Fix our Ferals

fof logo cat

By Jeannie Howard

Starting with a desire to lessen the suffering of kittens in her community, Linda McCormick founded Fix Our Ferals, a community-based, non-profit organization with the goal to humanely reduce the cat population in the East Bay region.

“Linda got into working with cats accidentally, like most of us do,” said Dairne Ryan, long-time volunteer and board member with Fix Our Ferals. “She was taking walks in one of our East Bay regional parks and saw some kittens eating out of dumpsters. She felt really bad about it and started feeding them.”

Ryan described how this simple action led to McCormick connecting with a few local organizations in the East Bay who were working with feral cats, and began learning about their efforts to help the cat population. McCormick began trapping cats to take them to her veterinarian to be spayed and neutered, a practice known as trap-neuter-return (TNR), and would then adopt out any kittens she could socialize.

TNR is a practice that simply involves trapping cats from a colony and bringing them in to be spayed or neutered and then, once they have recovered, they are released back to their colony. When done in mass volume, Ryan said that this is how to reduce the feral cat population humanely.

“Linda paid for a lot of spays and neuters out of her own pocket, but she wanted to find a way to help the rescue community who were doing this and paying for all of it with their own money,” Ryan described.

After connecting with the Feral Cat Coalition, an organization in San Diego doing high volume clinics to spay and neuter cats, McCormick started Fix Our Ferals in Berkeley in 1998 with a dedicated group of volunteers and a $10,000 grant from the city of Berkeley.

“The mayor and a couple of city council members in Berkeley were really in favor of finding humane and effective approaches to the feral cat population.” Ryan described how, with that initial grant from the city, McCormick was able to establish clinics run entirely by volunteers, including the veterinarians. While the city of Berkeley had put a restriction on the start-up grant that she could only service the feral cats from within Berkeley during the first year, McCormick was not only able to get the residences of Berkeley active in the cause but word of what she was doing quickly spread to surrounding areas.

“For about eleven years we ran bi-monthly high volume clinics. We had to hold the clinics on Sundays because that’s the day the vet offices we would borrow were closed,” Ryan recalled.

McCormick also set up an externship program with the vet school students at the University of California, Davis.  For several years the bi-monthly clinics had veterinarian school students helping as surgery assistants and doing anesthesia. “They loved it because they were getting hands-on experience they weren’t getting on campus in those days and we loved it because we were exposing the young students to the issues of community cats,” Ryan said. “They came and saw that these cats were like any other cat. Today], many of the vets who are in practice in our community developed sensibilities about compassion for these feral cats by volunteering at our clinic.”

The clinics grew from fixing 32 cats at their first clinic to more than 200 per clinic.  And demand for Fix Our Ferals went beyond what the roaming clinics could sustain. After moving from location to location, the organization found their permanent home in 2012 with the help of generous donations from community members who believed in their work and a $75,000 PetSmart Charities grant, Ryan said.

“The cats are getting wonderful high-quality care. We want that for our pets, but for those of us who work with free roaming cats and know that  after surgery they are going back out on the streets to their colonies we believe it is essential they receive the best care possible,” Ryan said.

The free roaming cats are not only fixed, but they are also vaccinated, micro chipped and treated for fleas. “We do everything that we can in that one sitting to make sure they get the best treatment possible,” said Ryan.

The clinic also provides veterinary services to pet cats at a slightly higher fee than for the free-roaming cats.

Fix Our Ferals has since become a model for other organizations looking to provide similar services throughout the Bay Area. With a website full of useful information, they serve as a resource to citizens wanting to help the cause.

“We lend out traps to people and provide detailed instructions how to trap the cats,” Ryan said. “I think we really are a unique community resource in West Contra Costa that just wasn’t available before.”

Increasing the number of spays and neuters to reduce effectively reduce the free roaming cat population, and continuing to educate residents throughout the the East Bay  is a main focus for those at Fix Our Ferals, according to Ryan.

“We want to change the community standard so that our community understands that a fixed animal, whether you care about animals or not, is the best thing for animals and for reducing the population, to reduce suffering and end euthanasia at our shelters” she said. “Feeding a stray cat isn’t enough. If you really care, fixing the cat is critically important because that is how to prevent more little kittens from living out on the streets and suffering.”

Advertisements

De Anza High School “Fix It Day”

deanza

By Jade Shojaee | Photo Credit:  Ben Gill

Four times a year, community members take their broken, slow, and old computers to De Anza High School in Richmond to be fixed for free by students of the Information Technology Academy (ITA) on what the school refers to as “Fix It Day”. The West Contra Costa Unified School District has developed a series of comprehensive high school pathway programs in which students modify their educations based on their preferred career pathway. Too good to be true? The stats prove otherwise with some 98% of enrolled seniors receiving diplomas in the 2016/2017 school year.

“Every one of our students is involved in a pathway,” said Information Technology Academy’s Pathway Lead Teacher Ben Gill. 10th grade students choose a pathway, which is essentially a series of work-based learning opportunities that inform the entirety of each student’s education, and they stay together as one class throughout the high school experience. “It allows us to create a small learning community where students can get to know teachers on a deeper level and work together on bigger collaborative projects. It’s a school within a school.”

Students form what Gill refers to as “student cohorts,” or high school communities in which students are able to grow their preferred skill with the support and camaraderie of a close group of peers. According to Gill, this creates a mentor/friend type relationship between teachers and their students. “Teachers are able to meet collaboratively on a weekly basis, and since we all have that same students we can troubleshoot and provide support in a way that would be harder in a traditional school system.”

De Anza’s Information Technology Academy started in 2009 after the California Partnership Academy (CPA) received a grant enabling them to implement the program. The program is funded under an SB70 state program that, according to Gill, is taking the place of vocational education.” We’re looking to bridge that gap between academic education and career vocational training,” said Gill. “When I was in high school classes weren’t aligned in any matter, so kids could take woodshop and other classes as they see fit. The program now merges academic and technical classes.”

The district works with several community partners in order to provide an optimal and cohesive preview into a life in each potential career “pathway,” one of which is Linked Learning, an approach to education based on the idea that students work harder and dream bigger if their education is relevant to them. The Linked Learning approach integrates rigorous academics that meet college-ready standards with sequenced, high-quality career-technical education, work-based learning, and supports to help students stay on track.

“The West Contra Costa County Unified School District has been working for a number of years to establish high quality Linked Learning pathways and to systematically advance Linked Learning opportunities for students in the East Bay,” said Hilary McLean, Executive Vice President of Linked Learning. For Linked Learning students, education is organized around industry-sector themes that are woven curricula. Teachers collaborate with working professionals to ensure the classes are current and relevant.

“The IT Academy is a great exemplar of a Linked Learning pathway,” said McLean. “The data shows that this approach to education is making a real difference in the lives of students who are participating, by helping the students gain real-world experience through internships, as well as career and college knowledge and preparation. We hope to see pathways like the IT Academy flourish and improve the futures of students throughout the state.”

This past school year, the department spearheaded an effort to secure free Wi-Fi for the school. “English students helped write up the grant proposal and did case studies on where stuff like that had been implemented throughout the community,” said Gill. Just one example of how the program manages to keep common core curricula relevant to each chosen career pathway.

As it stands, the ITA at De Anza is about 35% female and 65% male. “Not as good as I’d like it to be,” said Gill who is making efforts to see female enrollment increases including partnering with an organization called Girls Who Code which actively recruits girls to enter into the STEM Worldwide Organization. The program also provides training materials and hackathons at which students can come together to work on a coding problem over the weekend. “It provides networking opportunities for girls to network with other girls.”

“My experience in the ITA academy was one to remember,” said Antonette Robinson, former ITA student. “I never knew girls could be so fluent in the industry. I always had this image of men in the tech field. That’s something I no longer picture. I got to go on trips that opened my eyes to new opportunities. Now that I am out of the academy I am trying to figure out how to further my education.” Robinson currently studies at Dev Bootcamp for coding.

“I’ve definitely seen our female enrollment increase steadily since I’ve been here,” said Gill. “You hear girls talking about opportunities studying computer science and electrical engineering. When I was in high school, it definitely wasn’t that way.”

Born and raised in raised in Richmond, Gill currently lives in Stockton and commutes to his hometown to teach. “I’ve turned down teaching jobs in Central Valley and do this commute every day because of the connection I have with these kids in this community.”

“Fix It Days” concluded for this year on Saturday May 28th but come October, there will be more opportunities to receive the complimentary IT help at De Anza High School’s cafeteria. Visit http://wccusdpathways.org/information-technology-de-anza-high-school/

You can also Contact Ben at dahsitlead@wccusd.net

Anh’s Kitchen – Modern Viet Eats

Sampler Platter 1-Pork Chops, Five Spice Chicken, Short Ribs

By Vickie Lewis

What better way to honor your mother’s passion for cooking than to open a restaurant named after her, and for her family to work alongside her at the business? That’s exactly what Shelly Nguyen Ha and Cindy Ha did for their mother, Anh, when they opened Anh’s Kitchen on July 23, 2016 in the plaza located just off of the Willow Avenue freeway exit off of Highway 80 in Hercules. Anh’s Kitchen occupies the former Quizno’s Sandwich Shop location in the plaza, just behind Starbucks Coffee.

Shelly and Cindy each have full time jobs in Investment Banking and Accounting, respectively. However, the sisters also share their mother’s love of cooking and overall fascination with food. They’d long contemplated opening a family business, and seized the opportunity to do so when space in this plaza in Hercules became available. As they prepare to celebrate their first business anniversary in July, head chef, Anh, and her family, have garnered quite a following of repeat customers who enjoy the phenomenal tastes of native Vietnamese dishes that Anh has perfected over the years.

Anh is the mother of five children—Shelly being the oldest, and Cindy, the youngest.  In between the two girls are three brothers who are not directly affiliated with Anh’s Kitchen. The family is Chinese, and Anh and her husband emigrated from Vietnam in 1980 when Shelly was a young girl, moving around a bit before finally settling in the US.  Here, Shelly’s father worked in construction, and Anh initially worked in a sewing factory, having learned that trade from her father. Eventually, Anh opened a sandwich shop/deli in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, and worked there for 15 years until a real estate boom, during which her landlord wouldn’t renew her lease. Thereafter, she fulfilled her love of cooking by working in Vietnamese restaurants in SF for the next nine years, prior to the opening of the restaurant in Hercules.

Anh’s Kitchen is a small, casual dine-in and take out restaurant. The inside décor is light and simple, featuring Vietnamese baskets on one wall, and subtle pictures of bamboo on the other. There is table and chair seating for approximately 32 guests, which includes a couple of outdoor tables. The small kitchen sits adjacent to the dining area, so the aromas of the food being prepared waft throughout the restaurant, to the enjoyment of the patrons. The atmosphere is pleasant and friendly, and guests are greeted promptly upon arrival.

My guest and I visited on a Sunday afternoon as the after-church crowd was waning. Anh, Shelly and Cindy were all busy cooking when we arrived, but we were greeted promptly by Bill, Cindy’s fiancé, who works full time at Anh’s kitchen. We were seated across from the kitchen area and soon were sipping on wonderfully cool Thai Iced Tea, which is made with Black Tea and Cream. As we waited for the opportunity to interview the family, we noticed a large plate of food on the table behind us, and hoped we hadn’t interrupted the workers’ lunch break. Bill informed us that the dish was one of Shelly’s creations that is not currently on the menu. When Shelly emerged from the kitchen area, she referred to the dish as Turmeric Fish, and explained that it is one of many new dishes that she, Anh, and Cindy discovered when they traveled for three weeks to Asia before opening the restaurant. Shelly explained that there is variation in the cuisines of North, Central, and South Vietnam.  During their journey, they traveled from north to south Vietnam, and to some of the surrounding Asian countries, to gain additional exposure to the dishes served in each region.  The Turmeric Fish was a dish they experienced in Hanoi, which is located in North Vietnam. Shelly’s version of the dish was prepared with Rockfish and Catfish topped with fresh dill and onion, accompanied by homemade fish sauce. Shelly gave me and my guest samples of the Turmeric Fish and we both found it to be delicious! Though it is not currently on the menu, it may be added at some point in the future as the young business continues to hone its menu.

The menu at Anh’s Kitchen is somewhat smaller than is typical of similar restaurants. It includes ten appetizers, four to six choices of salads, Banh Mi Sandwiches, and several Noodle Soups, Vermicelli Bowls, and Entrees. The menu has changed only slightly since the restaurant was opened, and although the menu selections may seem a bit limited, there is a great variety of traditional selections for customers to enjoy. Rather than selecting a single item from the menu, my guest and I were treated to smaller samples of many different items so that we could gain a broader exposure to the culinary delights offered at Anh’s Kitchen.

I’ll mention at this point that my guest for this review had never before eaten Vietnamese food, so this was a totally new experience for her. Shelly kindly explained details about all of the items we were served so that we were totally aware of what we were eating, and even shared information about how each of the items was prepared. For starters, we were treated to the Spring Roll appetizer—shrimp, grilled pork, lettuce, and herbs wrapped in rice paper and served with a house-made peanut dipping sauce. As soon as I bit into a Spring Roll, I immediately knew it was the best I’d ever eaten!  The fresh, crunchiness of the lettuce and the wonderful flavor of the pork and spices was excellent! And not surprisingly, my guest loved the spring rolls as well—especially the peanut sauce!   

Our next sample was a steaming plate of Garlic Noodles. Although these did not appear as a separate appetizer or entrée on the menu, there is an option to substitute Garlic Noodles for rice with entrees for a $2 upcharge. Shelly explained that they use Chow Mein noodles in the preparation of this dish, although for other dishes, such as the Vermicelli Bowls and Pho Noodle Soups, Anh’s uses the thinner, rice noodles.  The Garlic Noodles were topped with fresh Parmesan Cheese, which was surprising to me, since I usually associate this with Italian food and restaurants. The garlic flavor of the noodles was pronounced and very delicious, and had similar consistency to thicker spaghetti noodles. Very yummy!

While we were still enjoying the Garlic Noodles, Cindy brought out a beautifully arranged sampler plate of three of their popular entrées–three different meats served with a side of salad, and of course, fish sauce.  Shelly told us that fish sauce is “the mother of all sauces” for Vietnamese cuisine and is it served with many different items to enhance the flavors.  The fish sauce, and all sauces served at Anh’s Kitchen, are made in-house with fresh ingredients, herbs and spices. Our entrée sampler included Bone-in Pork Chops, Five Spice Chicken, and BBQ Short Ribs. All three of the entrees were delicious and are all items I would absolutely consider ordering when I return to Anh’s Kitchen. I believe my favorite of the three, however, was the pork chops. The flavor of these and the short ribs were rather similar, but I found the pork chops to be a bit meatier and more flavorful and appealing. I really enjoy the combination of spices used in Vietnamese cooking and these really were highlighted in all of the entrees we sampled.  Although the fish sauce was good, I chose not to use much of it on the items I sampled, simply because I liked the flavors of the meats without it. The Five Spice Chicken, which is first baked and then fried before serving, had a distinctly different flavor from the pork chops and short ribs.  The “five spice” seasoning is a combination of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, anise, and Szechuan peppercorns. The chicken was very tender and delicious, and although the “five spice” flavor is one that I don’t believe I’ve experienced before, I did enjoy it.  My guest, who was delighting in all the many wonderful flavors of the new foods she was experiencing, couldn’t offer a favorite entrée selection, as she said that she “loved them all!”  Informationally, when ordering entrees from the menu, they are served over rice, accompanied by a fried egg and a side salad—a very hearty meal for a nominal cost ranging between $9 and $13.

The last two menu items to which we were treated were the fresh Mango Salad, and Bo Luc Lac, which is also known as Shaking or Shaken Beef. The Mango Salad was beautifully presented, consisting of thin slivers of pickled carrots, red onions, celery, herbs and crispy shallots, topped with crushed peanuts, and served with three large shrimp chips. I cannot say enough about how fresh and wonderful this salad tasted! The ingredients were crunchy and we enjoyed eating the salad together with the shrimp chips.  The blend of flavors was perfect, and this was one of the only plates that was totally clean when we completed our samplings! The Shaken Beef is made with Filet Mignon, and is served on a bed of lettuce with stir fried bell peppers and red onions. I asked Shelly why the dish is called Shaken Beef, and she explained that it is because when the meat is being cooked, it is literally shaken vigorously back and forth in the pan. The Shaken Beef is served with a dipping “sauce”, which is simply a mixture of lime juice and salt and pepper. The beef chunks in this dish were extremely tender and cooked to perfection. The flavor of the meat was exceptional with or without the lime sauce.  Shelly explained that all of the meats used for their dishes are marinated for at least 24 hours to intensify the flavors, so it was no wonder that the beef—and all of the other samples—were so delicious!  My guest and I also tried samples of the beef and chicken broths used in the Pho Noodle Soups. The broths are made from scratch using beef and chicken bones, which are simmered up to 10 hours and are cooked with onion and cilantro. I preferred the beef broth over the chicken, as it had a heartier flavor, and I look forward to trying a hot bowl of Beef Pho from Anh’s Kitchen sometime in the near future.

Anh’s Kitchen is a caring family’s endeavor to honor their mother, share their combined passion for food and cooking, and expand the culinary options available in the small town of Hercules and the surrounding area.  None of the family members involved in the business has been formally trained in cooking, nor have they ever owned or managed a restaurant business.  Yet Anh’s Kitchen has had a successful first year, and the family is looking forward to continuing to build on that success in the future.  Although their kitchen is small, they are continuing to look at opportunities to add new entrees, and perhaps even offer dessert in the future. Anh’s does not currently offer catering options, but welcomes larger parties in their dining area. They do a robust take-out business, and tend to get very busy during lunch hours when local workers venture out to seek alternatives to fast food. If you’re looking for a great new Vietnamese restaurant with friendly, personalized service, add Anh’s Kitchen to your list of places to try for an upcoming lunch or dinner.  The prices are reasonable and the food is authentic and delicious! And although she is a bit shy, say hello to Anh while you’re there, and give your compliments to the chef!

844 Willow Avenue, Suite A3, Hercules  |   (510) 948-8189   |   anhskitchen.com

Sunday through Monday 11:00AM – 9:00PM   |   Closed Tuesdays

The Ed Fund 2017 Teaching Excellence Award Winners

Print

The Ed Fund celebrated and honored the excellence of five West Contra Costa Unified School District teachers and 20 scholarship winners at its 29th Annual Soaring to Excellence Celebration on May 12th. In addition, the Ed Fund showcased the work of its collaborative partners by recognizing a 2017 Collaborative Partner of the Year.  Student performances by the DeAnza Jazz Band and El Cerrito High School Dance students were also featured.  The Ed Fund was honored to have WCCUSD Superintendent Matt Duffy as our keynote speaker and guest speaker President of United Teachers of Richmond (UTR) Demetrio Gonzalez.

2017 Teaching Excellence Award Winners 

The five 2017 Teaching Excellence Awards winners who were honored at the Soaring to Excellence Celebration share a profound passion for instilling a love of learning in their students so that each student can attain their goals and realize their dreams. By carefully and thoughtfully weaving creativity, adherence to high standards, profound knowledge of the subjects being taught, and appreciation of individual differences, needs and strengths, these award winning teachers raise the quality of education to new heights.

Tiffany Okubo Chieudjui

3rd Grade Teacher, Grant Elementary School

Ms. Chieudjui has very strong roots with the West Contra Costa Unified School District as she grew up in West Contra Costa County and her mother was a long-time teacher in the District. Ms. Chieudjui has a very special way of engaging students even before a lesson has started. She’s always looking to find ways to enhance student learning by seeking opportunities that allow students to tie the lessons into real life experiences that have an everlasting impact. Using innovation and technology she taps into every students’ hidden talents. She fosters creativity by allowing self-expression and providing student choice. She taps into students’ interests and chooses themes that are enjoyable to the students and creates cross curricular activities-slightly above their skill level and then raises the challenge as performances improves.

Jasmine Johnson

5th Grade Teacher, Richmond College Prep Elementary

As an educator, Ms. Johnson’s is to create an academically rigorous and rich experience where all students are growing and creating. It’s also equally important that students learn about themselves, their histories, and begin to see themselves as creators in this world. If you were to walk into her classroom, she would want you to see students who are passionately engaged, students who are reading and writing, and speaking and listening to each other. She values participation and believes that true learning only takes place once students are talking, moving, and truly engaging with materials. Of course, this level of work requires her students to be at school every day, and it demands that they show integrity and urgency.

Jessy Kronenberg

Dance Teacher, El Cerrito High School

Ms. Kronenberg is a former student who graduated from El Cerrito High Dance in 1998. Since she took over the program in 2012, she has moved the program forward into a new generation while maintaining the tradition of high quality dance education at ECHS. Through high level instruction and vast amounts of time and dedication, students from all levels of ability are developing their talent and love of dance. Beyond the classroom, Jessy has launched the Gaucho Dance Company and challenged ECHS Dance to become a Chapter of the National Honor Society for Dance Arts.  Ms. Kronenberg earned a BA degree in Environmental Studies and Dance from Pitzer College where she focused on Modern Dance and Composition in 2002. Later, Ms. Kronenberg moved to North Carolina and joined the Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater. She earned a Master’s degree in Teaching at Western Carolina University.

Sarah La Due

7th Grade English Teacher, Fred T. Korematsu Middle School

Ms. La Due has been an English middle school teacher for three years now at Fred T. Korematsu Middle School. Before becoming a teacher, she worked in the political arena in public affairs and research analysis. She has a Bachelor’s in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara. Ms. La Due is a gifted educator who engages her students by inspiring them to learn. She does this by using a creative mix of techniques – group projects, individual work and classroom discussions. One of the most remarkable things about Ms. La Due is the lasting impact she has on her students. They stay in touch with her long after she stops being their classroom teacher and she remains an important part of their lives. Ms. La Due emphasizes to her students that the path to success is not through perfection, but through effort and improving over time. She wants students to focus on learning rather than grades.

Paula Raj

Spanish Teacher, DeAnza High School

Ms. Raj has been teaching longer than most of the teachers at De Anza have been alive and her classroom is one of the most joyful places on campus. She claims that she stopped counting the years of teaching after she turned sixty! Ms. Raj brings music, artifacts, and carefully planned lessons to each class period. She warmly demands that ALL students participate and she ensures that the classroom feels like a safe space to do so. Ms. Raj never stops moving in the classroom, always interacting with each student and encouraging them to do their best. To teachers and students alike she pushes that we have to turn our “passion into action”.  Over her long career, she has served as a Spanish Teacher, World Language Department Chair, Instructor Led Training Lead Teacher, Teacher-Coach, Western Association of School and Colleges Chair, Advanced Placement Peer Leadership Consultants Lead and member of Student Advocacy and Master Schedule Committees.

Sharing the honors with the Teaching Excellence Awards winners will be:

RYSE Youth Center

The RYSE Youth Center’s mission is to creates safe spaces grounded in social justice that build youth power for young people to love, learn, educate, heal and transform lives and communities. RYSE offers many different programs for our youth including Health and Wellness programs, Education and Career, Media Art and Culture, Youth Organizing and Leadership, Youth Justice, and many more.  RYSE truly cares about students and youth in this community and does outreach at various district schools to support what educators and staffs are doing.

We are so grateful to everyone who supported the event but especially our business partners and supporters, including  Magna Cum Laude partners Alten Construction, Inc.,  Chevron, and West Contra Costa Unified School District and Cum Laude partners Kaiser Permanente, Lozano Smith Attorneys at Law, Mechanics Bank, and Travis Credit Union.

Since its founding in 1983, the Ed Fund has provided more than $3.4 million in funding to enrich education for West Contra Costa Unified School District students. By the end of this fiscal year, that funding will have provided more than 794 grants to teachers and schools, 144 Teaching Excellence Awards, more than 14 years of after school programs at district middle schools, hundreds of music and arts programs at all grade levels, dozens of summer scholarships to enable students to attend summer camps and workshops, and $1.7 million in college scholarships.

This year alone, with the support of the African American Male Scholarship, Bernice Bell Memorial Scholarship, Irene S. Scully Family Foundation, Norma and Arthur Schroeder Family Foundation, and Whittier Education Foundation, Ed Fund will make it possible for 20 West Contra Costa Unified high school seniors to realize their college dreams by awarding almost $60,000 in college scholarships.

Kensington Fine Foods – Specialty Meats • Fish • Delicatessen • Catering

Kensington Fine Foods  Fine Assortment of Home Made Salads.jpg

By Vickie Lewis

Kensington is a small unincorporated community of Contra Costa County that borders Alameda County and is nestled in the Berkeley Hills.  Most residents of this community and the surrounding areas are likely quite familiar with Kensington Fine Foods (KFF), a specialty deli and butcher counter co-located with Young’s Market on Arlington Boulevard. However, if you don’t live in the immediate area, you may not have discovered this hidden gem tucked away in bay area hills. But I can attest that it is totally worth the short trek to check out what this small business has to offer.

Kensington Fine Foods is the local source for quality fresh meats, poultry, and seafood, and has been a pillar in this small community for the past twelve years.  In addition to fresh meats, poultry and seafood, KFF offers a plentiful selection of gourmet prepared foods, all of which are prepared on site by Owner/Chef Larry Lefebvre, and his two long-time co-workers, Javier and Conlan. Together, this team of three gentlemen handle all aspects of the business with calm and finesse, serving quality foods and providing personalized service to their faithful customers.

Larry is originally from New Jersey where he grew up in a family who owned a catering business. He developed a passion for food services through helping his grandfather and family with the business. After his graduation from high school, he secured a job working for Rocky Hill Inn in Princeton, New Jersey.  He worked there for three years, and then moved on to work at a couple of New York restaurants, including Keens Chop House. It was at Keens that he became a protégé of one of the senior butchers and learned about the meat business and the art of meat cutting.  In 1997, Larry was recruited by a good friend to work as a chef for the Ginger Island Restaurant, formerly on Fourth Street in Berkeley. So, Larry and his wife, Jessica, moved to California from New York where they planned to stay for only three years. However, he continued to work at Ginger Island for approximately 8 years until the restaurant eventually closed.

While considering the next move for his family, he learned that the owners of Arlington Meats would be retiring after forty years. After considering purchasing this business and a couple of other options, he ultimately opted to purchase the business now known as Kensington Fine Foods.  Since acquiring the business, he has introduced a variety of prepared foods for the convenience of customers who seek healthier, higher quality options to fast food. He also offers catering services, in addition to offering quality meats, poultry and seafood to patrons of Young’s Market and the local community.   

I handled this review solo because Larry had explained to me ahead of time that Kensington Fine Foods is a business where customers pick up prepared foods to take home to enjoy, and that there is no seating available.  After a pleasant fifteen-minute drive up Arlington Avenue during which I enjoyed beautiful views of the bay area, I arrived in Kensington on a recent Thursday afternoon. Kensington Fine Foods is visible directly upon entry into Young’s Market, immediately identifiable by the long, glass-enclosed meat counter. Behind the meat counter is a tall rotisserie used for cooking whole chickens throughout the day, as well as spare ribs, and occasionally specialty offerings, such as Porchetta.  (Porchetta is a traditional Italian porkloin roast seasoned with garlic, fennel, rosemary, sage and oranges, wrapped in a pork belly which seals in all the juices and flavors of the herbs.) Next to the rotisserie is a large commercial stove and a long prep counter for making sandwiches and readying foods “to go.” Conlan and Javier were busily helping customers when I arrived, and Larry was busy in the back room where the all of their home-made foods are prepared. As I waited, I reviewed the chalkboard menus on the back wall, and salivated at the tantalizing mountain of fresh golden-brown rotisserie chickens and meaty racks of spare ribs stacked in the warming bin near the cash register.

Larry emerged from the backroom, and after introductions, we strolled to a nearby coffee shop so we could sit and chat about the business. Quality is of the utmost importance to Larry, and all of the meats offered at Kensington Fine Foods are all natural and hormone-free. They are sourced from various high quality vendors, many of which can be referenced on the KFF website.  Examples of these include Mary’s Free Range Chickens, Beeler’s Pork Products, and Caggiano Company (for fresh and smoked sausages.)  Fish and seafood products, fresh baked breads, and fresh quality produce are sourced daily from Monterey Fish Market, ACME Bread Company, and Monterey Market respectively–all of which are local businesses based in Berkeley.  Larry informed me that he leaves his Oakland home at 6:30 AM daily and personally picks up the seafood, bread, and produce on his way in to work, usually arriving at KFF by 9:00 AM.

Larry explained that KFF does a very robust lunch business. Lunch options include two freshly-made soups daily, eight Specialty Sandwiches, five Panini Sandwiches, as well as a Make-Your-Own Sandwich option. For the latter option, customers can choose from six different breads, twelve meats (includes tuna or egg salad), and six cheeses.  Standard garnish includes lettuce, tomato, red onion, cucumber, mayonnaise and mustard; avocado and/or bacon can be added to any sandwich for an upcharge. Kensington Fine Foods also offers a nice selection of home-made salads made daily from all-fresh ingredients. Available salads include, but are not limited to, Classic Potato, Egg, Tuna, Green Bean, Pasta, and Roasted Beets. On the day I visited, they also had Roasted Brussel Sprouts and Quinoa Salad. Calamari salad is also available, but is sourced from Montery Fish Market. All of the standard salads on the menu are available every day; however, due to the freshness, high quality, and excellent value, most salads are extremely popular and often sell out before day’s end.

When Larry and I eventually returned to KFF, around 5:30 PM, both Javier and Conlan were again busy serving customers who were lined up in no particular order to pick up food for dinner.  Rotisserie chickens and ribs were selling fast, as were the freshly made salads.  A few customers were selecting fresh meats or seafood, but prepared foods seemed to be most popular—a most convenient option for those on their way home from work who don’t feel like cooking.  On Thursdays, KFF offers Buttermilk Fried Chicken as a dinner special, available after 3:00 PM. The chicken is sold by the piece and is served with freshly made cornbread, and customers can buy as few or as many pieces as they want. The fried chicken also seemed to be a popular option with many of the customers that afternoon.

Since there was not an option to sample any of the foods on site, Larry generously prepared two bags of foods to go so that my family and I could enjoy them that evening. You cannot imagine the wonderful aromas that wafted through my car as I drove home!  And everything tasted just as wonderful as it smelled!  My husband and I both ate the fried chicken and cornbread with a side of Scalloped Potatoes, which had also been freshly prepared and simply required reheating. The chicken was fried to a crisp golden brown, had a nicely seasoned coating, and was juicy and delicious. The scalloped potatoes were excellent—rich and creamy and quite flavorful.  The corn bread was the best I’ve eaten in a very long time—moist, with a hint of sweetness that made it very pleasing to me (even when I ate the leftovers a couple of days later!)  In another of the “to go” boxes, I was delighted to find half of a meat loaf, an item prepared daily at KFF, prepared by Javier using his own special recipe! I added a slice of meat loaf to my plate, along with a portion of the corkscrew pasta salad with slices of artichoke hearts and other yummy ingredients that made it delicious!  (My daughter ate the rest of this the following day and immediately wanted more!)  The meat loaf was a favorite of mine—dense, moist, with excellent seasoning and a red ketchup or tomato sauce on top.  My other favorite of the evening was the roasted Brussel sprouts which were lightly seasoned and cooked to the perfect tenderness. Larry had also sent home pints of each of the two soups of the day–Curry Lentil with Lamb, and Thai Coconut with Chicken. I was so full that the soups had to wait for another day, though I managed a small taste of each that evening.  The Curry Lentil was thick, rich and meaty, while the Thai Coconut was more of a creamy broth. Both had excellent flavor!  Informationally, KFF prepares approximately 20 fresh soup recipes on a rotating basis, and occasionally introduces new soup recipes to gauge customer feedback.

Larry invited me to return the next day during the lunch hours so that he could give me samples of some of their sandwiches. Once again, his generosity prevailed, and I took home another veritable feast of no less than 6 specialty sandwiches, 1 Panini, Green Bean Salad, a whole rotisserie chicken and spare ribs. I cannot possibly describe how great all the food was, but will share about a couple of my favorites.  Being a huge rib fan, I claimed the spare ribs for myself, and thoroughly enjoyed them!  Each was long and meaty, moist and tender, and had a flavorful seasoning. Other favorites included the Cobb Sandwich, made with fresh turkey, bleu cheese, and bacon; the Crabcake Sandwich on a bed of crunchy slaw with a Chipotle Remoulade sauce; and the Pastrami Rueben Panini. The crabcakes are made on-site using fresh seasonal crabmeat, and can also be purchased individually to take home and cook. The Reuben Panini may just be the best I’ve ever had! This grilled sandwich was chock full of tender, flavorful pastrami; sauerkraut, and oozed melted swiss cheese, served on fresh rye bread. This hearty sandwich is one that I would definitely order again! Other specialty sandwiches we tried included the Smoked Salmon; Smoked Turkey; Vegetarian; and Steak. All sandwiches are made to order on fresh ACME bread, using all fresh ingredients. Two of the dressings used on some of the specialty sandwiches, Lemon-Caper Aioli and Basil Pesto, are also freshly made at KFF, and are available for purchase in take-out containers.

I am simply amazed at how three people prepare so many delightful foods; slice, grind, and trim their own meats; process special orders for all types of meat, fish, poultry, and game; and even provide catering services. KFF is open seven days a week, and there is a seemingly constant ebb and flow of customers throughout the day. This team works together like a well-oiled machine, and their customer service is unparalleled.  They greet and smile at customers, call them by name, and are extremely friendly and accommodating. Larry and his team will prepare special cuts of meats for any occasion; in fact, a few days after our interview, they received a special order for a whole pig for a roast.  During the holiday season, KFF takes special orders for fresh turkeys, hams and other holiday favorites. Larry and his crew will offer cooking tips and will sometimes even cook meats on request. Their catering services usually consist of plattered dishes, sandwiches, and fresh salads; however, entrees and appetizer options are also available.  Larry is more than willing to customize offerings to meet the needs of customers’ events.  One to several weeks advance notice for catering is required, depending on the size and/or complexity of the orders.  Be sure to check out their catering menu available on the website.

Larry lives in Montclair with his wife, Jessica; son, Patrick, who is 19 and attends San Francisco State University; and daughter, Phoebe, age 10.  Jessica is an active volunteer of PALS (People, Animals, Love and Support) East Bay, a non-profit animal rescue organization, which also offers monthly free vaccine clinics in Oakland. Larry sometimes assists Jessica with her volunteer efforts; however, KFF keeps him quite busy, to say the least!  Larry’s short term goals are to develop and grow their current market in the community, continuing to bring customers fresh and healthy prepared, or easily prepared, foods to make their hectic lives easier.  He has some new ideas to expand on this concept, so there will no doubt be new and exciting offerings from this young owner in the not-too-distant future.  Until then, I highly encourage you to take a scenic drive up Arlington Avenue to Kensington Fine Foods and try one or more of the wonderful foods I’ve shared in this review.  Perhaps pick up sandwiches and salads for a weekend picnic; or maybe some ribs or chicken for a quick and easy dinner. For faster service, orders may be called in ahead of time, and will be ready when you arrive. You will love the food and the service, and it’s a sure bet that once you try KFF, you’ll be back!  I know that I will!

Modern Masterpieces – Pinole’s Own Art Gallery

IMG_6244 (2).jpg

By Samantha Larrick

The construction zone of Pinole Valley High School, with its lack of space and parking, keeps most people away from the school, but stepping onto the campus of portables, it is amazing the amount of color found around campus. From Picasso, to Basquiat, to Modigliani, and even some original works, the campus displays replicas of pieces from a variety of artists and themes that has turned a bland, brown campus of portables into a walking gallery of art. Though the students have been taking class on what was the baseball field since 2014, art teacher Jan Barzottini and principal Kibby Kleiman created the Modern Masterpieces project to make the best out of what could be a dreary situation.

When Jan Barzottini created this project, her goal was to educate the students on famous artists and bring life to a dull campus. Inspired by the blank canvas, she picked a variety of fine art influences that she thought would add character to the bland portables and let the students choose what pieces they wanted to replicate. What started out as an art project aimed at spicing up the campus has turned into a community of students contributing to the decoration of their school. Athletes, scholars, and artists can all be seen in the art classroom working together to make these masterpieces come to life. “I’m working on Picasso,” and “mine is going on the building by the track” can be heard throughout the classroom. This project has encouraged students to be a part of the community and take ownership of their school.

Barzottini has met a lot of students that are not in her art classes that have decided to get involved in the project. Principal Kleiman suggests that art has been a reprieve from the mundane schedule of a school day. Students are in Barzottini’s classroom at lunch and after school working on their art pieces, perfecting each stroke before they go up on a building for the entire school to see. They take pride in the work they’ve done, and some decide to do multiple pieces, despite the hard work it takes. Principal Kleiman says that “the artwork is generally left alone.” While Pinole Valley has its share of  graffiti, the artwork remains untouched. Students are protective of the art. They take pride in the work they and others have done and leave it alone. These works of art bring the school together and make students feel like it is their school, rather than just a temporary campus.

Through this project, many amazing artists have come out of the woodworks. Two seniors at Pinole Valley, Lindsey and Stephen, are working on their first Modern Masterpieces and agree that it is hard work. Lindsey stated that she has a new appreciation when she sees the other art pieces because she knows now how much time and dedication it took.

Some of the students on campus remember the old Pinole Valley High School, the Freshman might get to see the new Pinole Valley High School, but for a lot of current students, this campus is all that they are going to know. Principal Kleiman expressed that he wants those students to remember their time in high school just as fondly as others, which is why his focus is not on promoting the new campus, but brightening up the current one.

Modern Masterpieces has created such a sense of community at Pinole Valley, it is hard to imagine the school without the project. Jan Barzottini stated that though the project will not continue in this same way, she always has new ideas to foster community at Pinole Valley High School.

Pear Street Bistro – Bar & Lounge, Fine Dining, and Fun in Old Town Pinole

The Barrel Flight (1)

By Vickie Lewis

My first real exposure to Pear Street Bistro (PSB) was early last year, soon after its grand re-opening following a kitchen fire that rendered it closed for nearly 15 months.  Although established in Pinole since 2002, it was not a venue that I’d frequented or heard much about. However, after reviewing Pear Street Bistro last year for Contra Costa Marketplace Magazine, it has become one of my favorite local venues. I’ve brought family and friends here on numerous occasions, and each and every person has enjoyed the food, drinks, and dining experience immensely. I was excited for the opportunity to return to PSB for a follow-up review so that I can share with you some of the new and exciting goings on that delight newcomers and keep the regulars coming back for more!

Owner Francisco Flores is the heart of Pear Street Bistro and there is rarely a time that you won’t find him working there, right alongside his staff.  Whether tending tables, bartending, or visiting with customers, he makes sure that the business is running smoothly.  Francisco’s mother, Irma Palacios, assists at the restaurant most mornings, and his younger brother, Makimin, also works there part-time.  PSB has a well-seasoned staff, all of whom are committed to providing excellent customer service.  Regular customers delight in being greeted by and served by their favorite wait-staff or bartenders when they visit. The kitchen staff, directed by head chef, Carlos; sous chef, Magdalena; and assistant kitchen manager, Yolanda, work tirelessly to create and prepare fresh and delicious appetizers, entrees, and desserts to the delight of PSB diners.  Bar manager, Luis, and his team of mixologists, ensures that the bar and lounge patrons are satisfied, and manages the lively crowds that gather there for sports viewing or other social events.

Francisco actively promotes PSB on social media, and frequently sponsors activities and community events to entice new customers to try PSB, and to keep the regulars coming back.  One of the recently added featured events is Paint Night, held on the last Tuesday evening of every month starting at 7:00 PM. My guest and I were fortunate to secure the last two open spots in March for this very popular event. The PSB dining room is transformed for the evening into an paint studio where up to 50 guests don aprons and put their talent to work creating the featured painting of the month.  All supplies and instruction are included for a nominal cost of only $25 (paid to the host company, “Let’s Paint.”) Participants are encouraged to arrive early to enjoy the Taco Tuesday special, or any of the many other wonderful available menu selections.  During the event, PSB servers move among the artists, taking orders for drinks or food items to sustain them during their creative endeavors.  Paint Night at PSB is a festive event, and each month, the names of two lucky winners are drawn to paint again for free the following month. During the event, the bar/lounge remains open to customers, and dining is available in the overflow dining/banquet room at the back of the restaurant.  Reservations for Paint Night are required, so if you’re interested in an upcoming event, please RSVP to Francisco by phone at 510-741-8875, or e-mail Francisco@pearstreetbistro.com.

If Paint Night isn’t your passion, perhaps you’ll enjoy one of PSB’s upcoming May featured events. Join Francisco and his staff for a Cinco de Mayo celebration on Friday, May 5th.  A special Cinco de Mayo menu will be available all day (in addition to the usual menu) with specials created by Chef Carlos Pool. From 10 PM to 1:00 AM that evening, guests 21 and over can celebrate Cinco De Mayo with special music and dancing, while enjoying premium drinks and cocktails and appetizers in a festive atmosphere.  There will be no cover charge for the event, and guests are requested to “Dress to Impress!”

May’s second featured event will be on May 23rd starting at 6:30 PM, when PSB hosts a five course Whiskey Pairing dinner, featuring Jack Daniels hand-selected whiskeys.  Each of the five courses of the evening’s meal will be paired with a Jack Daniels whiskey that best complements the food.  Chef Jon from US Foods will prepare the five-course meal, and a local ambassador from Jack Daniels will be present to narrate the event.  Reservations for this event are required and the cost is $65 per person. If you enjoy Jack Daniels Whiskey, you won’t want to miss this special dinner.  Make your reservations by contacting Francisco at 510-741-8875, or e-mail Francisco@pearstreetbistro.com.

PSB regularly features four different spirits that have been personally hand-selected by Francisco.  These include:

• Herradura Double Barrel Reposada, 100% Blue Agave Tequila from Mexico

• Jack Daniels Single Barrel Whiskey from Tennessee

• Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum from Barbados

• Woodford Reserve Personal Selection Bourbon from Kentucky

Each of these hand-selected spirits are bottled exclusively for Pear Street Bistro; they undergo an extra aging process which enhances the richness of the flavors. For only $15, customers can order “The Barrel Flight” which includes a ½ ounce sampling of each of these hand selected drinks. I was treated to a Barrel Flight during my recent dinner visit, an interesting experience for a gal who usually only drinks “foo foo drinks”!  Although my taste for the whiskey and bourbon was not very discerning, I did enjoy the rum and tequila!  The tequila is served with a Sangrita chaser (house made Bloody Mary mix) which was a good end to the “flight.” For beer connoisseurs, PSB also features a hand-selected draft beer, White Hawk Indian Pale Ale (IPA), made in Mendocino. There’s really something for everyone at PSB’s bar and lounge, which offers an extensive menu of cocktails, wines and beers.  My guests and I can attest that cocktails served here are very good—perhaps even bordering on being a little too strong!  Some of the drinks may seem a bit pricey, but you won’t be disappointed with the quality.  Each day, there is a $6 featured drink of the day, and PSB also features Happy Hour 7 days a week (excluding holidays) from 3 PM – 7 PM during which guests can order specially priced drinks and appetizers.

Pear Street Bistro’s dining options also offer something for everyone.  The eclectic menu selections represent primarily European, Asian, and American cuisine.  On each visit, your dining selection can transport you to a different part of the world, if you so choose.  American favorites available include Burgers, Chicken Sandwiches, Roasted Chicken, and Steak.  Asian-inspired favorites include the Thai Coconut Curry Linguine, Teriyaki Chicken, or the Asian Chop Chop Salad. If you favor European cuisine, try the Risotto, Fish and Chips, Tuscan Quinoa Veggie Salad, or the Basa de Medellin. And if you enjoy southern cooking, you’ll want to try the Bistro Jambalaya, Southern Fried Chicken and Waffles, or the Cajun Crusted Catfish. Vegetarian selections are also available, as is a special children’s menu.

To supplement the regular menus, regular daily specials are also available—one for every day of the week–and there is usually at least one other additional featured daily special.   Popular regular specials include Taco Tuesdays, featuring a different taco recipe each week; and 1/2-pound Prime Rib with all the “fixin’s” served every Wednesday. On a recent dinner visit to PSB, my server, Grae, recommended the featured daily special–Parmesan and Gorgonzola crusted Salmon, served with garlic mashed potatoes, roasted tomatoes and sautéed spinach. This was the best salmon I’ve eaten in a very long time!  The presentation was beautiful, and the cheeses baked on top of the salmon formed a golden-brown crust that tasted superb.  That same evening, my guest ordered the Thursday Meat Loaf special, which was served atop garlic mashed potatoes and topped with gravy and a mound of onion straws.  The meat loaf was moist, tender, and delicious!

Brunch is served every Saturday and Sunday at PSB from 10 AM – 3 PM.  The brunch menu has an equally varied menu as the lunch/dinner menus.  It features several breakfast items, such as the PSB Omelet, Brioche French Toast, Benedicts, and Steak and Eggs; also available are entrée salads and sandwiches, and several different sides. During last year’s review, I was intrigued to learn that PSB offered $10 Endless Mimosas for brunch, and decided I should try it out!  So, on a recent Saturday morning, I stopped in for brunch. Parking was a bit challenging due to the Farmer’s Market occupying the rear parking lot; I’ve heard that Sunday brunch parking is also challenging due to nearby church services. The restaurant and lounge were moderately busy that morning, with a steady flow of customers; I understand that Sunday brunch at PSB tends to be much busier. I was happy to have come on Saturday to enjoy the comfortable, unrushed atmosphere.

I sat at a small table facing the open kitchen, which allowed me to watch the cooks busily preparing the food orders. I looked over the menu, and quickly realized that the price of the Endless Mimosas was no longer $10 (as was published last year), but increased to $13—although this is still a good value!  When my server, Erica, asked for my drink order, I ordered a pineapple mimosa from the three flavors available—orange, pineapple, and cranberry—and found it to be delightfully delicious!  Erica returned again and again with a pitcher of mimosas, and ensured that my glass was always full. For my brunch entrée, I ordered the Frittata special, which that day featured Ribeye, mushrooms, caramelized onions, spinach, and gorgonzola cheese. Who could ever pass up something that sounded so delectable?

All PSB brunch entrees are served with a homemade biscuit and homemade strawberry jam, tricolor home fries, and fruit garnish. As I waited for my entrée, I enjoyed my biscuit and jam, and observed that the Southern Fried Chicken and Waffles seemed to be the popular choice of many nearby guests–a hearty dish, to be sure. This entrée is a crisply fried half-chicken, served atop a brown sugar and bacon infused waffle, served with jalapeno butter and warm maple syrup–definitely something to try on a future visit!  Although most guests were enjoying mimosas, there were also a few drinking “The Bloody Tito”, PSB’s signature Bloody Mary made with Tito’s Handmade Vodka, served in a “bowl” with all the garnishments, including thick slices of Applewood Smoked Bacon!  Quite an impressive (and large) drink for Bloody Mary lovers!

My entrée arrived quickly and was beautifully presented.  The frittata was served in four triangular overlapping sections, and the home fries were a colorful assortment of brown, red and white potatoes seasoned and cooked to perfection.  A small bowl of fresh pineapple, melon and grapes garnished with mint also adorned the plate. The frittata was moist and delicious, with small slices of tender, seasoned ribeye steak mixed in with the gorgonzola cheese and other ingredients. As I finished my meal, Erica presented me with the dessert menu, the same one available for lunch and dinner. On recent visits, my guests and I had tried a number of the selections, including the New York Cheesecake topped with the homemade strawberry preserves, Blood Orange Sorbet, Caramel Gelato, and the “make your own S’mores.”  I should have passed on dessert, but decided to try something new that would complement brunch—the Seasonal Fruit Tart. (The 15-minute prep time allowed me time to enjoy one more mimosa!)  The tart was served on a plate garnished with caramel syrup, had a perfectly browned crust, and was filled with apples, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, topped with a scoop of vanilla bean gelato.  It was divine—warm, and not too sweet, with a light, flaky and delicious crust.  Suffice to say that I’ve never tried a PSB dessert that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy (except possibly the Blood Orange Sorbet.)  Make sure to save room for dessert when you visit—definitely worth the calories!

There are a lot of good reasons to try out Pear Street Bistro if you haven’t already done so. Stop by after work for Happy Hour, or gather with friends in the lounge to watch a sports event on one of the several televisions behind the bar.  Celebrate a special occasion with an elegant dinner, or stop by for a casual lunch or brunch. Come try out your artistic talents on Paint Night, or come to a special event and enjoy drinks, appetizers, music and dancing. Consider reserving the spacious private banquet room at PSB for a private business meeting or seminar, or for a special family celebration. Regardless of when or why you visit, the PSB staff will welcome you and provide you with a great customer experience.  And as a special incentive to visit, during the month of May 2017, mention that you read this restaurant review in the Contra Costa Marketplace, and PSB will offer a free appetizer of your choice for parties of four or more.

Pear Street Bistro is licensed by the city of Pinole to host special events, such as the upcoming Cinco de Mayo celebration, making it possible for locals to enjoy special festivities close to home.  Watch for additional events coming up later this year.  Be sure to stay informed of upcoming PSB events by subscribing to their weekly newsletter and/or by following them on Facebook or Instagram. If you’re a PSB regular, don’t forget to join the PSB Rewards program to earn loyalty points for each visit, which can be redeemed for rewards. Kudos to Francisco Flores and the PSB staff for creating a delightful, hip, and trendy bistro experience in the heart of Pinole.  If you haven’t tried it, you owe it to yourself to check it out!

Arts Access

image003

By Jade Shojaee

On Thursday Feb 16, some 400 low income students crowded into Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts to enjoy a live production of Charlotte’s Web, presented by Theatreworks USA and Diablo Regional Arts Association (DRAA). Since 2008, DRAA, the non-profit partner for the Lesher Center for the Arts, has made it possible for more than 50,000 Contra Costa families and youth to attend professional, high-quality performances at the Lesher Center through their Education & Outreach program.

Since it opened in 1990, the Lesher Center for the Arts has become a cultural and economic force in Walnut Creek, hosting nearly 1,000 productions and community events a year and selling a record 230,000 tickets in 2009. “With DRAA’s support, the Lesher Center, and other professional arts organizations, have transformed downtown Walnut Creek into an entertainment, dining, retail, and conference destination,” said DRAA’s executive director, Peggy White. “We believe in the power of the arts to enrich lives and we would like to continue to enrich the lives of every qualifying student and teacher in the East Bay.”

It is no secret that increasing state mandates and decreasing budgets have accounted for the significant decline in the presence of art education in public schools. Paradoxically, studies have long shown a correlation between academic performance and exposure to the arts in students. According to a study by the Music for All Foundation, participation in music courses in California alone have dropped by 46% over the past decade, despite increases in total school enrollment. DRAA is working to bridge that gap, and bring the arts back to students who otherwise would not be exposed to them.

“Every student should have the opportunity to experience the magic of live theatre. However, not every student in the East Bay come from families or attend schools that are able to facilitate those experiences,” said White.  “In many cases, this is the first time these students have been able to see a live performance or a visual arts exhibition.”

Qualifying Title I schools are schools in which 60% or more of their students are on the free or reduced-cost lunch program. DRAA provides free transportation and tickets to shows ranging from Theatreworks USA’s children’s production of Charlotte’s Web to Center REPertory’s professional production of A Christmas Carol.  They also provide customized performance activity kits to help teachers tie students’ experiences at the Lesher Center with what they are learning in school. The kits meet the California’s Common Core Standards and offer suggestions for in-class discussions and projects.

“This program was exceptional,” said 5th grade Sutter Elementary School teacher, Vicki McGuire.

“I have been teaching for 30 years and this is one of the very best field trips I have ever experienced. Most of my students have never attended a theatrical production of this calibre in their lives. The amazing actors brought this story to life for my students in a way that reading the book never could.”

“The Arts Access School Time Program provides an experience of awe and wonder outside of everyday life,” said DRAA Arts Education Manager, Jody Cook. “The programs offered are meaningful, and we hear from teachers over and over that their students are inspired.  Sometimes inspired to become an actor or a dancer, and sometimes to consider a dilemma differently.  These are incredible outcomes. To imagine that an hour or two can have a lasting impact beyond the actual experience of a field trip is pretty special.”

For interested teachers and schools, a schedule of school show performances and exhibits, along with an easily accessible, user-friendly application can be accessed at DRAA.org.

Importance of the Arts

QuinanStreetProject1

By Matt Larson

The Quinan Street Project is helping kids come out of their shell.

Story ideas get recommended to us all the time, and we’re happy to come through for you as often as we can. The story you’re reading now began when Catherine Malicdem-Ames’ three young children—a 4th grader, a 2nd grader, and a kindergartener—were yelling “Mama Mia it’s a big pizza!” in the car. “It was then I found out they were taking theatre classes during school time and were practicing their warm up,” she said. “My children enjoy drama classes every week, made possible by The Quinan Street Project—a homegrown organization that our community needs to know, and can be proud of.”

The Quinan Street Project provides theatre education programming to students in West County with curriculum that is crafted to meet the needs of the California Visual and Performing Arts Standards, as well as the need for equity and social justice in a diverse community. With an emphasis in playwriting and Shakespeare, they currently serve students at Lupine Hills, Riverside, Sheldon, and Murphy elementary schools, as well as Collins Elementary School where it all began in 2011.

“I started volunteering at Collins because of our neighbor on Quinan Street! She was such a gifted theater performer as a baby that I knew she deserved to have some theater classes she could attend,” said Anna Smith, Executive Director of The Quinan Street Project, who was born and raised on Quinan Street in Pinole. “I started this because I saw a need for arts education to be put back in our classrooms in this district, and to be brought back to the children of this community.”

Over these past six years Smith has made a difference. Teachers have seen noticeable changes in their students who have participated in The Quinan Street Project’s programming. They remark that these students are more likely to speak up in class, or that their voices are louder and more clearly understood when speaking. “We’ve even had kids overcome stutters over the years,” Smith adds. “We’ve also had some kids speak audibly for the first time that the teachers have heard. There are a lot of positive outcomes for young people doing theater.”

Typical classroom residencies consist of 12 lessons. The first six lessons introduce some of the main theatrical subjects like ensemble, pantomime and tableau, changing their voices for different characters, talking about improvisation and saying “yes” to each other, being supportive of each other in the space, and so on. The latter half of the program puts those concepts into action, resulting in a final performance for the class or invited family members, and for some grades they’ll end up with a brand new play that they’ve written themselves!

Smith is a self-proclaimed Shakespeare nerd, and actually was able to use her writing style to help a student memorize. “I explained each line that rhymed was 10 syllables long, had a rhyme at the end, and had a heartbeat rhythm,” she said. And it worked! “This tool that helped people learn their lines 500 years ago is still able to help an 8 year old today. I just think that’s cool.”

The Quinan Street Project has finally secured its own location on Quinan Street in Pinole. “I really want it to be a community-based project,” Smith said. “I hope that our space can become a safe space for kids who are interested in theater, where they can come to be creative and silly and make mistakes and just grow as individuals.”

With this new space they’ll be expanding their summer camp program this year by offering three separate two-week camps for ages 6-9, 8-11, and 11-14. Financial aid is available and their goal is to never turn anyone away. This spring they’re looking forward to incorporating mindfulness in their lesson plan, and this fall Smith is hoping to expand their after-school programming as well.

There’s much to do! And much to learn about The Quinan Street Project. To stay posted or even get involved yourself, please visit quinanstreet.org or call (510) 691-8089.

Meet Georgia Manesis

IMG_3470

By Jade Shojaee

The lady behind the success of the Pinole Senior Center

This past Valentine’s day, the City of Pinole Senior Center hosted a luncheon like you’ve never seen a senior center host a luncheon; and it won’t be the first time. Some 200 people gathered to fill the center’s exquisitely dressed tables, and enjoy a house-cooked meal served by a team of enthusiastic volunteers.

“The big dining room is where the magic happens,” said Georgia Manesis, the center’s Food Program & Special Events Committee Chairperson. Manesis has been in charge of special events since late ‘92 after retiring from her successful career as a program analyst. “I have a grasp of the big picture,” Manesis said of her ability to throw magazine-worthy events at a humble Pinole facility. “We’re the only center in the area that cooks their own food.”

Manesis has been in charge of special events and fundraising for 20 years, but before that, she worked in the kitchen, and drove the seniors on “van trips.” “Once or twice we’ve been to Santa Cruz,” she said. “We’ve been to Jackson, I mean, we went long ways so I would drive all day. We have our favorite places to eat in Half Moon Bay. I drove us places that I’ve never been before, and I’ve lived in the Bay Area my whole life.”

“It’s a fabulous ride. We would usually plan a tour or something like a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge,” said Manesis. “We always did lunch. The trips got longer and longer and then we’d stop for ice cream on the way home.”

Manesis said that she had to stop driving the seniors when her Driver’s License became invalid in California (she now has an Idaho license) but that doesn’t stop her from driving back and forth to Idaho, to visit her daughter and the log cabin she is currently in the process of restoring. She also drives to Arizona to visit her sister, and boasted that she makes the entire trip in just one day. “I drive it in one day, I don’t know why you wouldn’t drive it in one day,” she said.

Aside from her love of road trips, Manesis has been ballroom dancing for about 25 years. “My Dad belonged to a dance club but my Mom did not like to go, so he taught my sisters and I how to dance.” When asked if she ever thinks about competing she said that it’s not something she has considered. “I probably could but that’s not fun to me,” she said. “I’d rather dance for the sheer enjoyment of dancing.” Manesis dances at the senior center where she said she has learned to lead because “there aren’t enough guys.”

For the time being, she is enjoying being the center’s resident party planner. This year’s Valentine’s Day event included a one-hour entertainment session hosted by Shirley Dourgasian, who will sing “karaoke style, and dress up for the occasion.” Over a chuckle, Manesis recalled that every Halloween, Dourgasian wears a cheerleader outfit, and regales the crowd with the story of how her mother “paid 52 bucks for this sweater, and by-god I’m getting her money’s worth.”

Music and comedy aside, the event featured a dinner of roast beef, dessert and salad. “I mean we really make it nice,” said Manesis. “A lot of people work lots of hours there, they work their butts off.”

Our budget for the center is $250,000, Manesis said that center really pulls their weight in fundraising events. According to Manesis, you can expect to find the seniors partying away almost once a month, in celebration of holidays varying from Christmas to Cinco de Mayo to St. Patrick’s Day.

According to Manesis, every third Sunday of the month the center hosts a pancake breakfast, at which local kids volunteer. “People’s grandchildren, the girls on a local middle school’s swim team, De Anza students, lots of kids just show up and say ‘hey do you need some help’.” Furthermore, and this may be a shock you, the center runs a library in which there are no late fees. In fact, you do not even have to check out the book. “Take whatever you want,” said Manesis, “nobody checks you in or out.”

The Pinole Senior Center can be found at 2500 Charles Avenue, and all (old and young) are welcome to join the festivities that are always taking place there.