For the second annual Local Heroes edition, we put a call out to our readers and nonprofit organizations across the county. We had an abundance of interesting and worthy nominations, though we selected the following that best represent diversity, both in location and volunteer work, not just for the supreme dedication of all those who do so much. This year’s Local Heroes should stand as a testament to giving back, that the work to help better other lives without tangible rewards is actually the reward itself.
Coaching is teaching
During his junior year of college at the University of Washington, George Contreras of Camarillo made the decision to become a teacher and coach. He initially taught at a high school in Los Angeles, and since then he has spent more than four decades in Ventura County high schools.
“If we are helping to produce quality young men and women, then our communities will be better,” he stated.
When students at Rio Mesa High School took a great interest in criminal justice, he first immersed himself in an in-depth course prior to teaching it. It remains the favorite class that he ever taught; the students were exceptionally inspired and interested.
Besides working at Rio Mesa, Contreras was part of the original staff when Westlake High School opened in 1978 and has also worked at Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park and Buena High Schools.
In fact, his longtime friend and Buena High School coach Rick Scott had asked him for years to coach football overseas when they retire from teaching, and when Scott passed away suddenly in 2004, Contreras planned to follow through on his promise.
He retired from teaching in 2007.
In the spring of 2008 and in 2009, Contreras began coaching as a volunteer with the Catania Elephants in Sicily. He has since coached in Sweden, Switzerland, France and Spain.
In Ventura County, he is currently serving as the head junior varsity football coach voluntarily at Newbury Park High School, where his youngest son, Michael, is also a teacher and coach.
And, after nearly half a century Contreras still has the same objective when it comes to coaching: to allow maximum potential without the distraction and destruction of an unhealthy ego.
Apparently, the five basic principles taught through football can play a major role.
“The five things are to hustle, show courage, know your assignments, be loyal and care about winning. Carry them into the rest of your life, then your relationships with friends, family and business associates should go quite well,” he explained.
Contreras considers his role in the community to be a byproduct of the aforementioned principles.
For his efforts and dedication, he was recently inducted into the Ventura County Sports Hall of Fame, which he admits was never an aspiration, it was a dream. The reality, however, went beyond just himself.
“I do not think that my record as a head coach really merited induction but I accepted because most of my career as a football, baseball and track coach has been spent as an assistant. I accepted on behalf of all the semi-anonymous assistant coaches in the county who put in the time helping kids while out of the limelight.”
Contreras is sure of his career choice; and although he believes that the youth under his charge may not like to hear what he has to say, it is typically what they need to hear at that particular time in their lives.
“I’m an educator first and foremost. Saying that, coaching is teaching in my opinion.”
Keeper of the coast
Paul Jenkin, the “environmental guy” in the Ventura County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, grew up traveling, a citizen of the world. He began surfing in Florida during college, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ocean engineering.
In 1989, Jenkin, who currently resides in Oak View, moved to Ventura County to work for a Navy contractor but his concern about the environment only intensified.
“Believe it or not, in the ’80s and ’90s I was really concerned about climate change; and seeing what was going on, I was driving myself crazy,” he stated.
His wife advised him to take action and he adopted what has now become his mantra: Think locally, act locally.
“You can’t solve the world’s problems, but locally you can effect some positive change and that’s what I set my mind to do.”
The Surfrider Foundation was founded in 1984, and its global chapters are dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of oceans, beaches and waves. All chapters are run by volunteers. At the Ventura County chapter, Jenkin is the Ventura campaign coordinator, aiding in the management of existing campaigns and monitoring current issues.
Most notably, the Ventura chapter was involved in the Surfers Point Managed Shoreline Retreat project, which tackled worsening coastal erosion and a crumbling bike path at Surfers Point.
According to Jenkin, one of Surfrider’s key functions is not only providing a voice for local activists who are concerned with coastal issues but also offering a way to create real change.
“As keepers of the coast, when you’re educated and aware of what’s going on, I think you have a duty to call attention to the issues that affect the coast,” he explained.
For example, the Matilija Coalition was founded in 2000 to enable collaboration between individuals and organizations regarding the removal of Ojai’s Matilija Dam. The structure promotes the erosion of beaches and decline of fish because it hinders flow of the Ventura River into the ocean. Matilija Dam is the biggest dam at over 200 feet to be considered for removal in the country.
Today, the dam still stands but Jenkin hopes removal will happen within the next decade. He’d also like to see more people become increasingly informed, stating that education programs intended to enhance public awareness on issues facing the coast are also a priority for Surfrider.
Consequently, he produced the film Watershed Revolution with National Geographic photographer Rich Reid. It aired nationally on PBS, on local cable and was not only screened locally but in several film festivals.
“We wanted to build awareness that our local watershed sustains us and there are many people in the community committed to protecting and restoring the Ventura River. We hoped to inspire people to get involved.”
Besides remarking that better water management is crucial. especially during a drought, he advises choosing a relatable cause, then moving forward and slowly making a difference.
“We are all environmentally conscious; it just depends whether we act on it or not,” Jenkin said.
At present, as a member of Friends of the Ventura River Coalition, he looks forward to further progress on the work focused on the Ventura River Parkway.
For more information, go to http://ventura.surfrider.org.
K. EDWARD LYNCH
Tutor, vet, videographer
Videographer Ed Lynch of Ventura enjoys his job, and he certainly appreciates the opportunity to use his expertise for volunteer work.
For several years he has been involved with the Veterans History Project, an undertaking by the Library of Congress to collect, preserve and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans and supporting personnel.
Lynch films such accounts, mostly within Ventura County, and once a video is complete he gives copies to the veteran and sends one to the Library of Congress.
“For some of them it was a pretty traumatic experience. It’s not unusual for them to say they couldn’t talk to anyone about it because civilians wouldn’t understand, and they could talk to other vets but they really couldn’t talk to someone who hadn’t experienced something like that,” he explained, relaying the time he served in the air force — a four-year stint right after high school before the Vietnam War.
He noted that what he does is a privilege and an honor, and although the veterans may not be able to share everything, these filmed personal accounts are important for us as a country.
“You’re getting all the nuances of this person’s expressions and mannerisms and all of the little body language things that happen when you’re talking about these things. Sometimes you can see them get real stiff and kind of uncomfortable about what they’re talking about, and other times they get kind of relaxed with something that’s a little more on the humorous side; so to me, that is the incredible power of video.”
Besides the history project, Lynch is an active member of Laubach Literacy of Ventura County, where he is treasurer and webmaster.
The all-volunteer nonprofit is centered on a free English as a Second Language (ESL) program for adults who are tutored in a nonclassroom setting. They are also offered American culture coaching.
According to Lynch, this is important because cultural differences can be a greater barrier than language; and also, most adults trying to learn English are unable to commit to a classroom-based program (schedule, homework) for various reasons.
“These folks have attempted to use English in public but people don’t understand, so most of the time they get embarrassed and give up. By being able to be tutored one-on-one, they get the opportunity to practice in a safe environment,” he explained.
The organization works in collaboration with the library, which refers ESL students who are not yet advanced enough for its program. It also allows Laubach to utilize its rooms.
Every year, Laubach tutors log around 12,000 hours while the number of tutored adults ranges from 100 to 250.
“English is a tough language to learn. The people who get to this country, somehow, on top of all the other things they have to overcome, they have to figure out how to learn English. It boggles my mind how persistent and resilient that have to be to do that.”
Lynch recommended the establishment of the Adult English Learner Achievement Award. Dr. Kyunghae Schwartz of the Ventura Unified School District was the first recipient.
For more information, go to www.advantavideography.com.
Dedicated to pet therapy
Pam Schuman is currently a volunteer at Ventura County Medical Center (VCMC), Santa Paula Hospital, and she is also involved with the Sisterhood at Temple Beth Torah. But she isn’t any ordinary volunteer these days; her work is focused on the therapeutic benefits of pets.
Love on a Leash (LOAL) is a national organization dedicated to providing emotional support in hospitals, nursing homes and schools through pet companionship or pet therapy. Schuman was inspired by the concept in 2002 after meeting Joan Shugar, LOAL’s head of the Ventura chapter.
With her application completed, her bearded collie Magic was certified as a therapy dog and a Canine Good Citizen.
Thereafter, Magic became a therapy dog at VCMC, where Schuman was a volunteer.
“We usually visited every two weeks and the Auxiliary Office would let us know which patients had requested visits from a therapy dog.”
Although Magic has since passed on, Schuman had her other dogs Nina (deceased), Chad and Livi, certified as therapy dogs. Following certification, therapy dogs as well as their handlers require recertification once a year and they continue to provide their services for as long as one or both are keen to do so.
“I’ve had bearded collies for about 40 years and they’re a wonderful breed. This breed has hair instead of fur; and as they are a herding breed, they think for themselves and are very bright and easily trained,” she explained.
Schuman and her dogs have been very active in the community. They have been on call for the VCMC Pediatric Unit, happily visiting when a request for a therapy dog is made before or after scheduled visits. In fact, they actively participate in the pet therapy program that the facilities associated with Community Memorial Health Systems adopted in 2014. Also, the dogs have been used as a means of stress reduction during finals week for the last four years at the University of California, Santa Barbara. And once a month, they visit the Veteran’s Home of Ventura
County; the residents cannot have pets so they enjoy time spent with a therapy dog.
“Young or old, everyone benefits from the unconditional love you get from a dog,” stated Schuman.
Therapy dogs have also been instrumental in the PAWS for Reading program, which allows children to read aloud to them so as to improve their reading and communication skills. The program is ongoing at E.P. Foster Library, and Schuman’s dogs have been involved since 2009.
“I love working with a child who can barely read for whatever reason and, over the months or years, see so much improvement in their skills and confidence. I love seeing the smiles on the veterans’ faces when their furry friends arrive. They gave up so much for their country and for all of us. I love seeing a smile on a patient’s face through all the pain when they see and pet a dog who looks at them with warm, loving eyes,” she concluded.
For more information, go to www.loveonaleash.org.
KAREN and MIKE TUREK
Habitat for Humanity
Karen and Mike Turek of Oxnard have dedicated most of their lives to helping others.
She has been a teacher for 20 years, having initially worked with youth in a continuation high school and then shifted to part-time in special education; she currently works in the Oxnard Union High School District. He is a retired captain from the Los Angeles Fire Department, where he served for 31 years. They are also active members of their community’s Neighborhood Watch.
In 2006, Karen volunteered at Habitat for Humanity through United Way, and the experience had such a impact that she not only returned but she introduced her husband, Mike, to the organization.
They’ve never looked back.
“A world where everyone has a decent place to live” is the vision of the Ventura County chapter of Habitat and it is an idea that the couple share and work toward enthusiastically.
Karen commits two days per week, serving on the Events Committee, where she is involved in planning from décor to sponsorship to the acquisition of items/services for auction. During the annual Women’s Build event, which attracts nearly 100 people, she not only acts as an organizer but she is the crew lead (supervisor) along with her husband.
“Now I’m the queen of fundraising, but when they do excavating, I get out there,” Karen said.
Meanwhile, Mike is in the field as a participant and a manager, an ideal position according to his wife.
He is the crew lead of the Wednesday Crew, which is made up of retired individuals who volunteer on Wednesdays, and is the volunteer site supervisor for new home builds in Oxnard as well as the first construction site supervisor for the Preserve a Home program, which renovates houses for those in need.
“The icing is turning the keys over to a needy, deserving family; it’s miraculous. And to hear the testimony of some of these kids that have been brought up in Habitat housing is remarkable,” said Mike.
Together, the couple participates in the event auctions by offering a half-day trip of “wining and dining” on their sailboat. With 40 years of sailing experience, Mike and Karen enjoy the opportunity to help a charity by going out on the water.
They also auction for the American Cancer Society, ARC and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
And their service extends abroad.
Through their church, they went to Costa Rica this year and in 2014 to aid in the construction of La Montana Christian Camp. This year, they helped build an open tent camp in a remote area.
Karen also went to Honduras in 2014 for a mission trip she described as humbling and life-changing. She spent time in poverty-stricken areas and with individuals who received microloans.
For now, Mike is focused on an eight-home project in Santa Paula for Habitat while Karen prepares for the annual Hearts and Hammers Dinner and Auction.
Karen describes volunteering as a source of joy to anyone who does it, while Mike explains that volunteers (Habitat) are trained and they in turn train others.
For more information, go to www.habitatventura.org.