Sunday, October 28, 2012

Barbie's Former Attorney Drawn To Guide Kids

Judy Willis, a retired corporate attorney for Mattel, now volunteers to guide kids with careers, college and in this case she is helping Karla Sanchez, 18, with deferred action immigration paper work.
A Bit of Snazziness and a Lot of Pep Drives One Woman, a Retired Mattel Executive and Corporate Attorney, To Power Up Kids To Take Charge of Their Lives and Oh, Yeah: Have Fun While Doing It

By Diana L. Chapman

Meeting Judy Willis sometimes seems like watching the road runner fly by. She's quick. She's witty. She's driven in race cars at 180 mph. Became close friends with Barbie, one of the most popular dolls in the entire world, and Ken, not so much. And  she knows negotiating tactics that might make other attorneys blanch.

Willis, 63, a slender woman with one word describing her best -- peppy --once traveled the world on a mission to negotiate licensing agreements for Mattel, Inc. as its Senior Vice President, Business Affairs. She even flew to Germany to meet with BMW, VW, Porsche, Audi and Mercedes, and to Italy to meet with Ferrari and Lamborghini for the rights to be in the Hot Wheel line.

Even though she's hopped over to New Zealand, popped over to Russia and landed in Turkey where she was surrounded by armed guards and dogs at the airport to cut million dollar deals, Willis decided even though the "job was really fun" it was time to retire early from her sensational career life at the age of 60.

Why? She wanted to help kids.

She was never able to get pregnant when she was married, now single. Sad? Are you kidding? Ms. Bubbly makes things work. At first, she thought of becoming a foster  mother, but a friend believed that would limit her ability to help many children. Instead, she volunteers at a shelter for abused mothers and their children, aids  students at San Pedro High to guide them with their career choices and volunteers at Toberman Neighborhood Center working with clients on job skills and serving on its Development Committee. The Center provides gang prevention, family services and educational programs for youth.

"She's just awesome," said Toberman Board Member Mitch Harmatz. "She's high energy, she gives back to the community. She's compassionate and caring. And she's  fearless. She will call donors who have not mailed in their checks" and remind them.

The truth is, having missed out on having her own kids, Willis has discovered just how much she loves and enjoys being around children of all ages.

"I definitely get way more than I give," said Willis, who sports a highlighted bob and seems to grip life with smiles and exuberance. "I love being around the kids. I always wanted a lot of kids of my own, which never happened. At the shelter, they call me 'the fun lady'. Sometimes the kids scream when I get there. It doesn't get much better than that. I know that I'm very good with kids and I'm lucky to have these great volunteer

I first heard of Judy Willis from San Pedro High student Nancy Hinjos, now studying at George Town University, who raved about the attorney's ability to get students  enthusiastic about studying and life.

Willis volunteers at the high school each Friday.

"It's difficult for me to keep it brief when talking about Judy," Hinjos emailed me from  Washington, D.C. "I not only completely respected her because she was a professional  but also because she was donating her time to help San Pedro High students. She was very altruistic. Her contributions have personally affected me as I continue my education. Her story has stayed with me and is an inspiration. I still consider her to be a strong mentor and a friend."

I didn't hear about Willis again until my son, Ryan, came home from school and said he'd been having thought-provoking discussions with the attorney."I'm thinking about getting a law degree," Ryan said.

Coming from East Hartford Connecticut, a blue collar town, Willis grew up without a lot of money with three sisters and two brothers. It was a given that despite having little money, they were expected to go college and they all did.

Willis started out at Central Connecticut State University and became a social worker for six years, but with so much drive (and really enthusiastic overdrive) she decided to get a law degree and went nights to the University of Connecticut's law school. She transferred second year and graduated with a law degree from Boston College.

"Law school isn't hard," Willis said of her survival dueling a job and law school at the same time. "It's just a tremendous amount of work, a lot of reading and the bar is very stressful."

As soon as she graduated, work flew into her lap. H.P. Hood, the largest dairy in New England, hired her immediately in 1979. She was there for four years before Parker Brothers, a Massachusetts game company and maker of Monopoly,Risk, Sorry, etc., swept her up for five. Then, she landed the job as a corporate attorney for Mattel in El Segundo and loved every minute of it. So did her family with whom she shared her bonuses every year.

Working for Mattel for 20 years, left her with a nice collection of Barbie dolls that she is surrounded with at her Palos Verdes Peninsula home many designed by famous creator Bob Mackie.

Her life with the largest toy company in the world led to many glamorous moments with stardom -- meeting with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Tom Hanks, Jamie Lee Curtis, Cindy Crawford -- but even more exciting adventures driving with NASCAR's Kyle Petty at 180 mph at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina.

Mattel was Petty's sponsor. Willis also was allowed to go solo, but was so scared she could only hit the gas pedal up to 110 mph and who could blame her?  She also got a test drive in the Enzo Ferrari at Ferrari's test track in Italy, but she wasn't the driver.
Today her life is mostly channeled into what she can do for children.

Valerie Armstrong, who runs the school's College and Career Counseling Center, said she can't thank Willis enough for all her efforts.

"Judy Willis is so wonderful!" Armstrong emailed. "She truly enjoys working with our students. She assists with SAT registration, resume writing, scholarship searches, and mock job interviews. She also is a wonderful advisor to the students in Work Experience class. These students receive credit for working and they meet with me and Judy once a week. She researches articles on job trends and shares valuable career information with them."

Willis seals her lips when it comes to her work at a domestic violence shelter, which she can't identify because of confidentiality and the law. She won't tell the children's stories except for the nebulous ones, such as this.

When a 6-year-old realized she had once worked with toys, he asked her to bring him something collectible. She promised to bring him a Hot Wheels car which she had gotten at a fundraiser. The family later discovered that this particular little car was selling for over $600 on eBay.

The shelter's children, have become her teachers.

"I love the kids," she said. "Being at the shelter, I see how unique they are. I learned so much from them. They are so resilient."

She also likes to teach older students not to hang onto old mistakes, to move forward in life and have no regrets. That's how she lives because "you never know how long you are going to be here." Enjoy it, she added.

On a Friday afternoon, Willis was once again at San Pedro High helping student senior Karla Sanchez, 18, with deferred action paper work for immigrants"and she's been telling me about her job as lawyer," Sanchez said.

"That's getting me excited," said an enthused Sanchez, who added that she was so confused by the paperwork she couldn't have completed it without Willis. "She's been  a role model. It makes me see that there is opportunity out there.  It actually makes me feel like there are people who do care."

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Former LAPD Pat Gannon Named To Run Airports

Former LAPD Deputy Chief Pat Gannon Who Headed the South Bureau Scores Top Job As Los Angeles World Airports Police Commander

By Diana L. Chapman

Former LAPD Deputy Chief Pat Gannon, who didn't want to retire from the Los Angeles police after 34 years but did so due to a pension plan he agreed to in his younger years, was named the top commander of Los Angeles World Airport's police division, officials announced Thursday.

Gannon, 56, who retired from the Los Angeles police department in August, immediately applied for the head post vying against dozens of other law enforcement candidates.

In his new post, Gannon will lead the fourth largest enforcement agency in the county and head Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), LA/Ontario International Airport (ONT), Van Nuys general aviation (VNY) as well as aviation property in Palmdale. He will also be in charge of 1,100 police and security personnel whose duties include dealing with counter-terrorism, police patrols, protection of dignitaries, criminal investigations and explosives detection, according to officials.

"I just want to say that I am honored to be Chief of Police at the Los Angeles World Airports," Gannon said. "I have much to learn about the complexity of airport operations but I look forward to working with the 1,100 officers and security personnel you are entrusted in keeping the airport and the traveling public safe," Gannon emailed. "In addition, I am also confident that I can use my experiences, and the relationships I have made over the years, to help develop effective partnerships at the federal, state and local level.

"This coordination is key in the overall safety to the airport.

He won't be on the job for some time while he was goes through some training 
and receives several top-level clearances, he said.

Gannon might have been partly hired to smooth out decades of tensions that have existed between LAPD and LAX police officers who challenged each other jurisdictional rules and other issues. Gannon brings tremendous insight to the innerworkings of the LAPD that may allow for old wounds to be healed and new measures to be applied that may make amends of past situations.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa applauded Gannon's hiring.

"I am thrilled that Pat Gannon will be the next chief of the Angeles Airport Police," the mayor said in a released statement. "Pat served the Los Angeles Police Department with distinction for 34 years and supervised over 1,700 employees. He understands policing, homeland security, and understands the importance of policing while serving the interests of the community. The Los Angeles Airport Police are fortunate to have such a distinguished law enforcement expert to be its next chief."

Newly elected Councilman Joe Buscaino, who serves CD-15 and replaced Janice Hahn, worked under Gannon as a senior lead officer and became an LAPD officer because of Gannon's influence 15 years ago.

"As a 15-year veteran of the LAPD, and member of the Public Safety Committee and the Trade Commerce and Tourism Committee, I can say with complete confidence that Pat Gannon is the right person for this job," Buscaino said. "With over three decades of experience in the LAPD, Pat's leadership of the Airport Police will ensure LAX, LA/Ontario and Van Nuys airports will be safe, secure and prepared to confront the modern security challenges of the 21st century."

As a management leader, Gannon tended to be popular with the communities he served because he often consulted with residents and worked with them side-by-side to fight crime. When he left the LAPD, the deputy chief headed  its Operations-South Bureau serving 800,000 residents.

In addition to Gannon, the airport agency also appointed Michael T. Hyams as the new deputy chief of airport police.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Art to Grow On at Dana Middle School Stops

Dana students did Art to Grow on projects like this at Dana Middle School.

Art To Grow On Doused At San Pedro's Dana Middle School
Right Before LAUSD  Board Unanimously Votes to Bring Fine Art Back

By Diana L. Chapman

Tears sat in Rachel Fischer's eyes. In fact, she cried all weekend long.

She had come to understand the kids at Dana Middle School, a rugged campus in the core of San Pedro that had struggled for years to turn around its once unimpressive reputation  and become a place where parents truly wanted to send their kids. Fischer was one of those parents.

She eagerly became a volunteer and later the school's chair for Art To Grow On (ATGO), a program where parent docents usher art into the classroom that  initially was only meant for elementary schools but miraculously landed for the first time at a large public middle school. But just last week, Fischer announced with deep regret that the program was halted for the year to the Parent Teacher Organization and her volunteers.

"I regret to inform you that I have sent notices to the social studies teachers who signed up for ATGO last week that the ATGO program has been suspended," Fischer emailed. "With the teacher's interest in having 1,356 students participate in the first project, I cannot make the budget work...In order for ATGO to continue at Dana for the year, there would need to be a funding source of approximately $4,000."

A project typically costs $1 per student.

Thus far, Jesus Nunez, Dana's principal, committed $500. The PTO made no commitment with little to spare from its own coffers.

The loss for Dana students is disheartening especially since the Los Angeles Unified School Board unanimously adopted Board Member Nury Martinez's proposal to bring fine arts back into the district's core programming on Tuesday.

Dana was the first public middle school to adopt the powerfully popular ATGO program that started as a pilot program in 1988 to make up for the artistic cuts in  the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District.

 The program pays artists to train hundreds of parents to take art into elementary classrooms project by project. It was so successful that today it touts that it serves 8,000 kindergarten through 8th grade students a year, has 150 volunteers and 17 private and public schools that participate throughout the Harbor area.

While the program arrived at Dana seven years ago as an after school club, it wasn't until parent Megan McElroy came about two years later that the small seed expanded and flourished with a steady group of volunteers.  The group found ways to open it to any classroom during school that wanted to participate -- the way ATGO was designed initially.  As many as 1,600 11-to-14-year-old Dana students painted, sculpted, drew, carved, dipped, salted and molded -- some for the very first time, Fischer said.

"The process of doing ATGO (at Dana) was like doing art on steroids," Fischer explained. "We had to do so much in such a short period. But the (students) would get so excited. The kids are losing all the fun in school. They are not getting any field trips anymore They are not getting any assemblies. This was one of the last things. It was like a field trip on campus."

The loss is awful for students, many of whom need art to experience the joy of creativity in an often tedious day of learning, explained McElroy who left when her children finished at Dana and Fischer took her place.

"The sad thing is you have a group of talented, dedicated volunteers who want to give something to the students and the teachers and they can't and the teachers and students are eager to have it," said McElroy. "It doesn't take a rocket science to see this is good.

"Test scores show they need to have art."

It was no easy feat to make the program fit into a much larger middle school where classes were only 45 minutes long, the body count doubled in size and some thought the kids wouldn't be interested. But it all worked so well that teachers repeatedly signed up their students for the projects.

Science and health honors teacher Elise Traylor, who apparently taught ATGO to her own children at 7th Street Elementary, called it "devastating."

"It was just great for the kids and I liked them to learn from different artists," she said.

Fischer, whose 13-year-old daughter attends, Dana, said her heart is broken. She found joy in helping the students and never encountered discipline problems at the campus where the poverty rate is at such a  high level that most of its students qualify for a free lunch. She also enjoyed turning the projects into teaching moments, showing students how making a three dimensional vase was a lesson in calculus and that making totems was a lesson in native culture.

"Doing Art to Grow on at Dana made me feel like I was really making a difference in this community," she said as tears welled in her eyes again. "Having parents there who wanted to be there on the campus was good. Sometimes you have only one chance to make a difference in a kid's life as the next opportunity might not come."