A Man with a Plan – Looking into Roy Swearingen’s life of community service


By Matt Larson

If you’ve spent any time in the community of West Contra Costa County over the past few decades, especially in Pinole, then the name Roy Swearingen should be pretty familiar to you by now. He was born in Richmond, grew up in El Cerrito, and attended Richmond Union High School and Contra Costa College. He’s been president of the Pinole Jaycees, the Pinole Rotary Club, the Pinole Chamber of Commerce, and of the WCC Police Activities Board of Directors, and he’ll be serving his 4th term as Mayor of Pinole in 2019. Suffice it to say, he’s a man of West County.

He wasn’t always an organized, active member of his community, and he credits his involvement with the Pinole Jaycees—a young man’s service organization—that led him on this path. “The Jaycees would put on events for the community,” he said. “That’s how I got involved in community service—helping to make changes and trying to accomplish positive things—and I’ve been doing that ever since!”

Swearingen makes public service look easy, but the reality of it is that it’s something that a relative few of us ever actually end up doing. “There’s all sorts of reasons not to do it,” he said. “You have to have a desire, and you have to have the incentive to go after it. And, most importantly, you have to have a plan.”

During his very first term as a council member when he was elected in 1986, one his greatest accomplishments was building the Pinole Senior Center. “I didn’t do it all by myself, obviously, but I was part of that,” said Swearingen. “I find that you could do more with a team than you can as an individual. Sometimes you get it done and other times you don’t; there’s frustrations and there’s successes.”

When he was elected to the city council for the second time in 2008, nearly 20 years later, it was due to a recall. Pinole needed him, as it was time for a plan. “The city was in dire straights,” he said. “We were close to bankruptcy, and the group that went in at that time was dedicated to making the city whole again. And we did that! We spent about 6 years in office turning the city around.” Swearingen’s been re-elected every term since then, so that he’s now serving his 3rd consecutive term on the Pinole City Council; his 4th term overall.

Today the council’s focus is on the usual improvements: park issues, keeping community fields in good shape, and focusing on growing local business. A main priority right now is tearing down an old house by the senior center in order to use that property to expand and improve the facilities at the center. “That’s part of the plan,” said Swearingen, continuing improvements on the place he helped build decades ago.

Aside from volunteering to support his community, Swearingen still had to make a living over the years. He’s a retired sheet metal worker of SMWI Local 104, and owned and operated H.A. Swearingen Heating and Sheet Metal Company for 27 years. In his off hours Swearingen’s usually spending time with the family. He’s been married to Rosemary, his high school sweetheart, for the past 56 years. They have two children, three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Swearingen is also a certified SCUBA rescue diver. He and his wife have dived together all over the world in places like the Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Sea, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the Galapagos Islands.

It’s now been more than 48 years since Swearingen has been serving as a leader of Pinole’s many service organizations, and this year marks his 14th year of dedicated work as an elected city official. If you want to make a difference in your local community, “you really have to know the people that are involved,” he said. “It’s like any organization—from outside you can’t do much, but from inside you can do a lot.” So maybe reach out to your local city council or service organization, attend a meeting, make a plan, and start getting involved.


A Castle in Pinole?


By Stella Faria, Courtesy of the Pinole Historical Society

Since my childhood, I have always been fascinated by the building located at 2131 San Pablo Avenue in Pinole. It was directly across the street from the house I first lived in when I married in 1947.

I knew it as the Pythian Castle, which always seemed to have some sort of mystery associated with its name. Who would ever have dreamed of having a castle in the little town of Pinole?

It is a rather unique structure in the 2100 block of San Pablo Avenue, aside from the Curran family home a few doors down (formerly the Garden of Gems) and the relocated Faria farmhouse across the street.

It is a white with blue trim wood-framed building with a gabled roof and some stained glass windows, one of which survived a gas-line explosion next door on February 17, 1998. It suffered blown-out windows and other minor damage, but the building next door that housed the Second Fiddle thrift store,was completely leveled.

I have known it as the Pythian Castle since I went there during the 1930s for variety programs that were put on by our local churches or fraternal organizations who shared their auditorium.

Fraternal organizations such as Masons, Odd Fellows, Redmen, Elks, Eagles, Woodmen, Knights of Columbus, and Knights of Pythias,  were very popular in those days.

The Knights of Pythias has a very long and colorful history. It became a secret fraternal organization in Washington, D.C., on February 19, 1864, founded by Justus Rathbone. Its name came from a play, “Damon and Pythias,” written by Irish poet John Banim. Its legend illustrates the ideals of loyalty, honor, and friendship that are the center of the order.

When a man was inducted as a member, he received a ceremonial sword, presented as a token of esteem by family members or business associates. A local chapter was known as a “castle.” I was a bit disappointed to find that there was no fairytale connection to my Pythian Castle.

Pinole’s First Methodist Episcopal Church built this wooden structure in 1898 at 2131 San Pablo Avenue. When the church built its second home on Valley Avenue in 1924, the building was sold to the Order of the Knights of Pythias.

Local Methodist church records show that the first Protestant services in Pinole were held from 1889 until April 24, 1898, at the site of the Plaza School, where today’s post office stands.

Ministers from Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches in Richmond took turns preaching on Sunday evenings.

There was also a Martinez-Pinole connection when, from 1890 until the new church building was dedicated in 1898, Methodist ministers came to preach on Sunday evenings.

Little is recorded about the building once it became the Pythian Castle. It was an Assembly of God church later on and was occupied by Elaine Pond’s Insurance agency for a couple of years. The Scolari & Sons Tile Company ran its business out of that building. The present owner, Dennis Lorette, CPA, purchased the building in 1984. He shares his office there with several other businesses.  I am very grateful to Dennis for providing me with information he had on the early history of the building. He loves the architecture and history related to the building, and would be proud to show you around if you appreciate the building as much as he does.

Literally Changing Lives – A priceless college connection for West County juniors and seniors

ILC's School Board Presentation

By Matt Larson

As cliché as “changing lives” may sound, it’s nothing short of the truth when it comes to the Ivy League Connection (ILC). Founded in 2005, the ILC has awarded 335 scholarships to date. On average they spend about $12,000 per student, and have been the deciding factor for hundreds of students being able to afford to go to schools like Dartmouth, Cornell, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Brown, Yale, Vanderbilt, University of Chicago, and many more. And the best part? This program is strictly for students that are enrolled right here in the West Contra Costa County Unified School District.

“It’s where we live. It’s our community!” said Don Gosney, who’s currently the one-man-show behind this amazing operation. “I see kids who really weren’t even thinking about college much, and next thing you know they’re graduating from Brown University debt free. We’re changing lives! And we do that because it’s the right thing to do.”

The ILC in no way influences whether or not a student gets accepted to any particular college, but what they can do is get these kids as prepared as can be. “We do have influence as far as mentoring them, training them, and introducing them to people that do have influence, whether it’s members of the alumni association, or members that are on the board of trustees for a school, even the admissions officers.”

That kind of one-on-one support is what makes an ILC scholarship especially beneficial as, according to Gosney, the local school district doesn’t really have enough guidance counselors to meet the needs of the population. “When you’ve got to make an appointment to see your college guidance counselor and it’s 3-4 weeks to be able to see that person, what’s that tell you about just how much help you’re going to get?” he said. The ILC takes the time with their students to find the school that’s right for them. “We help them with any school that they apply to,” he said. “Our push has never been to get them to apply to, or get into, Ivy League schools. It’s to open up their opportunity so they make an informed decision; to find that perfect fit.”

Every fall, Gosney goes to West County’s high schools to make a presentation about preparing for college and explains what the ILC can offer. The biggest surprise is usually when he tells the students just how many colleges are out there. “When I mention to them we’ve got 3,600 universities in the United States they’re just shocked,” he said. “They’re totally unaware that there are so many other opportunities out there for them.” And the ILC certainly qualifies as one of those great opportunities as well.

“With the exception of personal items (toothpaste, souvenirs and the like), the ILC pays for 100% of this experience,” said Gosney. “For students that are on the free and reduced lunch program (or should be), the ILC even gives the students a daily stipend so they have walking-around money in their pockets.” And to take it even further, Gosney personally has about $10,000 worth of loaner items to help these students making the move to college, including laptops, backpacks, bed sheets, blankets, ponchos, flash drives, and luggage—basically any need that the scholarship recipients can’t meet will be met by the ILC.

Eligibility requirements are pretty simple: you must have at least a 3.75 GPA, and be a junior or senior enrolled in the WCCUSD. The application process consists of writing a few brief essays, submitting transcripts and test scores, and then a carefully selected number of applicants will be interviewed by a panel of community volunteers. They still have to apply to college, but the Gosney, aka the ILC, will be there to help them with every step of the process.

For more information you can contact Don at (510) 233-2060 or visit ivyleagueconnection.org. Gosney truly believes that all of the ILC’s students could have figured out this college thing on their own, but of course, “we’re going to take as much credit as we can get away with.”

Tropical Smoothie Café: Your Local Source for Leading a Healthier Life!

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By Vickie Lewis

It’s a proven fact that when we eat healthy foods, we generally feel better. We typically have more energy, and healthier foods just seem to sustain us for longer periods of time.  Although most fast food establishments have attempted to integrate healthier options into their menus, very often the hamburgers, French fries, and milkshakes win out over the salads and healthier choices.  Well now, there’s a new local venue that offers exclusively fast, healthy options—Tropical Smoothie Café!  Located in the new commercial development on Pinole Valley Road, Tropical Smoothie Café specializes in smoothies and fresh, healthy food options such as sandwiches, wraps, bowls and flatbreads.  Although this restaurant opened in early April 2017, it’s possible that you like me, have driven down Pinole Valley Road numerous times and never noticed the café

Tropical Smoothie Café in Pinole is one of 610 such cafes across the United States.  Most of stores are located east of the Mississippi River, where they are extremely popular with their customers.  The Pinole location is one of only ten Tropical Smoothie Cafes in California, and its only northern counterpart is located in Rocklin.   The original business started in the early 1990’s as a beach shack on the southern Florida peninsula which sold only smoothies. The success and popularity of that small business eventually gained the attention of corporate investors, and the first Tropical Smoothie Café franchise location was opened in 1997 in Tallahassee, Florida.  In 1999, the menu was expanded to include food items, such as sandwiches and wraps.  Now, nearly 20 years later, Tropical Smoothie Café’s menu includes a full range of smoothies—including superfood smoothies, classic smoothies, indulgent smoothies—as well as smoothie supplements that can be added for a nominal cost; in addition to the healthy food items previously mentioned.  There is also a small (but mighty!) breakfast menu that is available all day, and a special kid’s menu.

Pinole franchise owner, Gary Wagner, explains that while TSC’s menu is not “health food”, it promotes a healthy lifestyle.  The focus is serving products made from organic fresh fruits and vegetables which are delivered several times weekly from their distributor and/or are hand selected by Gary from local sources.  This ensures that customers are served smoothies and food items made of only the highest quality and freshest ingredients.   Tropical Smoothie Cafes across the country promote the same menu and serve the same high quality food smoothies so customers will enjoy a consistent experience.  The nutritional values of all smoothies and food items are prominently posted near the checkout counter for easy customer reference.

As Gary educated me about Tropical Smoothie Café, I was especially intrigued with his story of becoming a TSC franchise owner.  Gary is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and has spent his career working on financials in the business industry, spending most of his time sitting behind a computer for hours each day.  As his career in the white-collar industry matured, Gary began to reflect about his past, contemplating about when he had been happiest in his work life. He recalled his experiences as a younger man when he worked in the fast food locations such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds, and realized that he enjoyed the energy that surrounds the food services industry—working with mostly young co-workers and providing good customer service experiences.  So he decided to set about looking for a suitable franchise opportunity where he could re-engage in that which made him happiest.  He researched many opportunities, and traveled throughout the United States to evaluate those which he found of interest.  When Gary visited a Tropical Smoothie Café location for the first time, he really enjoyed the food quality, and knew he’d found something special.  The next challenge was to find a suitable location for his new endeavor, which was a fairly lengthy process, especially since Tropical Smoothie Café is not widely franchised in California, and therefore is not well-known.  The Pinole location was ultimately determined to be a suitable location and Gary’s aspiration became a reality!  Gary considers owning and operating Tropical Smoothie Café his hobby, and spends most of his free time working there alongside his staff.  He still periodically works as a corporate accounting consultant.

The bright, clean, and modern interior of the Tropical Smoothie Café is inviting and provides a casual and comfortable atmosphere.   Plenty of table and counter seating is available, flanked by colorful metal chairs and high stools.  Three-dimensional, beach-themed artwork adorns the walls—I especially like the one with the long wooden pier extending into the beautiful blue sea that hangs on the back wall, adding a dimension of depth to the interior of the café.  Ample interior lighting supplements the natural lighting from the floor-to-ceiling glass walls at the front and on one side of the café.  Large, colorful menu boards, featuring pictures of some of the delicious smoothies and food items, are prominently displayed behind the counter.  Ceiling fans keep the air circulating and comfortable for guests who choose to dine in.  All Tropical Smoothie Cafes across the nation feature identical decor to promote a consistent and familiar dining experience for customers regardless of the location they visit.

Not surprisingly, Tropical Smoothie Café does a robust smoothie business.  All smoothies are one size (BIG) measuring a full 24 ounces.  The prices range from $6.29 for Classic Smoothies to $6.99 for Specialty and Superfood Smoothies. For an additional $1.00, customers can request the addition of supplements, such as vitamin C-immune complex or vitamin B-12, various proteins, or a fat burner.  Also available for an additional $1.00 are fresh add-ins such as a spinach and kale super pack, peanut butter, chia sees, and several other options.  The menu boards (and the available paper menus) list the individual ingredients for each smoothie.  Modifications to remove selected ingredients or to substitute others are allowable for no additional charge.  All smoothies are made with turbinado sugar (i.e., made from sugar cane extract) unless otherwise noted or requested (Splenda substitute is available).  TSC’s signature smoothie (and the most popular) is the Island Green, which is made with spinach, kale, mango, pineapple and banana.  Another very popular choice is the Avcoloda, which is made with avocado, pineapple, spinach, kale, coconut and lime.  Gary described the flavor of this smoothie as a Pina Colada without the alcohol!

During my visit, I was treated to one of TSC’s Limited Time Offerings (LTO)—a Green Apple Matcha smoothie.  LTO’s are offered several times a year featuring specialties and seasonal options.  Gary made my smoothie, which included kale, spinach, basil, apples, lime and banana. I must admit that I was a little dubious about this combination of ingredients, but was open to trying something new. It was delicious!  I did not taste the spinach or kale at all, and the fruit flavors blended together were very tasty. I could detect just the slightest hint of the basil, but it enhanced the flavor of the smoothie, which was a pleasant combination of sweetness and tartness.  I enjoyed this smoothie so much that on a subsequent visit, I ordered it again.  I also had the opportunity to try another of the superfood smoothies during my visit—the Orange Ginger Glow.  This healthy concoction is made of mango, fresh ginger, green apple, pineapple, carrot and orange juice.  Based on reviews, this is a favorite of many customers; however, this blend of flavors was not as pleasing to me. I enjoy the taste of ginger, which was evident but not overpowering.  It was less sweet than the Green Apple Matcha, and so not quite as appealing; but I will admit that the flavor of it grew on me as I continued to drink it.  Gary’s personal favorite is the Chia Banana Boost, made with roasted bananas, chia seeds, almonds, whole grain oats, cinnamon, dates and coconut, with a choice of either peanut butter or strawberries. Gary explained that the roasted bananas enhance the flavor of this smoothie because when roasted, the sugars of the fruit bubble up providing a more intense taste.  A guest and I returned soon after this review, and I tried this smoothie with the strawberries and found it to be quite delicious, boasting a lovely fruity flavor with a hint of cinnamon. During that visit, my guest opted for a specialty smoothie, the Peanut Butter Cup, made with peanut butter, banana and chocolate.  This smoothie was thick and decadent, and had a luscious and delicious flavor—a perfect treat! When my daughter visited TSC, she ordered the Bahama Mama, a specialty smoothie made with strawberries, pineapple, white chocolate and coconut. She loved the taste of this smoothie, and said that the fruits were a perfect combination of flavors that together blended together to taste like a virgin Pina Colada.  She liked the Bahama Mama so much the first time that she ordered it again on her second visit!

There are many good things to say about the Tropical Smoothie Café food menu, not the least of which is that with the purchase of any food item, you can add any smoothie for $3.99!  I haven’t tried as many of the TSC food items as smoothies, but the items I have tried were really delicious.  Every flatbread, sandwich, wrap or bowl comes with your choice of chips, whole fruit, a portion of kale/apple slaw or a cookie.  You’ll find the chips and whole fruits displayed in baskets near the checkout counter.  Fruits include oranges, apples, and bananas, and the chip selections appear to be the more healthy options—including such items as baked Lays or Sun Chips.  Cookies are individually wrapped in cellophane bags and displayed on the counter, with several choices available, such as chocolate chip and snickerdoodles.  The kale/apple slaw is a popular choice with customers who have tried it; Gary said that many have asked that it be available as a fresh entrée-sized salad.  TSC currently offers two fresh salads in addition to the other items—Chicken Apple Spinach and Supergreen Caesar Chicken.  The last section of the menu features three all-day breakfast options—the Southwest Wrap, Bacon, Egg & Cheese Wrap, and a Peanut Butter Banana Crunch Flatbread which also includes granola and honey.   I am looking forward to trying this flatbread, as it sounds delicious, although it doesn’t look quite as appetizing as it sounds!  The hearty combination of a TSC breakfast item and a healthy smoothie is sure to sustain you for most of the day for a total cost of under $10.

Among the customer favorites from the TSC food menu are the Baja Chicken Wrap and the Chipotle Chicken Club Flatbread.  I had the opportunity to try the Chipotle Chicken Flatbread during my initial visit, and my daughter and I have eaten it again on two subsequent occasions.It is an excellent choice with a great flavor, made with fresh chicken, bacon, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayo.  Initially I expected the flatbread to actually be served “flat”; however, TSC’s flatbreads are served folded over, similar to a taco, which actually makes it easy to eat and/or share.  The bread was soft and perfectly toasted, and was filled a generous serving of chicken and the other ingredients.  The TSC Flatbreads are an excellent value, priced at $5.99.  The only other item from the menu that I’ve tried is the Thai Chicken Wrap, which also had an excellent flavor, although it was slightly smaller than I anticipated it would be. But the combination of ingredients made for a delicious meal.  Noteworthy is that TSC makes their own Thai peanut sauce which adds a bit of spiciness to this wrap/bowl.  In fact, they make all of the sauces and salsas used in the various food items, including the roasted pineapple salsa used in the Caribbean Jerk Chicken Wrap or Bowl.  TSC also has a unique option for vegetarians called “Beyond Meat”, which is a mix of various kinds of protein that looks and tastes like chicken!   This option is available upon request at no extra charge.  All food items are made fresh when ordered and may be eaten in or prepared “to go”.  Orders may also be phoned in or placed using the Tropical Smoothie Café online app.  TSC also has a Tropical Rewards app that awards frequent purchasers with $5 for every $55 spend-just another great reason to visit TSC and try their smoothies and food items.

At Tropical Smoothie Café in Pinole, Gary considers his customers to be family.  He loves seeing the smiles on their faces when they take their first sip of a smoothie or take a bite of one of the savory food items offered.  The café staff are like Gary’s “kids” as he hires a lot of young people to give them job experience and opportunities to develop skills that will benefit them in the future.  Business is steadily growing at TSC, and on the day of my visit, I watched customers steadily stream in starting around 11:00 to purchase both food and smoothies.  TSC opens every day at 7:00 AM, and while business usually doesn’t pick up until later in the day, Gary is hoping to build the early morning business, believing that customers will benefit from a healthy start to their day.  Closing hours are currently 9:00 PM during the week, and 10:00 on weekends; however, winter closing hours may be reduced slightly.

I highly recommend adding Tropical Smoothie Café to you list of favorite places to stop in for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or simply to try one of their scrumptious smoothies.  First responders and military personnel always get 15% off their purchases, and local schools can also work with Gary and his team to run TSC fundraisers.  Gary will work with school representatives to provide artwork and produce flyers to send home with students, and 20% of all sales on a designated day will go back to the school organization.  Spring, summer, winter or fall, and whether it is night or day, there’s always a reason to visit the Tropical Smoothie Café!


1424 Pinole Valley Road, Pinole  |   (510) 417-2245  |  tropicalsmoothiecafe.com

Hours:  Sunday – Thursday 7:00 AM – 9:00 PM  |  Friday & Saturday 7:00 AM – 10:00 PM

Climate Change – Robin D. Lopez embodies the importance of allowing yourself to evolve


By Matt Larson

No matter where or how you grew up, at the end of the day it’s up to you to make the best of it. Step 1: Embrace the fact that you can’t do it alone. Born in Oakland and raised in San Pablo and Richmond, Robin D. López didn’t always see the brightest future for himself, but he discovered a passion for science that led him on a pathway of success.

But it came at a cost. Growing up, López had many friends who ended up murdered or incarcerated, and after the suicide of his best friend, López dropped out of college and fell into a deep depression with no end in sight. But one day he woke up and decided that enough was enough; that he wasn’t living the life his friend would have wanted for him. Multiple professors from Contra Costa College had kept in touch with López during this time, and that continued support convinced him to reenroll. He soon dropped his bad habits, dropped the negative people in his life, and became more family-centric. The biggest turning point for López was learning to allow himself to be vulnerable.

“I allowed myself to finally start taking advice from my father, to finally start hearing out my mother, and to enjoy these moments with my nieces and nephews,” said this uncle of 10 with an 11th on the way. “I allowed myself to be mentored and guided, and it’s paid off tremendously.”

While attending Contra Costa College in 2012 he landed an internship at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. His task was to help map out fault zones by analyzing groundwater flow as part of a joint project with the U.S. Department of Energy and the Japanese Government. He loved the nature of working at the Lab—never knowing how the day will turn out, constantly being challenged to think differently. His passionate attitude didn’t go unnoticed, and before he knew it they offered him a job. “It kind of threw me off,” he recalls. “It’s one thing to be interning at one of the most prestigious research facilities in the world; it’s another thing to be working there as an employee. So every day, I’m just very grateful.”

In 2015 López graduated from San Francisco State with an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering. He now attends San Jose State pursuing his masters in Water Resources Engineering—an interest that began with his internship at the Berkeley Lab—and after having just been awarded the coveted National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship he’s now eyeing a Ph.D., as that Fellowship would allow him to become a fully funded Ph.D. student at any school of his choosing. Meanwhile, he continues working as a Research Associate in the Berkeley Lab’s Hydrogeology Department analyzing permafrost samples from the arctic in order to better understand climate change.

“I do not for one second forget where I came from or forget how I got here,” he tells us. “We grow up believing that we have to abide by these predetermined boundary conditions imposed by society … It’s a given that students and youth in this area are subjected to questionable outcomes, and are not afforded the same resources and opportunities as other neighboring regions, but that shouldn’t stop us from having goals; from wanting to do something.”

Still living in Richmond, López has become a role model for youth in West County. He’s actively inspiring others as a mentor for 4th and 5th graders via the Metas program at Contra Costa College; as one of the lead organizers of the March for Science in San Francisco; as the keynote speaker of the 8th Annual Northern California Summit on Children & Youth at the Richmond Community Foundation earlier this year…the list goes on and on.

Despite all he’s achieved thus far, López has big plans and is really just getting started. To follow his journey to the the top you can find RobinTheScienceGuy on Twitter @RichmondLyfe, and visit his website at robindlopez.com for some informative videos and more, as we’ve barely scratched the tip of the López iceberg.

Feathered Friends – It’s time to learn a little more about our high-flying neighbors

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By Matt Larson

It’s easy to take our amazing world for granted. The beautiful trees and animals all seem to have things pretty much figured out, so why worry about them? They’ll be fine. Or will they … What we do in our daily lives can have a direct impact on the wildlife around us. We may never see the consequences of our actions, which is why Jenny Papka, Director of Native Bird Connections in Contra Costa County, is here to remind us that we’re not alone on this planet.

Papka is the caretaker for 15 nonreleasable birds of prey who she partners with for educational programming. Except for one of them which is captive bred, all of her birds have been physically impaired to the point where they may seem healthy at first glance, but still cannot be safely released back into the wild. So instead she brings them out to festivals, schools, senior centers, garden clubs and more—including the Pinole Garden Club and Prospect Sierra School in El Cerrito—to help educate the public about the wild world around them.

“I’m a bridge between the general public and wildlife,” said Papka. “I partner with these birds and we educate audiences not only about what they are, but how they have challenges in their life, and how our actions influence those challenges.” Before confirming an appearance, Papka always makes it very clear that she is not bringing these birds for entertainment, but for an educational, informative session, with lots of Q&A.

She has hawks, eagles, falcons and owls, including a bald eagle and a golden eagle. She only takes about three of them with her per event, as she wants to leave plenty of time available for questions. “I’m not a person that relays a lot of facts, it’s more about the personal aspect of the life of these animals,” said Papka. “I encourage lots of questions. We go through that with all the birds we bring. By that time an hour has flown by!” Pun intended.

While meeting Papka and her birds in person is the best way to dive deep into the lives of these majestic animals, there are some things we can do now, on our own, to help protect them. One of the biggest ways she suggests we can make a change is to stop using poisons in our yard; rat poison especially. “Rodents are like chocolate—everybody eats them!” By everybody, she means not just birds, but coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions and more. “By making a personal choice to stop using poison you’re actually helping a whole host of animals.”

Another amazing thing you can do is create a welcoming habitat in your yard for birds to live. Birds like American kestrels, chickadees, woodpeckers, even bees, need a cavity to nest. “We don’t often leave old trees up so there’s a shortage of cavities out there,” said Papka. “One of the best cavity nesters around is a barn owl. They’re nature’s mouse-o-matic! So encouraging barn owls to live on your property means you’ve got a double whammy—you’re helping the barn owl by creating habitat, and you’re enlisting nature’s natural rodent patrol right there in your own yard.”

Papka is truly doing us all a service by sharing the lives of these birds with us, and feeding, state/federal permits, and maintenance aren’t cheap. “Income is always a challenge with nonprofits,” she explains. “We have some small sponsorships and get support from the Mount Diablo Audubon Society and Wild Birds Unlimited, but essentially we rely on donations from people like you!”

If you’d like to invite Papka and her birds to your school, organization, or an upcoming event, or would like to donate to her cause, give her a call at (925) 963-9753 or visit http://www.nativebirds.org. And you won’t find many companies like this! “There’s only a handful of us that do this,” she said. “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do, not because we’re making a lot of money. We’re very careful to walk our talk and make this not about us.”

Los Cenzontles

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By Jade Shojaee

Tucked away in a Richmond strip mall, the chords of Cancion Rancheras spill from the modest walls of Los Cenzontles, and bring pause to locals, busy with groceries to check off their lists and tanks to fill up with gas. But mundanity doesn’t stop this group, hungry for the joy of community-come together in the name of traditional Mexican-American art and culture.

The center began with Eugene Rodriguez’s vision to “positively affect the lives of young people and inspire other communities to invest in their local culture and local families.”

“I grew up in a family in which we played music at parties,” said Rodriguez. “Both Mexican music and American pop music. It is a wonderful way to learn music, express yourself and connect to your family. So I started Los Cenzontles to provide that experience to other young people.”

Rodriguez, who has a Bachelors and Masters degree in music from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in Classical guitar performance, started the youth program at Los Cenzontles in 1987. He has produced countless albums, including his production of ‘Papa’s Dream’ a bilingual recording with Los Lobos and Lalo Guerrero which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Musical Album for Children. “It was a great honor to be able to work with Los Lobos, my musical heroes, and the legendary Lalo Guerrero on that project,” he said. “The Grammy nomination was icing on the cake.”

The Los Cenzontles community, under the expertise of Rodriguez, have also produced several documentaries for the Cultures of Mexico in California series. They have produced three one-hour documentaries about the role of tradition, identity and culture, as well as hundreds of video shorts that are featured on the Los Cenzontles YouTube Channel.

This past July, the group released their newest documentary, Conexiones: Los Cenzontles en Cuba, A Musical Journey of Connection, a 52 minute film highlighting Los Cenzontles’ recent trip to Cuba. The film explores the underbelly of Cuban life and culture, and its historic connection to Mexico.

“Los Cenzontles in a cultural arts academy, a performing group, and a media maker,” said Rodriguez.

18-year old Verenice Velazquez recalled starting Zapateado classes in the style of Jalisco, at Los Cenzontles (the name of both the band and of the center) once a week when she was seven years old. “I remember waiting for Monday to come because it was the day of my class,” said Velazquez. “The dance classes were my foundation at Los Cenzontles. As I continued, the maestros handed me percussion instruments to play, as well as string instruments, and introduced me to singing.”

At 12, Velazquez started traveling with the touring group (the band Los Cenzontles) to local performances in LA, Yosemite, and the Monterey Bay, to dance and play percussion instruments with the band.

Los Cenzontles (Nahuatl for “The Mockingbirds”) is the in-house band and the namesake of the organization. With some 20 albums under their belt, the band creates “hybrid-Chicana sounds for the new generation.” They have performed across the U.S., in Europe, the Dominican Republic, and throughout Mexico, often accompanied by students of the youth program whose “participation enhance our program,” said Rodriguez.

During the summer, Velazquez interns in the Los Cenzontles office and teaches Jarana (a traditional guitar from Veracruz) and dance classes in the style of Jarocho and Jalisco. Come fall, she will be back on campus at UC Davis, double majoring in Mathematics and Urban Studies and Planning in hopes of pursuing a career in city planning, design, architecture, and/or nonprofits. “Los Cenzontles has really helped me expand my skills through the arts,” she said. “The attention and dedication I needed to learn everything I did was transferred to my engagements outside of the center, such as with my education. I really hope to stay involved with Los Cenzontles in one way or another.”

“I hope that our work will continue to raise the level of appreciation that people have for the dignity and beauty of Mexican American culture,” said Rodriquez.

Visit the center at 13108 San Pablo Ave San Pablo, CA 94805 or online at loscenzontles.com

Eclectic Explorations


By Matt Larson

Two of the most unique museums around are like neighbors here in Crockett

Need some more culture in your life? Well Crockett may be the place for you. Might not have been the first place on your mind, but this little town of 6.5 thousand has a long history in the Bay Area that goes deeper than the C&H Sugar marquee that has brightened our evenings for as long as we can remember. We’d like to highlight two very unique places to visit in Crockett that conveniently happen to be right around the corner from each other: The Crockett Historical Museum, and the Bailey Art Museum.

As different as these two attractions may be, they have one very important thing in common—they’re each only open two days per week! The Crockett Historical is open Wednesdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the Bailey is open every Saturday and Sunday afternoon from 1-5 p.m. So, naturally, we suggest visiting on Saturday so you can see both places, even though they both open their doors throughout the week for advanced group reservations.

At this writing the Crockett Historical Museum has an exhibit on the Crockett Club, which was a recreational center that used to be in town complete with a swimming pool, bowling alley and rifle range. It’s a temporary exhibit that’s been attracting former members of the Club to come and reminisce. Some of their permanent exhibits include a military section, a C&H Sugar section, pictures of all the John Swett High School graduation photos since the beginning—it’s a pretty eclectic mix.

“It’s a way of celebrating the present by remembering the past,” said Erin Mullen Brosnan, Vice President of the Crockett Historical Society. “This is a very low-key, funky, kind of quirky museum.” They actually attract more visitors from out of town, as local residents can go visit anytime! So then they never do. But you may be surprised at what you’ll find here.

Perhaps their biggest attraction, no pun intended, is housing the world record for the largest sturgeon caught with a fishing rod, which weighed in at 460 pounds and measured in at 9’6” long. They also have a scale model of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul created by a man in the 1940’s while in a sanitarium recovering from tuberculosis. Crockett was also the last town in California to have a manual telephone exchange, so if you want to see how Vallejo connected to Santa Rosa back in the day, this is one of their interactive exhibits that even the kids can play on.

Just down the street the Bailey Art Museum is in a world all its own. Most people visiting for the first time often say they’ve never seen anything like it before. “We started our museum idea several years ago when we found a bigfoot skeleton,” said Clayton Bailey. “It’s a large humanoid; we studied the books and decided the closest animal to it was a bigfoot.” They discovered it in the hills of Port Costa, it’s traveled to major universities as far as Alaska and nobody has yet to repudiate their claim.

Clayton, his wife Betty, and their son Kurt all have their artwork on display here. You can forage into the Robot Room where Clayton’s life-sized robotic creations can be found, Betty makes pictures with colored pencils of stories that she imagines or has told to her, and their son makes drawings of monsters which are aptly referred to as monsterpieces. “Our whole attitude is to make a museum of interesting, odd, entertaining artwork,” Clayton said. “We try to give you something to think about; something to wonder about.” At only $5 admission it’s beyond worth it.

For more information on both of these very rare finds, visit the Bailey Art Museum at 325 Rolph Ave., Crockett, make group reservations at (510) 787-1168 or head to http://www.claytonbailey.com/rolph.htm. To visit or volunteer at the volunteer-run Crocket Historical Museum head to 900 Loring Ave., Crockett, call (510) 787-2178, or visit http://www.crockettmuseum.org. Enjoy a day of exploration in Crockett!

A Brief History of the Solano Avenue Stroll

Doug Donaldson, Albany CA (1).jpgBy Allen Cain

The Solano Avenue Stroll was organized in 1974 as a ‘thank-you’ party for customers by the Thousand Oaks Merchant Association led by Lisa Burnham and Ira Klein.  The Stroll took place on the very west end of Solano Avenue in Berkeley as a sidewalk sale on a Friday evening. Perhaps about a hundred people came together in the early days to create and eventually expand the sidewalk event, including Carl Brodsky, Emmett Eiland, Sue Johnson and later, Dolly Walker, Rosemary Burns and Kathy Lee. Membership dues then: $35.00.

While the Avenue eventually closed to traffic by the 1980s, the Solano Stroll was still a neighborhood event drawing small crowds, now on a Sunday afternoon. The event had lost its direction. It now featured beer, loud free rock bands and mostly closed shops. The Stroll was about to be discontinued by the late 1980s when new leadership emerged to take the Stroll in a different direction. The Solano Avenue Association achieved its non-profit status in 1983.

Robert Cheasty is credited with leading the Solano Avenue Stroll and the Association in this new direction, creating the Association and the Stroll as we know them today. The year before he took over as President of the Solano Avenue Association, the Stroll drew about 15,000 people and only about half of the Avenue was closed. Alcohol related disturbances and arrests were not uncommon. Robert created a five-year plan to professionalize the Association and write a new tone and direction for the Stroll. An Executive Director was hired and major changes were implemented to the Stroll: eliminating alcohol sales, vastly improving the entertainment, encouraging artists’ participation, greater engagement with the Cities of Berkeley and Albany, greater merchant participation and the controversial step of bringing in outside booths, vendors and community groups to the Stroll. Over the five years the stroll grew to about almost 200,000. It has continued to increase to its current size of about 300,000.

Within a couple of years, in 1989, Lisa Bullwinkel joined as Executive Director (the third one in as many years). As an artist and event producer herself, Lisa fully embraced and encouraged the new direction. She skillfully directed the changes and improvements and brought a greater awareness of the value of art and performance to the events. She escalated the recruitment of the highest quality performers and of artisans for the booths. Over the next sixteen years Lisa also increased the SAA’s involvement with other business associations, community organizations and governmental entities to enhance communications and the influence of SAA in the region.

This was a period of growth with expected growing pains. The Stroll became increasingly more expensive to produce, and not enough merchants participated. “It was still difficult to create the feel of a street festival when there were dead pockets with no activity up and down the Avenue” recalled Robert Cheasty.  “We had to push the merchants to participate, to keep their stores open on the day of the Stroll. Eventually we convinced the Board to allow outside vendor booths and organizations to fill the empty spots.” With only about half of the merchants staying open on Stroll day, the Association finally brought in outside vendors under the condition that nothing would compete with the existing merchant group and that they be vetted for quality.

This bolstered the income of the Stroll (offsetting the loss from eliminating alcohol sales). Equally important, the outside vendors (and additional high quality entertainers) solved the problem of dead spaces along the Avenue – the Stroll buzzed from top to bottom. The Stroll finally paying for itself.

Fast forward: Today the Stroll draws 300,000 people over the course of the day. It takes about 600 staff hours to produce the event, plus hundreds of additional hours of volunteer time. The event expenses exceed $50,000. It is one of four events in the entire United States and Canada that operates in two separate municipalities simultaneously.

The Solano Avenue Stroll hosts about 75 performing groups, 150 arts and crafts booths, 150 non-profit organizations, and almost 50 food booths. The non-profit organizations include libraries, scout troops, humane societies, and more. There is a “green zone” for environmental organizations, a strong presence of faith booths and most elected officials in the area come and stay to talk with friends and constituents. All of these groups rely heavily on the exposure the Solano Avenue Stroll provides and consider it a key annual activity in marketing themselves. Ninety-two percent of them attend repeatedly each year.

In the year 2000, the Solano Avenue Stroll became an official “Local Legacy,” installed into the United States Library of Congress with the help of Congresswoman Barbara Lee. The Solano Avenue Stroll “celebrates America’s rich diverse culture.”

This Stroll is family friendly – safe, “smoke-free” with no alcohol sales, and a “Kids Town” with lots for little ones to do. There are very few police incidents the day of the event, mostly lost children. The street is virtually spotless the following Monday, and “restored” within 48 hours.

The Stroll draws locals and “out-of-towners”. On the east end, the Stroll is referred to as “Berkeley’s Reunion” and on the west end much of Albany turns out. Both ends are united by the festive Parade that starts at the top of the street with dancers, bands, floats and kids kicking off the Stroll. Solano Avenue merchants benefit from the exposure to 300,000 potential customers who see Solano’s products and services. While not everyone sees an immediate boost in sales that day, ripples from the event continue for months. (Source: Office of Economic Development, City of Berkeley.)

The SAA takes meticulous efforts in producing the Stroll. The membership pays to produce it and the money pulled in from the Stroll is put to events that benefit Solano Avenue and the surrounding community throughout the rest of the year. We require little support from either the City of Albany or the City of Berkeley to sustain ourselves as an organization.

The Solano Avenue Association Board of Directors is comprised of fifteen volunteers who have business or professional interests on Solano Avenue (or within one block of it). They meet (at least) every other Tuesday and work continuously to make Solano a street that serves its community. Solano Avenues is the antidote to sprawl – it brings a sense of vitality to the urban core. The Solano Stroll celebrates that vitality.

Despite its magnitude, 300,000 people leave the Solano Stroll with a smile on their face at the end of the day. They have had another good day — and they know the Solano Avenue Stroll is an event that gives back to the community.

El Sobrante Opens New Downtown Park

Park Site After

By Maurice Abraham

Are you attending the El Sobrante Stroll on September 17th? Then also plan a visit to El Sobrante’s newest public park…just across the Appian Way bridge…and be prepared for a pleasant surprise! Some five years in the works, this welcoming new public place is scheduled to be open by Stroll day. The new park, located directly behind the existing library and adjacent to San Pablo Creek, includes significant new improvements to the grounds around the library, including long-overdue parking lot rehabilitation.

A key feature of the new park is its brick-paved terrace overlooking San Pablo Creek. This beautiful new space, with its oval configuration, wide arcing stair steps and raised ‘stage’ platform, functions as both a casual outdoor gathering place and a mini-amphitheater.

Anticipated uses of the terrace/amphitheater are endless, ranging from outdoor meetings and open-mic readings, to small performances and private events such as birthdays and weddings.  While the terrace/amphitheater space is available for general public use, scheduling of its use for organized events will be managed by Library staff.

Other improvements include new library entrance features with ADA access upgrades, new street-front sidewalks and considerable new landscaping. Much of the new landscaping features native plants, as does the native plant demonstration garden developed and maintained by the SPAWNERS (San Pablo Creek Watershed Neighbors Education and Restoration Society) volunteers. The existing Memorial Rose Garden has been preserved as have the tiled benches featuring student art.

A memorial plaque honoring former El Sobrante Attorney and community leader, Robert N. Sharp, is also being added. For over forty years, Bob was active in multiple efforts aimed at community improvement and guiding El Sobrante’s future. In the early 2000s he led the 94803 Task Force to develop a new plan for the downtown. Many of the key ideas in the Task Force plan were incorporated in the newest downtown plan adopted in 2013.

Planning for the new downtown park was initiated in March 2013 by Supervisor John Gioia with the creation of an Ad-Hoc Downtown Park Task Force. After considering multiple downtown sites, the County-owned library site was selected because it eliminated land acquisition hurdles and was seen as an opportunity to integrate the existing Children’s reading Garden, the SPAWNERS native plant garden and underutilized portions of the site into a comprehensive overall park design.

Funding for the park came from the County’s existing park dedication fee fund and the East Bay Regional Park District’s Measure WW program, a combined total of approximately $1.1 million.

Measure WW, which made funding available to local governments for high priority community park projects, was approved by voters in Alameda and Contra Costa counties in November 2008. The measure extended Measure AA, approved in 1988, to help the Park District meet the increasing demand to preserve open space for recreation and wildlife habitat.

El Sobrante Valley residents are excited to have this new venue for small outdoor events, and anticipate it’s becoming a popular community gathering place.

About the Author: Maurice Abraham is a retired community planning and development consultant and active El Sobrante resident. He is a Board member of the El Sobrante Chamber of Commerce and Citizens for a Greener El Sobrante, and a cofounder of the El Sobrante Historical Society. He resided in El Sobrante from 1946 to 1969, relocated to San Jose to pursue his career and, with his wife Jeannie, returned in 2003.