Glitz, glamour and fundraising at the Amistad Ball

Downey Doings

It’s nice to see graceful women in long gowns, who know how to walk in the flowing skirts. And every man always looks handsomer in black tie and tux.

The occasion was the Amistad Gala Ball, put together by the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation, the non-profit fundraising arm of Downey’s own Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center. With an aim to raise money to support the patient’s physical recovery and re-integration into society, the foundation appeals to many Downeyites, some of whom have been contributing for over 40 years.

Saturday night was also one of the foundation’s many fundraisers but it was mainly a time for friends to meet and treat themselves to a well-earned celebration of the accomplishments of the past year. One of the secrets, as to what makes Downey work, is that so many local volunteer organizations come together to help.

Seen in the foyer before the ballroom doors opened were Downey’s mayor, Rick Rodriguez, who also gave the invocation at dinner. He and Connie and Jerry Wetzstein were among other Kiwanians who attended: Kiwanis makes the Foundation one of its priorities. Rarely glimpsed in Downey but a welcome sight were Dick and LaVonne Holmes. They’re doing well in Tustin now, thank you.

Downey Rotarians included Nathan Mahoney, president-elect of the Downey club that donates big-brand toys for the foundation’s Children’s Carnival, and Jesse Vargas who is also a member of the foundation board. Lions Clubs sponsor children’s parties too, and encourage youth volunteer participation.

Cecelia Goñez, Judy Gallardo, Donna Lindley, executive director of The Arc in Downey and a Rotarian too; Beverly Mathis. Also President Linda Haines, former District Governor; Lorine Parks, and Dorothy Pemberton, were part of the Soroptimist group.

Cecelia Goñez, Judy Gallardo, Donna Lindley, executive director of The Arc in Downey and a Rotarian too; Beverly Mathis. Also President Linda Haines, former District Governor; Lorine Parks, and Dorothy Pemberton, were part of the Soroptimist group.

The largest contingent from a Downey organization were the Soroptimists, a group of a dozen or more of strikingly dressed community-minded women who care about making the world a better place for women and girls. President Linda Haines and past presidents Giggy Perez-Saab and Dorothy Pemberton posed with the others in a laughing line-up that couldn’t seem to decide if they were rehearsing a dance number or about to sing.

Rebecca Reyes joined the line. Rebecca is a new member, and has just begun to get into the world of needs. “This is the reward part,” I told her, “this is the fun. But working with people, helping them to see success, is the real reward.”

“Beverly Mathis -- you are an angel to Rancho,” Dorothy Pemberton later posted. “We Soroptimists we’re glad to help and thank you Beverly Mathis for sponsoring us. Great cause for a world-renowned rehabilitation hospital.” Bev is a longtime Soroptomst, married to Sam Mathis, of the Downey Optimists.

The Rancho Foundation has long been the preoccupation of the Optimist Club of Downey, and Optimist Club was the honoree at the 199l Amistad Gala. Sam Mathis, a genial table host tonight, has been active with the Foundation for forty years. The club, with Sam's leadership, has provided parties at Rancho at Christmas; for the Children's Carnival; for barbecues and at Easter when they do the Children's Easter Egg hunt with sometimes up to 50 dozen dyed egg. That’s 600 eggs.

“Sam was honored at the 2003 Amistad event,” said Bev, “for his volunteer service to Rancho and for his involvement with the Amigos Fund. Sam has said that seeing the smiling faces of the pediatric patients when they receive a balloon is worth a million dollars.”

“There are 1400 employees here at Rancho,” said Sam. “My next goal is to get every one of them directly involved.” Sam was elected to the Board of Directors for the Foundation in 2006.

Optimists also involve youth in learning to volunteer at Rancho, with the Warren High School Humanitarian Club a big help on Rancho projects.

Meredith Perkins, a former mayor of Downey who brought us our eponymous Skate Park, is another Optimist who attended. Meredith has been interest in Rancho and the Foundation since 1983, when Pete Schabarum was the District Supervisor. Later Supervisor Don Knabe has helped the foundation in so many ways, “like securing funding for building projects,” said Meredith. Now Supervisor Janice Hahn actively helps sponsor the foundation.

“We have been attending Amistad since 1991,” said Bev, “and we have never missed a year. I first was involved on the planning committee in 2009 and beginning in 2012, I chaired the event for several years. As for a ‘most touching’ moment we would have to say that miracles happen every day at Rancho and just being involved becomes a truly inspirational experience.”

Bev Mathis and Connie Wetzstein.

Bev Mathis and Connie Wetzstein.

Bev wore a crimson jacket with sparkling brilliants and gem stones sewn into it. Sam’s tux was augmented by a silver brocade vest. Meredith wore a finely quilted black silk vest with his black tie and had black satin edged lapels on his tux. Some ladies wore the latest, in see-through lace or ribboned hems on their gowns, and feminine footwear ranged from stiletto heels to strappy sandals to – occasionally – what seemed to be the grunge look, black army boots with a formal gown. Very creditable showing for Downeyites, right up to the minute on any red carpet, if not in everyone’s closet.

Servers offered filo pastries with warm Brie, and veggie egg rolls with a mild salsa. Champagne flutes arrived on silver trays as guests strolled through the lobby, looking at the silent auction items. There were opportunities to go to the Museum of Latin American Art, MOLAA, in Long Beach, and to the Skirball Center. A hand-painted bottle of Perrier Jouet Fleur de Champagne rested near a fine piece of Rancho art. This was a fundraiser after all.

Deborah Arroyo, head of the foundation, was resplendent in gauzy black tulle (the theme was a Black and White Ball), and greeted everyone as hostess, and Debbie Tomlinson, Director of Volunteers, flitted about in a dramatic floor-length black sheath draped and cut up to here.

A touching moment came during the opening ceremonies, when in an unscripted moment Deb Arroyo made a presentation to an unsuspecting Debbie Tomlinson. From a big shiny red bag she pulled out a pillow, cross-stitched with the Rancho logo in blue and “thank you.” The recipient clasped the pillow in thanks.

Debbie Tomlinson, Director of Volunteers for 46 amazing years of dedicated work. How is that possible, and still look so young?

Debbie Tomlinson, Director of Volunteers for 46 amazing years of dedicated work. How is that possible, and still look so young?

The occasion? By the next Amistad, Debbie Tomlinson will have retired. But for tonight, she too was a busy hostess. As Dorothy had commented, “A surprise retirement acknowledgment for Debbie Tomlinson. We know the hospital will miss you deeply, Debbie, as well as we will. Happy retirement end of year Debbie."

Back to the treasures displayed in the lobby, a sparkling bejeweled minaudière was displayed beside a pale pink leather Kate Spade purse. There was a gold leather Elton John swag bag, and sporting tickets galore, to Angels and Rams games. Four seats at a Dodgers-Yankee game in August could be had for maybe $400. Dodgers-Padres, not so much.

Miss Downey and her court were selling opportunity chances. We chatted with Tyler Garcia, a Downey Princess, splendid in a beaded emerald satin gown and tiara. She just graduated from Warren High School and now goes to Cal State Long Beach.

Several Rancho administrators scooted around in wheelchairs and tux, like the speedy Gilbert Salinas. To be in a chair at Rancho is to be one of the stars of the show. The staff is proud of the effort that gives that mobility to a recovering patient, and everyone admires the strength and will power that makes such success possible.

Rancho started as the County Poor Farm, and then became famous in the 1930’s and 40’s as a polio treatment and recovery center, with rows of patients encased in “iron lungs,” tanker-shaped machines that applied the pressure to breathe for the paralyzed afflicted.

But when polio’s cure came, Rancho shifted its attention to treating head injuries, spinal injuries and stroke victims. The Foundation was started to purchase patient items or programs that were not in the county budget. Now its mission is to restore health, rebuild life, and revitalize hope for persons with a life-changing illness, injury, or disability.

tyler garcia.jpg

The Rancho “team” approach is world famous, as Julie Helgren and I discussed. Julie has worked on Recreational Therapy for 33 years at Rancho, and now does Pediatric-Adolescent Therapy. That is a big job, working with young people dealing who are dealing with the “ordinary” trials and tribulations of adolescence as swell as devastating illness or injury.

Rehabilitation and post-polio syndrome are part of the new Rancho’s future, with its shiny new campus full of new buildings. One of those the Dr. Jacquelin Perry Out-Patient Wing, just dedicated in September. The renowned Downey Symphony Orchestra is giving a Gershwin concert dedicated as a tribute to the memory of Dr. Perry who lived in Downey for the last 40 years of her life and was a lover of fine music. A slide show during the evening advised patrons of the April 6 concert.

JoAnne Gronley, longtime associate of Dr Perry’s at Rancho in her pioneer gait analysis studies, attended, dressed in black and silver spangles. Joanne is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Downey Symphonic Society.

By now the party had shifted to the ballroom for dinner, where the menu promised both petite filet mignons of beef in green peppercorn sauce, and roast chicken demi-glace with mango relish. Red-berry mascarpone or chocolate lava volcano cake for dessert, and red and white wines poured freely for all, were offered.

An entertaining montage of interviews with Rancho researchers displayed some of the newest work, things like robotic where a machine is able to get in sync with the human brain. The motto of the evening was Research, Rehab and Re-integration.

Guests had an opportunity to offer to “Fund a Miracle.” Aided by Emcee David Kamber, Foundation Board member, attired in snowy white pleated shirt, white bow tie and black cutaway tail coat, bidders could attach small adhesive tabs with their personal bidding number to a fingernail to signal a bid.” By raising a hand, a runner was summoned to record the offer and solidify the “bid.” Cool.

Marvelous foundation opportunities were listed: for $1,000, one could fund someone in adult arts, robotic work, or help a child with cerebral palsey who has special wheelchair needs

Five hundred dollars sends someone to wheelchair basketball camp, and that is a wickedly rugged game. Players have to be fit. $250 pays for a Wellness Center scholarship. There were offers of sponsorship on all levels. So many activities are going on at the foundation, that interested volunteers can find something to join. The Volunteer Office also welcomes help.

A final event of the evening was the opportunity ticket winner, and Meredith Perkins was asked to draw the lucky names. It went to none other than the holder of ticket number 2, Sam Mathis, “a man who is the heart and soul of the foundation,” as the emcee said.

“The winner is the foundation,” said Sam.