Where would the Downey Library be without its volunteers?

“Thank you” said the tag on each sparkly silver gift bag, at the 38th Annual Volunteer & Major Donor Recognition Brunch, “Volunteers are like diamonds – precious and rare.”

Yes, our Downy Library staff is still operating, and Claudia Daley, Literacy Specialist, and Ben Dickow, Director, stood in the lobby of the Rio Hondo Event Center to welcome each guest along with Fernanda Nunez, assistant from the City of Downey.

Ethyl Kendrick

Ethyl Kendrick

The day was overcast, but volunteer Ethyl Kendrick brightened up the morning with a silver sequin head wrap to go with her black and white figured blouse. Head of Library Volunteers Virginia Yoshiyama, who wore fragrant white plumeria blossoms in her topknot, had the same idea. “I like to dress up the occasion,” Virginia said, and she did.

“It’s quiet from 4-6 p m,” said Ethyl, a Tuesday volunteer at the Friends Used Book Store. “That’s been my time to work. But I have my regulars, and they come in then. It’s been important to keep open for them. I don’t know what we’ll all do without a library for 18 months.”

The women and men in the room represented many hours of faithful service over many years, and they echoed Ethyl’s concern.

Mary Phelps

Mary Phelps

Friend of the Downey Library (FODL) Mary Phelps sat near the string quartet as they played during brunch, which is appropriate because Mary is an industrious and long-time member of the Downey Symphonic Society Board. Friends of the Downey Library is the extremely active support group that raises money through events such as the Christmas bazaar and bake sale. FODL also underwrote the city’s appreciation brunch, so no tax dollars were used for this festive occasion.

Guiding spirit for the luncheon Claudia Daley answered the burning question, what is happening after the city had to reject the bids for the new construction work?

“We’ll have a groundbreaking ceremony just as soon as a new bid is accepted,” said Claudia. “It’s out for bid again. We’ve been coming to work in the Library building but May 1 we expect to report somewhere else.”

The Library Advjsory Board was thanked. It’s composed of one member from each city district: Betty Monroy, Kimberly Hayes, Marie Yusem, Karol Morrison and Beverly Mathis. A bright pastel arrangement of spring flowers, pink and lavender and white, centered each of the seven tables, and men represented about 20% of the attendees. More volunteers are always invited.

The program began with Ben Dickow welcoming everyone and introducing the full complement of City Council members. Mayor Rick Rodriguez was on hand to thank the volunteers and friends. Remarkably, Rick, Alex Saab, and Mayor Pro Tem Blanca Pacheko are all Kiwanians. Councilwoman Claudia Frometa is a former member of the Assistance League of Downey’s Gypsy Johnson Auxiliary, and was recently recognized by Soroptimist International of Downey as a “Woman of Distinction.”

Councilman Sean Ashton, in his red City of Downey polo shirt, led the Flag Salute and gave the invocation. Sean said that the color was a personal choice, as evinced by Alex Saab in black. “There are maroon ones too,” said Sean, who volunteers for eco projects like Keep Downey Beautiful. and at the PTA at the school where he teaches.

Friends Bookstore Volunteers Colette Stallcup and Elsa Frazier.

Friends Bookstore Volunteers Colette Stallcup and Elsa Frazier.

Claudia, spring-like in her daffodil yellow jacket over a white dress covered with a floral display, then gave the keynote address. She began with the generosity of the Downey Women’s Club 60 years ago, when they gave their collection of books to the City to start its own Library. Now that the library is to be closed for 18 months, the Los Angeles County and local libraries like Santa Fe Springs, City of Commerce and Norwalk have stepped up to open their shelves to Downeyites. The book-orphans of Downey thank them.

Claudia’s fascinating history singled out special people like Councilwoman Joyce Lawrence, Cleo Latimer and Louise Cormack who made an extra effort to get the library going during the early years. The library partnered with the Assistance League of Downey to set up Books on Wheels, bringing books to homebound patrons, adults who can no longer go out into the world.

In the 80’s, Soroptimist Club members provided Downey children a Great Books Club in a local park. Jean Brazelton used her expertise as a teacher and a writer to teach high school students how to write their college entrance exams. Now there is a program to package books to send to soldiers.

After a generous buffet of scrambled eggs and hash browns, fruit and mini muffins, and sausages and bacon, Claudia opened the awards part of the morning. Each volunteer was recognized by name and a short phrase describing their contribution was read as they came forward.

All five City Council members shook hands with the volunteers, and presented a handsome Certificate of Appreciation in a black and silver folder. The little gift bag contained a silver case for business cards, which even retired persons now find helpful in this day when everyone exchanges email addresses.

A special shout-out to Major Donors came in the form of a handsomely illuminated scroll in an ebony frame. Receiving the award were Friends of the Downey City Library; Theresa and Michael Gallagher; Peter and Patricia Meursinge; and the Rotary Club of Downey. The latter has a long-running program where each week the library sends them a new book purchased with funds that Rotary donates. The club then asks the week’s program speaker to honor them by signing the book, as a memento of their appearance.

SEEN IN CONVERSATION: Volunteers Jackie Odell and Sandra Albornoz stopped by to talk about the stories in the Patriot about the two homeless women at the Downey Post Office.

“Something in their lives has gone awry,” said Jackie. “Every woman has had that fleeting thought, ‘you never know when it could happen to you.’ They can’t be left to stand out there like this.”

Note well: The library may be closed, but the volunteers and friends plan to continue to meet. A picnic supper in Furman Park on Wednesday, July 17, will be the first reunion, to hear the Department of Parks and Recreations’ Summer Concert Series, The Wiseguys, who play big band music. Come at 5:30, because the Board of the Friends of the Library will bring salads to share, and there will be food for sale by the Downey Rose Float Association. Everyone works together.

Other get-togethers are planned for November and each three months till the library opens.

Meanwhile, are the staff at the Library keeping busy?

“We’re running around like crazy,” said Claudia. “There is so much to do before we open again.”

The arts are thriving at Downey Unified

Eye on our Schools

This is my third month of Eye on our Schools, I hope you have enjoyed the first two articles and hope you will continue with me on my journey through our schools. To save space in this article, I’m abbreviating the middle schools to MS and high schools to HS or sometimes I just drop the initials completely.

Words cannot express the great pride I take when asked what school district I represent. I reply the “Great and Wonderful Downey Unified School District” because that is exactly how I feel about this district and so much more. Education in Downey Unified is about much more than the three “R’s” (reading, writing and arithmetic). More specifically it’s also about creating students who value the Arts.

The past few weeks, I was lucky to see some of the activities associated with the Arts at the middle schools. Our drama teachers are the best around! They are excited about their plays and project energy onto their students, who in turn use that energy in their performances. We also have a great community full of supporters and parents who dedicate their free time in support of our students.

I laughed (and sometimes sang) along with the audience at the productions of “Shakespeare Goes To Gravel Gulch….” at Doty MS, “Haphazardly Ever After” at Griffiths MS and “Grease” at Stauffer MS. I love the “outtakes” and commercials that you get to watch during intermission at Doty; they made me laugh and kept me entertained while the crew got ready for the next act.

Watching the kids do the “hand Jive” during “Grease” took me back a few years, and I must give kudos to dedicated community member, Mr. Jeff Toussing, who carved and painted the Greased Lightnin’ car out of styrofoam for Stauffer.

At Griffiths, there was a student in the audience from another district and at the end of the performance I overheard her ask the person sitting next to her if this was a magnet school. The girl she asked replied that it was not. She then responded saying that this production was better than the plays at her own performing arts magnet school… What a great compliment!

These may be middle school productions, but our students, sets and costumes are a big step above standard middle school expectations.

Now moving on to the productions at the high schools, which seem like they could be seen live on Broadway! I recently saw the Downey HS production of “In The Heights” at the Downey Civic Theatre, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and wonderful sets designed and built by Downey HS teacher Vincent Appel.

Downey High School students performing “In the Heights.”

Downey High School students performing “In the Heights.”

There was dancing, singing, cheering, crying and everything in-between. I was amazed by the students’ ability to remember the often long and fast paced dialogue. You would have thought you were sitting at the Pantages Theatre.

And let’s not forget the great productions at Warren HS. While they are always in a smaller and more intimate setting where they do not need to use a microphone, the students are spot on when it comes to being funny, engaging, dramatic and captivating.

I saw their most recent play last Saturday, “Yankee Tavern” and I have to say that it was another brilliant production. Warren’s drama teacher majored in set design and again he didn’t disappoint. The stage was turned into a working tavern where attendees could purchase a beverage for the evening…non-alcoholic of course. The only beer on tap was root beer.

My favorite annual play is “Night of the Living Dead” where a certain science teacher does a guest appearance as a Zombie. A few years ago, the construction teacher built a rotating platform into the stage floor that turns between scenes when necessary and has been used in multiple plays. That’s something you don’t see at every high school!

Warren High has another production coming up soon, the comedy “Mrs. California” beginning May 22nd through May 25th at 7:30pm. I highly recommend that you get to the Warren High theater early because seats sell out quickly.

The music programs at the middle and high schools are equally as wonderful as the drama productions. They all have opportunities for some, if not all, of the following activities such as choir groups, jazz bands, marching bands, jazz singers and the list goes on.

Downey HS just came in first place at the Monterey NextGenerations Jazz Festival against jazz bands all across the country. And Warren HS has won the Southern California School Band & Orchestra Association (SCSBOA) Division Championship two years in a row and this school year earned their highest points in school history with a 94.15.

Keep your eyes on the individual schools’ websites for opportunities to hear some of the best performances in Southern California.

I talked a lot about the drama productions, but our district also provides so many great opportunities in Music and Visual Arts for our students at all levels. I will revisit this area more during a later article.

As I close, let me put in a couple plugs… If you’d like to have some hands-on fun with animation, I recommend you go to Mr. Bill Austin’s class, Room K1, at Warren HS at 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Wednesday nights where he opens his classroom doors to anyone that wants to learn about animation.

At the elementary level, please visit the Downey Foundation for Educational Opportunities’ website (DFEO.org) to see what our partner foundation offers our students to help supplement art education.

As you can see, I am very proud of the opportunities we provide our students every day at our schools to help them become citizens of strong character. None of this would be possible if it weren’t for the support of every one of our employees. Our teachers are always looking for ways to impact our students and our non-teaching Classified staff for providing food for them every day and keep our schools looking clean, safe and inviting.

Upcoming events:

  • Downey HS Band Spring Concert at the Downey Civic Theater - Thursday, May 2, 7:00 p.m.

  • Warren HS has another play coming up that I mentioned earlier. Visit: www.emersontheatre.net for details

  • Warren HS Spring Concert at the Downey Civic Theater - Tuesday, April 30, 7:00 p.m.

  • Doty MS Spring Concert at the Downey Civic Theater – Monday, May 13, 6:30 p.m.

  • Griffiths MS Spring Concert – Tuesday, May 21, 6:00 p.m.

  • Sussman MS Concert on the Lawn – Thursday, May 16, 5:00 p.m.

I hope to see you there!

Nancy A. Swenson
President, Downey Unified Board of Education