DOWNEY — You could hear the sounds of the big band, drum beats and blazing trumpets and the shrillness of a fife, before you got to the big open Don Knabe Plaza at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center.
It was one o’clock in the afternoon and the Warren High School marching band and drill team were entertaining the crowd at the New Year’s carnival for pediatric patients and their families, at the verdant campus off Old River School Road in Downey.
A blue sky brightened the mild December day. “We put on this carnival for children in the Pediatric Ward and their families,” said Debbie Tomlinson, Director of Volunteers. “They come here from all over the United States and Christmas can be a lonely time away from home.”
“This carnival is for the kids, who are both out-patients and in-patients,” added Debbie.
We could see that other resident patients from the other facilities were also enjoying the afternoon. Rancho offer hope in vitalizing lives that have been damaged by life-changing illness, accident or disability. Spinal cord injury, stroke, traumatic brain injury, and other neurological disorders are treated here.
The plaza at Rancho Los Amigos (RLA) is one place where a person in a wheelchair is a star. The RLA campus is a wheelchair-friendly place. The pride of the professional staff and the joy of family members, patients in wheelchairs keep a high profile here, from playing games of chance like ring toss, to waiting in the line for cotton candy and popcorn hot from the popping machine. Chair-bound patients in bright scarlet sweaters and one with outrageous turquoise colored hair chatted with friends.
Everything at the carnival was offered free, and Warren’s Humanitarian Club members wrapped and handed out hot dogs with all the trimmings, lemonade and heavenly angel food cake. “We expect at least 450 here today,” said Debbie.
These teenage volunteers also help at the doings of the Rancho Foundation, the adult volunteer non-profit group that raises funds for programs, services and equipment for Rancho patients and their families at their annual Amistad Gala Ball.
Christmas in a hospital ward can be a lonely time for children who come here from all over the United States, and the world. But not at Debbie’s carnival. So many communities participated: Miss Bellflower and Miss Teen Bellflower and the court appeared with their chaperone, tiaras sparkling in the afternoon sun.
Centering the elliptical plaza is a colorful 20-ft. tall sculptured “Tree of Life.” Around the wide paved area are woven neat geometric semi-circles of greenery with a park-like atmosphere, with comfortable benches and low trimmed bushes, and planted with small droopy-needle pine trees for shade. It’s a nice place to stop and just sit and look around.
Located on the north campus above Imperial Highway, big buildings named for important people in the history of Rancho encircle a central plaza that defines the heart of this campus. The handsomely paved open concourse of the plaza itself is bounded on one side by the Don Knabe Wellness Center, where the community is invited to join as members. Don was a longtime county supervisor for the Fourth District, a great friend to Rancho and a vital part in launching the Rancho Rising 20/20 construction project, which is completely transforming the campus.
To the south is the sparkling new Jacquelin Perry Institute, a glass and stone edifice which opened its new wing in September also part of Rancho’s 20/20. Dr. Perry pioneered surgical repair techniques for spinal injuries, and then did outstanding work in the field of locomotion studies – walking analysis - that bolsters the work of the Stroke Rehabilitation Services. In April of 2019, the Downey Symphony will present a Gershwin! Night Concert in Dr. Jackie’s honor, underwritten in gratitude for her world-famous lifetime of work here.
Giving out tickets for the toys for the grand prizes for the games was Stephanie Reyes, a junior at Mayfair High in Lakewood, an all-girls college-preparatory high school. She is a member of the Leo’s Club, a youth organization of Lions Clubs International. Lion’s International partnered with Rancho to put on this day’s festivities.
“I’m the president of the club this year,” Stephanie said. “We have 45 members, and eight are here today. We volunteer to help at Lion’s Club activities like this. And Monday we’re going to Pasadena, to help decorate the Lions International Rose Parade Float. They’ll pick us up early in the morning and we’ll spend the day putting the final touches on the float.”
What kind of touches? “Last-minute things like placing each rose into a tube with water. I hope we win a prize,” Stephanie said.
She plans to study Early Childhood Education in college and her Mayfair colleague who was also helping intends to be a Registered Nurse.
“The Lions have partnered with Rancho on this since before I began my present job” said Debbie. “They were already here when I came, and I’ve been here 45 years all together.” That is clearly impossible because Debbie doesn’t even look old enough to be 45.
“I worked here about 20 years, and then I left for two years to work elsewhere for the county. One day they called and offered me the Director of Nursing job, so I came back. And then one day the director of the hospital called me in an asked if I had ever thought of a career change.”
“When the CEO asks you a question like that, you get interested pretty quickly,” Debbie said. “They offered me the position of director of volunteers and I was interested because I wanted to broaden the base of volunteers here, and what they did. This New Year’s festival is the first event I ever did, so it is sort of my signature event.”
And how did the Lions get involved with Rancho? Just then Lion Steve Stolar came along, wearing his dark blue Lion’s tee shirt.
Steve is a member of the City of Industry Lion’s Club, which is in District 4-L4, and he was able to fill in the details.
“The Lions do whatever they can to strengthen the community,” said Steve, who has a juvenile law practice. “In 1925 Helen Keller spoke to the Lions and challenged us to help those who are visually impaired, so we became ‘Knights of the Blind’ in the crusade against darkness. Then we branched out to whatever was needed.”
Steve mentioned long-time Downey resident Carl Berger as being one of the most prominent Lions at Rancho. I had already been greeted by Carl, who was sporting his black Rancho jacket and RLA volunteer pin over his navy Lion’s shirt, enjoying a hotdog with the trimmings. Carl is a gifted craftsman who custom-makes devices that he invents himself, to make everyday chores easier for individual patients, like a non-spill bowl and a convertible spoon-fork, a “spork.”
“Everyone here has such great morale,” I said. “That’s Debbie,” said Steve.
How does one win those giant teddy bear prizes? “You get tickets for winning at the games, like bean bag throw,” said Debbie. “Don’t worry, it’s easy to win one.”
The toys for the prizes had been donated by Rotary Club of Downey, when they had received an extraordinary windfall from Spin Master Toys. Rotary brokered the largesse and passed it on, to local Rotary clubs and other community organizations, like the Downey Fire Department and now RLA.
I had caught up with Debbie again as the crowd was starting to leave. The sign of the true professional in charge is their being the last to go, and cleaning up after the party. Debbie was push-brooming popcorn from where some puffs had fallen around the popcorn machine. “We’ll put it on the grass and the birds will come and eat it, after we’re gone,” she said. So the event is ecologically viable too, and even the birds share the bounty.
For over 125 years this immense 212 acreage in Downey has served the population, first as the Los Angeles County Poor Farm. Administered in the 20th century by William Harriman, alas a founding member in 1924 of the Rotary Club of Downey, the inhabitants grew produce here during the Depression to bring in income.
Then came fame as a polio center with an iron lung ward. After polio was cured, the Hospital devoted its efforts to victims of accidents, stroke and diseases who need top-notch surgical repair and rehab.
I caught up with departing Helen Armstrong, a member of the Warren High band who was carrying an instrument case that was nearly as tall as she was.
“I play the baritone sax,” she said. “I’m the only one who plays something this size, so they always want me to play.”
Helen was being modest. The “bari sax" is one of the largest members of the saxophone family, only being smaller than the bass and contrabass. It is the lowest-pitched saxophone in common use and is more often heard in classical concerts and jazz combos. And it is not often employed in marching bands due to its size and weight. So thanks to Helen for coming.
As I left, I could hear Debbie’s voice calling numbers for the prizes, the last order of the day. The sun had been playing peek-a-boo with some clouds but now it came out again, to end RLA’s 23rd New Year’s carnival, full of love and cheer and hope for 2019.
Lorine Parks is a society columnist for the Downey Patriot.