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Desert Companion

Good as gold

When it comes to helping those in need, these Southern Nevadans have the golden touch

Red Rock Search and Rescue

Red Rock Search and Rescue

The challenge: In January of 2012, Ronald Kirk went missing at Red Rock National Conservation Area. With Kirk’s fitness level and outdoors experience, he could have been almost anywhere in Red Rock. Las Vegas Metro Police Department’s Search and Rescue team spent days looking by land and air before calling off the search due to limited resources.

The local outdoors community, however, was bursting with support. Kirk’s family teamed up with the Hash House Harriers (a local running group of which Kirk was a member) and VegasHikers (a more than 5,000-member local hiking group) to continue scouring the desert. The search went on for weeks, and some days saw more than 100 volunteers show up at Red Rock to lend a hand.

All that help needed someone to organize it, and that’s where volunteer David Cummings stepped in.

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[HEAR MORE: Learn  about Red Rock Search and Rescue on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]

The solution: The group that led the ragtag volunteers in the search for Ron Kirk became the executive board of Red Rock Search and Rescue, with Cummings as its commander. Their throng of volunteers started training in earnest, forming teams of trackers, technical rescuers, medics and more.

Fast forward nine months later, and the volunteers of Red Rock Search and Rescue, thanks to fundraising and sponsors such as REI and Nevada State Bank, had received more than $500,000 in training. On Sept. 14, as floodwaters from a massive Vegas storm receded, David Cummings received a call over his radio. “Command Post 3, 1144.” 1144 is the radio code for a fatality. The body they’d been searching for, washed away from a golf course during torrential summer rains, had been found. “Over twenty years I have seen countless recoveries,” Cummings wrote on the team’s Facebook page, “but this one was special and it was a test of these novices … A word I will not use again.”

Less than a week later, Cummings and his crew got a call to find a missing hiker at Mt. Charleston. The 47-year-old woman was found in a canyon, given medical aid, and transported to the hospital.

Red Rock Search and Rescue has no plans to rest on their successes. They are currently forming a dive team, a mountain bike team, and are constantly improving the skills of their members. Thanks to donors, all of this is done without any cost to the taxpayer or the victims. To be a part of the action, fill out an application on their website. They also take donations via PayPal and accept material support. ( — Alan Gegax

Rosalind BrooksRosalind Brooks

Founder and Executive Director, Vegas Roots Community Garden

The challenge: Brooks, a Las Vegas native, vegan and former schoolteacher, had long been disturbed by the ever-growing childhood obesity rate — and the fact that local kids had little clue where their food came from or how to eat healthfully. She was particularly worried about young people in West Las Vegas, an urban “food desert” where residents had to fight for years just to get a grocery store. She believed they deserved more access to fresh produce, a stronger connection to the origins of their food and a greater sense of community.

 The solution: In early 2010, Brooks — who knew next to nothing about gardening — invested $3,000 of her own money to launch a community garden on five dusty, donated acres on Tonopah Drive near Bonanza Road. The land has since become something of an outdoor community center, an unlikely desert oasis lush with volunteers and fresh fruits and vegetables — watermelon, squash, strawberries, onions, tomatoes and more. There’s also a chicken coop, a playground and a walking path where visiting schoolchildren can exercise before getting down to gardening. (“They first have to do a lap around the track,” Brooks, 45, says.)

The kids love being outside with their hands in the dirt.

“They’re naturally inquisitive and interested,” Brooks says. “They’ve never been exposed to growing their own food. They learn quickly and soon I have little workers to help me.”

While the community has embraced the garden, it’s a constant struggle to stay afloat, she says. Fundraising for the nonprofit is always an issue. High water bills have threatened to sink the garden more than once. Vegas Roots’ main source of income comes from renting gardening plots. For $500 a year, residents and community groups can “adopt” their very own plot for planting crops. The fee includes soil, water, tools, seeds and a wooden sign to paint and personalize. So far, the garden includes about 30 such plots.

Brooks says all the effort is worth it when she sees what grows inside the children who visit.

“They hear, ‘Plant a seed,’ all the time,” she says. “Now they can relate it back to where it came from. They understand that if you plant something good, something good will come from it. They can carry that through their entire lives.” ( — Lynnette Curtis

Hektor EsparzaHektor Esparza

Push Forward Skate Mentor Program

The challenge: Tagging. Fights. Drug use. In 2006, Winchester Cultural Center Skate Park drew a rough crowd of dropouts resembling an outtake from gangsploitation B movie “The Warriors.” The county wanted to shut down the ramps. But cultural programs supervisor Patrick Gaffey gave it one last shot by staffing the park. He asked skate instructor Hektor Esparza for help, hiring him to police and keep bad elements at bay. But Esparza was no rent-a-cop. He knew the best way to truly clean up the place was to engage kids head-on and put them on a path of self-cultivation. To teach them the art of skateboarding and its rich history — how skate culture impacted alternative music, filmmaking and photography.

“There was skepticism expressed that I could get teens interested in the arts, much less higher ed,” says Esparza.

The solution: In his 30s, Esparza holds his own on the ramps. This way he earns kids’ respect and they meet an adult skater. He explains how skaters are leaders in the arts — director Spike Jonze (“Adaptation”) to painter/photographer Ed Templeton. Esparza, a writer himself, taught six weeks of skate instruction, which included a sit-down class on the history of skate culture. Kids signed up to learn how to carve and grind; they also discovered how the sport they love is also an art. Esparza organized contests, inviting industry pros to discuss competitive skating and nutritionists to explain how breakfasting on a bag of Funyuns can hurt a half-pipe performance. Esparza formed a Winchester skate team, requiring kids to audition on boards and with their art — drawing, rapping, writing, whatever. They had to be passing classes and on track to graduate. He took the team on field trips from CSN’s Charleston campus to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

[HEAR MORE:  If you saw 14 teens dressed in baggy jeans and hoodies tooling around on skateboards would you think trouble?  Not so, says Hektor Esparza on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]

“I’m impressed with the impact the program has had,” Gaffey says. “There are a number of skaters who, thanks to Hektor, will be first in their family to attend college. He has changed their views of themselves and the world.”

Six years and 500 students later, Esparza gave up his job to collaborate with Winchester via his nonprofit Push Forward. He hopes to spread Winchester’s success to the valley’s 30 other skate parks with an ambitious mentoring program. “Fewer kids getting arrested and into trouble means more kids going to college,” he says. ( — Jarret Keene

Red Rock Rotary of Las Vegas

Red Rock Rotary of Las Vegas

The challenge: Rotary is old — in more ways than one. Founded in 1905, Rotary Club is an international service organization with 34,000 member clubs dotting the globe. They do everything from leading polio vaccination campaigns in developing countries to raising money for children’s charities. But — as you might expect from a club founded by white businessmen — it’s old in another way too: Your typical Rotary group gathering has more than a few gray hairs and jowls going on. This isn’t a blockbuster observation. They’re more than aware of the image problem; indeed, there’s a playfully grumbled admonition among members that Rotary must be careful lest it become too “male, pale and stale.”

“‘Rotary? Isn’t that an old man’s thing?’ We get that a lot from people who don’t know what Rotary is about,” says chapter President Betsy van Deusen, president of the Red Rock Rotary of Las Vegas.

The solution: With a boost from some longtime valley Rotarians, Red Rock Rotary of Las Vegas launched in September 2010 as part of a “new generations” initiative to de-gray the organization. Not only do Red Rock Rotary members skew younger — most are in their twenties and thirties — but their chapter boasts other key differences that aim to attract Gen Xers and Yers. For instance, rather than ask members to reach into their pocketbooks, they more often ask them to reach into their calendars — and set aside time for the hands-on projects they attack each month. (In November, they’ll be walking dogs at Lied Animal Shelter and making chew toys; in December, they’re helping foster kids pick out clothes during the “Santa Clothes” charitable shopping spree.)

“They’ve proven to be one of the most active of all the Rotary clubs in town in terms of hands-on projects,” says Dave Cabral, a longtime Rotarian who helped shepherd the club along to fruition. And no sleepy country club lunch meetings for these guys. Dues are kept low and the weekly meetings happen after work — and at a lively southwest valley bar, no less, where the young Rotarians unwind with a glass of wine or beer (on their own dime) before diving into the dirty work of saving the world.

“I’m from a small town — Elko — where people don’t hesitate to help each other,” says member Patrick Sullivan. “That’s what I was looking for in Rotary.” He and other young people found it — and now they want to share it. ( — Andrew Kiraly

Ellen RossEllen Ross

Volunteer site steward

The challenge: The Mojave Desert surrounding Las Vegas becomes ever more endangered as the urban population grows. Crowds, development, mining and the quest for alternative energy sources threaten fragile ecosystems, natural beauty, and the cultural history of Native Americans. The petroglyphs carved onto rock faces in canyons in and around the Las Vegas valley are especially imperiled. Already, paintball vandals and thieves with chisels have defaced, removed, or destroyed dozens of these fragile mementos of ancient valley residents. A Las Vegas resident since 1975, Ellen Ross feels called not only to protect the Mojave and its history, but also to inspire community respect for the pristine but shrinking “sacred space” that surrounds our city.

The solution: Ross has embraced the challenge to preserve petroglyphs in the same way they are lost: one by one. As a volunteer site steward, Ross has adopted a petroglyph site on federal land not far from the city — but nonetheless remote. Because of its endangered status, the exact location is kept secret — even from friends and family. While on location, Ross photographs and documents the condition of the glyphs, noting any vandalism or natural changes since her last visit.

Ross was not always a desert activist. Born in Cape Cod, Mass., she studied classical ballet at the Boston Conservatory of Music until she received the harsh message that “nobody wants a six-foot ballerina.” Undaunted, she came to Las Vegas and joined the Stardust’s “rhinestone army” as a dancer with the Lido de Paris.

Raising a family and founding a real estate firm that represented vacant land awakened Ross to the beauty of the desert — in particular the markings on canyon walls.

“I wanted to connect the dots,” she says, “to learn about the people who put them there. (The desert) is not an empty place — not a passive place. You’ve got to be engaged just to survive, and then you discover the mystery, the thrill, the beauty, the history.” As a Colorado River guide, Ross shares her ever-deepening knowledge of the desert with all who accompany her on kayak trips.

Together with elders of the Mojave tribe, Ross is currently protesting the wind farm under development near Searchlight. More research is needed, she believes, before the enormous installation destroys delicate ecosystems and monuments sacred to the Mojaves. As with her work as a site steward, Ross is putting focused action behind her beliefs. “I’ll be doing this for a long, long time,” she says. One petroglyph at a time. — Megan Edwards

Christine Robinson

Christine Robinson

Executive Director, The Animal Foundation

The challenge: In early 2007, the Lied Animal Shelter was in crisis. The shelter — Nevada’s largest and operated by The Animal Foundation, a nonprofit — was forced to close for a week and euthanize 1,000 animals after a team visiting from the Humane Society of the United States discovered a disease outbreak caused in part by overcrowding. The Humane Society later released a scathing report detailing severe problems in management and animal care at the shelter, including shoddy disease control, poor sanitation and a lack of compassion shown to the animals. The shelter’s director resigned in the wake of the controversy.

The solution: Robinson left a comfortable job as an assistant county manager to take the helm at the troubled north Mojave Road animal shelter, which takes in a staggering 50,000 animals each year.

“I knew I could help, and I was so passionate about the mission,” Robinson says.

She began by addressing every concern in the Humane Society’s 216-page report, focusing first on providing the best animal care possible on the eight-acre campus. The shelter cleaned up, beefed up training for employees, and began vaccinating animals upon intake and housing them in their own cages. Sick animals were quickly quarantined.

Next, Robinson approached the three jurisdictions with which Lied contracts for animal shelter services — Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Clark County — to fix an ongoing money problem.

“The operations of this organization were woefully underfunded,” Robinson says. “I told them I couldn’t operate at a loss in providing services they are mandated to provide.” She succeeded in getting the contracts renegotiated, a move that brought in an additional $2 million per year. (The shelter’s annual budget is $8 million.)

Robinson also built a shelter leadership team with more experience in animal services — and some business sense too. “It takes more than passion to be effective and provide quality care for animals,” she says.

Today, Robinson is concentrating on the shelter’s future and a recently launched capital campaign to raise money for campus renovations and a new building to house the adoption center, education area and administrative offices.

“We could run in maintenance mode forever, but that’s not OK with me,” she says. “Unlike so many other social problems, we have the answers for this one. That is so encouraging and provides such hope.”
( — Lynnette Curtis

Dr. Kevin and KElly PetersenDr. Kevin and Kelly Petersen

 Helping Hands Surgical Care

The challenge: One in three men will develop a hernia in his lifetime. If he doesn’t have health insurance or money for surgery, he may suffer for years, become crippled and unable to work — and possibly even die. Dr. Kevin Petersen is painstakingly aware of this. A general surgeon specializing in no-insurance care, Petersen has a unique perspective on the reality that many uninsured Nevadans face. As the list of patients whom his practice, No Insurance Surgery, Inc., was forced to deny for an inability to pay even discounted rates grew to near 30,000, the doctor and his wife, Kelly Petersen, knew something had to be done. But it’s about more than doing free surgery. Beyond the cost of the surgeon, surgery is still expensive. The cost of anesthesia, prescriptions, lab fees, nurses, surgical techs and facilities all add up.

The solution: Thanks to their experience and nonprofit background, Kevin and Kelly Petersen were able to negotiate down the hard costs associated with surgery and round up charitable physicians to offer free surgery to candidates in need. That’s the recipe of Helping Hands Surgical Care, the nonprofit they founded in 2011. Since then, 24 Nevadans have received free life-changing operations, including 10 surgeries that were performed last November on their inaugural Charity Surgery Day. (On that busy day, they repaired six hernias, removed two gallbladders, performed one full hysterectomy and did one spinal surgery on a woman who had been nearly paralyzed by disc problems in her neck.) The charity also offers cataract removals, cleft palate and facial disfigurement repairs, as well as select back and gynecological surgeries.

“We’d like to do them all, but we’re limited by the amount of funding we have,” says Kelly, executive director. The Petersens want folks to understand that they work for free, operate on a zero balance, and at almost cost level — so $50 will buy an EKG; and $5,000 could pay for two or three surgeries. “It’s really meaningful, impactful giving,” says Kelly, who’s seen too many people die while waiting for relatively simple, low-risk surgery. “This is not someone you don’t know. It’s your neighbor, who lost his job three months ago.”

In the meantime, Dr. Petersen and his fellow surgeons are scrubbing up for the second annual Charity Surgery Day Nov. 13, when they aim to exceed the 10 surgeries performed last year. “I know I can’t take care of everybody,” say Dr. Petersen, but he hopes that Helping Hands inspires other surgical charities across the country. ( — Chantal Corcoran

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