Whether it’s visible or secret, loud or quiet, large or small, philanthropy is essential to the growth and well-being of a community. It helps diverse members reach common goals and signifies a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. The Coachella Valley is lucky to have an abundance of people who give time, money, and expertise in the service of others to sustain a quality of life otherwise impossible.
In the realm of education, the act of giving runs deep and wide. Engaged corporations and altruistic individuals bestow millions of dollars annually in support of local institutions. The names of generous megadonors and fundraising luminaries pepper the media and adorn buildings: Helene Galen, Richard Oliphant, Peggy Cravens, Gary Hall, Richard Heckmann, Harold Matzner, Rozene Supple … it’s an extensive list that seems to swell with each passing year.
“This is a very generous community. Not every place with a small-town vibe has the luxury to attract individuals with big-town mentalities,” notes Ellen Goodman, executive director of the Palm Springs Unified School District Foundation, the district’s fundraising arm that supports under- and unfunded programs. “There’s a really interesting hybrid of individuals who live here and care about contributing on all levels to make their home a better place. I see it from the $5-million donor or the folks who have $5 taken out of their paychecks. It comes from all around good citizenship.”
Beneath the surface of glitzy galas and elegant awards recognizing impressive donations lie several tiers of support for desert education. Although they represent only a small slice of the bountiful altruism that gilds our valley, these lesser-known gifts of time, energy, knowledge, and money enrich the valley’s educational opportunities.
Dance Party with a Purpose
Money can’t buy the feeling you get watching a 10-year-old in a tuxedo dancing with a smile on his face. Knowing that his joy conveys something more meaningful than recreational fun is the result of Bob and Nancy Horn, whose Red Hot Ballroom program teaches waltz, tango, swing, cha-cha, and salsa to third- through fifth-graders for 26 weeks every school year.
Bob and Nancy Horn’s Red Hot Ballroom program teaches waltz, tango, swing, cha-cha, and salsa to third-through fifth-graders for 26 weeks every school year.
The couple started the program eight years ago in response to public outcry over the dearth of quality after-school programs. The Horns, longtime desert residents who boast an impressive resume of music and dance experience, felt they could nourish young students with an after-school smorgasbord of music and dance. Launching Red Hot Ballroom with only $500, they incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit that operates on an annual budget of $60,000 received through city grants and private donations. It serves students from Desert Hot Springs to Mecca at no cost to schools or participating families.
“We supply dance outfits when necessary and help from volunteers called ‘Dance Amigos,’ ” Bob Horn says, adding that 60 to 70 percent of students in Red Hot Ballroom live in low-income neighborhoods.
Mastering the intricacies of ballroom dance demands commitment and those qualities spill over into academic studies. “The kids learn to focus, and they take that into the classroom, where they focus on different studies,” Nancy Horn explains. “They gain self-esteem and self-confidence, and it just radiates.”
Last year, the Horns relegated oversight of Red Hot Ballroom to its board of directors in order to focus on a new nonprofit, All Things Are Possible. Its curriculum helps people struggling with disabilities that include autism, Alzheimer’s, and PTSD.
Transitioning from Red Hot Ballroom to the new venture, says Bob, is “kind of like raising a child through school, getting him or her into college and out into the real world as a young professional. … But now they’re on their own.”
Preps to Pros
High school sports programs can be a leg up for students climbing out of a disadvantaged background, but sometimes even the most gifted athletes need a boost. When a star Desert Hot Springs High School football player with an impressive GPA went unnoticed by Division I college recruiters, it ruffled the feathers of seasonal Rancho Mirage resident Dr. Jerry Argovitz, a former dentist who became one of pro football’s most influential agents.
“It was so unnatural for a player like this to fall through the cracks,” Argovitz recalls. “So my wife, Loni, and I decided to look into it.”
Working with this athlete and others rekindled an excitement and purpose Argovitz felt was missing from his life. “I measure things by football games,” he explains. “I was in the fourth quarter; I’m a bogey golfer and can have lunch with the same guys only so many times. I felt like I was a bump on a log.”
Argovitz endowed the program at Rancho Mirage High School with a $1 million grant to initiate the Jerry Argovitz Sports Institute (JASI).
The program, launched in 2015, introduces athletes and sports-minded students to career options in professional sports through lectures, presentations, guest speakers, and field trips. As the heart and soul of JASI, Argovitz infuses the program with a set of principles drawn from personal and professional experience.
“I teach these kids that it takes three things to be a man of character. Rule No. 1: Do the right thing. Rule No. 2: Always do the right thing. Rule No. 3: Repeat rules No. 1 and 2,” he explains. “If you don’t have integrity, it doesn’t matter what you do in life; you’re going to fail.
“A lot of these students never thought about a college education or a meaningful future; they’re just trying to get through high school,” Argovitz says. “I teach them how to plan for their goals and about teamwork, being responsible and accountable, understanding the relationship between choices and consequences, and giving 110 percent whatever you’re doing.”
JASI will stay the current course as the program settles into its third year, according to Argovitz. He hopes eventually to offer JASI to female athletes and students interested in sports-related careers.
Although still in its relative infancy, JASI has had a positive impact. Last year’s JASI Man of the Year received a scholarship to the University of Montana. And that star football player from Desert Hot Springs who couldn’t get recruiters to take a second look? He’s at the University of Redlands, Argovitz notes, studying business administration and management. “Probably working on his master’s degree,” he speculates.
You Are Where You Live
“If you root children in their community — if they know the history and recognize the streets — they begin to have a vested interest,” says Renee Brown, who created Zaddie Bunker’s Traveling Museum to educate valley third-graders about their environment, including desert flora and fauna, the history of the indigenous Cahuilla Indians and early settlers, and the origin of street names.
Brown’s program functions under the umbrella of the nonprofit Palm Springs Historical Society, which employs her as director of education and associate curator. Supplementing the third-grade curriculum that focuses on local history and Native Americans, as mandated by the California Department of Education, Brown and volunteer Sandra Worswick teach students about Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley through hands-on activities, field trips to Indian Canyons and the Coachella Valley History Museum, and skits put on by Brown and Worswick in full costume to relay stories of prominent desert pioneers. At the end of the school year, the students perform in the annual Palm Springs History Fair dressed as historical characters.
Brown’s program, now in its fifth year, operates with about $5,400 primarily to cover transportation costs. Funds trickle in from foundations, small grants, and generous residents like Patty Delgado Elliott, owner of Las Casuelas Terraza in Palm Springs. “We’re more of a ‘sweat equity’ enterprise,” Brown says with a good-natured laugh.
The program reaches kids in three PS Unified elementary schools, and Brown hopes to increase that number. “There are so many schools we haven’t touched yet. But we’re hoping to get the funding to expand.”
You Can’t Build a Future Without the Right Tools
As the auxiliary branch of Tools For Tomorrow, a specially designated arts program serving pre-adolescent Coachella Valley students, the Visionaries understand the importance of nurturing expressive imagination. “If you don’t get the kids young and give them the opportunity to use their creativity, it never fully develops,” says Visionaries Chairwoman Judith Antonio.
Tools For Tomorrow has been providing free, on-site, after-school programs since 1999, when a panel of experts identified the need for a literacy-based curriculum integrating art, music, theater, and creative writing.
“Part of our program is drama, and our students — many of whom are the children of farmworkers — get to play different roles they wouldn’t likely experience at home,” Antonio explains.
“One little boy was having a lot of problems,” Antonio recalls. “After being involved in the program, his mother reported that not only was he doing better in school, but he took on a leadership role at home and on the playground.”
Although Tools For Tomorrow has been assisting students across the valley for 17 years, the Visionaries are a relatively new addition created to raise awareness and funds for Tools for Tomorrow programs. Building relationships with community partners provides summer scholarships for deserving students, is a critical component of the auxiliary’s outreach efforts.
Buoyed by an active all-volunteer board, the Visionaries have made quick progress, stretching the organization’s reach from eight to 15 schools in only three years. “There are 14 people on the board, and they all work,” Antonio says. “They don’t just come to a meeting once a month. If there are envelopes to stuff, 12 [people] will be there and the other two will have doctors’ appointments.”
In 2015 alone, the Visionaries helped raise more than $250,000, much of which came from the Vision for the Future Award Luncheon acknowledging the generosity of philanthropist Harold Matzner, who quietly supports Tools For Tomorrow. The money from this annual event enabled another 600 at-risk children to participate.
Girls Just Want to Have Some
“I married the wrong guy, had two kids, and was suddenly faced with taking responsibility for my life,” Joan Busick recalls. “As I went through life, I saw that women had common threads. We support each other.”
Armed with a $600 grant from Soroptimists and infinite support from its members, Busick went back to school to become a CPA with the goal of helping other women. “Ultimately, I wanted to give back to the community in which we live, and what better way than to support women whose situation I understand?” she asks.
She started the nonprofit Girlfriend Factor to help women reroute their lives through education. This month Girlfriend Factor celebrates 10 years of providing renewable educational grants and emotional encouragement to women 25 and older who want to improve their lives through higher education and occupational training.
The annual grant per recipient is increasing thanks to amplified exposure and popular fundraisers such as Club Cabana, which recognizes men who support the organization.
Over the years, this spirited event has attracted an impressive roster of valley supporters, including Richard Heckmann, Terry Weiner of Leeds & Son Fine Jewelers, Dr. Mark Sofonio, restaurateur Mitch Epstein, Classic Club General Manager Greg Rubino, and gallery owner Christian Hohmann.
In 2015, Goldenvoice COO Skip Paige raised $17,000 during Club Cabana. “We raised more than $50,000 at the Cabana Club auction that year, which was a really big deal for us,” Busick says.
Busick acknowledges that Girlfriend Factor is a “boutique charity with a very specific mission — to provide educational grants and emotional support to local adult women attending local educational institutions, who didn’t attend college after high school and were derailed from their potential.”
This fundamental belief in second chances has generated first-rate success stories: a truck driver struggling to care for her children from the road today holds an advanced nursing degree; a divorced mother with little work experience earned her teaching credential in special education; a young woman went back to school to support her family after her husband contracted multiple sclerosis.
Kid Care for Parents
At the College of the Desert’s McCarthy Family Child Development & Training Center, parents focus on their own educational goals while their young children receive care from students on an academic track.
Established through the generosity of Patrick and Edeltraud McCarthy, the center acts as the demonstration program for the college’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) department and is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Staffed primarily by students majoring in ECE, the center provides an invaluable opportunity to observe, implement projects, and teach students in connection with their College of the Desert courses.
“The students get a great opportunity to work hands-on with children, and the parents don’t lose class time when their babysitter flakes out,” Patrick McCarthy explains. “And the kids are getting professionally educated at the same time.”
McCarthy considered several philanthropic options for what was originally his father’s foundation. “I was living in New York, and my parents lived at Eldorado Country Club [in Indian Wells]. My father had Alzheimer’s and had grandfathered me in on his own private charitable foundation,” he remembers. When his mother asked him to come out to the desert to help, McCarthy had no idea how to oversee a foundation. He turned to Gene House, who at the time was the COD Foundation executive director.
“He taught me the ins and outs of running the foundation,” McCarthy says. “He said, ‘How about giving something to the college?’ And I said, ‘Sure,’ because I’m big into education.”
The money McCarthy donates directly benefits the center. “It doesn’t go around corners or through red tape,” he says. “I designate it to go right to the source to help someone realize their dreams, and I get rewarded by the feeling that I helped somebody.”
When it comes to the value of education, McCarthy is adamant, stating, “You can take my house. You can take my car. But you can never take away my education. I want to give that back.”
Bullying Gets a Timeout
When part-time desert resident Jerry Fogelson decided three years ago to allocate funds from the Fogelson Family Foundation to improve education in the Coachella Valley, he hired Dr. Lorraine Becker, former PSUSD assistant superintendent of Innovation Research and Educational Development, to conduct a study of local elementary schools and ferret out the greatest needs.
The report identified several issues, from bullying to obesity, that compelled Fogelson to deconstruct the hallowed rite of grade-school kids: recess, where crucial socialization and problem-solving skills develop often amid a carnival of chaos.
Further research led to the Oakland-based nonprofit Playworks, which partners with schools in urban areas to design curricula and activities beyond the classroom that support learning, safety, and fitness during free time and organized play. Given a green light from PSUSD, the foundation underwrote the cost of a test run on two Coachella Valley schools with program direction and resources supplied by Playworks.
The local program, dubbed Game On!, yielded spectacular results the first year. “Bullying decreased 95 percent, if not more, and there was no more pandemonium in the schoolyard,” Fogelson reveals.
Stanford University researchers published a study last year that found well-organized, regulated recess periods encourage rule-following, positive language, and inclusivity, and fosters favorable student outcomes, from attendance to achievement.
“When they go back into the classroom, they’re in the right frame of mind to participate in their education,” Fogelson says. “That was the mission, and mission accomplished.”
The Fogelsons’ support allowed the district to implement Game On! in eight additional schools, affecting about 6,500 students daily in second through fifth grades. At an annual cost of $45,000 per school, which covers equipment, training, salaries, and independent evaluations contracted with Playworks, the district could not have initiated the program without the Fogelsons’ assistance.
“One of the things that really attracted me to Game On! is that these schools are in economically deprived areas,” Folgelson says, “so a lot of these kids aren’t getting the benefits that maybe more affluent families can provide.”
Fogelson says his wife, Georgia, and their three adult children all contribute time to foundation efforts. “In many cases, that’s more valuable than anything else.”
Qualified Success — A Sampling
>> Square-footage of the Richard J. Heckmann International Center for Entrepreneurial Management at University of California, Riverside Palm Desert campus, funded initially in 2001 by a $6 million donation from Richard Heckmann.
>> Additional acres of land given to California State University, San Bernardino Palm Desert Campus in 2015 by the City of Palm Desert, increasing the land transfer from the city to the university to approximately 168 acres.
>> Students at College of the Desert who utilize the Donald and Peggy Cravens Student Services Center funded by their $3.5 million endowment.
>> The number of seats in the Helene Galen Theatre at Rancho Mirage High School named for the desert philanthropist in recognition of a $1.5 million donation from the Galen Family Foundation in 2013 to initiate a performing arts endowment fund. The complex also includes the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center.
>> Students collectively affected by fundraising organizations affiliated with specific local districts and campuses: Coachella Valley Education Foundation (Coachella Valley School District); Palm Springs Unified School District Foundation; Desert Sands Educational Foundation; College of the Desert Foundation.
>> The year Rozene Supple pledged the largest single donation in Palm Springs Unified School District’s history — $2 million. The Rozene Supple Endowment supports performing and visual arts and health and wellness. This month, the newly renovated Palm Springs High School theater will be renamed the Richards Center for the Arts in honor of Supple’s father, George Richards.