Mill Valley residents, business owners and visitors,
Mill Valley School District Superintendent Paul Johnson kicks off each school year with a breakfast gathering for teachers and staff. He often issues an academic challenge to them. But this time, amidst the din of the recent whiplash-inducing negativity, he took a different tack, pitching the school year slogan “Be Kinder Than Necessary,” a shortened version of a famous quote by “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie. Johnson challenged teachers to develop empathy in their students – by demonstrating it to each other. Then he sang “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.
“Kids learn from us and our behavior every day,” Johnson says. “There are always negative things that happen. Work within your sphere of influence, within what you can control.”
The result has been a district-wide campaign to be kind to each other. I’ve seen the incredibly sweet results in my daughter’s second grade class, and their “Kindness Rocks Project” contributed to our cover image at left. This initiative inspired us to profile people who were nominated by others in the community for acts of kindness. We hope you’re inspired by them. We encourage you to follow their lead, work within your own sphere of influence and be kind.
Unrelated request: Shop locally this holiday season, support your amazing Miller Ave. businesses and GO HERE to see all of the great discounts you can find in Mill Valley this holiday season.
Jeff “Ark” Wong, Roco Dance
Wong was the hand-picked successor to Roco’s longtime breakdancing instructor Miles “Milestone” Pineda-Kenedi, who taught at Roco for 15 years before moving to Los Angeles.
But Wong, 28, wasn’t shaken by the challenge of taking over for someone with a long-developed, stellar reputation. He wanted to use that foundation to create a program that utilized the four elements of hip-hop – MCing, DJing, graffiti & breakdancing – to teach his students larger lessons about entrepreneurship, leadership, living a meaningful life and most importantly for the 9-14-year-old kids he teaches, finding your own identity.
It’s safe to say that Wong has exceeded Roco founder Annie Rosenthal Parr’s expectations.
“Jeff walked into this legacy of a program, and what he delivered like no other was an authentic desire to go beyond building the dance skills and techniques, which are important, but also to use dance as a vehicle to provide mentorship to children and teens and teach them how to be good citizens,” she says.
“He’s been able to inject that into his classes with so much heart in a way I’ve never seen any of my instructors do in 25 years,” she adds. “That’s rare. He’s a truly special person.”
The Hivery co-working space founder Grace Kraaijvanger, whose son is one of Wong’s students, agrees. “I have so much admiration for Jeff as a mentor and teacher of things that go far beyond dance, and into the principles and integrity of being a good, kind, inclusive human.”
So how did Wong find his way to connecting the dots between hip-hop and larger life lessons?
“One of the dancers heard I could backflip and pulled me in,” he says. “I did one, got a response. I thought, ‘this is kind of cool.’”
Quick explainer: breakdancing, originally known as b-boying, is an acrobatic, propulsive dance form that originated in the Bronx, New York in the early 1970s, when pioneering DJs like Kool Herc looped the breakdown of a beat at block parties.
Everything changed when Wong joined the 808 Breakers dance crew. He loved the old-school soul and funk music they danced to, their multi-faceted events and the array of different kinds of people. He obsessively breakdanced 5-7 hours per day.“I was just a maniac,” he says.
808 Breakers got sponsored by DARE and a media company that landed them TV spots promoting positive, drug-free lifestyles. The vast exposure put a lot of pressure on the group, but the spotlight helped them get better at breakdancing – they won all sorts of competitions – and hone their message. Wong was such a stabilizing force that he earned the nickname “Ark” for keeping his crew “above the water.”
In 2012, Wong graduated from University of Hawaii and moved to the Bay Area for a graduate program at Samuel Merritt University. Immersed in the local breakdancing scene and having just met a woman and fellow breakdancer whom he’d marry very soon after, Wong dropped out and became a sales executive for a green printer ink firm while continuing to focus on dance.
“It didn’t pan out for me there – I got fired,” he says. “But I learned a lot about how to present myself and how to speak to people.”
As Wong was coming into his own as a dance instructor, his world was turned upside down when he got divorced. “I had married a B-girl,” he says. “It was the prom queen and prom king. But a lot of craziness happened. It really shook me to my core.”
As always, breakdancing healed Wong. He drew on hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation principles: peace, love, unity & having fun.
“It helped me find a voice and trudge through these things that have happened in my life, like going through a divorce,” he says. “It made real-life sense.”
Wong loves it when his students stick with breakdancing long-term. But that’s only a part of his mission. “At the end of the day, we’re creating people who are more educated about themselves and hip-hop culture. There’s a common, humanistic youth condition of struggle and finding your identity that everyone around the world deals with,” he adds. “All struggles are not created equal. There’s definitely a difference between lacking a home and clean water versus having to deal with an abusive adult. But kids can experience a lot of struggle in their youth.”
Wong’s students perform each Sunday in the Depot Plaza, a chance to show their stuff and take ownership of every element of their performance.
“We have so many kids walking through our doors who need support, and to have a mentor like Jeff to foster that here has been incredible,” Rosenthal Parr says. “I’m thrilled to have someone so youth-centric at Roco.”
Mimi Buckley, co-founder, Greenwood School & Front Porch Farm
Longtime Mill Valley resident Mimi Buckley, who authored the stickers many years ago, has been living that mantra for decades. Her story’s known around town, but here’s the short version: Buckley met her husband Peter in Germany when she was the visual director for Esprit-International and he was CEO of Esprit-Europe. They left Esprit in 1990, moving to Mill Valley and opening the Greenwood School a year later with a group of parents. They housed the Waldorf-inspired school in the Buckley’s home before moving it its current Buena Vista Ave. space.
Upon their arrival in town, Mimi Buckley spotted a flyer seeking someone to organize a clean-up day. Mimi leapt at the chance, turning it into a huge event with throngs of people picking up litter all over town. It concluded with an “awards ceremony” and a party on the Plaza.
Over the years since, the couple has created the David Brower Center and the Center for Ecoliteracy and in Berkeley. They started farming in 2008 and settled at Front Porch Farm, a 110-acre organic farm along the Russian River on the eastern edge of Healdsburg.
“Mimi’s nature is pure kindness, and that finds its expression in pretty much every moment,” Peter Buckley says. “Specific stories don’t really capture her constant way of being. It’s the small things.”
For instance, if Buckley sees a parent speaking harshly to a child, she won’t turn away but approaches the person, smiles and says, “How lucky you are to have such a beautiful child.” That moment changes everything.
Buckley trained as a massage therapist at the Zen Hospice in San Francisco for six years. “Being a hospice caregiver really turns up the brightness volume on life,” she says.
Given the couple’s focus on Front Porch Farm in recent years, Mimi studies Spanish intensively “so she can speak directly with the Mexican guys on the farm crew. Her constant example of creating beauty and sharing it inspires everyone on the staff. Pretty soon they have internalized her way of seeing the world.”
Sophie Canepa, Edna Maguire School 5th Grader
Canepa recently saw a fellow student being bullied by two boys at school. In deciding to help, she drew on her own past experiences of being bullied. She made her presence felt and calmly but firmly intervened. She then comforted the bullied student with ease.
“From a very young age, Sophie has been a caring, empathetic, compassionate and kind person,” Bob Canepa says. “She is always there to help others. I admire and respect her. She is one of my heroes!”
Dennis Morales, contractor
Morales moved from his native Puerto Rico to the Bronx in New York City in 1955, and lived a life of extreme hardship during his early years. “I had a very rough childhood,” he says. “Very poor. I really don’t miss those years.”
In 1972, Morales hitchhiked to San Francisco, arriving with just $15 in his pocket. Though he came out here a few years after the Summer of Love, he was drawn to that era’s values of peace, love and happiness. Morales moved to the San Diego area and got his contractor’s license. But he was always drawn back to the Bay Area, and has been living in Mill Valley for decades.
As a residential contractor, Morales’ clients know that his goodwill extends well beyond the duration of a project. It also includes him swinging by to make sure your windows are closed when he knows you’re out of town during a storm and making adjustments to his work to accommodate life changes like disabilities.
“If you had a leak in your house and mentioned it to Dennis, he’d be there in five minutes to fix it – that’s the kind of guy he is,” says Paul Winston, one of the co-owners of the Sweetwater Music Hall who has long known Morales as a regular at the former Roastery Mill Valley, which became Bonavita Coffee and later LaCoppa Coffee Company at 2 Miller Avenue.
Morales is a regular, and the two have long bonded over their shared love of the Grateful Dead. “He’s always been a guy who would just do anything for you,” Winston says. “If you’re his friend, he’s just beyond loyal.”
Sharon Segal, Marin Optometry
But while those traits fall within the confines of Segal’s day job, her charitable efforts go above and beyond, according to former Mill Valley Mayor Anne Solem, who says Segal’s work to collect and contribute previously used eyeglasses to myriad charities makes her a community treasure.
“Sharon has been such an important part of our community for so many years,” Solem says. “I’ve experienced her kindness both as a customer and from my time on the City Council. I love that I can bring in our eyeglasses that we don’t need anymore and know they’ll end up with someone who really needs them.”
One such campaign occurred in 2015, when Segal contributed dozens of used eyeglasses to Verde Valley School for a trip to distribute eyeglasses in Malawi, Africa, along with a dozen more new glasses that she created just for the cause. The school has given out more than 14,000 glasses in Malawi, a country where more than 3 million people need glasses but don’t have access to them.
Segal serves on a number of nonprofit boards and is involved with St. Vincent DePaul, providing all optical needs pro bono to help serve their mission to break the cycle of homelessness and domestic violence and ease re-entry into society.
Ethan Swergold & Skye Schoencroft, PAASS
How did Project Awareness and Special Sports (PAASS), the nonprofit driving efforts to help kids with special needs, grow to serve so many kids and work with Mill Valley Recreation on an award-winning adaptive needs partnership?
Kids like Tam High students Skye Schoencroft and Ethan Swerngold, who have repeatedly volunteered their time to work with special needs children across an array of disciplines. Swerngold, a junior, has volunteered for PAASS since fifth grade. Miller says he “creates incredible bonds with our participants. People like Ethan define community. He consistently displays kindness to all our kids!”
Schoencroft created a new club at Tam High called Club PAASS this year to recruit even more volunteers. “She is such a genuine, kind individual who goes out of her way for others, and has really stepped up as a teen leader,” Miller says. “She is all about inclusion and acceptance.”
Mark & Curtis Fong, Critterland Pets
Longtime Critterland customer Claire McAuliffe says the Fongs remember her (and all of her dogs over the years) every time she walks in the door, regardless of how long it’s been since she’s visited.
“They remember that my husband passed away recently, and they mention him every time,” she says. “They cheerfully schlep the 40-pound bags out to my car. Their actions are good business practice, but it’s their caring kindness that keeps me coming back.”
Jill Young & Joan Murray, Clean Mill Valley
They met nearly 40 years ago when Young coached Murray’s daughter in soccer, and they’ve been working to make Mill Valley a better place seemingly every day since. Five years ago, they created Clean Mill Valley to codify their work to clean up and beautify our town, and to galvanize others to do the same. They created a merchant pledge program that has spurred scores of businesses to follow their lead.
Says Susan Lopes of the MV Chamber: “They are the epitome of kindness. Humble yet mighty activists working to make our county a cleaner place. Joan and Jill are an inspiration!”