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The Water Buffalo Club's grass-roots charity pays big dividends

A group of Westside professionals turned their social clique into a charitable club that has raised millions to enrich the lives of children.

August 30, 2013|Sandy Banks
  • Rob Deutschman, right, a founder of the Water Buffalo Club, and his son David, 16, at the Santa Monica Pier. In 1989, Deutschman and about a dozen others turned their social clique into a charitable club that would make small donations to struggling groups trying to help children.
Rob Deutschman, right, a founder of the Water Buffalo Club, and his son David,… (Ed Suddleson )

It started as a social club, a way for a bunch of Westside workaholics to carve out time for fun while doing a few good deeds on the side.

As comfortable alums of prestigious schools, with satisfying careers, they wanted their friendship to become a lever of social change.

"We were part of that generation in the '60s and '70s where social causes based on race and poverty came to the forefront," recalled investment banker Rob Deutschman. "We were all exposed to the civil rights movement, to Vietnam, to the campaigns against poverty in urban America. The lessons we learned from that compelled us to want to do something active, to be directly involved."

So in 1989, Deutschman and about a dozen others — accountants, attorneys, investment bankers — turned their social clique into a charitable club that would make small donations to struggling groups trying to help children.

Their launch was almost comically inauspicious. They dubbed themselves the Westside Boys Club, until they realized that was uncomfortably close to the Billionaire Boys Club moniker being used by a high-profile set of Westside rich kids headed to jail for murder.

"We'd already ordered T-shirts with WBC on the front," Deutschman recalled. "So we had to find a name that matched the initials."

Someone — a Flintstones fan, no doubt — came up with a name that fit: the Water Buffalo Club. It stuck. The club's membership grew.

Those small donations have amounted to $2.5 million since, enriching the lives of thousands of disabled, neglected and underprivileged children.

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I half expected the guys to show up wearing furry hats with horns when we met this summer at the Santa Monica Pier for their annual "Christmas in June" outing for hundreds of children.

Their slogan, "Big kids helping little kids," was on full display. A tall man in a floppy hat stooped to comfort a second-grader who had lost her nerve to board the junior roller coaster. A boy whose throw won a stuffed animal at a ball toss was high-fived by a horde of ecstatic men who'd coached him through multiple tries.

It was the first time many of those children had visited the pier's amusement park or aquarium. "It's such a treat," said Rockdale Elementary principal Desiree DeBond Vargas, whose students look forward to it all year.

But the outings aren't what make the Water Buffalo Club special. It's the help they give to grass-roots groups trying to do big things for children on tiny budgets. A look at the list of requests on their website provides a bird's-eye view of unmet need in services for children.

"You know there's money out there, but there's so much red tape and it's so hard, when you're just a couple of volunteers, to even get started," said Lisa Tanzman, whose Camp Erutan ("nature" backward) hosts children from foster care every summer.

The Water Buffalo Club bought her a 20-passenger van 13 years ago, shortly after she and a friend launched the camping program with their own money. "They asked what was the thing we needed most, and that was it," Tanzman said. Since then the seaside camp has expanded to three sites, and the Water Buffalo Club has made sure kids have sleeping bags and boogie boards.

Water Buffalo Club grants have helped stock libraries and taught children to read; provided diapers, clothing and eyeglasses to low-income families; offered music instruction, art classes and dance lessons; and comforted children suffering with cancer or recovering from abuse.

Their biannual Charity Selection Night is like a philanthropic version of "America's Got Talent." Each group makes a pitch, and the club decides which will get funded.

Jennie Wong Robles of Burbank remembers feeling a little worried when she touted her Birthday Box Project. She and four friends had been packing cakes, decorations, utensils, gifts, party favors and a camera into cardboard boxes and delivering them to shelters so parents could host their children's birthday celebrations.

"We're Eastside, they're Westside. They're men and we're a bunch of moms. But they were so open, so sensitive, they understood right away what we were trying to do," Robles said.

The men gave the group enough money to build a website and move its operation from dining-room table to warehouse. A project that started with 40 boxes in 2007 filled enough boxes for 800 homeless children to have birthday parties this year.

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The Water Buffalo Club doesn't do much fundraising itself; its coffers are members' wallets.

It costs $1,500 a year to be a Water Buffalo and an additional $1,000 to help fund annual projects. Membership is limited to 75, and there's a waiting list to join.

They don't all live on the Westside anymore, and none of them are boys. They are fathers and grandfathers who want their children to understand the responsibility that privilege carries.

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