by alicia doyle
For the third annual Local Heroes edition, we put a call out to our readers and nonprofit organizations across Ventura County. We received an abundance of interesting and worthy nominations, and selected five individuals that best represent diversity, both in location and volunteer work. This year’s Local Heroes are a testament to giving back — and that the work to help better lives without rewards is actually the reward itself.
Nancy Mayerson | Youth advocate
Adopted as a baby, Nancy Mayerson is paying her fortune forward at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme, where she has volunteered as a youth advocate for more than a decade.
“I just felt fortunate that I had such a good family — I felt like I won the lottery,” said Mayerson of Westlake Village, whose brother was also adopted as an infant. “My parents were not wealthy; they were very working class. They put their hearts out to adopt us and we were just random infants. I had great parents and they inspired me to help kids.”
A dedicated volunteer who is currently serving her second year as the club’s board chairwoman, Mayerson donates an estimated 500 hours annually to the club, which serves more than 9,200 youths each year.
As principal of Mayerson Marketing and Public Relations in Westlake Village, she was first introduced to the club about a dozen years ago when club representatives approached her to tell the story about the difference the club makes in children’s lives.
“In the course of putting together an annual report for the club I fell in love with the work that they do and their mission: to inspire and enable all youth, especially those who need us most, to realize their full potential as productive, responsible and caring citizens,” Mayerson recalled.
“It is so rewarding to see the difference we make,” she said. “We have a lot of kids who are struggling on some front; 80 percent come from households at or below poverty. Some kids could use more help and it’s important that as a society we view all children as people we share responsibility for. We don’t just delegate child rearing to parents. We need to raise children as a community.”
Three years ago, the club’s board members were asked to raise additional funds to close a budget shortfall. Mayerson took the challenge to heart and developed a fundraising event, “Women and What We Love,” which has raised approximately $50,000 for the club since its inception in 2014.
The annual event has taken place at the Waterside in Channels Islands Harbor, where women shop, sip wine and bid on auction items, with all proceeds going toward club memberships, which cost around $555 a year per child.
For many club members, their parents are both working, some at multiple jobs, Mayerson said. The club gives these kids a safe place to go where they’re supervised, fed a nutritious snack and taught healthy habits. They receive homework help and tutoring, and when they grow older, assistance with college and financial aid applications as well as opportunities to visit college campuses.
“On a fundamental level, helping kids is the baseline where we can make a difference in every other aspect of our community and our society and what our legacy is,” said Mayerson, noting that she has two grown daughters in their 20s. “When you contribute to the club it’s a one-stop giving opportunity that includes sports and fitness, character and leadership, music and performing arts as well as visual arts — so it’s all encompassing.
Ensuring a high quality of life for the future starts with bringing up a generation with a capacity to make smart decisions, she added.
“Otherwise everything starts to unravel and decay,” she said, “so we need to make them strong and capable with good judgment and character and strong leadership — and that’s what the club does for kids.”
Michael J. Arndt returned to Vietnam 40 years after his military service to tour the country and talk to servicemen and -women in major military areas.
“I went back to an area where I actually walked through the jungles and was able to find where one of my bases had been located,” recalled Arndt of Thousand Oaks. “It was a very moving time for me. I acknowledged friends of those who died and paid tribute to them.”
A professor of theater arts at California Lutheran University, he decided to use his experience in Vietnam as a way to heal. He took a sabbatical from CLU and received funding from the Ventura County Arts Council, and later partnered with the Military Orders of the World Wars and Military Order of the Purple Heart.
“I began to interview veterans from the World War II era, Iraq and Afghanistan, and what struck me was the similarity of the stories despite the difference in the generations,” Arndt said. “Though technology has changed, the experience of the individual soldier is pretty much the same.”
He took their stories and developed a multimedia theater piece, Under Fire: Stories of Combat Veterans Across Generations, which was first performed at Ventura College, then later at CLU, with a cast of young people playing the roles of veterans.
“The piece involves video excerpts from the interviews I did with live action of the students playing these people. It’s also a movement piece so there’s dance,” he explained.
His efforts led to recognition by the National Organization of Military Chaplains, and a June 20 performance of the production near the Navy base in San Diego for chaplains all over the country.
He hopes to bring the production to military bases throughout the nation, as well as VA hospitals, military families, schools and other places that serve veterans with the goal of inspiring discussions.
“So many veterans, especially combat veterans, feel isolated and like they’re going through this experience all by themselves,” he said. “My hope is that they all understand that generations before them have some of the same trauma and stress.”
Through his role at CLU, Arndt also helped launch the Kinsgsmen Shakespeare Festival, which is celebrating its 20th season this summer. Put together on a shoestring budget by volunteers, the first festival featured several professional actors performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Today, about 7,000 people attend the festival each summer in Kingsmen Park at CLU.
The success of the first season led to the establishment of the nonprofit Kingsmen Shakespeare Company, a professional theater organization dedicated to providing a low-cost and professional celebration of Shakespeare’s works for the entertainment and education of the community.
“One of the goals with Kinsgsmen and the same thing with the Under Fire script is, I want to give my students the experience of the vitality of theater in life,” he said.
“Theater is not just an academic and not just an entertainment vehicle, but it serves an important purpose. Theater has the ability to touch people’s emotions in a way that a speech and books cannot. It’s a powerful force that can be used for good. And it’s relevant to someone studying theater. It’s not just studying a fluff subject. They’re studying something that’s very important to the culture of people.”
Born and raised in Hawaii, Janis Shinkawa always had an affinity for animals and, as a child, would pick up baby birds that fell out of their nests to nurse them until they could fly away.
“I once lost a bird to a stray cat who attacked it in our garage,” said Shinkawa of Ventura. “I buried that bird wishing I knew more to be able to help it survive. That’s where my passion for wanting to be a veterinarian started.”
Her passion was sidetracked due to her lack of confidence in becoming a veterinarian, even though she volunteered for veterinarians while she was a student in high school. So she became a certified public accountant instead and, serendipitously, her first career path gave her the self-belief to enter the veterinary field after working several years as a CPA.
“I became a certified public accountant first as I followed in my dad’s footsteps for about six years before deciding to apply to veterinary school,” said Shinkawa, who attended vet school at Colorado State University. “Somehow, being a CPA for Ernst & Young in Honolulu gave me the confidence to become a veterinarian.”
Today, she is medical director and one of the founding partners of Ohana Pet Hospital in Ventura; and since Ohana’s opening in 2012, she has been an advocate and supporter of nonprofit animal shelters in Ventura County.
“The true local heroes are the organizers, staff and volunteers of our Ventura County rescues, shelters and humane societies. They are truly hard-working and amazing people,” she said.
Under Shinkawa’s leadership, Ohana has donated services to the Canine Adoption and Rescue League, Surfcat Cafe and Adoptions, the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, Homestretch, Santa Paula Animal Rescue Center (SPARC), All for Love and Ventura County Animal Services.
“Because of my background (as a CPA) I’ll visit their facility and give them feedback about how to improve their operation. Sometimes I’ll look at their financial statements and give them ideas for financial health,” Shinkawa said.
She also spearheaded the creation of the Ohana Pet Teaching Hospital, a nonprofit effort that involves veterinarians who are passionate about passing on their skills.
“We have been conducting a program where an intern from the Veterinary Medical and Surgical Group will perform spays and neuters for the Canine Adoption and Rescue League every Monday under our supervision,” Shinkawa explained.
She also consulted for Charter College in Oxnard to help it start a Veterinary Assistant program.
“I am currently working with our county on getting a program in place to help veterinary assistants obtain their registered veterinary technician’s license,” said Shinkawa, noting the Ohana Pet Teaching Hospital will ultimately help with these projects to support teaching in the community for veterinary professionals.
“By helping veterinary professionals be at the top of their game in their communication, leadership and medical skills, the caliber of veterinary care in our community will rise and ultimately the pets will obtain the best care possible.”
In other efforts, Shinkawa found funding sources to pay for six shelter symposiums since the start of Ohana in 2012. The goal of the symposiums was to bond the local rescues, shelters and humane societies’ key organizers to share information and best practices. Subjects covered included running a nonprofit from a legal standpoint, marketing and fundraising, behavior topics and veterinary medical issues.
Upon meeting a coroner at age 12, Brittany Groot became fascinated with the job that required finding out the cause of death when people pass away.
“I was super-fascinated with what he did and I originally wanted to be a coroner,” said Groot of Camarillo.
Before pursuing her initial passion, Groot earned her degree in child adolescent development.
She later earned an associate degree in mortuary science at Cypress College, and now works for Rose Family Funeral Home in Simi Valley. Prior to Rose, she worked at Service Corporation International, which owns most of the funeral homes in Ventura County.
“I initially got involved in the funeral business because I found it really interesting,” she said, “but as I worked I gained an appreciation of it. Everyone has a different way of mourning their loved one and celebrating their life.”
Her job, which calls for dealing with people at perhaps the most difficult time of their lives, requires her to be a jack of all trades.
“We’re comforters, therapists, family counselors and a problem solver in the moment,” said Groot, noting she also plans funerals in a matter of days. “Being a funeral director and embalmer, you literally know a little bit of everything. There’s also a science behind things, so it’s never boring.”
Two years ago, Groot joined the board of directors of the Access TLC Hospice Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has a relationship with Rose Family Funeral Home. TLC offers assistance to families, including low-income households that need help with placing loved ones in hospice care at the ends of their lives.
“Working in the funeral industry opened my eyes to hospice,” she said. “I didn’t understand what hospice really meant until working at a funeral home and with families who praised hospice nurses who guide them when they’re confused and hurt.”
When the foundation had an opening on their board, “I thought it was such a great cause,” Groot said. “I wanted to help families in a time of need when their loved ones come to the end of their life. I thought it was very important to be a part of that.”
As a board member at TLC, Groot’s role, in part, involves the management of funds and how they will be spent in assisting families.
“Sometimes that involves placement of family members that need extra assistance,” she said. For instance, “A widow or widower might need extra help. They might have never known how to pay their own bills or how to call someone if the plumbing is broken. So we have continuing care for these family members as well.”
Her job at the funeral home, combined with her volunteerism at TLC, are life affirming, she said.
“Everyone will pass away at some point and we’re all going to lose someone,” Groot said. “We will be in those shoes someday — how do we want to be treated when it comes our time? It’s not something that everyone wants to think about. But it’s a reality that we’re all going to experience someday.”
In her retirement, Kitty Merrill discovered her passion for environmental justice and has since become a part of numerous volunteer efforts that promote saving the planet for future generations.
Her path was inspired when she saw the screening of the film, Do the Math, at Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura. The 42-minute documentary is about the rising movement to change the terrifying math of the climate crisis and challenge the fossil-fuel industry.
“Do the Math pointed out a lot of issues around global warming,” said Merrill of Oxnard. “The environmental change is happening and we need to advocate for the environment if it’s going to be a suitable planet for humans.”
With that, Merrill started a local chapter of 350.org in 2012, which is also known as the Ventura County Climate Hub.
350.org was founded by author Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and writer who wrote one of the first books on global warming for the general public. The effort strives to build a global, grass-roots movement to take on the fossil-fuel industry and solve the climate crisis. Through online campaigns, grass-roots organizing and mass public actions, 350.org has mobilized thousands of volunteer organizers in more than 188 countries.
“We’ve been meeting monthly (at Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura) and a number of us come from different organizations,” Merrill said. “One of the functions of the group is to let people who are involved in environmental causes connect with one another, so there’s a little bit more power in numbers and sharing information and resolutions.”
Considered an environmental leader, Merrill has spoken on numerous occasions before the Oxnard City Council. She has spoken in favor of zoning changes to permit drought-tolerant planting instead of grass on parkways. She also opposed the NRG Puente Power Plant — proposed to be built next to the old plant on the beach by Mandalay Bay — because of issues around environmental justice, concern about sea level rise, and assumptions of increased power needs.
In related efforts, she spoke against the proposed NRG Puente power plant to the California Utilities Commission and spoke to the Ventura County Regional Energy Alliance in favor of community energy choice.
She also supported the Ventura Board of Supervisors in their suit against Anterra’s injection wells.
“Anterra is just outside Oxnard city limits,” Merrill explained. “It takes the fluids created in drilling and fracking, and pumps them into the ground into an old oil well. Some injection wells in the Central Valley have inadvertently injected those toxic fluids into the aquifers where people get drinking water from.”
When it comes to public speaking, “I study up on the issue to make sure that I’m not misunderstanding any nuances of the issue,” she said. “My comments are usually based on my experiences and those of people in my community. I think it’s important for our elected and appointed representatives to hear the perspective of people affected by an issue, not just from their staffs or from lobbyists on one side or the other.”
Some of the Climate Hub’s activities over the past couple of years have been to help organize marches and vigils around different issues: the People’s Climate March, a vigil outside Anterra’s injection wells and, most recently, outside the offices of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the government agency that was considering whether to permit fracking in the Santa Barbara Channel.