The special citizens of Sonoma


Charles E. Young was for 30 years the chancellor of UCLA. He continues to be a leading voice in educational reform, and since 2009, he and his wife, Judy, have lived full-time in Sonoma.

Chuck Young

Chuck Young

In a recent profile of me in this newspaper, I reflected on what I love about Sonoma but I didn’t get a chance to discuss how impressed I have been by many residents, in Sonoma proper and the surrounding communities, who are so fully committed to contributing time and money to making this a better place for all, and who I have come to refer to as “Special Citizens of Sonoma.”

The number of community organizations whose mission is to contribute to the betterment of Sonoma is legion. They include (though are not limited to) such organizations as the Sonoma Valley Hospital Foundation, the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, Plein Air, the Boys & Girls Club, the Mentoring Alliance, La Luz, the Sonoma Community Center, and the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation. They all have supporting entities (foundations, boards, etc.) who assist in raising funds and, in other ways, making their missions achievable. There are also organizations which raise money for general support, such as Impact 100, the Sonoma Valley Fund, Rotary Club of Sonoma and other service organizations, and then contribute the funds raised to those organizations that make the greatest case for support.

The people I am referring to as special citizens of Sonoma Valley are those who sit on these boards, plan and attend fundraising events, contribute their time to vital activities such as mentoring students, and their money through a variety of activities. A real surprise to me, as a relative newcomer, is that they are very likely to be people who do not directly benefit from the services provided by the organizations they support. However, they understand that the community in which they live, Sonoma Valley, needs to be the best it can be, and they need to do all they can do to make that possible.

One example is the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, which my wife, Judy, and I have chosen as our primary vehicle for supporting this great community. We have done so with the knowledge that the other organizations that contribute to the health, cultural and economic life of our community are also vital. Indeed, we have supported and will continue to support many of these in substantial ways. However, we believe that providing the best possible education for the youth of Sonoma is critical, and, while other organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma Valley and the Mentoring Alliance contribute greatly to that goal, without great schools, we will not have great graduates and, without great graduates Sonoma will be a community that is less than it can and must be.

The SVEF, under the aegis of the board of directors and its development committee, together with Executive Director Laura Zimmerman and her staff, raises money, contributes to, and evaluates programs developed and managed by the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, under the leadership of our home-grown superintendent, Louann Carlomagno. It is a great partnership.

The district, which is funded by state and local resources, has a difficult job for many reasons. Like all California educational institutions, it has lost substantial resources over the last few years. Along with others nationally, our district has been weakened by the “flight to private” which has taken away high-performing students and their parents. But, more importantly, its students come to it with special needs. A large percentage of Sonoma’s students come from poverty-level homes or are English-learners. Without special educational programs, as well as other forms of assistance, their ability to succeed in their educational endeavors is greatly at risk, along with our schools themselves.

This past year, the foundation has raised substantial funds to make possible the expansion of early childhood education, reading and math academies, expanded programs to enhance the transition from elementary to middle schools and high school. It has provided for continuation of the very successful Freshman Teams and other innovative high school level activities. We call these our “Stepping Stones programs, providing a pathway to educational success.” These programs are, and will continue to make a difference for the students of Sonoma Valley schools.

The contributors to this “Stepping Stones” campaign, as well as the new leadership we have brought to the SVEF board, are for the most part, people who never attended school in Sonoma, whose children and grandchildren were educated elsewhere, and whose roots are not in Sonoma Valley. They, like their counterparts working in the other vital institutions contributing to the social, economic, cultural and educational health of Sonoma, participate and contribute to make this a better community for all its residents today and in the future.

My previous experience in fundraising, primarily at UCLA, the University of Florida and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, is that people give to their, or their children’s, university, to a professor they admire, or for an academic or professional program dear to their hearts or wallets. We would seldom expect contributions to MOCA from anyone who was not into contemporary art, primarily as a collector.

I, therefore, find the base of support for the myriad of community-based programs in Sonoma rare, if not unique; and those who provide that support “special.” We at the Education Foundation are soon hosting our contributors to thank them and inform them of the progress that is being made with their great assistance. I am taking advantage of this opportunity to say, “Thank You,” publicly, to them, and to all the other “Special Citizens of Sonoma” who, through their many and substantial efforts (to paraphrase my late dear friend, Coach John Wooden) are doing the best they can do to make Sonoma Valley the best it can be.

Chuck Young is a former chancellor of UCLA.