Aug 112016

By Francine Brevetti, Correspondent

PITTSBURG — “I don’t even want to think about it,” exclaimed LaDonna Cooper with a shiver. She had been asked what her life would be like without the lunchtime meal she receives from Meals on Wheels Senior Outreach Services.

The 62-year-old fragile Cooper has depended for several years on the Meals on Wheels delivery of her midday sustenance. She is not alone in wondering how she would survive without the service.

Meals on Wheels and Senior Outreach Services delivers to 760 seniors in East County. The organization is struggling to serve its current population. The organization could serve many more if more volunteers would step up to make deliveries.

Meals on Wheels volunteer Kevin Leal delivers a lunch to LaDonna Cooper at her home in Pittsburg, Calif., on Wednesday, July 13, 2016. (Kristopher

Meals on Wheels volunteer Kevin Leal delivers a lunch to LaDonna Cooper at her home in Pittsburg, Calif., on Wednesday, July 13, 2016. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group) ( Kristopher Skinner )

Elaine Clark, CEO of MOWSOS, said that since January the service has had 11 routes that need to be filled with permanent volunteer drivers. “We’ve been making do with temporary volunteers and our staff who fill in.”

Each route serves 15 to 16 people. Based on these numbers, theoretically, 165 more seniors who are in need could be fed daily with additional, committed volunteers.

The service is constantly in need of volunteer drivers since five to eight drop out monthly.

Clark maintains that ignorance is the cause of the inadequate team of volunteers. “People don’t know that there is a huge need,” she explained.

Meanwhile, the population of frail elderly grows. East County’s coverage area includes a dozen cities and hamlets with Pittsburg, Antioch and Bay Point being critical for the elderly.

“East County is the fastest-growing area (in Contra Costa County) for seniors aging in place. We don’t have a strong presence here. We want to plug more into the population,” Clark said. “We can only open a new route if we have volunteer meal delivery people to consistently deliver the meals.”

The Meals on Wheels SOS is asking local employers to allow their employees to volunteer during their lunch hours. Besides the workplaces, it is also hoping that civic groups, churches adopt one to two routes of their own.

Meanwhile, for the needy shut-ins, the drivers offer still another role — that of human contact. Cooper cherishes her friendship with her drivers and says they always ask how she’s doing.

“It’s good to know somebody cares,” she says.

Her Wednesday-through-Thursday driver, retiree Kevin Leal, enjoys his contribution also.

“This service is good for retired people. It adds value to your life. And the people I deliver to take you on so quick; they make you feel part of the family,” he said.

It’s a win-win for everybody, even the animals. Cooper’s Chihuahua mix Emerald anticipates the arrival of the Meals on Wheels drivers.

“She jumps off the bed and goes right to the door when she hears them coming up the stairs,” Cooper said.

When Leal hears Emerald barking and scratching at the screen door, he appreciates this friendly welcome. He spends about an hour day bringing meals to 13 to 14 Meals on Wheels clients.

But one meal a day, however appreciated, is not enough for anyone to thrive. Cooper acknowledges the friends and neighbors who supply her breakfast and evening fare at their own expense and the dog food for Emerald. Occasionally, her drivers will pitch in with an extra snack or treat.

Meals on Wheels and Senior Outreach Services delivers lunches prepared by Meals on Wheels in Contra Costa County, part of the national Meals on Wheels organization.

Two years ago Congress failed to pass a budget, which resulted in cuts in funding across the board, Clark remembers.

“As a result, we began evaluating each client’s needs and stopped taking new clients unless they were considered an exceptional case — absolutely no way of obtaining food. The number of clients dropped by nearly 100,” she said.

Fortunately, that same year funding was restored in response to national outrage, said Clark, who was one of the point people for the advocacy efforts to restore funding.

This calamity “could happen again, however, if Congress decides to play political football with the lives of seniors, she fears.

While Contra Costa County at large receives eight dollars in social services for each senior, the East County receives only $1 per senior, she said, citing a 2016 Federal Reserve study.

To volunteer, visit, call 925-954-8736, or email Susannah Meyer at

 Posted by at 10:23 pm
Apr 222016

francine picFacilitated by Francine Brevetti

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Mar 302016
By Francine Brevetti, For the Contra Costa Times

Posted:   03/22/2016 01:25:41 PM PDT | Updated:   2 days ago
Plaintiff Betty Dukes stands outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, March 29, 2011, after attending a case of women employees against Wal-Mart.

Plaintiff Betty Dukes stands outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, March 29, 2011, after attending a case of women employees against Wal-Mart. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) ( Jacquelyn Martin )

PITTSBURG — The woman who faced down Walmart is carrying on her battle for workers’ rights now that she is no longer an employee of the largest retailer in the world.

“Now I can talk about how I felt,” said Betty Dukes, who worked for Walmart for 21 years, seven months and six days. She will appear at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to kick off her push for equal rights for all employees and the freedom to unionize.

“The D.C. event will be the launching, the nucleus for going forward for women’s equality and a workers’ rights movement,” said Dukes, who spent her career at the Pittsburg Walmart store.

The March 29 date will mark the fifth anniversary of the largest civil rights class action lawsuit ever brought before the Supreme Court.

Betty Dukes, of Pittsburg, is photographed on Tuesday,  April 19, 2011 in Antioch, Calif. Dukes, who currently works as a greeter for Walmart, is suing

Betty Dukes, of Pittsburg, is photographed on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 in Antioch, Calif. Dukes, who currently works as a greeter for Walmart, is suing Walmart for gender discrimination. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Staff) ( SUSAN TRIPP POLLARD )

Dukes was the lead plaintiff in the case, Dukes v. Walmart Stores Inc., that represented 1.6 million women. However, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case as a class action.

Plaintiffs settled individually with Walmart, as did Dukes who left the retailer’s workforce on Dec. 31, 2015.

By establishing The Betty Dukes Foundation, she hopes to create a national campaign and is planning to appear in other cities to rouse support. She was not ready to announce the other cities on her agenda.

“What you know, Walmart knows,” she said, explaining her hesitance to show her hand.”I’m trying to create a movement that could change the lives of many.”

Dukes is passionate about protecting low-income workers who, she says, have been marginalized as a viable part of society.

Her issues are both equal pay for women and the freedom to unionize.

President John F. Kennedy signed a bill assuring equal pay for women. “But,” she observed, “it still has not happened in all of the 50 states.”

Her goal is to strengthen survival of the next generation. “So many jobs are outsourced. There’s not much work left in United States.”

“The National Labor Relations Board says that every worker has a right to unionize without retaliation. But not everybody is aware of that.”

Dukes hopes her foundation and her campaigns will educate workers of these rights.

According to the American Association of University Women, at the time the Equal Pay Act was signed into law, requiring employers to give equal pay for equal work, women received 59 cents for every dollar men were paid. In 2015, that figure was 79 cents.

 Posted by at 8:32 pm
Mar 082016

By Francine Brevetti

Posted:   02/02/2016 03:37:09 PM PST |
Leer Vineyards of Byron includes 44 acres, an event center and tasting room, and a house, among other features.

Leer Vineyards of Byron includes 44 acres, an event center and tasting room, and a house, among other features. ( Leer Vineyards )
Click photo to enlarge

Stefan Leer, left, owner of the Leer Vineyards, visits with customers in… ( DAN ROSENSTRAUCH )

BYRON — Representatives of prospective buyers have come from all over the world, China and New Zealand included, assessing the Leer Vineyards’ compound in Byron, a property that is now for sale and that East Contra Costans will likely feel the loss of.

Owners of the 44-acre property, including vineyards, residence, sports fields and entertainment center, are asking $5.2 million for a business that has produced prizewinning wines and brought popular entertainment to East County in merely two years.

Stefan and Tanisha Leer bought the property without the intention of creating the now-elaborate center. But through their efforts and investment, it was transformed into a complex offering a tasting room, softball and bocce ball courts and a venue for corporate events, weddings and concerts.

It will take awhile for it to be clear whether any of the prospective investors will step forward, their broker Lori Abreu, principal of Delta Ranches, explained. On Jan. 26, the Leers, with Abreu, held an open tour of the expansive property for brokers in the hopes that they would attract interested investors.

More than 200 people came to the event, they said, and six interested investors made themselves known.

Tanisha Leer was at pains to explain why this attractive property was up for sale after they had made it, by all appearances, a great success and a significant benefit to the community.

“We have put a lot of money into this place. We’re not trying to flip it. It would be nice to make money, but that’s not our main focus. It took nine months just to get the permits for our events and that (alone) cost thousands of dollars,” she recounted.

“We put $650,000 into the house itself.”The Leers have also recently relinquished their half share in Brentwood-based wine bar, Vine and Grain.

So what is the power couple thinking? It turns out, she explained, they have too much on their plate. They are planning to leave Northern California and will be concentrating on their core business and family.

Stefan Leer is the principal of Kinetic Insurance Solutions in this state as well as in Texas.

“That’s what pays the bills,” Tanisha Leer said.

The couple has been running the 44-acre Byron operation as well as participating in the late-night events at Vine and Grain from their principal business.

In addition, they’ve recently adopted a child who requires their attention.

“It was not an easy decision to make,” she said. “We put blood sweat and tears into this.”

They came to the breaking point after their attempts to hire staff to give them more time at home did not pan out.

Although they had hired a couple to run the vineyard and the events, the Leers found that the number of regular customers to their wine-and-song complex subsequently dropped off.

She also hired a nanny for son Keegan, but decided she “did not want to watch someone else raise my child.”

The co-proprietor revealed the thinking process that went into setting the asking price.

“We didn’t have any reference point or any other place like ours to compare.”

The nearby Brentwood vineyard and winery Hannah Nicole, which also offers picnic venues and musical entertainment, was also sold by a local family a few years ago.

Abreu was also the broker for that sale at the price of $9.5 million.

However, that complex is approximately twice the size of Leer Vineyards.

Three years ago Hannah Nicole was bought by Chinese investors operating under the name of JINTA Winery for a price that the previous management described as “compelling.”

Since the Leers have publicized their asking price, several people have commented that it is underpriced, Tanisha Leer said. “Only one person has said that it was overpriced.”

She insisted she would not let go of booking events and weddings until and even after a sale is finalized.

“Several brides have come to me to book their wedding here and I will come back if we are out of the area to be here for that event, ” the co-owner said.

They will also maintain control of the inventory of their two prizewinning labels, Heroic Red and Valiant White.

Regular customers say this sale could be a big loss to the community since the leaders brought entertainment and communal events to an area of Contra Costa that tends to be somnolent at night and on weekends.

The Leers insist that they will look for a buyer who will continue to further their vision of bringing entertainment and community events to East County.

Two Discovery Bay residents and regular customers of Leer Vineyards feel the loss of the Leer family’s stewardship sharply. Both Michelle Campos and Shelley Nelson expressed their appreciation for the Leers.

The Leers “brought the community together. The sale is a big deal in this area,” Michelle Campos said.

Of course, there is no sale yet.

Such transactions may take anywhere from six months to a year, Tanisha Leer speculated.

 Posted by at 10:48 pm
Oct 222015

By Francine Brevetti For the Contra Costa Times
Posted: 10/20/2015 04:50:50 PM PDT

OAKLEY — The fish are biting again at Big Break Marina.

The once-troubled marina, now under new ownership, held its first fishing tournament in many years Sept. 26 and followed with another one this past Saturday. Yet another striped bass competition will be held on Nov. 7.

Newly opened tackle shop Dan’s Delta Outdoors sponsored the event that will present eight black bass tournaments in 2016.

Ryan Hulbert and Jesse Schryuer won first place and $500 for bringing in two fish that together measured 61 total inches.

Tackle shop proprietor Dan Mathisen was exuberant about bringing sport, traffic and commercial events back to the marina, and expects a resurgence of pleasurable activity at one of the public gateways to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Formerly, the marina was home to pleasure craft, restaurants, bait shops and residences.

“Years ago all the tournaments launched from the Big Break Marina,” said Mathisen, who opened his tackle shop June 1, not long after the marina resumed activity under new management this year.

Twenty boats entered the competition during this first tournament and spectators were estimated to number about 60. Marina general manager Sean Ferguson said Big Break Marina LLC is working to attract more tournament directors.

Since the marina’s resurgence, visits to its facilities have increased.

Ferguson said, “We’re having new monthly launches and acquiring a couple of additional rental berths a month.”

Earlier this year San Rafael-based Sequoia Mortgage Company assumed ownership of the facility and created a new corporate name, Big Break Marina LLC, to distinguish the facility from its former owner. The marina had fallen into disrepair under its previous ownership, going into bankruptcy and ultimately foreclosure. The sporting tournaments and festivals ceased, and fun-seeking folks stopped coming.

“There was a big drop in business,” Mathisen said.

Much of the fishing activity and all of the tournaments moved to Bethel Island, according to both Mathisen and Ferguson.

Sequoia Mortgage Company intends to repair, refurbish and revive what once was the center of entertainment and sport life in Oakley and on the Delta.

The mortgage company’s CEO Jason Freskos reported his company is making progress, removing tons of garbage, rotting docks and derelict buildings. “We’re slogging forward,” he said.

 Posted by at 8:07 pm
Oct 122015

Daughter’s disability inspires Concord author’s story of compassion

By Francine Brevetti For the Contra Costa Times
Posted:   09/29/2015 04:19:10 PM PDT

Concord author Stefanie Boggs-Johnson, seen here with her… ( Courtesy Stefanie Boggs-Johnson )

PITTSBURG — Concord writer Stefanie Boggs-Johnson said her “brain crumbled” when her newborn Naomi was diagnosed as having suffered a stroke in utero. The infant had also suffered brain damage and then multiple seizures in her first few days of life. She was not expected to walk, talk or take care of herself.

Few parents would be able to see beyond such a devastating prognosis, but not Boggs-Johnson and her husband, Eric Johnson. “When the doctors gave us an option to take her off the ventilator, we said no,” Boggs-Johnson recalled. Instead the family persisted in caring for her.

At 4 years old, their daughter was diagnosed with a “mild case” of cerebral palsy. Today 6-year-old Naomi wears a brace on her right leg. But she walks and talks — rather sassily, according to her mother — and can be seen tumbling and swinging from jungle gym bars at a local playground.

Yes, it’s a success story. But before it was that, the author and mother felt compelled to provide a book to explain Naomi’s condition to her son, then 8.

Boggs-Johnson found the available books on childhood disability did not adequately cover the topic that she was most passionate about. She was concerned that her daughter would face bullying and ridicule as she grew and went to school. The available literature had a long way to go toward instilling compassion in young readers, she reckoned.

So she did something about it, and proceeded to write a book that would educate children to see the disabled as intelligent human beings with feelings.

The result was the illustrated 28-page “I See You, Little Naomi,” published By Tate Publishing

In simple but accurate terms the story describes Naomi’s stroke and what it meant for her brain. Boggs-Johnson writes about the care Naomi gets every day and how she is improving. But most of all the intent of the story is to teach kindness to children who may otherwise ridicule or become frightened by the sight of the disabled. The book explains:

“When you are at school, a park, party or out (shopping) with your family, you may see a person who looks, talks, or walks ‘funny’ to you. It may be something you don’t understand because you don’t see it all the time.”

The book shows young readers that everyone has feelings that can be easily hurt. “Everyone wants to have friends and be liked,” the book points out.

Children who are confronted by an unusual person with different capacities should ask a grown-up to explain the situation to them, the book suggests. The disabled are not “weird.” Children must know there are medical issues behind what they see, the author stresses.

“What you don’t understand, you make fun of. I want to pave the path for my daughter, so that she can live in this world. I wanted Naomi to have friends. I want her to be able to work independently,” Boggs-Johnson said.

“I See You, Little Naomi” is written for the 3-7 age group. But the author hopes that parents also will take courage in reading it.

“My message to families of such children: you’re not alone. Stop grieving and dream new dreams,” she urged.

Boggs-Johnson will give a book reading at the Railroad Book Depot in Pittsburg at 1 p.m. on Oct. 17. “I See You, Little Naomi” is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at the publisher’s website,

Naomi’s challenges have been an awakening for her mother. Boggs-Johnson admits she had to overcome her own preconceptions about disabilities to face those of her daughter.

“When I entered the special-needs world it really humbled me. I came to see that these are human beings with feelings and intelligence. I want to bridge the gap between the mainstream world and the special-needs world.”

She has since committed herself to that effort. She works as a special needs job coach at Contra Costa ARC, which serves people with developmental needs, and she offers cosmetology services for special-needs people at the Orinda Hair Studio where clients can make appointments outside regular hours if they prefer privacy.

Boggs- Johnson also will go to clients’ homes to attend to their beauty needs. She can be reached at 925-787-5817 and

 Posted by at 10:00 pm
Aug 132015

By Francine Brevetti
For the Contra Costa Times

ANTIOCH — Do the dead walk? No, but their headstones can travel.

While the remains of Rebecca Abraham (1860-1878) lay at peace in Rose Hill Cemetery, near Antioch, her headstone went on a walkabout for decades.

Recently a Napa resident returned Rebecca’s headstone from where he found it years ago, discarded and defiled behind the Contra Costa County’s Sheriff’s workshop. The marker has had a strange trajectory.

Newly married 18-year-old Rebecca was sitting by a kerosene lamp, which toppled over in the fall of 1878. As she tried to douse the fire, the fuel spilled on the floor, the flames enveloped her and she died two days later. The account in the Contra Costa Gazette reported her demise and described the widespread grieving among her neighbors and her funeral cortège.

Her grave and headstone remained at Rose Hill Cemetery as late as 1955, a photograph so proves, said Eddie Willis, naturalist with Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, the site of Rose Hill Cemetery.

“But by 1965 we have a photograph that shows the stone was missing,” Willis said.

There are folks who care about preserving the past and mementos of real-life people who inhabited this area even 200 years ago. Other folks do not.

The park is attempting to restore the cemetery. To encourage the return of these artifacts, Willis asserts the cemetery does not ask any questions about the provenance of gravestones gone missing.

Of the 80 original gravestones, 40 have vanished.

“This is the fourth stone we’ve recovered since the mid-1970s; in other words, one per decade,” Willis reckoned.

How do gravestones disappear?

“The cemetery is inside the (Black Diamond Mines) preserve and is available for hiking, about half a mile from the parking lot. … ” he explains.

In other words, it is fair game for scalawags and the high-spirited who migth carouse through the cemetery at night, and, just for the fun of it, steal gravestones.

“Teenagers,” Willis muttered.

The emergence of this mournful relic puts in relief the history of Rebecca Abraham’s community in the 19th century.

Gold wasn’t the only lure to California’s hills in the 19th century. Rose Hill Cemetery is what remains of five coal mining communities of the 19th century. Then called Nortonville (Rebecca’s home), Somersville, Stewartville, West Hartley and Judsonville, they constituted California’s largest coal mining operation, where nearly four million tons of coal (“black diamonds”) were extracted from the soil during these horse and buggy days.

Mining folks knew hardship, hard work and long hours. Rose Hill served as the resting place for children who perished from epidemics, women in childbirth and laborers from mining disasters. At its peak it is estimated to have held the bodies of 250 residents. Because of the expense of erecting a marker, many individuals and families combined their resources to share the same headstone.

Sometime between 1955 and 1965 Rebecca’s headstone was wrested from its plot and found years later by criminalist John Thornton at the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s office in Martinez.

During his laboratory work for the Sheriff’s office from 1963 to 1972, Thornton said, “I saw several headstones leaning against the mechanics shop. They were covered in crankcase oil and other debris. They had not been tended with dignity.”

He explained that several had been collected when the Sheriff’s office made an arrest for some offense and found them on the perpetrator’s property.

Out of respect for the deceased, Thornton appealed to Sheriff Harry Ramsey to return the headstones to the deceased. The sheriff, however, did not want to spend County resources on this endeavor. Ramsey told Thornton he was free to track down their origins on his own time.

But California did not collect death registries until the 20th century, Thornton said, and who knows how many counties and their cemeteries he would have to call.

So he took two headstones, that of Rebecca and one of a Manuel Medeiros, to his property in rural Napa and constructed a small, 10-by-10-foot, private cemetery for them. And there they stayed. Recently his wife, Kim Wildman, pointed out that he might be able to track down the deceased online — a facility unavailable when he first collected the headstones.

He got a hit on Rebecca Abraham and saw she should be in the East Bay Regional Parks, which had acquired the Rose Hill property. He came up dry with Medeiros and assumed it was because of the common use of that name. The dates on his headstone are 1896-1941; that is all that is known about him.

Thornton immediately called the staffers at the East Bay Regional Park District who already knew about the two departed individuals and their missing markers.

Willis of the Diamond Mines Regional Preserve collected the headstones and returned them to Rose Hill Cemetery where they were restored and will soon be placed back in their original spots.

Welcome home, Rebecca and Manuel.

The East Bay Regional Park District began acquiring land for Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, south of Pittsburg and Antioch, in the early 1970s.

Today, most of the former mining district is within the Preserve’s nearly 6,096 acres.


To return a tombstone or marker to the East Bay Regional Parks District — no questions asked — call 510-544-2750. 

 Posted by at 9:54 pm
Jul 312015

Monday July 27, 2015 , ,


The reunited Barra family from the right: Giuseppa, Matilda, and Vincenzo Barra, Bob Hokanson and Alicia Barra Hokanson

By Francine Brevetti

Why would I want to go to Sicily? My family’s from Northern Italy. Three reasons:

My education in college and graduate school exposed me to the histories of ancient Greece, and Rome, their drama and their mythologies. I’m crazy about antiquities.
Then this past spring I attended two lectures on Italian history by Dr. Douglas Kenning at the Museo Italo-Americano in San Francisco. He explained in greater detail than I had ever heard before the colonization of Sicily by the Greeks – in fact it was called Magna Graecia – Great Greece.

Only under his lectureship did it click in my head that the tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus, the great myths of Zeus, Hera and Demeter played out on Sicilian soil.
I’m a sucker for mythology. So I signed up for the tour of Sicily that he does regularly.

I met him and the other four members of the tour in Siracusa – our first hotel looked over the Ionian Sea and I imagined I could see the Greek ships of 3500 years ago sailing my way. The rest of the ten-day venture was devoted to Agrigento, Erice, Taormina and so many other places, all enriched by Douglas’s encyclopedic knowledge of history and mythology.

Oh yes there was another reason I went to Sicily as well. I had heard the best cannoli in the world can be found there. This was true.

But it wasn’t until another tour member announced that she wanted to trace her family in Sicily that I became personally involved in this island of volcanoes and pastry.

Tour member and Colorado resident Alicia Barra treasured her Sicilian family and heritage. Trouble was, she’d never been to the old country.

So when a door opened and wizened woman, not 5 feet high, sturdily built with piercing black eyes greeted us on the main street of Partinico, Sicily, Alicia was astounded and speechless. This 75-year-old packet of dynamite was beckoning us in.

When Alicia and her husband Bob Hokanson had signed up with Sicily Tour ( for a historical and archaeological exploration of the Italian island as I had, she had it in her mind to trace her parentage. Some years earlier she had accompanied Bob to track down his roots in Norway. Now he was supporting his wife in her search.

But how could she do this? Her family had long lost contact with her grandfather’s relatives, the Barra family, in the town of Partinico, 20 miles from Palermo.
“I kept wishing I could share this trip with my Dad,” said Alicia, thinking of her father in hospital in Long Island, NY.

Fortunately, the three leaders of Sicily Tour, Douglas and his partners, Lucia and Steve Davies, were long-time residents of Siracusa and knew their way around public records and Sicilian phonebooks.

It was Lucia who identified Alicia’s relatives in Partinico and their contact information. While we were exploring the island and heading towards Palermo, Lucia called Giuseppa Barra to ask if Alicia could visit. There was an enthusiastic yes on the other side of the line.

“It is one of my happiest jobs – bringing family together!” Lucia said later.

We were to spend two days in Palermo, the first for sightseeing and the second for free time. But that second day Doug agreed to drive Alicia and Bob to find la signora Barra. I came along to support Doug in translation since Alicia did not speak Italian.

As we came over the mountain from Palermo, Alicia remarked feelingly, “These are the same mountains my grandfather saw and the same roads he traveled on.” Alicia had been devoted to her grandfather Ignazio who lived with her and her family through her adolescence.

We twisted our way through the streets of the village – were all the streets one-way? Finally Doug was able to point the car in the proper direction toward the Barras’ front door. Looming over the main street we could spy a small figure on the balcony of the second level of a three-story building that dominated the street. A woman was leaning out scanning the street with intensity.

The brass plaque next to the main door read: Vincenzo Barra, Architetto. Alicia was thrilled to see her family name displayed with such dignity.

The door opened and Giuseppa Barra, a 75-year-old packet of dynamite, was beckoning us in.

There were no embraces or kisses. Alicia and her relative were still unclear on how they were related to each other.

We followed Giuseppa up the stairs to her quarters, entering a room from the 19th century, crowded with heavy dark furniture, festooned in doilies and lace curtains. Imposing photographs and yellowing portraits covered each inch of wall space.

She motioned to the four of us – Alicia and Bob, Doug and myself, to be seated. Many excited words were exchanged to clarify who was related to whom and how. Alicia’s grandfather, Ignazio, was the brother of Salvatore, Giuseppa’s deceased husband. Ignazio left the US when he was 17 and spent his majority on Long Island, NY. He returned for a single visit in his 60s. His son and Alicia’s father Vincenzo never ventured to the old country.

Giuseppa was prepared. On the table in front of Alicia was a stack of photographs, decades old. The older woman had been collecting these photos that Ignazio had sent home to his brother over the years. Most of the people in the photographs could have meant little or nothing to our hostess. Yet she had preserved them.

partenico 1

Alicia was astounded to discover images of all the relatives she knew throughout her childhood and adolescence. The image of her father with her little black dog was especially endearing to her. A picture of her at age 12 lined up with her whole family in front of the house her father had built was also meaningful.

The Colorado traveler was particularly taken with two photographs, side-by-side high up on the wall. They represented a young woman in shorts and a light top smiling with all of the sensuality she could express in that era – 50 or 60 years ago. They turned out to be photos of the young Giuseppa.

“She was so beautiful,” Alicia said to the uncomprehending Giuseppa.

“Molto (very) sexy,” I quipped. Everyone laughed except Giuseppa who looked away with a smile. Yes people in Italy understand the word sexy.

Alicia and Bob photographed the photos, “So I can bring them back to my Dad,” she said. Her dad is 86 and in poor health so she felt there was no likelihood he would come himself.

The elder Barra’s son Vincenzo, the architect whose plaque glinted on the building façade, had just come from Palermo to meet his newly found cousin. He brought his seven-year-old daughter Matilda and gave us a tour of his own quarters in the building. He had modernized his rooms with skill and they stood in stark contrast to his mother’s outdated though cherished furnishings.

Their home was an imposing three-story building on the main road and overlooked the town square and the church. Giuseppa and the Barras were well known. When we ventured out to the gelateria across the street, the couple dozen older men sitting outside the building kept trying to engage her. They must have wondered who these foreigners were but Giuseppa had little time for them. She wanted to keep us all for herself.

Library dedicated to Salvatore Barra

Library dedicated to Salvatore Barra

With our gelato joyfully indulged in, Vincenzo guided us to another treasure – a private library dedicated to his father. It must have been named recently for the sign outside was a flimsy placard that said “La Biblioteca Salvatore Barra. “ Salvatore was being remembered for his passionate work as an antifascist. Materials in the library were of that nature, including the works of Karl Marx and portraits of Che Guevara, among others.

When we sadly took our leave of mother and son, Alicia vowed, “I will definitely see that my children come. And I will come back too.” She swore to learn Italian when she returned to Conifer.

The embraces and kisses that were absent when we first met them were bountifully exchanged at this point.

We were all deeply grateful for the successful reunion of two generations.

Zeus and Hera notwithstanding, this was one of the high points of my trip to Sicily – something I could never have foreseen.

Francine Brevetti is an author and ghostwriter who resides in her hometown of San Francisco, California. Her work can be seen at and She specializes in nonfiction work, especially memoirs and business books.


 Posted by at 9:57 pm
Jul 062015

Thursday July 09, 2015 – Contra Costa Times – NEWS

Workers work to remove wood taken from a dilapidated dock that was taken down at the Big Break Marina in Oakley, Calif., on Wednesday, June 4, 2015. The

Workers work to remove wood taken from a dilapidated dock that was taken down at the Big Break Marina in Oakley, Calif., on Wednesday, June 4, 2015. The marina was foreclosed in February and there is a new group of investors doing new improvements. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group) ( DAN ROSENSTRAUCH )

OAKLEY — A neglected marina that once hosted pro bass fishing tournaments and formerly served as a busy hive of entertainment and sport is waiting for a second wind under new owners.

San Rafael-based Sequoia Mortgage Co. assumed ownership of the Big Break Marina in February after its previous owner, David Biron, filed for bankruptcy two years ago and then lost the property in foreclosure.

The 32-acre facility adjacent to the Big Break Regional Shoreline is undergoing a complete face-lift under the mortgage company, which hopes to revive it to its previous glory, Sequoia CEO Jason Freskos said.

A newly rebuilt boating dock at the Big Break Marina in Oakley is seen to the left as a fisherman fishes in Oakley, Calif., on Wednesday, June 4, 2015. The

A newly rebuilt boating dock at the Big Break Marina in Oakley is seen to the left as a fisherman fishes in Oakley, Calif., on Wednesday, June 4, 2015. The marina was foreclosed in February and there is a new group of investors doing new improvements. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group) ( DAN ROSENSTRAUCH )

The marina is one of far East County’s few public gateways to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and is home port to pleasure craft, restaurants, bait shops and residences. It once even served as a backdrop in an episode of the “Mythbusters” television show.

Freskos is optimistic about bringing new business and revitalizing what was once considered Oakley’s “gem.” He looks forward to the return of bass fishing derbies and other activities that were common before the marina’s decline.

“We want to rent to tenants who will bring in viable businesses. The most happening bar and restaurant in Oakley used to be at this marina. It’s not there anymore. Neither is a clubhouse that once was here,” he said.

Oakley City Manager Bryan Montgomery is enthusiastic about the new plans for Big Break Marina. He said the facility under the previous ownership had fewer connections to the river whereas the new owners plan to provide more access to the shoreline.

This facility “used to be such a gem,” Montgomery said. “But it was not as much of an amenity as we wish it had been for the last 10 years.” He said he looks forward to greater opportunities for boat owners to launch from the marina.

Under state law, the city is prohibited from funding private businesses. But Montgomery endorsed the new project and said that from time to time should the marina sponsor public events, “we would be supportive.”

Freskos was not ready to speculate on when new construction would begin or what a new facility might look like. He is also leaving the door open for new opportunities for ownership or redevelopment, including a possible new subdivision.

Over the past decade, the marina has fallen into disrepair. Today, visitors will see derelict buildings, rotting docks and dilapidated residences awaiting salvage and renovation. A Dumpster is currently on the site removing tons of garbage, according to the marina’s new general manager, Sean Ferguson.

Freskos describes the facility as being “in an incredible state of disrepair. We took over the property on Feb. 23 and on May 1 we got a citation from the city that one of the buildings was a public nuisance.” Freskos says the facility’s problems are almost overwhelming, but the new management is attending to them.

“We are currently plugging up holes in a sinking ship. Once we do that, there will be more method to our reconstruction,” he said.

Both Freskos and Ferguson bemoaned the state of docks that are falling down and dangerous.

“Some launches are sinking,” Freskos said. “One of the major covered sheds for boats is under such bad repair that some of the boats have broken loose and are floating away. We’re going to dismantle it.”

Even the residential buildings are falling apart. Freskos said tenants have had to plug up their broken windows with duct tape and say they received no response from their previous landlord to their appeals for any other repairs.

When Sequoia Mortgage took over the property this winter, they retained Biron as its interim manager for the three weeks it took to find a replacement. Freskos says Biron continued to bill tenants under his previous management through the last week of May.

Calls to Biron for comment were not returned.

Freskos acknowledged that some of the marina’s tenants had complained about past issues, and that his company is trying to make it up to them by offering reduced rent for several months.

In the meantime, Sequoia Mortgage created a new corporate name, Big Break Marina LLC, to manage the operation and to distinguish it from its former owner.

They intend to haul away derelict vessels and buildings. Freskos reported that 15 trailer loads of yard waste have been taken away so far. Several commercial buildings need to be renovated and one of them has been red-tagged for removal.

But firm plans to sell are on hold until the cost of revitalizing the property and the prospects for selling it become clear.

“We are trying to determine the highest and best use for this property,” Freskos said. “Our immediate goal is to stabilize the income while exploring the feasibility and cost of creating a large-scale subdivision. Firm plans to sell are temporarily on hold while we make these determinations.”

 Posted by at 9:07 pm
Mar 182015
Thursday March 12, 2015 , ,

Brava Gente Column Header 420w 72dpi

By Francine Brevetti

Some say Dionisio Cimarelli is Italy’s finest living sculptor. Some people say he’s the greatest Italian sculptor in China.

Trouble is, he’s in neither country. He’s right here in California, visiting and working in studios from Monterey to Los Angeles.

Born in the Italian region of Le Marche, he started studying art when he was 14. But he was the type of boy to fly way. Instead of getting a driver’s license at 18, he obtained his first passport. A life of travel, study, and the practice of sculpture followed him through Europe to Saudi Arabia to China and now here.
“To be a sculptor for me is like a mission. I believe I enrich the quality of people’s lives through art and beauty,” he says.

But his passion is not completely selfless. “When I am sculpting I get excited about transforming the idea in my mind in three dimensions through the material. I have an idea, a shape, which not always is clear, but I try to take it out and make it real. The inspiration comes when I attend to the aspects of it,” he explains.

Cimirelli 1Cimarelli (pronounced chee-mah-REH-lee) has a hungry mind. He devours experiences, countries, their arts and crafts, and people. His inspiration comes from “everyday experiences like traveling, people, feelings, nature—the things around me.”

Early in his education he had to choose between painting and sculpture. Sculpture won out without a contest.

Only sculpture gives him the scope to satisfy his appetite for new experience. Unlike painting where the range of materials is somewhat limited, sculpture allows him to create in every known medium—from clay, to resin, marble, bronze, and ceramic. Most sculptors specialize in one or two media. But not Cimarelli.

He actually started out doing abstract sculpture but something in him changed.

In his early 20s he moved to Paris and worked for two years restoring sculpture in the Cour Napoleon of the Louvre. A fantastic experience, of course, but it also brought him to an appreciation of classical and figurative art. To its very door, you might say.

After his two-year stint he was offered a position at Notre Dame de Paris which he refused!
Instead he resolved to learn the basics of his art. He returned to study classic and figurative art full time at the art academy in Carrara.

“I started from zero,” he says, beginning with anatomy.

After several years working in Europe—projects in Copenhagen, London, Stockholm and Marseille to name a few—he left for China in 2004 on the invitation of a friend who was writing a book in which he was portrayed. It was just meant to be a visit. But his skill and wizardry were immediately understood in Shanghai, and he was invited to one colloquium after another to speak and teach.

Cimerelli Pix

He laughs when people, especially journalists, compare him to Marco Polo. After all, many Italians have been working in China for years.  His biggest projects in the eight years he spent in the Orient were a year-long real estate project, and the construction of the statue of Matteo Ricci.

He was approached by architects to be the art supervisor of an enormous residential project outside Shanghai called the Zhongkai Sheshan Luxury Villas. These heavily funded 81 residences were designed to be intertwined by a network of canals so that each villa is edged by the water.
Cimarelli demurred that he was not an architect. “They said they didn’t need an architect but they needed me as a sculptor with my experience in classic sculpture and restoration.”

He stayed associated with that project until he returned to United States in 2012. But even while he was active at the Sheshan Villas, Cimarelli was mastering Mandarin, spoken and written, and studying the manufacture of Chinese porcelain.

Italy engaged him to produce a work for the Italy Pavilion for Expo2010 in Shanghai.

He chose a subject that linked both Italy and ancient Cathay—a statue of the 16th-century Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci. In this immense gilded porcelain statue, Ricci is clothed as a Chinese Mandarin or Emperor. The figure is speckled with Chinese calligraphy expressing Cimarelli’s Chinese name.

Gigantic though it was, he did the whole work himself.

The sculptor feels a certain affinity for the cleric—they were both born in Le Marche. “I think there must be a certain facial resemblance,” he quips.

He left China after eight years, needing a change. Besides he had received an attractive offer to supervise production at an art studio in Monterey. And he had always wondered what it would be like to work in the United States.

Now he knows.

Francine Brevetti is the author of  The Fabulous Fior: Over 100 Years in an Italian Kitchen.  She is also a biographer, ghostwriter, and book coach, who has been listening, documenting, and writing the stories of people’s lives, journeys, businesses, and accomplishments for thirty years. She can be

 Posted by at 8:10 pm