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Entrepreneurial Innovators Who Took It to the Community

November 07, 2000|PATT DIROLL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Five grass-roots entrepreneurs were in the spotlight at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel last Thursday for their innovative solutions to needs in the greater Los Angeles community. This year's recipients of the Visions in Philanthropy Awards, chosen from nearly 100 nominees:

* Robin Keefe and her 15-year-old son Brandon, who have mobilized volunteers to collect and place thousands of books in the hands of Southland children. Their program, BookEnds, began when Brandon asked his third-grade class to collect used books to start a library at Hollygrove, a residential treatment center for children, where his mother served as CEO and board chairman. Over the last seven years, BookEnds has helped to develop 39 libraries, schools and youth organizations. "Everyone has books they've read and outgrown. Why not give them to kids who need them?" said Brandon, whose appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in October resulted in more than $250,000 worth of new book donations.

* Mollie Lowery, a 20-year social service activist who opened the doors of LAMP in 1985, as a safe haven in the heart of L.A.'s skid row for people struggling with mental illness, addiction and/or HIV and AIDS.

* Debrah Constance, a longtime community volunteer who in 1993 took her severance pay from Jon Douglas Realty to launch A Place Called Home in a South-Central church to provide a place for kids to hang out after school, do homework and be sheltered from a gang-infested environment. Jon Douglas provided the necessary administrative support, and in 1996 the agency was able to move to its own facility, where it now serves more than 3,500 South-Central youths and is nationally recognized for its success in preventing youth violence.

* Joseph Loeb, a computer operator who resolved to help heal his South-Central neighborhood following the 1992 riots. He sold his car, turned his garage into a 12-station computer classroom and taught computer skills to more than 300 people in the area. That's how Breaking Away Technologies began. And with support from Biola University, Microsoft and USC, his firm has set up more than 200 computer labs for other organizations, including LAMP. "Whenever you have something in your spirit that you absolutely have to do," said Loeb, "go for it, and you'll be amazed at what will happen."

The awards are sponsored by the L.A. law firm Freeman, Freeman & Smiley Foundation for Philanthropy in collaboration with the California Community Foundation, the Jewish Community Foundation and Northern Trust.

"We owe these folks," said founding partner Douglas K. Freeman in presenting the awards. "Because they have made this community so much better, one life at a time."

*

Three weeks after her wedding, Marcia Wallace a.k.a. "Carol," the irreverent secretary on "The Bob Newhart Show," was diagnosed with breast cancer. That was 15 years ago, and thanks to early detection and an immediate lumpectomy, she's not only cancer-free, but also has become a militant spokeswoman for breast cancer awareness.

On Wednesday, she shared her birthday along with her wit and wisdom with 400 at the Wellness Community-Foothills' annual luncheon, chaired by Nell Wilson, at Pasadena's Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel. "Don't just look for lumps," she told us. "Watch for any changes in the breast. If you do face surgery, don't get talked into a mastectomy, if you have the option of a lumpectomy. It's your choice. Above all, maintain a positive outlook; take someone with you for the consultation. You can't process information properly when you're scared to death."

*

Philanthropist Cynthia Palmer Gershman loves show business. So much so, she isn't above a little polite blackmail. A few years back, when a white Rolls-Royce Corniche was needed for a film, she lent hers in return for a small part. Thus began a serious new career for the widow of Beverly Hills builder Hal Gershman. To date, she's appeared in four films, including "The Last Producer" with Bert Reynolds, in which she plays Maude Chasen. When she isn't acting, she's helping actors in need.

Gershman didn't hesitate to write a check to fully underwrite last Saturday's centennial tribute to composer Kurt Weill, co-sponsored by STAGE (Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event) to benefit the Actors Fund of America. "To paraphrase a Kurt Weill song," said event chairman Dale Olson, "Cynthia is making the fund's 'ship come in.' She's truly our angel, and she's having the time of her life!"

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