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Photograph of Glady Thacher by Frank Wing

Glady Thacher started four nonprofits in her oversized living room — and they’ve helped people live better lives


Soon after her graduation from Smith College in the late 1940s, Glady Thacher took on the traditional roles of supportive wife and mother then mandatory for most women. But she quickly decided there was a loftier goal: reaching her full potential — and helping others reach theirs, too. As a result, thousands of women, and not a few men, have Thacher to thank for broadening and enriching their lives — mostly through organizations she nurtured and launched in her own living room.


She kept the neighborhood looking good

Lydia Ainsley: caught in the act of cleaning up Fillmore Street.

SHE WALKED the street incognito, just another neighbor, often bandannaed, with a shopping bag on her arm.

But Lydia Ainsley was on a mission every time she walked down Fillmore Street. For more than two decades, she made it her business to remove the signs and posters taped to utility poles on Fillmore and discreetly tuck them into her sack.

Nobody asked her to do it, but she approached her task diligently. Eventually the Fillmore merchants began paying her the princely sum of $150 every month, which she expected on time.

She resisted all praise and publicity, insisting it would only blow her cover.

She was also a faithful volunteer for Food Runners, delivering excess food from local businesses to shelters where it was needed. And she did it via Muni, or on foot.

Lydia Ainsley died on August 6 at age 91, still in her beloved apartment of more than 40 years at Fillmore and Vallejo, overlooking the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

An honest job

Luis Garcia on his new job with Mission City Rebar.

Luis Garcia on his new job with Mission City Rebar.


When Luis Garcia was 13, he thought robbing people was normal. Now, at 22, after multiple incarcerations, he sees working an honest job for a decent living as normal. He turned his head around with the help of the Success Center, a nonprofit at 1449 Webster Street providing vocational and education services for area youth.


From Fillmore to Tanzania


I’ve lived in this neighborhood for eight years, so I tend to make a lot of decisions when hanging out on Fillmore Street. Dino’s or the Elite for dinner? Yoga at International Orange or Mindful Body? Recently, while having coffee and surfing the web at Jane, I made a bigger decision: to quit my job, leave the safe confines of the neighborhood and go to Africa on a humanitarian project.

I’ve enjoyed a successful career as an event planner in the entertainment, tech and sports marketing industries. It’s been fun and rewarding. But the last couple of years have left me wanting more. I’ve always wanted to make a more significant impact by doing work that helps people help themselves. I realized it was now or never.

Erin LeMoine on Fillmore Street

Erin LeMoine on Fillmore Street

I had been searching for a project for some time and that morning at Jane I discovered the website for Mama Hope, an organization working with African organizations to build schools, health clinics, children’s centers, clean water systems and food security projects. I was so excited about the opportunity that I hiked half a block up to Peet’s and completed the online application.

Mama Hope isn’t the usual volunteer opportunity; you must apply and interview for the fellowship program. Luckily, I made the cut. Now I must raise $20,000 to help build a student dining hall and community center in Tanzania. This new structure will provide a space for children to eat meals together, and will also serve as a gathering place for meetings, events and celebrations.  Most importantly, the community center will attract more paying students, which means more poor and vulnerable children can get a free education.

Soon I’ll board a flight for Moshi, Tanzania, and live there for three months, collaborating with community leaders to begin the project. When I come back to San Francisco, I’ll spend three months doing a mixture of monitoring and evaluation, reporting and public speaking.

Even though I’m leaping into the unknown, the move aligns with my passion for service. Maybe it’s innate; my father was a firefighter and my sister is a teacher. I intended to get a graduate degree in public health after college and I almost joined the Peace Corps. Instead, I ended up planning elaborate tech parties. However, I’ve reconnected to my passion over the years with some volunteer yoga teaching and a two-year tutoring stint at Rosa Parks Elementary School on Webster Street.

Now it’s time to really go for it.

Fundraising hasn’t been easy. The last time I asked for money, I pleaded with my parents for cash for Duran Duran concert tickets. Yet I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the generosity of people and businesses in the neighborhood and throughout the city. NARS Cosmetics, Yoga Works, Caryn Cohen at Secret Agent Salon, massage therapist Wendy Parker, International Orange, Soul Cycle, Equinox and Prana are just some of the local merchants that have stepped up to the plate. With their support, we’re connecting our community with the community in Tanzania.

I’ll miss my friends who sit on the bench at Peet’s every day. I’ll miss fall, my favorite San Francisco season. But the sacrifice will be worth it. And perhaps my work in Tanzania will open doors to a career in international development.

And to think, it all started on Fillmore.

Learn more about Erin LeMoine’s project and follow its progress.

A salon offers help and hope

Photographs by Susie Biehler

Josh McGill gives a young client his first haircut. Photograph by Susie Biehler

GOOD WORKS | Barbara Kate Repa

On a sunny afternoon in late March, Christine Coppola pulled up to the Compass Family Shelter on Polk Street and opened the trunk of her car to unload an unlikely stash: a collection of combs, brushes, blow dryers, towels and hair potions and products.

Coppola has worked at Renaissance Salon, a block off Fillmore at 2600 Sacramento Street, for 19 years — and owned it for the last 15. For several months now, she has been leading a group of hair stylists who deliver the gift of grooming to the families living temporarily at the shelter.

Within moments of arriving at the shelter, she and two other stylists at Renaissance — Sara Nowacky and Josh McGill — transformed a basement area just off a communal kitchen into a makeshift salon. “It’s a little difficult not having the right chairs and all, but we make do,” Coppola explained cheerfully.

Her first haircutting session at the shelter was last September and she has returned every eight weeks or so since then, enlisting a group of hairdresser friends from Renaissance and elsewhere. Shelter residents sign up for a styling session in advance; there are usually 10 to 20 clients.


Making a joyful noise — and maybe a healthier life

Members of the Community of Voices choir sing at the Western Addition Senior Center.

Members of the Community of Voices choir sing at the Western Addition Senior Center.

By Judy Goddess

MANY AGREE THAT choir music can be a joyful noise. And choir members often find singing fulfilling and fun. But a new study recently launched locally aims to uncover whether singing in a choir can actually help older adults have longer and healthier lives.

As part of the study, the 15-member Community of Voices choir gave a lively gospel performance on March 20 at the Western Addition Senior Center at Fillmore and Turk led by Maestro Curtis and his wife, Nola Curtis. Maestro Curtis, a renowned San Francisco Bay Area music legend, producer and author, has a background in classical music as well as jazz, gospel, R&B, funk, folk and country. Haruwn Wesley on upright bass and Larry Douglas on trumpet accompanied the choir at the concert.

“I know singing in the choir makes people happier,” says the center’s director, Robin Bill. “People who were quiet when they first came to our center in September are now stepping up. You can see the improvement in the choir from when they first met to now.” The Western Addition choir previously performed at the City Hall celebration of Kwanzaa and at the Parc 55 hotel, and another performance is planned for the fall.


Women’s clinic gets a new mission

CARLINA HANSEN — executive director of the Women’s Community Clinic at 1833 Fillmore — might seem an unlikely cheerleader for the onrushing changes in health care reform, which are ostensibly aimed at doing away with her clinic’s client base of uninsured and underinsured women.

But rather than close its doors and declare its mission accomplished, the clinic is expanding beyond its previous brief of providing free or low-cost reproductive and sexual health care services to offer primary care as well.

“It’s a big exciting change,” Hansen says of the Affordable Care Act. “I hear a lot of folks who are critical — mostly that it didn’t go far enough. But it sends a message to people who were overlooked that their health is valuable and that they deserve good medical care.”

To gear up, the clinic is adding a medical director and primary care nurse practitioner to its staff of 30, which is complemented by 150 volunteers. And beginning next month, the clinic will add an additional staff member to begin helping clients enroll in newly available insurance plans.

“It’s very exciting for our clients,” says Hansen. “People are so happy coming here. Now we’ll be able to meet their broader needs.”

In operation since 1999, the Women’s Community Clinic relocated from Hayes Street to new and expanded offices on Fillmore in March 2011.

“The thing is that change is hard,” says Hansen. “There will be bumps. But the base message is: It’s for the patients — and a step in the right direction.”

The old man and the cat

Longtime local resident John Gaul and (below) his new feline friend.


FOR MANY YEARS, John Gaul has been a fixture on Fillmore. Strolling and bussing through the neighborhood, he has been a dapper presence, doling out advice and good cheer along the way.

But just lately, his gait has slowed. He is getting about now with the help of a walker since he fell on the stairs a couple of months ago while giving one of his regular tours at the Haas-Lilienthal House on Franklin Street. And then he lost a dear and longtime live-in companion: a tabby cat named Felix. But his spirit remains strong, and he’s still up for a new challenge.

“I’m going through what people my age go through — a seismic shift, a breakdown of the body,” says Gaul, who will turn 87 in November. “But I have to go on. And I wanted something that needed someone to take care of it.”

But Gaul’s attempts to adopt a new feline friend were unsuccessful at Animal Care and Control, the San Francisco SPCA and Pets Unlimited — all of which rejected him because of his age, or his aloneness, or his limited funds.

By most lights, the rejections are hard to imagine. Gaul, who lives at the John F. Kennedy Towers public housing complex on Sacramento Street, just off Fillmore, is a vibrant being — full of good conversation and astute observation.

As he gets about the city, he’s always dressed to the nines, nattily attired on a recent day in a red tie, blue striped shirt, vest with double watch chain and herringbone jacket, his white beard impeccably groomed.

And then there’s the voice — a deliberate, old-fashioned oratorical cadence inspired by the radio days of the 1940s and nourished by listening daily to the announcers on the local classical station. “I like the alto voices and the counter tenor,” he says. “Somewhere in between; that’s where I want to be.”

So he works at it, doing daily voice exercises to perfect his pitch and studied delivery inspired by the Dale Carnegie training he emulates. But with Felix gone, there was no one to listen. “I wake up in the morning and there’s no living thing around,” he says. “I miss having a cat to pet.”

After he was repeatedly rejected by the likeliest animal shelters, a friend found a hopeful lead: Give Me Shelter Cat Rescue, a nonprofit group dedicated to finding homes for adult and senior cats — those most often euthanized in shelters. Its founder, Lana Bajsel, listened to a few details about Gaul’s situation and immediately homed in on a few potential prospects for him. She agreed to bring them to Give Me Shelter’s adoption center at the Petco on Sloat Avenue so they could all suss out one another.

On the appointed Sunday afternoon, she arrived pushing a shopping cart laden with three carriers, accompanied by loud choruses of meows from within.

“It was a circus all the way over here,” she announced, beckoning Gaul inside to meet her charges.

First out of the carrier was Brenda. As Bajsel extolled the 4-year-old female cat’s virtues — she had already been spayed, vaccinated, microchipped and tested for various diseases — Brenda let out a powerful hiss and swatted at Gaul’s extended hand.

Next up was Gypsy, another tabby with a small bald spot who nuzzled Gaul at once; and Buddy, a larger black and white fluffy male with a special fondness for Fancy Feast. Those two might as well not have bothered making the trip.

“That’s the one that appeals to me,” declared Gaul, eyeing Brenda. “Those markings. And the size; I’m in a small unit in city housing.”

“Ah, you like the spitfires,” Bajsel said, nodding knowingly.

Before they parted ways, Gaul had loaded Brenda in her carrier onto his walker, ready to head for home.

“She’s a beautiful animal: a tabby — I’m partial to them — with topaz eyes and white boots,” he explains to a visitor a week later. “And something seemed noble about her from the very beginning — the yowling, the hissing, the scratching. When I saw her, I thought: ‘I wonder what she’s protecting and how I could appeal to that.’ And I also thought: ‘Maybe I can do this. I want that challenge,’ ” he says. “The others thought she wasn’t adoptable. But I see something there. I just do.”

Bajsel later gives some details about Brenda’s challenging past: She came in to Animal Care and Control as a stray and was put on the list for disposition — a polite term for “kill” — after scratching a volunteer.

But Bajsel doesn’t blame the cat.

“Volunteers at Animal Care and Control are not always cat savvy. I’ve seen them, talking away on their iPhones when they’re supposed to be observing and handling the animals,” she says. “But if anyone gets scratched or bitten, the animal is automatically disposed of.”

Once she was ensconced in her new home with Gaul, however, Brenda slowly began to get a little friendlier. She also got a new name: Ariadne.

“In Greek mythology, Ariadne was stranded on an island in the Aegean Sea and left alone until she was found by the god Dionysus,” Gaul says. “It’s the story of abandonment and rescue — just like this one. I’ll call her Ari for short. She’s the perfect cat for me.”

While Ariadne’s not talking, the feeling seems to be mutual. She’s taken to curling just below Gaul’s knees as he naps in the afternoon. And recently, she swatted playfully at a chain he was putting on his wrist.

“She watches everything I do,” says Gaul. “Old men get up at night — and she follows me.” Then, for Ariadne, it’s back to the basket filled with fabric at the back of a closet that she claimed early on as her personal respite.

In her most accommodating moments, Ariadne will walk back and forth just under Gaul’s hand so that he can stroke her from nose to tail. “I get a delightful sense of touch — and I need that,” he says. “And even her yowling appeals to my aural sense.”

She’s yowling less frequently now, though. “We get along,” says Gaul.

He credits past experiences for his current pluck. For a decade, he conducted tours of the Palace of Fine Arts, designed by the legendary architect Bernard Maybeck for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. It was there that he connected with Maybeck’s daughter-in-law, Jacomena. The two became so close they talked at 9 o’clock every morning until she died a few years ago at age 95. He recalls her final words in their last telephone conversation: “I’m like a small child standing on the edge of the world. I’m ready to step off now.”

Gaul credits the friendship with an awakening. “Jacomena was a coach of sorts,” he says. “Through her, I began to know what Bernard Maybeck was about. And that fits in with honoring certain ideas, no matter how hard they are. I walked into that world, and I couldn’t have been more lucky.”

The friendship fueled Gaul’s interest in the Swedenborgian Church at Lyon and Washington Streets, which Maybeck helped design. He was a driving force behind getting the Swedenborgian declared a National Historic Landmark in 2004.

His last docenting gig was at the Haas-Lilienthal House, which he refers to as “that stately Victorian home,” where he took the life-changing tumble down the stairs.

Still, he’s not letting the fall keep him down. “If you don’t take on life, you’ll be a victim,” he says. “I won’t be that. What else do I have to do? Sit and feel sorry for myself? I won’t do that, either.

“And when I look back, I think life is good,” says Gaul, who adds he takes no medications and never has. “When you get old, you begin to see that life is winding down. Is it sad? No — not if I decide it’s not.”

Gaul says he now treasures his relationships with others more closely, particularly younger people he can help puzzle through their problems. He finds them serendipitously: on the bus, at the laundromat, in the Safeway.

But there’s nothing quite like a cat.

“This limerick I wrote sums it all up,” he says. “I call it ‘Lonely Old Man.’ ”

There was an old man, all alone
Who remarked, “I’m beginning to groan.”
Give Me Shelter heard that
And provided a cat
Which did quiet that lonely man’s groan.

More about Give Me Shelter

UPDATE: “They rescued each other

Creating a new public space

Photograph of the Fillmore Stoop by Daniel Bahmani


Three years ago, the concept of the Fillmore Stoop was born, with the intention of making the northern stretch of California Street near Fillmore more pedestrian friendly and softening the harsh visual of the busy four-lane highway. The idea was to create a public space where neighbors could meet, relax, take a break from shopping or just hang out.

San Francisco has embraced these kinds of parklets — usually two parking spaces converted into mini urban parks. The parklet movement originated here, but was inspired by beautification efforts in New York that reclaimed dead urban spaces and transformed them into parks and plazas. The idea also takes its cues from European cities, where urban pedestrian zones have always been valued. The parklet concept has since expanded across the globe.

Each parklet in San Francisco has its own flavor. The Fillmore Stoop was designed by architects Jessica Weigley and Kevin Hackett of Siol Studios at Fillmore and Clay. Its multi-tiered sculptural form provides several levels for pedestrians to sit. It both creates more space for people and also acts as a barricade against the busy California Street traffic. The $25,000 project was funded by Chase Bank, which recently opened a branch across the street from the parklet.

EARLIER: “Parklet sprouting on California Street

‘Our hearts to Japan’ one year after quake

A service under the pagoda in Japantown commemorated the anniversary of the earthquake.

On March 11 — the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan last year — a commemorative community event called “Our Hearts to Japan” will be held at the Peace Plaza at Post and Buchanan Streets in Japantown.

The event caps a year of local activities that have raised more than $4 million to aid the victims of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that followed. More than 20,000 people were killed and thousands more were left injured and homeless.

“The event is a way to memorialize those who have died and to honor the survivors, many of whom still need our help in rebuilding their lives,” said Dianne Fukami, president of the board of directors of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. “When I was in Tohoku last month, I witnessed the spirit and determination of the people, but I also realized how huge their losses are and how great the need continues to be.”

An extensive program of events will be held in Japantown on March 11. “Our Hearts to Japan” will begin at 2 p.m., and those attending will observe a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m. — precisely the time the disaster struck Japan.