DOWNTOWN — Some heroes are closer to home than most people realize.
Eight community members were recognized Thursday as this year’s recipients of Santa Monica Human Relations Council’s Community Heroes awards. These stand-out citizens represent a broad spectrum of volunteer organizations to which they have made significant contributions.
The recipients were chosen by a committee of the Santa Monica Human Relations Council based on nominations from their respective nonprofits.
“These are the people that are not the normal people that get honors,” said board member Mark Benjamin, noting organization directors and officers normally receive the recognition. “They’re the actual people that are in there volunteering and doing the hard work.”
In its second year of existence, Benjamin said the Community Heroes awards raise excitement in the community. A list of 100 non-profit groups was narrowed down to 12, from which the committee sought nominations and decided upon its eight recipients.
“They’re kind of the unsung community heroes,” Benjamin said. “We’re trying to let them sing.”
Charlie Yen, Santa Monica College director of contract services, was honored for his involvement in not one, but three local organizations. Yen has been active in the American Cancer Society’s “Relay for Life” and overseeing finances as a board member for both the Red Cross and Police Activities League (PAL). Additionally, Yen organized Santa Monica College’s annual Fourth of July event, “Celebrate America” this past summer.
“I think people living in Santa Monica should be involved with all the community activities as much as possible, benefiting especially the youth,” Yen said. “I encourage everybody to do stuff for our youth.”
Joan Colman, another Community Hero, gets some help from a friend while volunteering with PAL.
“What I’ve done is I supply myself and my dog,” Colman said. She helps run the America Reads program and America Reads to Dogs. Colman and her child-safe certified therapy dog teach children everything from communication skills to reading to comprehension to animal care. For the past eight years on Wednesday afternoons, the pair gives young readers an audience.
“The dogs are very accepting of all reading levels,” Colman said. “The dogs don’t judge.”
As a semi-retired speech language pathologist, Colman enjoys that she can combine her love of dogs with her desire to give back to the community and is thankful for PAL treating her and other volunteers so well.
Serving the community’s hungry is Jeanne Laurie, who volunteers at the Westside Food Bank. Laurie has written a human resources handbook on maternity leave, overseen the food bank’s booth at community events and written grants at the organization.
“To be a part of the food bank is great,” said Laurie, noting the staff’s dedication and hard work. “There was just more and more that I was able to do.”
During her 10 years with the non-profit, Laurie learned that providing food for the hungry is easier than people think. She suggests making food donations routine by having everyone bring one item to regular office meetings or club gatherings. Simple things, like picking up extra canned food while grocery shopping, make a difference and make Laurie stand out.
“I’m really just an ordinary person,” she said. “Everybody can be a hero.”
She said high protein foods like peanut butter and tuna, as well as baby food, are always in demand at the food bank.
Community Hero Ann Buck was recognized for her work at the CLARE Foundation, an organization that provides treatment for alcoholism and substance abuse. Buck uses her peaceful demeanor to help others through meditation classes she leads once a week for CLARE’s female clients.
According to the nomination submitted on behalf of Buck, “the women always leave Ann’s meditation group with serenity, hope and the feeling that they too have a wonderful gift to give to the world.” She has spent eight years inspiring and empowering women through meditation, and has become a well loved figure at the CLARE Foundation.
Another hero believing in the power of positive energy is Betty Darling of Meals on Wheels. Once a week for the past 30 years, Darling delivers meals to and visits with residents.
“I could see that there was quite a need for human contact during the day,” Darling said. “I often feel that I get more out of it than the clients do simply because of how warm they are.”
Darling began volunteering once her children left home and she had more time on her hands. Since then, she has made kind and interesting contacts during her routes.
“I feel that I’m really helping,” Darling said. “It’s very rewarding.”
Other Community Heroes award recipients include the volunteer group from grief support center Our House, Colleen Hughes of PAL and Kathy Knight of the neighborhood organization Friends of Sunset Park. The entire group will be publicly recognized on May 8 at the Santa Monica Festival in Clover Park.