Philanthropy in Hollywood: Agents of Change


A look at specific agencies and their projects

It's early morning on an overcast day in June. Slate-gray waves pound the Malibu coastline and seagulls hover in the moist air above the two dozen men and women who huddle together just a few feet from the water.

They could be a regular group of surfers. But they're not. And as you look at them more carefully, you start to notice things. One is blind. Several are without legs. Many are covered with battle scars.

These are veterans who have been badly wounded in Iraq, and they are here to take part in Operation Amped, a surf camp that is helping them return to normal life.

As their leaders rally the surfers with a pep talk, one of the men lets out an excited whoop.

This is Jesus David Vidana. He is tanned and muscled and there's hardly anything to indicate he almost lost his life in Iraq. But he knows it's a miracle he's here -- and he also knows how much the camp is doing to help him move forward. (Vidana declined to be photographed for this story.)

"There are no bounds," he says. "You see guys with no legs doing this. They have prosthetic limbs. I don't -- so I figure, if they can do it, I can do it. Some guys are out here with spinal cord injuries and you figure, you have got to challenge yourself, you do not feel sorry for yourself."

Founded in 2006 by surfer/journalist Tom Tapp, Operation Amped is sponsored by William Morris Endeavor. As such, it is one of a host of philanthropic organizations across the city and indeed the whole country that have benefited from the major agencies' largesse.

Just as the surf camp has been helped by WME, so CAA is in supporting active-duty servicemen, veterans and their families through the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Assn. At the same time, Paradigm gives money to support the Peapod Foundation, which works to support social issues affecting children worldwide, including housing, health care and poverty. ICM and UTA are equally active in the nonprofit world.

For some Hollywood observers, these activities might be blips on the radar. But not here on the beach in Malibu, where you can truly see the impact the agencies are having.

The first time he came here, Vidana says, he couldn't even walk across the sand unaided. The handsome 30-year-old had to learn to carry his own surfboard into the waves. Standing up on it is another matter: He still struggles with balance, and when he finally stands and rides a wave to the shore, there's a look of pure joy on his face.

"Surfing helps with my self esteem," he says, exhausted after an hour in the water.

Vidana was injured on April 8, 2003, the day before Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad was toppled and slapped with shoes by local children. It was the soldier's first day in the city. He remembers how the sound of machine guns crackled through the air. A radio operator, he was relaying orders from his commander when a bullet pierced his helmet. That was in 2003. He was 24 years old.

"My head jerked forward and then I popped back up," he remembers.

But after that, his eyes closed and his head dropped. His fellow Marines tried to revive him. Then a medic declared him dead -- in fact, he was pronounced dead twice, there in the streets of Baghdad. And he would have stayed dead if it weren't for CNN's medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta.

A medical doctor who was working on a story about Navy medics inside a resuscitative surgical suite, Gupta "grabbed a drill and went into my head," says Vidana, standing under a tent now, drying his hair with a towel.

"Dr. Gupta was embedded with a naval medical unit that was attached to my combat team," Vidana recalls. "When I was shot, he was the only brain surgeon available. At that time, at the beginning of the war, they were not expecting a lot of neurological injuries -- mostly orthopedic, amputee injuries. They asked him to perform the brain surgery, a craniotomy. What was killing me was a blood clot that had formed and it was compressing my brain."

Gupta removed the blood clot and along with it fragments of a bullet that had entered Vidana's brain.

"The Kevlar had stopped some of the bullet, but the rest had made its way into my brain in the form of shrapnel," he notes.

And because of that little miracle, Vidana survived -- and was awarded a Purple Heart. But what followed were long years of recuperation. He was flown to an Army hospital in Kuwait where he had another brain surgery, then to Spain where he spent 10 days in the ICU. After that, he went from one hospital to another before becoming an outpatient at the Veterans Administration in Westwood -- the hospital that brought him to Malibu.

Today, Vidana is a success story. He has earned a license in occupational therapy from USC and in September he'll begin a master's in business administration at UCLA. He plans to work on health care, contributing to the very kind of project he is taking part in today.

As he picks up his surfboard and heads back into the waves, he stops to reflect.

"There is nothing to stop you," he says. "You don't feel sympathy for the other guys, because they don't feel sympathy for you. And then you realize: You can get out there and do it because they can get out there and do it."

A few miles south of Malibu, outside a modern, two-story building in Venice, a small black woman in a colorful dress is waiting to meet me.

Ashley Yvonne Johnson eagerly shakes my hand and immediately leads me into the building and up the stairs. She has so much energy, I have trouble keeping up.

"I'm 65 and I've been coming here for 12 years," she says. "That's because my doctor, Carol Schwartz, is so very kind. I feel like she is my friend."

Then she grins. "Because, honey, you just get older, you don't get richer, and you need a doctor who feels like a friend."

It's hard to believe that just 12 years ago, this ebullient woman -- a part-time minister and marketing consultant -- was on the brink of a precipice. After working for Sears and then taking a vp of marketing position at Interior Obsession, she lost her job. Losing her job also meant losing her health insurance.

"I always worked, had Kaiser Insurance," she says, "and then you're let go and you get Cobra and once you can't pay for it, you're done."

Not knowing she had severe asthma, she tried to battle what she thought was just a cold. "I was taking medications over the counter," she sighs. "I didn't know what to do. I had too much pride. I didn't want to go to a county facility. I didn't know I was so sick."

Luckily, a doctor told her about the Venice Family Clinic, a nonprofit that is sponsored by ICM, and the place where Johnson is speaking to me now. ICM began its relationship with the clinic in 1987, and has provided financial support that have gone directly to help people like Johnson.

But getting Johnson to accept that help was a whole other matter. That time a dozen years ago, "I still didn't want to come," she says. "I finally came over on a Saturday morning. They treated me so kindly. Usually when you go to a county facility, they treat you terribly; they talk to you terribly. You have to take it. Here, the doctor was very gracious."

Johnson learned she was sicker than she had thought.

"I had waited too long," she says. "I couldn't breathe. They sent me in a cab to Harbor Hospital with somebody else, not on my own. Before they sent me, the doctor here called Harbor emergency, therefore I didn't have to wait in the waiting room for five or six hours."

When she arrived there, she says, "They treated me like a celebrity. I was in the hospital for 10 days. I was really sick."

Johnson is still a patient at the clinic, where they treat her asthma as well as brain seizures. But she is no longer just a patient: She is also on the board of directors.

She thinks about where her life is now, compared to before.

"If I didn't come here," she says quietly, "I think I would have died."

Death is a million miles from the mind of the bright young woman who walks down the high-tech corridors of UTA and into the office of one of its agents, Sarah Clossey, 30.

It is Nathalie Chicas Molina's graduation day from University High School in West Los Angeles, and also the final day of the 18-year-old's 8-month-long mentoring program at UTA.

If at first she appears shy, with her flowery blue dress and black sweater, that quickly changes as she speaks under Clossey's protective eye.

She was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Hollywood, with her mother, Maria Blanca Chicas. "I am my mother's only child," she says, "but I am my dad's 10th out of 11 children."

At the age of 14, Molina went to University High after graduating from Ramona Elementary School.

"The first thing I did was try out for the drama program," she recalls.

But then she found out about the people who make the drama happen. "It was my ninth grade drama teacher who told me about UTA and that only junior and seniors were accepted," she says.

UTA has been working with University High for four years, focusing on the school because it has students from across all economic and cultural lines, who together speak more than 33 languages.

During her junior year, she filled out an application and gave it to her career adviser, who passed it on to UTA. She was called in for an interview -- and a week later, she and 15 other students were chosen from dozens of applicants.

"I had been working toward this since ninth grade," Molina smiles. "And I pulled it off."

If she did, it was in no small part thanks to her mother.

"My mother came to Los Angeles from El Salvador in 1983, and immediately started cleaning houses," she says. "I remember when I was little. I said, 'Mom, I want to do what you do.' And she looked straight at me and said, 'You are not doing this!' I will never forget that day. It was very intense. I was only 7 or 8."

That changed everything. "From that point on, I was like a star -- I got 100% on everything. It felt so much more meaningful to me, because my mom pushed me and pushed me."

It's hard to realize just how removed this glistening agency world must have seemed to her growing up. But now, eight months of shadowing Clossey has given Molina a clear understanding of the business. "(Clossey) talks on the phone a lot," she quips.

More important, it has also helped her prepare for her immediate future. Clossey -- whose kind, reserved manner and genuine interest in Molina are unmistakable -- has helped her with her college application process, including cover letters and interview skills. She has also led her through a series of mock job and college interviews, and onto a UTA-funded program for college scholarships.

Now, Molina is one of two students who have been awarded a scholarship to UCLA, where she starts in the fall. She is the first girl in her family to attend college, and when she got the acceptance letter, her mother was as excited as Molina had ever seen her.

"My mother, who is strong, does not cry," she says, "and that day, when she showed so much emotion, it was something I had never seen."

She fights back the tears as she speaks. She must be struck at the distance she has come, compared to her mother.

As we get up to leave, she seems dazed at the thought.

"It feels kind of surreal," she says. "UTA prepared me for college applications, but the best part of it was they showed me it was not impossible to achieve my goals."

But to achieve them fully, she is venturing into territory her mother would rather she avoid. This summer, she says, after a visit to El Salvador, she will return to Los Angeles to help her mother clean houses until she starts her freshman year.

Molina adds with a shrug, "It's something I will probably help her do for many years."