Rich Cook Community Bridge Award
The Rich Cook Community Bridge Award was created in 2010 by then board president, Carl Stevens, to honor those in the community who have a positive impact in and for the LGBT community. The award recognizes distinguished members from the community who personify MenAlive’s mission of “informing, bringing healing, joy, friendship and building bridges to the public at large.” These leaders have influenced and furthered our message of friendship and outreach. We honor those who have helped bridge the gaps between and within the LGBT community and the greater world around us.
Joe is “Mister Fix-It,” one of those exceptional people who, when they see something that needs to be done, steps up and does it efficiently and without fanfare. His work ethic and commitment to ensuring that MenAlive remains a top-tier performing group makes him a valuable part of the MenAlive family.
Joe and his partner Steven Wong discovered MenAlive at a concert in December 2002. His capabilities and enthusiasm led to being asked to join our board. One of his first responsibilities was managing our fundraising silent auctions which under his leadership dramatically increased to annual proceeds to an average of $25,000. In recent years, he has coordinated HeartsAlive, our volunteer group for non-performing supporters.
Though his framing and trophy business, “A Source of Pride,” keeps him busy six days a week, he still finds time to be one of MenAlive’s most treasured assets.
Sarah is Executive Director of Shanti Orange County, a community service agency that shows how diverse groups can have intersecting needs, and that caring people can unite to solve problems. Shanti’s HIV/AIDS case management services have been invaluable to the LGBT community, while its addiction/recovery programs, mental health counseling, skill building workshops and other services change lives across all communities.
She joined Shanti in 1991 and believes it is the caring heart of Orange County. Her mission is to serve clients by keeping Shanti innovative and impactful, and creating a warm and trusting environment.
Bao Nguyen — LGBT leader, mayor of the City of Garden Grove.
Bao Nguyen was elected mayor of the City of Garden Grove in 2014. Prior to that, he served as a trustee on the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Education. He is the first non-white mayor in Garden Grove’s history, as well as it’s youngest, and first openly gay mayor. He is passionate about public service and strives to build a community that empowers all people.
Nguyen was born in a UN refugee camp in Thailand to parents escaping Vietnam, and arrived in the United States when he was 3 months old. He graduated from Pacifica High School in 1998. Three years later, he was appointed to the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Education. He was later elected as a trustee, and served a term as vice president. As a board member, he fought against the exclusion of LGBT Vietnamese from the annual Little Saigon Tet Parade.
In 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown appointed Nguyen to the Orange County Fair Board of Directors where he continues to serve. As mayor, he sought to improve government transparency and accountability, to engage voters by making city finance records available online, and to attract business and jobs to the city. Mayor Nguyen is currently running for Loretta Sanchez’s open seat in California’s 46th congressional district.
Nguyen has pledged to continue his efforts on LGBT issues:
- End discrimination in housing or employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Ensure equal rights, equal treatment and respect for all, are a guarantee to every citizen.
- End social discrimination against the LGBT community as everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity deserves respect, period.
James Vaughn — LGBT leader, former MenAlive member, and MenAlive president.
Many of you may remember James in his role as the Wicked Witch in MenAlive’s hit 2009 show Wicked To Oz. Before MenAlive, James started out as an actor, and then later went into politics. After a few years of political and government consulting, he received a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard, and went to work for AOL, as Director Of Government and Political Programming and helped AOL be named as one of the “25 Companies Changing the World of Internet and Politics.”
If you know James, you know he likes "impossible tasks". He says that’s one of the reasons he consults for the Congressional Management Foundation to help teach Congress and the public how to talk to each other. James grandmothers influenced him to be a good citizen and led to his involvement in several non-profits. His work on the local, state and national political scenes has helped pave the way for openly gay candidates to serve in many areas of government. He tells them that “serving openly with integrity in whatever we do is the best path to full equality — even in environments that many of us might believe hostile.
He has lobbied before the California, Oregon and Washington state legislatures, his focus was to inform and enlighten GOP politicians who ignored or undervalued the LGBT community. And it worked. He successfully urged then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to appoint 12 openly gay and lesbians to state boards and commissions.
Later, as an openly gay member of LA Mayor Riordan’s administration, he lobbied for the appointment of qualified LGBT people to positions of authority. In 1993, he persuaded Riordan to become the first LA mayor to participate in a Pride Parade to the cheers of 400,000 people along the parade route. In another first, James and his husband Kevin, were the first gay couple in California to serve as gubernatorial appointees in an administration.
We recognize James for years of trail-blazing efforts on behalf of the LGBT community, including MenAlive. During a crucial period following the retirement of our founder and artistic director, Rich Cook, James led the chorus from operating at a deficit to a break-even point He helped professionalize MenAlive as a non-profit with the organizational structure to ensure MenAlive will continue serving as a bridge between the LGBT community and the public at large well into the future.
2014 The award was renamed the Rich Cook Community Bridge Award in honor of our founder and 2014 honoree.
Rich Cook, MenAlive founder, builder of bridges into the Christian community
Rich Cook founded MenAlive in September 2001, after being inspired by a performance of the Turtle Creek Chorale in Dallas and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. Rich is an accomplished conductor who came to Men Alive choral family via the Christian/Gospel music world. He had previously served as musical director and producer for several large Christian television ministries, churches and schools, producing and staging large musical productions in arenas and theaters in the US and Asia. He worked with Disney Vice President Bob Jani to create “Night of Joy” at Disneyland and has also served on the Gospel Music Association board of directors. In addition to being a skilled conductor, Rich is also an accomplished arranger and ASCAP/BMI composer, with literature published by leading publishing companies.
Rich long made Orange County his home, then, in 2014, upon his retirement from MenAlive to dedicate himself again to composing, he moved with his husband Chris Macaluso to Palm Springs. He has three daughters and four grandsons. We owe Rich a debt of gratitude for having the courage to step up and start MenAlive in conservative Orange County at a time when gay rights were not popular. Because of him, MenAlive has become the face of the gay community to many in Orange County today, and significant strides have been taken toward equality.
Miguel Conniff — Musician, builder of bridges into the Latino community
In 2010, MenAlive received a grant from the James Irvine Foundation to reach out and build bridges to the Hispanic community with the message of love and acceptance, hope and joy.
Artistic Director Rich Cook and Chorus Life Director David Merrell attended local music festivals looking for groups to collaborate with us. When they would mention to groups that we were a gay men’s chorus, their eyes would glaze over and conversations would abruptly end. No one wanted to collaborate with us. And then they met Miguel Conniff.
Miguel Conniff is Founder and Director of Los Rumbaleyros and The Agape Music Center in Lakewood. He came to California 20 years ago from Ecuador with a love and knowledge of music. For those 20 years he has worked musically-educating young people and performing at events throughout Southern California. More than 150 students study music at his school. He chose carefully the name of his school. Agape Music Center - he loved the word agape because it means the unconditional love of God for. He sees it not as work, but as a mission to provide young people an alternative to the streets and television. When he heard about our project, he was delighted and excited! And Miguel played a very significant role in MenAlive’s outreach into the local Hispanic community.
Fiesta Abriendo Caminos (Festival of Opening Roads) in July 2011 . . . To Miguel and Los Rumbaleyros, we were able to add a wonderful, young Ballet Folklorico Troupe, an amazing Mariachi Band, an authentic Hispanic Fiesta meal, and presented our first Hispanic Outreach Festival in downtown Santa Ana. It was received with enthusiasm by an audience of some 500.
For the second year, we were able to insinuate ourselves into the November 2012, Noche de Altares. Once again, Miguel Conniff worked extensively with the chorus. Miguel and Rich collaborated to commemorate music of four deceased Hispanic composers. The songs were well-known by the audiences, who were drawn to MenAlive’s stage as they performed four times over the course of the 8-hour event. 50,000 people attended the event.
We are very grateful to Miguel for his considerable musical talent, his open heart, and his generous collaboration. His inspiration and guidance in helping us reach out beyond stereotypical borders made these two significant outreach programs possible and successful.
Laura Kanter — Director of Youth Services, The Center OC
Passage of Proposition 8 propelled Laura Kanter, with her UCLA Master's Degree in Social Welfare, to become a full-time activist for Marriage Equality and the Repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. At a MenAlive concert, Laura met MenAlive singer and former MenAlive Bridge Award Recipient Dan Choi, who became a friend and collaborator. She became a founding member of the Orange County Equality Coalition (which MenAlive is, also), and began organizing in California and joined marriage equality campaigns in Maine and New Jersey.
Today, as Director of Youth Services at The Center OC, Laura focuses on developing The Center's youth program with an end to making Orange County safer for LGBTQ youth and families. Since coming on board, The Center has more than quadrupled its youth programming, including the birth of YETA - Youth Empowered to Act - a group for LGBTQ youth leaders from all over Orange County. Through leadership development, youth-led campaigns, advocacy, and education, YETA creates environments where ALL youth are safe to live, learn, and play. Laura hopes that YETA will serve as the foundation for a Queer Youth Movement in Orange County.
YETA's smart young activists are working to make sure recent California anti-bullying laws (Assembly Bills 9 and 1156) are fully implemented via an impressive Safe Schools Campaign, including letters to principals, anti-bullying pledges and surveys that will aggressively detail the progress (or lack thereof) in local schools.
With a three year grant from the Liberty Hill Foundation, she will be able to provide space, structure and encouragement to the youth-led program. "Once they get the spark, they're the best organizers," she says. "The future is queer."
In October 2012, Laura received the Katherine B. Darmer Equality Award from OCEC for her work with youth (Katherine was also a MenAlive Bridge Award Recipient), and was named “Best Voice for the Little Gay” in the OC Weekly’s “2012 Best of OC.” She was recently awarded a year-long fellowship with the Women’s Foundation of California, Women’s Policy Institute.
Laura is married to her partner of many years, Karla Bland. She and Karla live in the OC with their two fur children, Sam and Sookie Smackmouse.
Robin Voss — Executive Producer of For the Bible Tells Me So and Teach Your Children Well
Robin Voss has a long record of experience and performance in management, marketing, sales and human resource motivation. As an executive in such industries as personal care/cosmetics, fundraising, e-commerce, television, and entertainment, culminated in her spear-heading and becoming one of the originators and Executive Producers of Daniel Karslake’s award-winning, critically-acclaimed documentary film, For the Bible Tells Me So.
Motivated by the divisiveness and discrimination that religion and scripture often propagate (not only worldwide but in her own backyard), this Newport Beach, CA wife, mother, and grandmother of three wanted to encourage a more informed kind of faith and new understanding, dispelling the many myths surrounding homosexuality and providing an ideology of inclusiveness.
The effort continued in her role as Executive Producer on Gary Takesian and Roz Esposito’s short form documentary film, Teach Your Children Well, a film about homophobia, bullying, and school violence narrated by Lily Tomlin. The goal of this project is to bring the harmful and horrific repercussions of these behaviors to light and effect change in society’s consciousness so that bullying and violence against LGBT youth is prevented and ultimately eliminated by targeting the film directly to our schools, their administrators, parents, and kids.
She is currently working on two new projects, Michael Anthony’s feature length documentary film For Billy, and an enlightening health series featuring Dr. Norm Myers, Medical Director of Wellness for St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, The Friendly Food Doctor.
Of the many accolades and awards Robin has received for her work throughout the years, none are as treasured as the Guardian of Justice Award presented to her in 2008 by Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood’s Reform Synagogue, and the 2012 Bridge Award being presented tonight. With deep gratitude and respect for Men Alive – Orange County Gay Men’s Chorus, their marvelous talent, and outreach work, Robin is deeply honored by the affirmation of her work that is guided by her favorite quote from Mahatmas Gandhi, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world…..”
Pearl Jemison-Smith — Founder of OC AIDS Services Foundation
Many years ago, in response to her young daughter’s asthma, Pearl Jemison-Smith, a trained nurse, began to volunteer for the American Lung Association. She inadvertently learned a lot about the non-profit world.
Having turned her nursing career focus from Intensive Care to Epidemiology and Infectious Diseases in the early 80’s, as HIV/AIDS began to rear its ugly head, Pearl immediately recognized the urgent needs of individuals with this frightening disease and started the first non-profit in Orange County to identify those needs. She joined the small group of volunteers who founded AIDS Services Foundation in 1985 because people were dying, desperately needed help, and had nowhere to turn.
Pearl became a full-time activist, fighting the stigma of the disease and advocating for funding with elected officials at every level of government. During that time, she found out that her oldest son Jamie had become infected with HIV and the battle became even more important to her in a very personal way. Jamie lost his battle with HIV/AIDS in 2008. Pearl dedicated herself to his care for the last three years of his life.
With dozens of articles published in prominent medical journals and many op-ed pieces in the Los Angeles Times; Pearl continues to be an educator, guest lecturer, mentor, and consultant for numerous organizations throughout the country. She has received multiple honors and recognition for her outstanding record of leadership, volunteerism, activism, and her long-standing service to the community.
Pearl was a founder 26 years ago and is co-chair of this year’s AIDS Walk Orange County which will be held on Sunday, May 6, 2012 at the Disneyland Resort.
Today she enjoys meditation, spending time with friends and supporting the causes so dear to her heart. She is deeply touched to receive a Men Alive Bridge Award. Says Pearl,
"Receiving this award is the icing on the cake of my life! Thank you, Sweetie Dahlings!!!"
Dr. Max Schneider and Ron Smelt — Promoted accessibility to medical care for the LGBT community
As a member of staff at The Chapman Medical Center, Dr. Max and his partner Ron have worked tirelessly to promote accessibility to medical care for the LGBT community and understanding of drug and alcohol addiction as a disease. When people didn’t really want to deal with or take care of people with alcoholism, Dr. Max paved the road in addiction medicine. He served as an instructor and led and served on the boards of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, and the Drug and Alcohol Advisory Committee of the US FDA.
He told Barbara Venezia, “It was very difficult being a gay man back in the 1930’s and 1940’s. My parents were accepting, but I didn’t tell them until I was in my 40’s.” Max and Ron were staunch supporters of The Center OC, which Max described as “a place that makes it easier for people to live an honest life – a place where people can talk about religious, family and societal conflicts and deal with them appropriately. They were also Founders of MenAlive and attended every show until Max’s passing in 2014. Happily, their 40+ year-long dream of being able to marry came true before Max’s passing in 2014
John Chiang — California State Treasurer
Chiang currently serves as the State Controller, and swiftly responded to the Supreme Court’s decision on Proposition 8 by ensuring that state employees in same-sex marriages were able to painlessly transition to new tax and withholding laws. He was also instrumental in securing price relief for HIV and AIDS medication for low-income patients in California, a change that led all states to receive price relief.
“John Chiang’s leadership in bringing drug companies to the table ensured access to affordable HIV and AIDS medication for over 37,000 Californians, and over 190,000 people nationwide,” said John O’Connor, EQCA executive director. “Not only has he been exemplary in implementing pro-equality policies for state employees, he’s made a real difference in the lives of thousands of people.”
Elected in November 2006 to serve as California’s Chief Fiscal Officer, Controller John Chiang took immediate action to weed out waste, fraud and abuse of public funds and make the State’s finances more transparent and accountable to the public. He has proposed reforms to the State’s public pension systems, helped local governments navigate complex requirements during difficult economic times, protected California’s precious natural resources, ensured that more than $1 billion in unclaimed property was returned to the rightful owners, and launched financial and tax assistance seminars for California families, seniors, small businesses and non-profit organizations. As the State’s chief independent fiscal watchdog, Chiang provides sound fiscal control over more than $100 billion of public funds. In three years, he has aggressively used his auditing authority to identify more than $2.43 billion in taxpayer dollars that were denied, overpaid, subject to collection, or resulted in revenues, savings and cost avoidance.
As the State’s chief fiscal officer, John Chiang brings extensive experience and fiscal leadership to the State Controller’s Office. Chiang was first elected to the Board of Equalization in 1998 where he served two terms, including three years as chair. He began his career as a tax law specialist with the Internal Revenue Service and previously served as an attorney in the State Controller’s Office. The son of immigrant parents, Chiang graduated with honors from the University of South Florida with a degree in Finance. He received his law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center. Chiang and his wife, Terry Chi, live in Torrance, California
Dan Choi — Gay Rights Activist and leader in the effort to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"
Dan is one of Men Alive’s own. It was because of the chorus that Dan found the courage to come out in 2010 in a mighty way -- on national television in an interview with Rachel Maddow. Since then he publicly challenged America's Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) policy, which forbid lesbian, bisexual and gay service members from serving openly, until its ultimate defeat in 2011.
Dan was a US Army Infantry officer, a West Point graduate, and an Arabic Linguist who served in combat in the Iraq war. After appearing with Rachel Maddow and receiving a discharge letter, he penned an open letter to President Barack Obama and the United States Congress challenging the morality and wisdom of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, writing that the policy is "a slap in the face to me. It is a slap in the face to my soldiers, peers and leaders who have demonstrated that an infantry unit can be professional enough to accept diversity, to accept capable leaders, to accept skilled soldiers."
Despite his appeal and a Courage Campaign petition signed by almost 162,000 people, on June 30, 2009, a panel of New York National Guard officers recommended that Dan be discharged from the military. The final decision, to be made by the commander of First Army and the chief of the National Guard Bureau, is still pending.
Dan has also spoken at numerous gay rights events, including a march in Los Angeles following the California Supreme Court's affirmation of Proposition 8. On May 27, 2009, he addressed a demonstration of gay activists outside the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where President Barack Obama was speaking at a Democratic National Committee fund raising event. In addition, Choi spoke at the 2009 Pride Rally in New York City and served as a Grand Marshal alongside Knights Out in San Francisco's 2009 Gay Pride Parade. We are very proud of our brave soldier and leader.
Katherine Darmer — Co-founder of Orange County Equality Commission
Katherine was a Chapman University Law Professor and a founding board member of the Orange County Equality Coalition (OCEC), a non-profit organization formed after the passage of Prop 8. OCEC's vision is equality and respect for all people in a progressive Orange County. She also served as a faculty sponsor of Chapman’s LGBT student group, Outlaw. Katherine served as a primary author of a brief filed in the California Supreme Court in support of petitions to invalidate Prop 8. She was featured (with Men Alive) at the Decision Day rally organized by OCEC following the court’s decision on Prop 8.
Under her direction, OCEC joined the ACLU in last year’s lawsuit against Newport Mesa School District that alleged a failure to adequately protect female and LGBT students against the backdrop of controversy at Corona del Mar High School involving the student production of RENT. The lawsuit was settled in an agreement requiring district faculty and administrators to undergo extensive training.
A frequent speaker and press commentator on Prop 8 and LGBT rights issues both in Orange County and beyond, Katherine’s scholarship also focused on Proposition 8 and LGBT rights. She spoke across the country on behalf of gay rights and marriage equality. She reached out to conservative audiences via such forums as the Hugh Hewitt Radio Show, where she debated Austin Nimocks of the Alliance Defense Fund.
Barbara Venezia — Journalist, chef and philanthropist
Barbara’s probably best known for co-hosting the comedy cooking show "At Home on the Range...the Cooking Show for the Deranged" with best friend John Crean in the 1990's, but these days most know her for her weekly social and political commentary column in the OC Register called “Food for Thought.
In 2007 Barbara and a few friends formed the The Friends of Dorothy Guild benefiting AIDS Services Foundation OC, the largest, most comprehensive not-for-profit AIDS service organization providing services to more than 1,800 men, women, and children living with HIV/AIDS in OC. Barbara serves as Vice Pres of the ASF Board of Directors and her husband Stan is on ASF's Advisory Board. She was also Chairman of The Friends of Dorothy Guild, and is proud that the guild raised more than $300,000.00 to fund such ASF programs as the food bank, transportation, housing, kids and family programs, mental health counseling, support groups and HIV/AIDS education and prevention services.
Men Alive's amazing sounds brought music to two Friends of Dorothy Guild fashion shows, so it only seemed fitting, when casting the part of "Dorothy" in Men Alive’s Wicked to Oz concert in 2009, that Barbara was their pick . She brought her light and humor to the character.
"I've always been inspired by the people around me to make a difference, and working with Men Alive and the Friends of Dorothy Guild of AIDS Services Foundation OC, there's no shortage of amazing inspiration!"
Bruno Serrato — Chef and philanthropist
Bruno Serrato recently celebrated his millionth meal served — but he won't take a dime from the customers. Bruno says serving free pasta to over a thousand hungry children a day in Orange County is its own reward. His Anaheim White House Restaurant has hosted free meals through a non-profit called "Caterina's Club," (named after his mother), for 10 years.
When Serato and his mother stopped by an Anaheim Boys & Girls Club, Caterina saw one boy eating nothing but potato chips for dinner, he said. "She definitely did not like that! I mean, imagine Italian mom — pasta, pasta, pasta!" Serato said. Caterina insisted the chef make the children dinner, and the program to feed hungry children in Southern California was born shortly thereafter.
Serato's restaurant serves around 1,200 free meals to children each day, a feast involving 90 pounds of pasta and 15 gallons of marinara sauce, he said. It wasn't always easy. After the housing bubble crashed, more children than ever began showing up as his restaurant's profits plummeted by 30 to 40 percent, he said. But Serato said the program was too important to abandon. But Serato isn't content to simply sling pasta. He's branching out to help families leave cramped motel rooms. His program gives families enough money to cover first and last month's rent and a security deposit — an up-front payment required to lease an apartment, but which can be a challenge for some families to afford.
In support of MenAlive, Bruno graciously hosted our first Academy Affair Fundraiser at his elegant Anaheim White House Restaurant.
John Alexander — Artistic Director of Pacific Chorale
Artistic Director of Pacific Chorale since 1972, John Alexander is one of America’s most respected choral conductors. His inspired leadership both on the podium and as an advocate for the advancement of the choral art has garnered national and international acclaim throughout a long and distinguished career that has encompassed conducting hundreds of choral and orchestral performances nationally and in 27 countries around the globe. Equally versatile whether on the podium or behind the scenes, Alexander has also prepared choruses for many of the world’s most outstanding orchestral conductors, including Zubin Mehta, Pierre Boulez, Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, Leonard Slatkin, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Lukas Foss, Max Rudolf, Carl St.Clair, Gerard Schwarz, Marin Alsop, John Mauceri, John Williams, and Keith Lockhart.
Alexander is nationally recognized for his leadership in the musical and organizational development of the performing arts. He is a board member and former president of Chorus America, the service organization for choruses in North America. Alexander also has served on artistic review panels for national, statewide and local arts organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. He is in demand as a teacher, clinician, and adjudicator in festivals, seminars and workshops across the United States. In 2003, Chorus America honored him with the establishment of the “John Alexander Conducting Faculty Chair” for their national conducting workshops.
Alexander is a composer of many works and serves as the editor of the John Alexander Choral Series with Hinshaw Music. His numerous tributes and awards include: The Helena Modjeska Cultural Legacy Award (2003), presented in honor of his lifetime achievement as an artistic visionary in the development of the arts in Orange County, CA; the “Outstanding Individual Artist” Award (2000) from Arts Orange County; the “Gershwin Award” (1990), presented by the county of Los Angeles in recognition of his cultural leadership in Los Angeles; and the “Outstanding Professor” Award (1976) from California State University, Northridge. In 2006, Alexander was given the “Distinguished Faculty Member” award from Cal State Fullerton.