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DOWNEY -- When Debbie Tomlinson opened her eyes Wednesday morning, she never dreamed she was about to experience one of the greatest nights of her life.
The Director of Volunteer and Support Services at world-renowned Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, Debbie had worked for months with her colleagues at the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation to make the 17th Art of Rancho Exhibition the best ever.
In many ways, Debbie has a thankless job, working with her assistant Debbie Loera and a team of dedicated volunteers to oversee Rancho's vibrant volunteer program. She works with hundreds of community volunteers who give more than a million dollars in time each year to help Rancho and its patients in every way imaginable.
Debbie Tomlinson spends most of her life in the background at Rancho, screening, training and matching volunteers with assignments that will help them do something meaningful in their lives while helping fill critical needs for volunteers at the hospital. She also goes far beyond that, putting on the New Year's Carnival, contributing mightily to the Foundation's annual Amistad Gala and many other hospital events, and always being there for patients who need someone to help them find a smoother path on their personal journeys to independence.
"Debbie is an important part of the very fabric of Rancho," said the hospital's CEO Jorge Orozco. "I can't imagine how we could do what we do without the incredible volunteer resources she makes available for our staff. Most importantly, Debbie is someone who the entire Rancho family admires for the way she always puts our patients first. She sets a great example for all of us."
One thing about Debbie's work life has been consistent over all the years. She never seeks credit, always taking the time to thank and compliment everyone around her. She is the consummate teammate, and so many Rancho patients, volunteers, staff and community leaders consider her a true friend.
Wednesday, Debbie spent the entire day putting the finishing touches on the greatest Art of Rancho Exhibition ever. Because of her efforts, and those of many others such as Julie Knabe and Beverly Mathis, the more than 500 magnificent artworks of nearly 50 Rancho artists would come to life for approximately 1,000 attendees at that evening's art show. It is Debbie who works with the talented Rancho artists throughout the year, it is Debbie who catalogues the many artworks for the Art of Rancho exhibition, and it is Debbie who works with the Rancho staff to identify and develop new artistic talent in the Art of Rancho family that has grown to nearly 100 artists of all ages.
In addition to brilliant photographer and featured artist Carlos Benavides and new artist Alicia Barocio, Rancho artists such as Jesus Velasco, Magdalia Ortiz and Kelvin Wilkerson were scheduled to show their works on Wednesday. And for the first time, the future artists of Rancho from the Don Knabe Pediatric Arts program would be joining them.
Thanks to contributions from Supervisor Don Knabe and Sam and Beverly Mathis, the entire Art of Rancho show was underwritten this year.
Debbie worked for three long days to make the event sparkle. But for her, it is all about the patients.
"I have been blessed to work with our artists over nearly two decades, and the art program is the highlight of my professional life," she said. "As great as each of them are as artists, each of them is an even better person. It has been my pleasure to work side-by-side with them, to share their trials and triumphs, and to witness their courage and commitment as they have developed into the world's most accomplished group of artists with disabilities.
"We were very pleased to have our future artists join the show this year, because they bring a youthful enthusiasm and a different viewpoint on the world that is reflected in the art they create," she added.
"It's interesting to see how when you get to see our artists, their disabilities become almost invisible because their artworks are so powerful that you focus solely on their abilities," Debbie said. "I really love our artists...they have become just like an extended family for me. When I came to Rancho all those years ago, I never imagined that I would be part of something that has brought so much joy to so many people."
Although each of the artists have stories worth reading about, we have selected five members of the Art of Rancho program to represent their fellow artists. Here, in their own words, are the stories of five of the patients who created especially wonderful artworks for this year's show.
Featured Artist Carlos Benavides
"In 2003, I had an accident that changed my whole way of living. I suffered a spinal cord injury, leaving me an incomplete quadriplegic. I am now an outpatient at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center.
"Being in a wheelchair and in constant pain has made me more aware of my surroundings and the challenges of everyday life. I also realize that when someone has a life-altering injury they have to find a way to express who they are. My designs, pictures and music express who I am.
"I would like to say thank you to Rancho for supporting the arts. I now have a more positive and passionate outlook on life. Rancho has helped many people find special meaning in their lives. I feel I can do almost anything any able-bodied person can do, because of the passion and love I have for life. The only limitations I have are the ones I set for myself.
"I have truly enjoyed putting my talents to work at Rancho as a volunteer. I have created many special photographs and graphic works for the hospital, most recently the branding for the first annual Rancho Car Show.
"Although the way I use my camera and computer and the way I use various media have been specially adapted to my ability, in my heart I have always known I am an artist. That's how I roll!"
New Artist Alicia Barocio
"I came to Los Angeles in 1992 with the intention of majoring in English in college, but I became fascinated by the world of fine arts and eventually earned a Presidential scholarship to USC. I graduated Magna Cum Laude in 2005 with my Bachelor's Degree in Fine Arts.
"The reason it took me so long to get my degree is that I have had epilepsy that causes periodic and serious seizures. It's a challenge to practice my art with my medical condition, but art is the only thing that helps me get back up every time a relapse knocks me down.
"I entered Rancho in August 2011 with the hope that I would be able to get some relief. Thanks to Rancho's Dr. David Millett, I am much better. I spent a week as an inpatient and have been an outpatient ever since. Dr. Millett is so compassionate and knowledgeable that I know he will do everything possible to help control my condition. Now I am back on the road to reaching my potential as an artist.
"My art expresses my passion for life through my subjects, mediums and colors. Everything in my artwork is carefully selected, because it is the one part of my life where I have total control. I also have the joy of knowing I am doing the work I love, and doing it well. I am very grateful to Dr. Millett and Rancho for helping me believe in myself and knowing that I can achieve my dream of being a successful artist!"
Artist Jesus Velasco
"I am the sixth of 14 children in my family. When I was just 10 months old, I was stricken with polio, which severely affected both of my legs and arms.
"I came to the United States in 1992 to live with my brothers in San Francisco, looking for some medical help so that I could become more independent. There, I earned my high school diploma at an adult school and started to play quad rugby.
"We moved to Los Angeles in 2000. A year later, I broke one of my legs in a fall and became an outpatient at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center. Thanks to the wonderful work of the staff, my leg has almost completely recovered.
"When I got to Los Angeles, I began painting, and Rancho has given me a great forum to show my work. Now I am involved with both the Art of Rancho and the Performing Arts of Rancho programs and I am enjoying the best years of my life!"
Artist Magdalia Ortiz
"At 20 years old, I was involved in a terrible auto accident which left me paralyzed from the waist down. With the support of my family and friends, I was able to overcome this situation.
"I found Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, which has given me the tools to build an independent life, including the opportunity to pursue my artistic talents. I realized that painting gave me more than I could have possibly imagined. My talents have grown, and I have also grown as a person.
"Rancho Los Amigos has also shown me how I can be independent while valuing my life as a whole. I am grateful to all of the doctors, therapists and nurses who have assisted me during my rehab process.
"I am always amazed and pleased at how many people truly enjoy my paintings. I wish everyone the same happiness that I have found in my new life, thanks to the support and inspiration I received at Rancho!"
Artist Kelvin Wilkerson
"I was born and raised in Los Angeles and have been involved with the arts since 1980. My interest in painting began as a small child when my mother gave me a paint-by-number set. I had a natural aptitude to blend colors and later learned how to compose themes with dynamic subject matters.
"I was making an excellent living as an artist, but I suffered a debilitating stroke in October 2001, which threatened my ability to paint.
"During my rehabilitation at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, my treatment team encouraged me to begin painting again. With Rancho's support, I am again creating the landscapes, seascapes, portraits and other creations that define me as an artist.
"Although my stroke challenged my creative future, Rancho helped me learn how to make the most of my remaining ability. This year, I created several new paintings for the Art of Rancho exhibition, but I just finished another hospital stay on Tuesday, and I was just too weak to physically attend the show.
"I thank Debbie for reminding everyone about me and for making sure my artworks were featured in this year's electronic calendar. And I am very hopeful about my artistic future. I am already looking forward to next year's show, and I am planning now to participate in the Arts and Crafts show on November 28-29 and the New Year's Carnival on December 27.
"Even when I am physically challenged by everything that has happened to my body, my spirit soars each time I begin to paint. My art helps make me stronger, and gives me so much to look forward to in life. I thank my friends at Rancho for believing in me and helping me believe in myself."
These five artists are representative of the wide range of backgrounds and talents of Rancho's artists. In addition each knows that although they have survived significant disabling illnesses and injuries, they will count on Rancho to help maintain the health of their mind, body and spirit throughout their life.
"The arts programs at Rancho show not only the creative side of our artists of all ages, but how art can transform someone's life and provide an opportunity to shine no matter what physical challenges a person may have to overcome," said Supervisor Knabe. The Supervisor's unwavering support of Rancho's artists was on display again Wednesday night as he introduced Carlos and Alicia and addressed the packed audience at the show.
"I want all the artists to know that we are all so proud of each and every one of you, not just for the beautiful art you create, but for the dedication you bring to your work each and every day," he said. I am blown away by what I have seen here tonight, and I salute all of you for sharing your talents with the world."
The Supervisor then gave a special tribute to the brilliant Rancho artist Ruben Rios, who has been in a coma for several months after being incapacitated when his ventilator failed while he was driving his power wheelchair on a very hot day. "I would like to take a minute for us all to stop and think about Ruben, and everything he has meant to the art program here at Rancho," he said while choking back tears.
Ruben has served as a mentor to many Rancho artists, most particularly those in the Don Knabe Pediatric Arts Program. He was one of the founding instructors of the program, and also served Rancho as a patient advocate, and the entire community as Supervisor Knabe's appointee to the Los Angeles County Commission on Disabilities.
"I know how much you all love Ruben and I want his mom and his family to know that he is in our hearts and in our prayers," Supervisor Knabe said. "He is a wonderful artist, but more importantly, a very special person who has contributed so much to Rancho and especially to our young artists."
Then it was time for the evening's big surprise, as the Supervisor called Debbie forward and presented her with a beautiful scroll commending her for her many contributions to Rancho's art programs. "You have been the heart and soul of this program since the beginning," Supervisor Knabe said. "I hope you know how much all of us, and especially our artists appreciate all your efforts over all the years," he said as the audience burst into spontaneous applause. For once, Debbie was speechless as her smile lit up the entire room. And as the crowd continued to applaud, Rancho's artists and their families cheered and cheered and cheered.
"I was just stunned," Debbie said. "It was the last thing I ever expected, and it makes me even more proud to have worked so long with the artists I love so much."
And so it was that Don Knabe and Debbie Tomlinson, the two people most responsible for the success of the Art of Rancho program, spent a magical moment together savoring 17 years of working with the incredible Rancho artists who have redefined the boundaries of what can be accomplished by individuals with disabilities.
On behalf of all the artists of Rancho, and all those who have enjoyed their artworks, thanks for the memories!
Published: November 8, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 30