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2015 Desert Gala

Susan Francis
Ophelia Project

The Ophelia Project, a program of Healthy Family Foundation since 1998, is a comprehensive five-year group-mentoring program serving hundreds of girls annually in 8th through 12th grade, in all three Unified School Districts in Coachella Valley. The goals of the Ophelia Project are to: increase grade point averages; reduce drop-out rates; reduce absenteeism, build self-esteem; increase graduation rates; increase parent engagement in their child’s academics; promote higher education pursuing college or trade school; encourage career goal setting; and receive scholarship assistance.  The objective is to encourage young girls to acquire the skills necessary to make their dreams a reality.  Over 100 highly trained volunteer mentors and guest- speakers work with the girls twice a month for 4-6 hours at a time. The Ophelia Project empowers and encourages teenage girls to increase their sense of self-worth and maximize their potential contribution to society.  Susan Francis, Chief Executive Officer of Ophelia, has over 25 years of experience in the Desert, working in the areas of education, health, the arts and serving at-risk youth and families from underserved populations through a variety of programs she has overseen.  Over the last 12 years as CEO, her tireless efforts have ensured that the program has maintained its highest level of quality while growing into all the local high schools.  She is an angel on earth, giving hope to thousands of young girls.

Lisa Houston, FIND Food Bank (VIDEO)

FIND Food Bank has been a consistent resource for the hungry since 1983. FIND is the regional food bank serving all of eastern Riverside County, from Banning to Blythe, and from Joshua Tree to the Salton Sea. Under Lisa Houston’s direction it has grown to become a stable and reliable source of food for 90,000+ hungry each month.  Lisa began as a volunteer and grew to love the organization and its purpose.  She is now President and CEO and has been able to grow the organization, improve its financial situation, and help provide food for more than 100 organizations that serve the needy. Places that benefit from FIND include The Well in the Desert, Martha’s Village and Kitchen, Mizell Senior Center, YMCA, Boys and Girls Club and many more. FIND also offers an outreach and case management program that shares information and connections to resources intended to help people cover more of their household expenses, and thereby have more money available to meet their nutrition needs. Lisa’s focus is on community and she hopes that more people will become aware of how many people are affected by hunger and that they will volunteer to take action against hunger.   Lisa’s dedication and drive have made her an angel on earth to many in need.

Richard Twiss, Chief of Police, Indio Police Dept. (VIDEO)

Chief Twiss has served in law enforcement for 27 years.  He comes from a public service family and believes deeply in giving back to the community. He is actively involved in many organizations including Indio Rotary, Indio Police Officers John Rose Memorial Widows and Orphans Board, Salvation Army Advisory Board, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Coachella Valley Board, Latino Peace Officers Association, California Desert Trail Academy College of Law, Riverside County Law Enforcement Administrators Association, and many more.  He is service minded and believes in being involved in the community and developing relationships.  He leads by example and holds his officers to high standards.  Richard has played a vital role in the development of the Community Outreach Resource Program (CORP) and the Youth Offender Court Program (YOCP) designed to assist the youth and a group of citizens most in need of governmental and social services within the City of Indio. Richard has been an incredible example of a leader who teaches the value of service and giving back.

Walt & Judy Van Benthuysen, American Friends of Our Armed Forces (VIDEO)

After 9/11, Walt and Judy felt they needed to take some action to honor, respect, and help America’s Heroes and their families.  They came up with the concept of American Friends of Our Armed Forces, an all-volunteer, non-profit organization designed to comfort and support America’s troops in combat zones while watching over their families at home.  They quickly recruited over 100 volunteers to support the program and that number grew as neighbors and families joined in to help.  Initial support included shipping goods to combat zones and has evolved into providing $2 million in support for programs and services for troops and their families.  AFAF is a major support base for military and their families at the Marine Air Ground Combat Center at 29 Palms, and Camp Pendleton in Oceanside.  More than 50,000 Marines have benefited from the resources provided by AFAF.  AFAF also provides a program in which local families host Troops for Thanksgiving.  Many of the Troops are experiencing their first holiday away from home and family and this allows them to be a part of a family celebration during the holiday.  Over 300 were hosted last year. AFAF also supports a Military Appreciation Golf Tournament, a Family Fun Day at Sunnylands, and many dinners, day trips, and family outings for military families.  The support AFAF provides military troops and families goes above and beyond the call of duty.

Don Nydam, Totally Kids Rehabilitation Hospital (VIDEO)

As a business leader, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, Don has sought to find ways to offer a better quality of life to those less fortunate.  He is the co-owner of Totally Kids, a residential hospital serving medically fragile and technology dependent children.  Totally Kids is committed to going beyond meeting medical needs to include the social, psychological, and spiritual needs of each patient.  Don is also the founder of The Village at Redlands, a residential community that caters to seniors.  A supporter of education, he has served on many educational boards including the Arrowhead Christian Academy in Redlands.  He founded The Community Christian College, a private 2-year college targeting underserved men and women.  He serves on the Board of Directors for Crafton Hills College Foundation and the Board of Trustees for the C.S. Lewis Foundation.  He also co-founded Mountain View Wholesale Services, Inc. which gives ten percent of its income to support community colleges.  Don’s passion and purpose are to give to others, and in that he goes above and beyond.

Craig Gahnz-Kuhar, Vocal Music Director, PDHS & PDCMS (VIDEO)
Vocal Music Website

As Vocal Music Director at Palm Desert Charter Middle School and Palm Desert High School for the past nine years, Craig has built a Vocal Music and Choir Program that includes 5 choirs with 200 students from grades 6-12.  The Program stresses excellence in musicianship, academic success, citizenship, and community service.  This program of excellence is a reflection of its director.  As a performer, Craig has appeared in the Tony-Award-winning production of “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway and has performed with the Minnesota Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Dayton Opera, Theatre Under the Stars, and Chanhassen Theatre.  Craig has developed award-winning choirs that have traveled nationally and internationally to perform in places such as the Basilica of St. Mark, Kennedy Center, Ground Zero, Australia, and Hawaii.  This year they will travel to London for the Heritage Choral Festival.  In addition to grooming young singers to become excellent young men and women, Craig also works diligently for the Palm Desert High School Musical Boosters.  The Boosters host fundraisers in order to offer all students the musical, cultural, and travel opportunities offered by the Vocal Music Program.  Craig’s leadership and example has been an inspiration to many young singers.

Senator Jeff Stone (VIDEO)

Jeff Stone has lived and served in Southern California his entire life. He opened his first small business, the Temecula Pharmacy, and began building strong ties and involvement in the community.  In 1992, he expanded his public service involvement when he was elected to the Temecula City Council for three terms.  Stone served as Mayor until being elected to the Board of Supervisors. Jeff was on the Board of Supervisors from 2004-2012, which was an illustration of how effective his term on the City Council had been. Prior to being elected and sworn into the State Senate, Jeff served as Chairman of the Board of Supervisors.  Jeff works to create a fiscally responsible and efficient government that is productive for its citizens.  He makes public safety a priority and has been instrumental in expanding the economy and in job creation. One of his many efforts is the Veterans Assistance Leadership of Riverside County (VALOR).  The goal of this effort is to end homelessness among veterans by providing multi-disciplinary assistance to veterans across Riverside County who wish to help themselves.  Jeff is community minded and works hard to improve lives in the area he serves.

Mike Chedester, Living Desert Educational Programs (VIDEO)

For the last 45 years, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens has provided unique learning experiences and educational opportunities for adults and children alike.  The educational purpose of the Living Desert is “To encourage desert conservation through preservation, education, and appreciation.”  Educational programs are tailored to suit all age groups and are designed to raise awareness of the issues surrounding conservation of the natural world.  Spanning the age groups with toddler programs like Me & You At the Zoo to adult continuing education classes at the Living Desert University enables The Living Desert to tailor its educational programming to the needs of the audience.  Programs give guests new perspectives and knowledge, and empower them to take positive actions to protect the plants and animals of the desert habitats.  Accepting on behalf of The Living Desert Educational Programs is Mike Chedester.  He was a classroom science teacher for 16 years before joining The Living Desert as Curator of Education in 2002. As Curator he directs the volunteer/docent program that includes 500 active members; 250 are trained interpreters. Mike is a NAI Certified Interpretive Trainer and Guide. He is also a professional member of AZA (Association of Zoo’s and Aquariums).  In March, he received the Golden Apple award from Palm Springs Unified School District, for his leadership in bringing quality educational programs to the students of the Coachella Valley.

Dr. Stephen Steele, Eisenhower Medical Center

Dr. Stephen Steele has led a life of both military and civilian service.  He was trained as a Flight Surgeon at the Naval Aerospace Medicine Institute.  In 1988 he was assigned to Marine Air Attack Squadron (VMA-211-Avengers) in MCAS Yuma, where he spent three years as the squadron Flight Surgeon in CONUS and on a six month Western Pacific tour.  Captain Steele has continued his affiliation with the Naval Reserves and was the Senior Medical Officer of the medical unit of Detachment D (Moreno Valley) Camp Pendleton.  He is presently proudly serving as the Group Surgeon of 4th MAWMED MAG 46.  He enjoys being able to serve the Marine Aviation community again.  He has served the Navy his entire 27 years of military service.   Dr. Steele has a passion for sports and has served as team physician for high school sports teams, served as a Board Member of the American Osteopathic Academy of Sports Medicine, and as the President of the Medical staff at Eisenhower Medical Center. He also volunteers for Volunteers in Medicine, which provides no-cost primary health care service to medically underserved adults in the Coachella Valley. Dr. Steele has provided continuous selfless service throughout his life and is truly an example of leadership in medicine.

Cindy Melland, Basin Wide Foundation (VIDEO)

Cindy Melland has spent the last 30 years helping to shape the high desert into a community, with groups working together to meet common needs.  She is the publisher of the Hi Desert Publishing Company, which puts out the Hi-Desert Star, The Desert Trail, The Desert Entertainer, and many more. Cindy has served on the Basin Wide Foundation for many years and has been instrumental in creating many of the programs and services they provide.  When she started with the Foundation, her love of sports and her appreciation of the importance of public services drove her to help create a multi-sports park and multi-field park; this one with a derby flat track, playground, concession stand, and the Miracle League Field which is built so that children with special needs can play baseball.   In addition, her leadership on the Foundation has helped to establish a California Welcome Center, the Desert Regional Tourism Program, the “Sky’s the Limit” program, and the Morongo Basin Haven which helps the homeless.  The Foundation also supports “Dreams for Kids,” a source of services for children in the Family Services protective program.  The Foundation is also a source of social welfare networking and work improvement.  Cindy’s leadership has been a source of inspiration for countless causes and has improved the quality of life in the Morongo Basin.