The 15th Annual Celebrating Success Awards Breakfast, held October 29 at the Fairmont Miramar, began with an a capella song by the New Directions Choir. Like the breakfast’s 25 honorees, this amazing vocal group is composed entirely of formerly homeless people who have gone on to achieve success in life.
The awards, presented by the Westside Hunger and Shelter Coalition (WSHC) began in 1996, as noted by WSHC chair John Maceri, because the coalition wanted “to show the skeptics and non-supporters” that people in unfortunate circumstances can work their way back to being productive and hopeful about themselves.
Host Jean Martirez of Fox 11 News introduced the four groups of honorees, reminding the audience that their program booklets contained the stories of each honoree, often in their own words. She expressed the hope that people would take the time to read the stories and share them with family and friends. Four of these honorees spoke at the celebration.
William Butler Jr. told the audience “A couple of years ago I wouldn’t have been able to walk through these doors [of the hotel]. I would have been escorted out by security.” An ex-Marine who struggled with an HIV-positive diagnosis and drug addiction that resulted in a period of homelessness, Butler knew “it wouldn’t last forever.” With help from Common Ground, as well as the Veterans Administration, Butler went through rehab, obtained his own apartment, and enrolled in Los Angeles Valley College. “I’m a semester from getting my Associate Degree,” he added.
Gary Merez said that he had not known that there were agencies that could help him. He went through several rounds of detox, until he found New Directions, where, like other veterans, he was helped to get back on his feet. “There are a lot of homeless veterans who are worse off than me. Hopefully, I can make a difference,” says Merez, who is now on the supervisory staff of New Directions.
Kevin Dipiazza told of his downbeat days when another homeless person taught him the survival skills and tips he needed, including “what dumpsters had the best food.” But he praised the service organizations that had given him food and temporary shelter, and he even praised the Santa Monica Police for helping him to realize his situation and enter an alcohol detox program at the VA.
Ruth McKnight had one of the most moving stories. A survivor of an abusive relationship and a single mother, she said she did not realize how little she cared about herself. Seven months pregnant, she enrolled in graduate school. “I did it because I did not want my daughter to grow up with a mother who did not believe in herself.” McKnight was helped by Upward Bound House to obtain a place to live and was able to earn a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. Her daughter was in the audience to share her mother’s success.
Celebrating Success also gave awards to community supporters (a long list of businesses, faith groups, and community groups who have donated to the service organizations in the Coalition).
A Community Partnership Award was given to the Santa Monica Hospitality Industry/Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau. The 2010 Business Cares Awards from the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce went to Google, Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation, and Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopedic Hospital.
Kathleen Rawson of Bayside District announced the two recipients of the Marianne Dorn Memorial Dolphin Change Grants, funded by change deposited in the dolphin sculptures found around Santa Monica. These grants were given to Common Ground and Step Up on Second.