Photos by Mitch Lehman – Though sidelined last year by the pandemic, the event returned with a fury and displayed the most cars in its history.

After a year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the San Marino Motor Classic came roaring back last weekend, luring what appeared to be thousands of visitors to the automobile exhibition at Lacy Park.
The 10th edition of the fast-growing event featuring collector cars in mint condition was buoyed by excellent weather and the fact that a year’s absence may have, indeed, made the heart grow fonder.

San Marino jeweler Steve Gilmore recently covered 470 miles in seven days to raise funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in memory of his late sister.

As far as crime statistics are concerned, Lompoc ranks a little below average for both the state of California as well as the nation, but don’t try to tell that to San Marino jeweler Steve Gilmore.

“Someone stole my helmet,” Gilmore reported shortly after finishing his recent 470-mile bicycle ride down the Pacific coast.

Gilmore explained his end-of-the-workday routine and mentioned that he rinsed his helmet and set it out to dry. The next morning, Gilmore was the one left hanging.

Luckily, Gilmore had someone driving his chase car who happened to have an extra helmet, saving time and some money, which can rightfully be added to his charitable contribution.

Gilmore was riding on behalf of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in memory of his sister, Gail Zotovich, who lost her life to a brain tumor. Gilmore gas so far received and donations adding up to $17,000 and is, of course, still accepting donations.

While his ride from San Francisco to San Marino had exactly one more theft than his 2017 cross-country trek that went from Santa Monica to New York City, there was another data point that was quite welcome: “I had zero flat tires,” he said. “Zero.” He accumulated 13 flats during his 25-day, 2,900-mile effort but none during his recent 7-day, 470-mile foray.

There is no reason to think that Gilmore—who completed the transcontinental ride at the age of 60—is even close to being finished.

“It will have to be something epic, to top the cross-country ride,” Gilmore said. “Not sure what, but there will be something.”

Gilmore has created a special commemorative sterling silver charm which he will give to those who make a tax-deductible donation of at least $200.

Gilmore’s online donation link can be found at http://bit.ly/stevegilmore or he can be reached by calling (626) 482-0495.

San Marino resident Nancy Szeto Ko has completed one of the toughest triathlons in the world – all while raising money for the charity organization she leads.

By gaining sponsors for her participation in the recent Ironman Arizona, she raised $7,500 for National Charity League Juniors.

That money will be donated to the Huntington Hospital NICU and PICU.

“To compete and complete the Ironman is such a huge feat,” said Ellen Tsang, NCL Juniors vice president of philanthropy. “To know that Nancy swam, biked and ran with a purpose to support NCL Juniors’ cause in supporting Huntington Hospital’s NICU and PICU is inspiring.”

On Nov. 20, Ko took part in the triathlon – also called IMAZ – in Tempe, Ariz. that consisted of a 2.4-mile single-loop swim in Tempe Town Lake, a 112-mile three-course bicycle ride that proceeds through the Sonoran Desert and, lastly, a 26.2-mile two-loop run around Tempe Town Lake and through Papago Park.

Front row, from left, Ethan, Nicholas & Jennifer Ko, Kaitlyn Nguyen; back row, from left, Jonathan & Nancy Ko, Mee-Lee Szeto, Ly Ly Ta, Warren Szeto & Lam Nguyen
Front row, from left, Ethan, Nicholas & Jennifer Ko, Kaitlyn Nguyen; back row, from left, Jonathan & Nancy Ko, Mee-Lee Szeto, Ly Ly Ta, Warren Szeto & Lam Nguyen

Her husband, Jonathan; their 8-year-old triplets, Ethan, Nicholas and Jennifer; Ko’s parents, Warren and Mee-Lee Szeto; and Ko’s friends, Ly Ly Ta and Lam Nguyen and their daughter Kaitlyn, all traveled to Arizona to cheer her on. Dozens of her friends and family in San Marino and beyond also were ‘tracking’ her progress in real time via the Ironman Arizona website.

Ko completed the triathlon in 15 hours, 28 minutes and 32 seconds, breaking down to 1:39.59 for swimming, 6:54.31 for biking and 6:28.03 for running. She ranked 1,933rd overall, 116th in her division and 519th in her gender. There were 2,441 people registered, a number that includes people who didn’t start and didn’t finish.

Ko said she experienced doubts before the triathlon.

“The hardest part was starting,” she said. “I was so nervous and scared. I didn’t want to start the race. I just got there and thought ‘I don’t know if I belong here.’”

She ended up seeing Mike Reilly – “The Voice of the Ironman” who announces finishers at many of the Ironman triathlons – before the triathlon and approached him with a question.

“I asked him if I could have a photo with him if I don’t make it to the finish line,” Ko said. “Then, he gave me a pep talk and he gave me a hug. He said, ‘You’re going to do it. You’re going to cross the finish line. Today is your day. You’re going to become an Ironman’”

Ko said once she started, it became easier. She said she wasn’t sore, but she started getting sleepy toward the end of the race because her bedtime is usually 8:30 p.m. and her day went well past 10 p.m.

She said she was ecstatic when she finished.

“I think it was the happiest day, next to the birth of my children and the day that I got married,” Ko said. “I was on a high. It just felt so surreal when I saw the finish line, and to have Mike Reilly announce that I was an Ironman was amazing.”

She said her family was very excited to see her when she rounded the course and her children were able to hold her hand while running for a small portion of the race.

Ko said in addition to raising money for Huntington Hospital—which was where her triplets were born—through NCL Juniors, she also competed in the IMAZ to set an example for her children.

“I think they learned that nothing comes easy and you have to work every day,” Ko said. “I didn’t become a triathlete overnight. They saw me every day waking up early in the morning and coming home late just from training, to practice and finish the race. They saw you need to work hard and be dedicated. And it doesn’t matter that I didn’t come in first place.”

She continued, “They said ‘What place did you come in? Did mommy come in first place? I said, ‘No, mommy came in 1,933rd place’ and they said, ‘What??’”

Ko said they’re used to hearing first, second, third in most of the races that she competes in.

She trained for six months with triathlon coach, Lynne Fiedler, for the IMAZ, with some of the hardest days involving her training on a bicycle for at least seven hours followed by a one-hour to two-hour run.

Ko said she also received some inspiration from the “Vegan Ironman,” Kevin Tran, a few weeks before the triathlon when she visited his restaurant in the San Fernando Valley.

“He gave me words of wisdom to think about during each leg of the race,” she said.

Ko called the IMAZ “the most positive thing I’ve ever experienced.” She said she could definitely imagine competing in another Ironman competition in her future.

The San Marino Firefighters’ Association is teaming up with a San Marino charity to help children who have a parent who is battling cancer.

The firefighters presented a $1,000 check to Hot for Hope on Monday, Oct. 10. Mikey, 10, and Emily Yessaian, 9, who started Hot for Hope in 2015, and a few friends were then taken on a station tour by the firefighters.

The SMFA is the union that represents San Marino Fire Department members.

The SMFA donation – and other donations to Hot for Hope – are used to purchase items to create care packages for children and teens of different age groups. The care packages contain a book about what the child or teen may be going through and a stuffed animal.

“Emily and Mikey have given out 100 care packages via Hot for Hope and their goal is to give 500 care packages nationwide to patients all over the country,” the siblings’ mom, Jenny Yessaian, said.

San Marino firefighters found out about Hot for Hope when they were doing an inspection on the charity’s new office location along Huntington Drive several months ago.

“We really wanted to get involved,” San Marino Firefighter/Paramedic Jeff Tsay said. “We’re trying to plan another day when we can actually take the kids in the fire engine down to one of the local hospitals to give away the care packages that they have.”

“I think it’s really nice of them,” Mikey said.

“I thought it was amazing,” Yessaian said. “Just the support that they wanted to give to the kids’ nonprofit was great.”

She said the donation would allow Hot for Hope to create many more care packages for children who have a parent with cancer.

“We’re really excited,” Yessaian said. “It’s a great partnership.”

Tsay said every firefighter contributes to the San Marino Firefighters’ Association on a monthly basis and it is able to donate some funds to local charities. He said, “Cancer hits home when it comes to firefighting. I know a number of firefighters who have gotten cancer, skin cancer and different types of cancer because of what we’re exposed to on a daily basis.”

Tsay said Hot for Hope is an amazing organization, especially since it was started by two children, that there was no way SMFA wasn’t going to support it.

Bryan Frieders, one of San Marino Fire Department’s battalion chiefs, is deeply involved with the American Cancer Society and speaks around the country about cancer, Tsay said. He said he hopes to connect the Yessaian children with him so they may be able to talk about Hot for Hope at one of his events.

Mikey and Emily began raising money for Hot for Hope by selling hot chocolate and coffee at a stand in front of their Sherwood Road house, which was conveniently located near the back entrance of their school, Valentine Elementary. Many Valentine students and families as well as pedestrians purchased beverages and made donations at the stand. The Yessaian children also have had teddy bear drives at Valentine Elementary. The Yessaians have since moved and will have the Hot for Hope stand at rotating locations. Hot for Hope is now partnering with East Coast hospitals, such as Massachusetts General Hospital. It’s also been working with USC and UCLA.

In other recent news, Hot for Hope now has a board of directors, which includes actors Courtney Vance and Angela Bassett in addition to San Marino resident Colleen McGuinness. The latter is the sister of San Marino native Patrick Martin, who passed away in 2012 after battling leukemia. He couldn’t be in direct sunlight and longed for a spot in the shade where he could be close to his children while they played. Two trees in Lacy Park were dedicated to Martin in June.

When San Marino resident Heather Connell met a 4-year-old orphan with cerebral palsy in Cambodia, he stole her heart and led her to dedicate her time and resources to help others like him.

She called the boy, named Sumnang, her “Cambodian son” and he became her inspiration for founding Safe Haven Medical Outreach—a medical nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting children with disabilities and complex medical needs in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Connell’s path to Cambodia originated from her career as a documentary filmmaker.

“I went to Cambodia for the first time in 2006,” Connell said. “I was actually starting pre-production on a documentary called ‘Small Voices.’ It was a documentary about the garbage dump and street children of Cambodia.”

Cambodia continues to struggle from the effects of when the Khmer Rouge ruling party killed between 1.7 and 2 million people, mostly educated adults, in order to create a classless society during its four-year reign beginning in 1975.

Throughout the years that Connell made the documentary she became very attached to the children of Cambodia.

“When the film was done, I didn’t feel right about simply disappearing out of their lives since I had been involved with them for such a long period of time,” Connell said. “I continued to go back to Cambodia to visit them and check in on them.”

She had been asked to speak at another nonprofit in Siem Reap on one of those trips in 2009 and decided to volunteer at the Sisters of Charity Orphanage in her free time. There, Connell met Sumnang.

“Sumnang had cerebral palsy, which was not something that the caretakers at the organization where he lived were aware of or even knew anything about,” she said. “I have two nieces who have CP and I recognized it right away. When I asked the nuns at the facility what kind of services were available to help improve his quality of life, they didn’t even know what was wrong with him.”

Connell said the nuns thought Sumnang was paralyzed, but he just had low muscle tone and never built up any body strength.

Sumnang’s mother died after childbirth and his father was not known. He and his twin brother were dropped off at the doorstep of the orphanage when they were 2 days old. An Australian woman adopted Sumnang’s twin brother.

“I basically asked the Mother Superior of the organization if I could take over Sumnang’s care,” Connell said. “After several months of going back and forth with them and assuring them that my intentions were good, they essentially allowed me to become Sumnang’s de facto parent in Cambodia and be responsible for his care.”

When Connell started looking for resources to improve Sumnang’s quality of life, she discovered that the resources were either non-existent in Cambodia or just extremely limited. She said those resources include things like nutritional intervention, physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. Connell started to bring specialists in these areas into Cambodia to treat Sumnang and develop a care program for him.

“Essentially the concept for Safe Haven was born out of my desire to give Sumnang a better quality of life and provide him with the interventions that he needed to reach his personal level of independence and health,” she said. “It came strictly out of me meeting this child and wanting to give him a better quality of life.”

Sumnang passed away on Sept. 1, 2010 while he was being transported to the hospital. He suffered from a grand mal seizure a few hours after Connell had tucked him into bed. She happened to be in Siem Reap by chance, as she decided not to travel to another village because of a stomach bug.

“After Sumnang passed away, I gave up on Safe Haven for a little while because it was such a devastating thing to lose him,” Connell said, adding that she soon realized continuing the project would be the best way to help other children like Sumnang while honoring his memory. She said, “If something like Safe Haven Medical Outreach had existed sooner, Sumnang wouldn’t have died or he would have had a better quality of life, even if it was a short lifespan, because he would be able to get services that he needed.”

Connell funded Safe Haven completely out of her pocket for the first three years it existed. She said the early days of the nonprofit organization involved building trust with the chiefs and families within the villages. The roster of families in and around Siem Reap that Safe Haven helps is constantly changing, but it has a limit of 50 families because of its budget and the deep level of care it provides.

“We take a whole family approach,” Connell said. “Education is one of the key foundations of Safe Haven Medical Outreach. One of the reasons why it primarily is an outreach program and we work in the families’ homes is because we want to make the parents active participants in their child’s care. They learn how to care for their child. They learn physical therapy techniques and occupational therapy techniques. Our staff works with them to make sure that if the child has to take medications, that they understand what the medications are and how to give them. If the child has to go to the hospital for any reason, one of our staff is there to facilitate being an advocate for the child and for the parents so they understand what’s going on. By working with the families directly in their homes, it strengthens the family bond.”

She added that Safe Haven wants to hire, train and keep Cambodian personnel and continue to provide educational opportunities to build their skills while they are working for the nonprofit organization.

“Ultimately, we want the people who the families are working with to be people who share their language and their culture,” Connell said. “That’s really an important part of what we offer.”

She said she is amazed at how far the Cambodian children can progress when they have access to the right interventions.

Safe Haven has a budget of $65,000 a year and its annual report is available on its website at http://safehavenkhmer.org.

“One of the things that we’re really proud of at Safe Haven is that only 18 percent of our budget goes toward admin costs,” Connell said. “The rest of the money is all direct service to the children.”

The organization’s website has many opportunities to donate and a link to an Amazon.com Wish List. Monetary donations can be mailed to Safe Haven Medical Outreach, 1580 Bellwood Road, San Marino, CA 91108. Checks must be made out to ‘Safe Haven Medical Outreach.’

Olivia Leventhal with 7-year-old Salima
Olivia Leventhal with 7-year-old Salima

A 20-year-old college student who is making a difference in the lives of children in a small African village was the latest featured speaker at the Rotary Club of San Marino.

Olivia Leventhal talked about starting The Mlangarini Project, which is a grassroots, nonprofit organization that she founded. It provides direct assistance to the local primary school of Mlangarini, which is a village near Arusha, Tanzania.

“The school lacks the necessary funds to give each student a proper education,” explained San Marino Rotary Programs Chairman Georg Eittinger. “The Mlangarini Project tries to bridge that gap. Another current effort of The Mlangarini Project includes a rain capture program for fresh drinking water.”

Leventhal’s parents, Ken Hurbert and Cindy Kolodziejski, joined her at the June 16 Rotary meeting. They both work with their daughter, to help the people of Mlangarini and recently returned from their fifth trip as a family to the Tanzanian village.

During the summer of 2011, a then 15-year-old Leventhal was encouraged by her parents to visit Mlangarini with a student travel program.

“We lived there in the village for one month,” she said. “I was there with 15 other high school students and two group leaders. Our project was to build a classroom for Mlangarini primary school. We worked together with other members of the village who were more experienced at building classrooms and houses.”

Leventhal said she met a 7-year-old local girl, Salima, on her second day there.

“I just fell in love with her,” she said. “We didn’t speak the same language, but we were able to make each other laugh within minutes of meeting each other. For the rest of the month in the village, wherever I was, Salima was right by my side.”

Leventhal said after a month went by, she didn’t want to leave Mlangarini.

“I couldn’t imagine never seeing Salima again,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine never seeing all these amazing people of Mlangarini village who really just welcomed me into their lives and showed me so much generosity that I’ve never experienced before.”

The Mlangarini Project was founded through Leventhal’s discussion with her parents about how to help Salima and the other people of her village.

“For the Mlangarini Project, our mission from the start has been education,” Leventhal said. “Mlangarini primary school is a government school and they really lack the necessary funds to give a child a proper education. When we first arrived there, the ratio for textbooks for children was about 1 to 7.”

The Mlangarini Project has purchased 3,620 textbooks for the children, 500 school uniforms, stationery, 10 soccer balls, first aid supplies, two solar panels and 125 desks, in addition to making numerous facility improvements. It also hired an English tutor for the teachers to better their English language skills, which would in turn help the students. The Mlangarini Project collects monetary and material donations. San Marino dentist and Rotarian Fary Yassamy has continuously donated dental hygiene products, Leventhal said.

“The Mlangarini Project is not a big charity, but every dollar we raise goes directly to Mlangarini school,” Leventhal said. “Whenever we travel there—which is once a year for the past five years—all of our travel fees are paid out of pocket. It does not come from donations we receive because we really want every donation to directly impact Mlangarini primary school.”

Leventhal continued, “There may be only 669 children at Mlangarini primary school, but they all deserve a chance at a better future. We really believe that starts with a good education.”

Leventhal is a rising junior majoring in neuroscience at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., near Philadelphia.

“Anybody who was ever in doubt that one person could make a difference in the world, hopefully that’s been dispelled now,” San Marino Rotary President Mike Driebe said, after hearing Leventhal’s presentation.

Donations can be made at www.mlangariniproject.org or mailed to The Mlangarini Project, 2009 Glyndon Ave., Venice, CA 90291.

The San Marino Motor Classic had its best year ever in 2016.

“This is the best year we’ve had in every category,” said Aaron Weiss, event co-founder, co-chair and San Marino resident. “We had more cars on the field, better cars and probably raised more money. Everything was more. We know that we have a big challenge to do better next year.”

An estimated 7,000 people attended the concours-level show on Sunday that had more than 300 classic and collector cars on display at Lacy Park.

“It was so crowded that you couldn’t drive a golf cart along the perimeter road,” Weiss said. “I don’t remember that many people here ever.”

Even retired “Tonight Show” host and car enthusiast Jay Leno showed up during the afternoon. He has been to the event several times in the past.

Weiss said he’s been getting many emails complimenting Sunday’s event.

“People feel it was the best show we’ve produced in six years, the best show in Southern California and maybe in the state with exception of Pebble Beach,” he said.

Weiss added that everything went very smoothly and was well-organized.

The 2016 title of “Best in Show – Pre-War” went to a 1930 Rolls-Royce Towncar owned by Jack and Helen Nethercutt, while “Best in Show – Post-War” was given to a 1956 Mercedes Benz 300Sc Coupe owned by Vin & Erika DiBona. See a full list of winners here.

Weiss said he was happy with the wide selection of cars.

“There was something for every automotive enthusiast there,” he said.

Dydia Delyser was invited by the San Marino Motor Classic organizers to display her 1991 Nissan Figaro. She and Paul Greenstein of Los Angeles own what Delyser calls a Czechoslovakian Batmobile—a 1941 Tatra T87—that they also brought.

“This is our first time at the show,” Delyser said.

Delyser and Greenstein were thrilled to have ridden in a Stanley Motor Carriage Co. steam-engine vehicle at the Motor Classic.

“That’s only happened to us twice in 30 years,” Delyser said. “That’s a very rare opportunity and really fun.”

“That alone was worth the price of admission,” Greenstein said.

Kyle Galloway of Pasadena attended the Motor Classic for the first time. His uncle Joey Galloway, also of Pasadena, was showing his 1965 Porsche Cabriolet.

“We thought it would be a good idea a week before Father’s Day—my son and I—to check out the other vehicles they have in the showcase,” Kyle Galloway said. “My son is so excited to see all of the different cars. He had a chance to sit in some of the vehicles that he likes. It’s a big event.”

Joey Galloway said it’s his second time showing a vehicle and fifth time attending the event, which he said gets bigger and bigger every year.

“I tell you what I really like is that it’s a lot of local representation as far as the cars,” he said. “I think that means a lot to the community, too.”

Phillip Phung and Thao Dinh were also first-time attendees of the San Marino Motor Classic and said they appreciated that fact they were able to bring their dog.

“I really like it a lot,” Phung said.

“There’s a lot of cool exotic cars,” Dinh said.

San Marino native Bob Green, now of Arcadia, has been to every San Marino Motor Classic.

“It’s a great collection of cars,” he said. “They’re very unique, special cars. Some of these you’d never see around. It’s not as large, as stuffy and as expensive as the big one in Pebble Beach, but they still have some high-level cars.”

Green added that he likes seeing many people he knows at the event.

Brookes Treidler of Pasadena and Larry Campbell of Los Alamitos were among the many car buffs at the event.

“We go to a lot of these concours events in the area,” Campbell said.

“This is one of the key events of the year,” Treidler said. “This is the perfect place to hold an event like this. It’s probably the best short of Pebble Beach.”

Miles Caldwell, 12, of San Marino has been to the Motor Classic three or four times before.

“I like to look at the cool cars and see all the engines run,” he said.

San Marino celebrity barber Jann of Sweden said he comes to the Motor Classic because he’s always been interested in cars. He used to own a 1939 Ford that he drove in the San Marino Fourth of July parade.

“For three years in a row, I had my antique silver saddles here at the car show,” Jann said, explaining that his 1920 horse saddles still related to transportation. He said it’s become too difficult to bring them to the Motor Classic.

The event emcees this year were ABC 7 automotive specialist Dave Kunz and automotive racing icon Ed Justice Jr.

SMMC proceeds will benefit Rotary Club of San Marino and Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA.

There was a pre-event gala on Saturday called “A Symphony of Cars: The USC Trojan Marching Band in Concert” when 10 cars spanning more than a century drove down the runway to tunes of the era in which they were built with music by the USC Marching Band. Gala proceeds will go toward the USC Trojan Marching Band.

More Photos:
San Marino Motor Classic
“A Symphony of Cars”

The annual San Marino Firefighters’ Association Pancake Breakfast has been a part of San Marino’s calendar of events for a very long time. So long that Firefighter/Paramedic Jeff Tsay, who has been with the San Marino Fire Department for over five years, cannot put a finger on the exact year.

“It’s been going on for more than 10 years, but probably a lot longer than that,” Tsay said, flipping through old notes from past pancake breakfasts, eventually arriving at memoirs from 1988.

Tsay is responsible for organizing this year’s breakfast, which will take place on Saturday, May 21 at Lacy Park. He added that the purpose for the event is “to create a community type of event and to raise money for the two burn foundations.”

These two foundations are the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation and the Firefighters Quest for Burn Survivors Foundation.

The Ruch Burn Foundation puts the money it receives toward providing a variety of services to enhance the lives of burn survivors—both firefighters and civilians—and educating communities across California about burn prevention.

“Most of the injuries we see are from burns,” Tsay said of the injuries faced by firefighters. “They do so much with the fire service to raise money,” he added.

Samantha Zepeda of the Ruch Burn Foundation has enjoyed working with the San Marino Firefighters Association. “This pancake breakfast is over the top,” she said. “They do an awesome job of going all out.”

The SMFA donates $2,500 to both foundations every year.

In recent years, the philanthropic reach of this event has grown. Local groups, like Boy Scout Troops and San Marino Little League, have been added to the list of donation recipients.

A vendor’s row at the park’s entrance provides an opportunity for local businesses to advertise their goods and services. Tsay was thankful for the businesses that contributed to the event, saying “some of these stores that give us donation items, they donate hundreds.”

Tickets are $10 per person and can be purchased at the San Marino Fire Dept., at the door on May 21 or at www.eventbrite.com.

San Marino Rotarians heard from an Iranian refugee who became inspired after a trip to Greece to help many of the millions of people fleeing their war-torn countries in the Middle East for Europe.

Damian Ardestani spoke at San Marino Rotary’s April 7 luncheon meeting about what led him and a friend to begin the nonprofit organization I AM YOU.

“He’s here to talk about what he’s encountered in his journey building one of the most active relief organizations in the refugee crisis,” San Marino Rotary President-Elect Gilda Moshir said.

Ardestani, who spends a lot of time in Los Angeles, is a Swedish recording artist who goes by the name XOV. He wrote music for “The Hunger Games” soundtrack and has collaborated with many singers, most notably Lorde. While he was doing promotions in Germany last year, the press began asking him many questions about the European refugee crisis.

“I myself came to Sweden as a refugee when I was 1,” Ardestani said. “All of these journalists were asking what I think of the refugee crisis and what’s going on in Greece with all of these refugees drowning when crossing the ocean.”

He said he didn’t really identify with being a refugee because he was only a year old when his parents brought him to Sweden from Iran.

“So I decided to go to Lesbos, Greece just to be able to find out and answer all of these questions with some first-hand experience,” Ardestani said.

He traveled to Lesbos on Oct. 21, 2015 with his friend Rebecca Reshdouni, co-founder of I AM YOU. Ardestani said they first encountered thousands and thousands of lifejackets left by refugees along the shoreline of Lesbos. He said he expected to see lifeguards, police officers, firefighters and other government workers helping these refugees to shore, but there were only volunteers. Ardestani and Reshdouni then, themselves, began to get in the ocean to help children reach land.

“We ended up spending those five days jumping into the water and driving the injured to the hospital,” he said.

His Iranian heritage also allowed him to communicate in the Dari language with many of the Afghan refugees.

“I had this vital role where I had to translate for the doctors and for the police,” he said, adding that he was asked to consult on important medical decisions.

Ardestani shared stories about the people, whom he said were mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, he met while he was volunteering in Lesbos.

Damian Ardestani
Damian Ardestani

“Every day is like a lifetime because every day you experience all of the human emotions there are,” he said. “You experience sadness, frustration and sorrow. At the same time, you feel hope because there are so many other volunteers to rescue people. Every day there was a roller coaster of emotions.”

Ardestani said the migrant children moved him the most.

“Are 100 percent of these refugees good people who will never cause any problems?” he asked. “Absolutely not. But there is big majority of innocent people and innocent children who have done nothing to deserve the fate that has been given to them.”

Ardestani said the Red Cross and United Nations High Commission for Refugees don’t have enough resources to handle the size and scale of the European refugee crisis.

He said he soon learned that smugglers who organize the rafts often offer a 50 percent discount to cross the ocean from Turkey to Greece during stormy weather.

“That’s when the poorest families with the most children cross the ocean,” Ardestani said. “As a result, that’s when most children drown. Last year alone, 4,000 people drowned making that journey.”

He said they pay more than $2,000 per person to make the journey across the ocean. Ardestani said the smugglers often drug children on the raft so they don’t cause any commotion.

Ardestani and Reshdouni decided on their last day in Lesbos that they wanted to do something to help the European refugee crisis by creating I AM YOU to coordinate volunteers. It was running within two weeks with professional nurses, doctors, firefighters and translators.

“Our main focus has been coordination,” Ardestani said. “We coordinate the hundreds of volunteers who arrive to the Greek islands, giving them a task. All of these people are wet. They have no clothes. They have no blankets. They have no food. At the same time, there are storages all around Greece that are filled with aid, blankets and food. But there’s no one doing the work of actually distributing these items to the people who need them.”

He said I AM YOU set up the largest coordination effort with rescue teams in Greece by using an app. Ardestrani said the refugees do have smartphones that they used to send distress coordinates from their raft in the ocean to rescuers to find them.

“Through that technology, we could cross-reference where we are and make sure that a team will be close to them, wherever they are arriving,” Ardestani said, adding that the UNHCR got buses for migrants to board after they got off their boat.

He said I AM YOU, which has had more than 200 volunteers supporting its cause, is focusing now on refugee camp management.

Ardestani ended his presentation by saying, “If you can make one life better, you can make the world better.”

For more information on I AM YOU, visit www.iamyou.se. Donations to the 501c3 organization can be made on this website or by mailing a check to Jay R. Halfon, Sustainable Markets Foundation, 45 West 36th Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018-7635.

HERE’S TO 90: Toasting the evening and Foothill Family’s 90th anniversary, CEO Steve Allen called to join him on stage LEFT TO RIGHT: Friends of Foothill President Lily Lee, clients Natalie and Ross, Board of Directors Chair Rob Tolleson and Clinical Director Sheila Thornton, 30-year Foothill employee, to represent the many facets of Foothill Family. Photo Courtesy of Foothill Family
HERE’S TO 90: Toasting the evening and Foothill Family’s 90th anniversary, CEO Steve Allen called to join him on stage LEFT TO RIGHT: Friends of Foothill President Lily Lee, clients Natalie and Ross, Board of Directors Chair Rob Tolleson and Clinical Director Sheila Thornton, 30-year Foothill employee, to represent the many facets of Foothill Family. Photo Courtesy of Foothill Family

There is a clear sense of momentum tumbling through Foothill Family, which is a positive sign as the organization celebrates 90 years of service to the community.

Never was that sense of esprit de corps more evident than the March 12 “Diamonds and Pearls” benefit at the California Club, Foothill Family’s largest fundraiser of the year.

“It was great,” said Foothill Family CEO Steve Allen. “We had a great crowd and a wonderful turnout.”

A crowd estimated at 300 showed up for the gala and witnessed more than one emotion-packed moment that crystallized the organization’s mission.

“We had a couple who had adopted a 7-year-old girl who was abandoned at age 3 and gone through the foster care system,” Allen explained. “They reached out to Foothill Family. We provided weekly therapy for six months. They inherited a lot of issues.”

Allen explained how the girl has since become a member of a swim team, joined the Girl Scouts and even qualified for her school’s GATE, an acronym for gifted and talented education.

The parents, Ross and Natalie, attended the gala as guests and received a standing ovation from members of the audience when acknowledged.

“They were received very well,” said Allen, still affected by the moment several days later. “Having them there, seeing that reaction, was incredible.”

Allen came to Foothill Family 2-1/2 years ago after three years at the Red Cross and 16 at the Salvation Army. He seems honored to be on board for the group’s 90th anniversary.

“This is a significant milestone,” said Allen. “It provides an opportunity to pause and thank the many people who have helped us out. We have several events planned to commemorate the milestone. An event at The Huntington in the fall, a 5K walk and run later in the year. We are looking forward to them all.”

Allen also pointed out that Harriett Huntington Doerr, noted author and granddaughter of Henry Huntington, was the first president of Foothill Family Services, connecting The Huntington event and the two organizations.

Foothill Family serves 23,000 families per year at seven locations; two family centers and a main office in Pasadena; two family centers in El Monte and individual family centers in Duarte and West Covina. All of them will host events and tours in honor of the organization’s 90th anniversary.

“We have some fun things planned,” said Allen. “Each individual center will have their own celebrations which will involve their own community partners. There will be a lot of things happening throughout the year.”

With a “very passionate staff” (in Allen’s words) of 300, Foothill also services 170 different schools in 15 districts.

Allen called Friends of Foothill, the philanthropic group responsible for organizing the gala that was established in 2000 by Lori Samuels and Shannon Williamson, “an extraordinary organization.”

“They are putting value to what we do here,” Allen said. “They put the entire gala together. It was very well done. Hats off to the event chairs, Melissa Morrison-Reyes and Lily Lee.”

Allen referenced another landmark moment at the gala.

“We did a toast to start off the 90th anniversary celebration,” he explained “We had [board chair] Rob Tolleson representing the executive board, Lily Lee representing Friends of Foothill, Sheila Staunton representing the staff and Natalie and Ross representing all of the families. It was very neat how we had all of those different elements together at once. I said ‘let’s raise a glass in honor of the deep roots of our past, in gratitude of the impact we can make today, and in the promise in making a difference for a better tomorrow.”

“We keep moving forward,” Allen said, summarizing the organization’s remarkable commitment to the future and the people it serves.