by Kelsey Brugger, Aly Comingore, Charles Donelan, Brandon Fastman, Tyler Hayden, Lyz Hoffman, Shannon Kelley, Matt Kettmann, and Nick Welsh
When Florence Nightingale proclaimed that “the greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs whilst the world whirls as a maddening dreidel,” she summed up the essence of The Santa Barbara Independent’s 28th annual Local Heroes honorees.
The folks being recognized this year include a woman who has devoted her life to caring for foster children; a dentist who brought proper oral care to rural Afghanis; an animal advocate who cares for and rehabilitates injured birds; two men who are redefining and teaching young men what it means to be a man today; and a group of volunteers who share their love and knowledge of art with visitors to the Museum of Art. Each year we are humbled by the giving nature of these people and organizations, and we are always reminded that their civic involvement, spirit of support, and genuine care for neighbors keep our community’s heart beating.
Read on to learn about these outstanding individuals who make up 2013’s class of Local Heroes.
Hathor Hammett: Multitasking Volunteer
“I’m just one of those people who can’t sit back and let things happen. There’s always something I can do.” Hathor Hammett’s words couldn’t be truer. For the past 35 years, Hammett has volunteered for the Rape Crisis Center, where her work includes planning activities for Sexual Assault Awareness Month every April. She started working there, she said, after two of her friends were raped and murdered in the 1970s. “I promised my friends who died that I would always be part of the movement,” said Hammett, who has also sat on the board of the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee for a decade.
For Take Back the Night events, she donates her musical skills — she plays the drums and the guitar — and for people who are dying, she donates her voice as a member of the Threshold Choir, the Santa Barbara chapter of which she helped found. The choir, she said, comforts people with everything from hymns and Broadway tunes to Beatles songs and their own original music.
For the past six years, Hammett has put her mask-making skills to use at Solstice, helping craft colorful works of art that she said are “fun and liberating,” especially for shy people like herself. The longtime Santa Barbaran — who also works as an organic gardener and sits on the committee for the LGBTQ Film Festival — said this community is a big reason why she gives back: “It’s where I feel like my niche is.”
James Rolfe: Dogged Dentist
Dr. James Rolfe has dealt with a car bombing and two scam artists — among other hurdles — in his years-long quest: to provide the people of Afghanistan with proper dental care. Rolfe first visited the country in 2003, bringing a portable dental operating system on the plane with him, and after that initial visit, he realized he wanted to do more. The Afghanistan Dental Relief Project was born. Rolfe has fought many battles and spent many dollars — $100,000 a year — to get his Kabul clinic opened, but he has also helped treat more than 100,000 people, who before would have to get their abscessed teeth pulled sans anesthesia at the local barber.
Rolfe, whose Santa Barbara dental office — which he built himself and is replete with musical instruments and potted plants — sits next door to the Lobero Theatre, said that most of Afghanistan’s dentists practice in the cities, while most of the people live in the rural areas. To solve that, Rolfe’s clinic not only serves citizens — mostly women and children — but also trains them to become dental hygienists.
His project is hard work, the 74-year-old said, but the clinic should be fully sustainable in a year. “This is all something that happened because I decided to make it happen,” he said. “Each of us has the opportunity to do with our lives what we want to do. I went there to see what I could do.”
Darcy Keep: Mental Health Advocate
Darcy Keep starts about three months out, organizing artists, creating flyers, designing posters, and ordering custom T-shirts. For more than a decade, Keep has kept the annual Mental Health Arts Festival humming, every year pouring thousands of dollars of her own money and months of her time into its success. All of her hard work — which she emphasized is supplemented by that of 15 to 20 volunteers — is, she said, always all worth it. “If you could see how happy it makes [the artists], you would never not want to do it,” said Keep, who reignited the festival after it had stalled for a few years.
Every October, 60 to 70 Santa Barbarans with mental illness participate, displaying in De la Guerra Plaza their paintings, drawings, origami, and jewelry. “It’s one of the ways to de-stigmatize mental illness,” she said. “Our goal is to try to change people’s perspective.”
Keep, who has worked as Cottage Hospital’s director of Inpatient Psychiatric and Chemical Dependency Services since 1998, when she moved here from Fresno, said that volunteering is her favorite way to stay busy and that if everyone were to do so — for whatever cause — it would make a huge difference. “I feel really fortunate in life, which makes me want to give to other people,” she said, pointing to a collage hanging on her office wall showing photos from prior festivals. “If you could just see the smiles on their faces — it’s so gratifying.”
Emma-Jane Huerta: Theater Mentor
“I love my job!” says Emma-Jane Huerta. It’s this genuine enthusiasm for teaching — and for theater — that makes her such a hero to the Peabody community, where, for 15 years, she has run the Upstarts Youth Theatre program.
A thoughtful mentor to the stars and the backstage crew alike — often working as the sole “grown-up” with 30 kids — Huerta does double and triple duty: writing the scripts (it’s the rare kids’ plays that keep the parents entertained, too); coaching the actors; managing the costumes, scenery, and music; and even doing the publicity and overseeing ticket sales.
It’s a labor of love, and she really loves it. “I get to work with fresh young minds every day. I see kids’ imaginations come to life as they realize the power they have as performers, as storytellers. I’ve been telling stories my whole life; now I get to create fantastic productions while instilling in all my kids a passion for theater,” she said. “The kids in Upstarts learn so much more than producing a play — responsibility, teamwork, empathy, camaraderie, self-confidence, and the amazing payoff that all their hard work brings on opening night. These are qualities that build great humans, not just great actors. … I am so proud of all of them. I feel like I have hundreds of children!”
Gabriele Drozdowski: Bird Woman of S.B.
When the warm currents of 1991’s El Niño upset the balance of our coastal ecosystem, many seabirds were left starving, injured, or both, and the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN) was overwhelmed. Years earlier, Gabriele Drozdowski and her husband had received an aviary, a castoff from friends. Someone at the Wildlife Conservation Network heard about it and called to see if they’d consider taking in some birds. They said yes.
“Our first was a big brown pelican — they were endangered then — one look in his eyes, and we were hooked,” Drozdowski said today. “That ancientness, it was like I was looking back in time, seeing him on the ocean a million years ago. It was incredible.”
Though that pelican didn’t make it (nor did the next), the third did, and Drozdowski and her husband, who passed away in 2006, kept at it, learning entirely by doing. For seven years, they worked with the WCN, and in 1998, they took two raptors, Ivan, a red-tailed hawk, and Max, a great horned owl, into their home and began working as a satellite for the Ojai Raptor Center. In 2000, Drozdowski, passionate about educating people about these beautiful and intelligent creatures, began bringing the birds into schools, as Eyes in the Sky.
But, while their landlord had been accommodating, allowing them to transform their home into a sanctuary for the birds, they knew they’d need to move at some point and worried for the birds. Fate swooped in when Dr. Karl Hutterer from the Museum of Natural History contacted Drozdowski, offering to build an aviary at the museum. Now the students could come to her.
Today, there are three owls, one hawk (Ivan), and three falcons out every afternoon at the museum, and 35 volunteers that care for them. Drozdowski still takes Max home with her a couple of nights a week. “He’s chosen me as his mate,” she said, “I could do worse!”
Sheila Lodge: Slow-Growth Advocate
One admiring adversary described Sheila Lodge, Santa Barbara’s former mayor now sitting on the planning commission, as having “the patience of a safecracker.” If true — and it undeniably is — Lodge has left fingerprints indelibly imprinted all over the city she loves with such abiding tenacity.
More than 40 years ago, Lodge — who moved to Santa Barbara in 1952 — was part of the wave of slow-growthers and enviros who first wrested control of City Hall from the real-estate and business interests that traditionally called the shots. Serving initially as planning commissioner, then as councilmember, and then as mayor — for three terms — Lodge helped cut in half Santa Barbara’s maximum residential and commercial build-out. At that time, this was radical, heady stuff. Without such dramatic changes, Lodge argued, Santa Barbara’s projected growth was unsustainable and would destroy the human scale and historic character that makes Santa Barbara so desirable a place.
Then as now, Lodge proved a stickler for detail and was absolutely relentless. After a brief “retirement” — during which Lodge served as docent for the courthouse and for the Botanic Garden—she rejoined the planning commission. There, she’s emerged as the most vocal champion of the slow-growth preservationist agenda.
As such, Lodge — a liberal on social issues — has often found herself at odds with the “smart-growth” platform now embraced by the council’s liberal majority and in sync with the new school of conservatives. “They’ve changed; I haven’t,” she said of her former allies with the Democratic Party. Even while advocating her broader vision, Lodge was never one to neglect the fine print of policy making, successfully inserting changes to protect Santa Barbara’s architectural heritage into a major planning document many years in the making. That Lodge has remained engaged long after her former colleagues fell away from the fray should surprise no one. “I was never one to sit quietly at home,” she explained. “I love this town and have always felt very possessive about it.”
By Paul Wellman