| November 1, 2013 | People
AMY ROSSETTI: SURROUNDING KIDS WITH COMMUNITY
In her 16 years in Las Vegas, it would be impossible to describe Amy Rossetti as anything less than fully engaged. She facilitated restaurant openings at Bellagio, Wynn, and Encore before stepping in to launch Cosmopolitan. Name a chef or restaurateur in the world and they’re likely a friend. And although she has lived in the city a long time by Vegas standards, she says, the day she joined Communities in Schools Nevada, three years ago, “was the day I committed to Las Vegas.”
CISN addresses one of Nevada’s toughest problems: one of the highest school dropout rates in the country. By bringing community volunteers into the classroom, Rossetti explains, “we create one-to-one relationships with students to understand their needs, ranging from getting access to food, clothing, counseling, tutoring, medical attention, legal issues, and more.” When she joined CISN, 12 schools were involved with the program; now there are 40. A firm believer in mentorship, she has had some strong mentors of her own, including Elaine Wynn, Susie Lee, and Elizabeth Blau. This year, with her launch of The Community, a way for newer philanthropists to meet likeminded people and benefit CISN through Cosmopolitan-sponsored events, Rossetti is helping to expand the organization in a new way. “We have a long way to go” with Nevada’s dropout crisis, she says. “Creating advocacy is the first step, and The Community is a good example of how we move the needle.”
DENISE VALDEZ:ADVOCATING FOR ANIMALS
A career in journalism has taken Denise Valdez all over the country— adopting a pet in every city: a cat in San Antonio, a Labrador retriever in Dallas, and golden retrievers in LA and Las Vegas. “I never thought I would be the person covered in dog hair whose pack charged the front door every time someone rings the door bell,” she says with a laugh. Valdez moved to Las Vegas in 2006 to be a news anchor for 8 News Now and has since won two Emmy Awards for anchoring and reporting. And while she created the newscast’s Pet Project to cover a wide range of pet issues, she joined the Animal Foundation in 2011 as a way to do more than report stories on TV. One of the largest open-admission shelters in the country, AF took in more than 42,000 animals last year alone. In true reporter style, Valdez tells the best stories—of the woman who rescued a dog that had been thrown from a moving car and the Henderson family that was so touched by her act, they donated a truck to the foundation to use for mobile adoptions. Or the family that found its missing dog at AF headquarters thanks to a microchip. Ultimately, she says, what she does is inspire the public to get involved in the never-ending cause of animal adoption: “I am that person in the elevator who will start chatting with you about rescuing a dog and how it changed my life.”
FRANCINE SANCHEZ: BATTLING FOR THE LITTLEST HEARTS
Before she met her husband Mario, Francine Sanchez explains, she was a career-driven pharmaceutical company district manager. After what she describes as a perfect pregnancy, none of her education in cardiac health could prepare her for what lay ahead. Soleil, now 6, was born with a congenital heart defect. She was 4 days old when she had her first heart surgery, 6 months at her second, and 3 years old for her third. “I just knew that there was no way I could hire a nanny and go back to working 70 hours a week,” Sanchez says. “I had to take care of this baby.” But for a while feeding tubes and nurses come to “define who you are,” she says. “And you have to come out swinging.” For Sanchez, sitting in a support group wasn’t an option. “I teamed up with the Children’s Heart Foundation to initiate a research division. It lit a fire under me to initiate more research for kids like her.”
Soleil’s condition was apparent at birth, but for many babies, it can be days later —outside the hospital—that a parent might detect a problem. “This year we passed the ‘1 in 100’ bill through the Nevada Senate, so that no baby leaves the hospital in Nevada without their oxygen being checked,” Sanchez says. She devotes her time to raising research funds, supporting families, and promoting wellness through her blog, SungirlWellness.com. And of course, to being what some have dubbed “the mom on a mission” to her now three kids. For Soleil, her heart issues will continue as she grows. And for the parents of kids with congenital heart defects, Sanchez says, “We’re always trying to run ahead of the ball. And we’re just going to love her and make sure she has the best life—whether that’s for five days or 50 years.”
GINA GAVAN: HELPING THE HOMELESS
There are some people who have a knack for bringing others together. In the case of Gina Gavan, that may be an understatement. She is the founder and director of the wildly popular Project Dinner Table, where once a month, at different venues and benefiting different causes, renowned Las Vegas chefs serve up to 200 dinner guests at one long table in an effort to deepen community ties.
Less visible, perhaps, is the work she has done since 2008 with HELP of Southern Nevada (the acronym stands for Housing, Emergency Services, Life Skills, and Prevention) to give people the skills that can make them self-sufficient. An arm of the organization that seeks to eradicate homelessness is particularly close to her heart. “Homelessness is part of my life because my brother has been homeless since he was 15,” says Gavan. She helped start a mentoring program in HELP’s youth center, renamed for Shannon West Redwine, a friend and advocate for the homeless, who passed away in 2012 after a five-year battle with breast cancer.
Gavan’s work with the center isn’t an attempt to heal family wounds, she says. “You can’t help someone if they don’t want to help themselves. Mostly these kids didn’t have a choice: They were molested by their mother’s boyfriend or come from a family with five kids that can only feed four.” Collaborating with various agencies, the youth center provides substance abuse counseling, vocational training, and lessons in peer socialization and money management, among other skills. “A lot of them want to get an education,” Gavan says. “They want to succeed.”
JUDY CEBULKO: OPENING WORLDS FOR KIDS
A longtime Howard Hughes Corporation exec, Judy Cebulko was looking forward to an early retirement with her husband, Ed. For 16 years, she had served on the board of the Lied Discovery Children’s Museum, but it was facing challenging times. Only 80,000 visitors were coming each year, while some comparably sized museums attracted hundreds of thousands. “We were sitting there in a boardroom,” she says, “trying to think of how we were going to make payroll and make a major change. [The board] said, ‘Judy, who’s going to do this? Who has the history with the museum, and your passion?’”
Retirement plans thwarted, Cebulko threw herself into recruiting a new CEO (Linda Quinn), plus transforming and relocating the museum. Ultimately she reached out to the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which had announced a gift to the Smith Center to pay for the completion of its block in Symphony Park. Of that gift, $43 million went to build what is now the Donald W. Reynolds Discovery Center; Cebulko and trustees raised $7 million to finish it. “I traveled all over to see which children’s museums had magic,” she explains, and she found it in Houston. “What we needed was that interaction, where everything is meant to be touched and felt.” Fast-forward to the 2013 opening of the new museum, and her baby is an astonishing project embedded with levels upon levels of learning, from puppet shows to the Patent Pending lab, where families work together to create contraptions that can withstand a 14-foot drop or an earthquake. She anticipates a year-end visitorship of 350,000.
“Ed and I had hopes and dreams of a big family,” Cebulko says, and through much medical intervention, she had her now-26-year-old daughter, Lexi. “This museum fulfilled a need in me.” Each year, kids in a chosen grade visit free of charge. “Our community was starving for this,” she says. “The first day I parked in the lot and I saw all those buses pull up and all the kids holding hands waiting to get in, I cried. I had one beautiful child, but now I can reach every child.”
LINDA RICHARDSON:MAKING WISHES COME TRUE
Linda Richardson met one of her first Make-A-Wish children more than 15 years ago, and that little girl made an impression—to the extent that Richardson has, over the years, granted a wish per month to a critically ill child. “My daughter had come home from college and she came to volunteer with me,” she says. “You have several initial interviews with the child and their family.” The little girl, who had lost her hair to chemotherapy, was wearing a wig during their first two visits, but Richardson didn’t notice until the third visit: “She felt so comfortable with us by then, she just took it off.”
Richardson had always been involved with children’s charities, she says, but Make-A-Wish Southern Nevada struck a chord: “I have two very healthy children. And I was seeing families who don’t have a lot, who take buses to treatment and aren’t feeling sorry for themselves.” But wishes from Make-A-Wish are not only for the sick kids; the whole family gets to go along. (The most common wish is a trip to Disneyland or a Disney cruise, but a visit with the pope has also been requested— and granted.)
Sometimes time is of the essence when you’re a wish granter. “We’ve had children that we’ve had to grant the wish in the hospital because they weren’t going to make it,” like the time Donnie Wahlberg flew in to meet a child in his hospital room, she recalls. Just granting one wish can be a game changer, Richardson says. “We’re able to do something for some of these families that they’d never be able to do themselves, and a lot of times it prolongs the child’s health.” Plus, it takes the burden off the family. “When a child is critically ill, everyone’s focus is on illness, and often the siblings are left on the outskirts. We’re able to include everyone.”
ROSE MCKINNEY-JAMES: FILLING HUNGRY STOMACHS
By any standard, Rose McKinney-James is a Las Vegas power player, a consultant for energy, education, and environmental policy—and a former commissioner with the Nevada Public Utility Commission and director of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry, among other government positions. “I came here from DC after grad school,” she says, and she served on the boards of United Way, Nevada Public Radio, Ronald McDonald House, and the Public Education Foundation. The common thread: “All of these organizations hit a nerve. I am attracted to activities that have a direct relationship to well-being and quality of life.”
Her work on the development committee of Three Square Food Bank was born out of the faltering economy. “It opened when Las Vegas was affected by the decline of the economy,” she says. “People were facing this stress for the first time.” What started as a food bank became part of a larger national network of more than 600 partners. Last year Three Square distributed the equivalent of nearly 19 million meals. “It is a fundamental fact,” she adds, “that every human being needs nutrition to perform well.”
A conversation with a teacher helped McKinney-James realize the true impact of this effort: “One of her students had been able to benefit from our backpack program, which provides food to students to take home on the weekend. It had become a critical part of the family structure.”
There are many opportunities to give back, she says, “and to the extent it’s possible, we should think about that in our daily lives. It all goes back to ‘Those to whom much is given, much is expected.’”
STELLA ROY: MOTIVATING THROUGH DANCE
A ballet production that came to her Bogota, Colombia, hometown inspired in a young Stella Roy the desire to someday travel the world. Her passion for dancing merengue, salsa, and cumbia grew with her, but it was her modeling career that would bring her to the United States at the age of 19. Las Vegas was what she calls a “beautiful dream,” where she fell in love with the energy, ease, and quality of life, not to mention her husband, Rob.
In dance, Roy has found a great social equalizer. “I love that moment when you become lost in a performance and feel yourself floating through the air and feel the passion of the story that is playing out before you,” she says. “It transports all of us to a place of freedom and possibility.”
As a board member of Nevada Ballet Theatre, Roy found a way to combine her love of dance with a desire to serve the community. NBT’s Future Dance program, for instance, benefits hundreds of young people each year by offering free in-school dance instruction and the opportunity to earn scholarships to the Academy of Nevada Ballet Theatre.
Giving young people the chance to experience ballet is a way of building confidence they can use for life, Roy says. “Behind the scenes, it is the triumph of a perfect production and the accomplishment of individuals and the community working together to tell a beautiful story.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SQUARE SHOOTING