides developing that groundbreaking middle school chapter, Gant also organized a disaster
preparedness carnival for middle schoolers, Robinson recalls. Gant has a gift for working with younger students, she says, adding, “She could make them follow.”
    To show Wood students the satisfaction of giving, Gant took them on visits to nursing homes and engaged them in a Toys for Tots drive to deliver holiday gifts to lower-income children. The students also raised money for HIV and AIDS patients abroad.
    Red Cross staff recognized Gant’s work and nominated her to serve on the Bay Area Council of the Red Cross—an honor because each year only two Bay Area students are appointed. At the tender age of 17, Gant felt intimidated. “I’d be sitting next to someone who was the vice president of Union Bank,” she says. “But it turned out to be a great experience for me.”
    As a UC Berkeley freshman this year, she hasn’t decided on a major or a career path yet. But she has brought a spirit of idealism with her. In fact, politics attracts Gant, whose mother is Chinese-American and whose father emigrated from Vietnam. “In America, you can vote, you can campaign for what you want,” she says. “You can make a change.”                               


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