Crusading for your community

Whether they’re helping kids, refugees or disenfranchised minority groups, these locals are working hard for Vegas underdogs

Photo: Beverly Poppe

By now, it’s a story we’re used to: Vegas sits atop every bad list and brings up the rear on every good list. Everything from our schools to our rickety social service infrastructure to the way we treat our homeless needs dramatic improvement. Meanwhile, our rapid growth, relative affordability (thanks foreclosure crisis), job stability (despite the economic downturn) and hotness factor (kudos to George Maloof, among others) are the envy of the country.

We’re very much a city on the move, and that’s also reflected in civic causes we hold dear: raising money to fight diseases—in the case of Nevada Cancer Institute chief Heather Murren, raising nearly $200 million (you go, girl!); dispatching small armies of Valley employees to help kids, clean the environment, rescue animals, mend families, assist battered women, etc.

Believe it or not, there are just as many folks who toil outside of the spotlight on less sexy issues, such as resettling refugees or helping the poor get into affordable housing. Here, we introduce you to a few people—by no means is this an exhaustive list—working to make Las Vegas a better place to live for you and me. Do us a favor, thank them when you see them.

Former UNLV football player Henry Thorns has spent nearly 30 years steering kids in the right direction through athletics.

Get Involved

From the Weekly
Who ya' gonna call?: Five local activists who deliver
The unsung list
Beyond the Weekly
3320 Sunrise Ave. Ste 108, (702) 307-1710
Dogcatchers Youth Foundation
(702) 399-4711
ECDC African Community Center
1500 E Tropicana Ave #122, (702) 836-3324
Amerindian Inc.
609 Kenny Way, (702) 393-3476

Doggie Dog World

When sports leagues for inner-city youth were sparse, Henry Thorns created his own. Thousands of kids are the better for it.

Ask Thorns how long he’s been in Las Vegas and he’ll proudly tell you—48 years. “Which means I’ve been here all my life,” says Thorns, the 48-year-old founder of the Dogcatchers Youth Foundation.

Which means he remembers when Vegas was small and inner-city kids had few recreational outlets.

It also means he’s disappointed that despite the Valley’s maniacal growth over his lifetime—which has created pseudo-cities (Summerlin, Green Valley, Aliante) inside real municipalities and birthed subdivisions with every conceivable lifestyle perk, i.e., pools, neighborhood parks, soccer and football fields, regional parks with amphitheaters and YMCA-sized community centers—recreational options in urban areas remain sparse. (To be fair: The half-century-old Doolittle Community Center got a $10 million renovation a few years ago. On May 31, the 40,000-square-foot William Pearson Community Center opened in North Las Vegas.)

For nearly 30 years, Thorns has used athletics to reach kids, who now shoot basketballs instead of guns, or run around a racetrack instead of running with gangs. Started in 1981 as a youth basketball league, Dogcatchers has grown to include baseball, football and track and field. Thousands (by his estimate) of kids have been on the receiving end of a Thorns life lesson, delivered in his signature scratchy, bassy patois. Save for a head full of gray hair, the 5-foot-six-inch-tall former UNLV football player (1979-’80) looks like he’s in top shape. His coaching (yelling) voice certainly is.

Scores of Thorns’ stewards have gone onto college—his son, Henry Thorns Jr., plays guard for Virginia Tech and started half of the Hokies games last season—and to more high-profile stages such as the NBA. Former UNLV star and current Miami Heat backup point guard Marcus Banks honed his skills under Thorns’ critical eye.

“People like me try our best to help these kids and save these kids, and we do the best we can, but it’s hard,” says Thorns, whose programs have received recognition from politicians and parents. Dogcatchers is among a short list of community organizations (including Catholic Charities and Habitat for Humanity) that’s received federal funding administered by local municipalities. “I’m better than the YMCA,” Thorns boasts. “I built Agassi’s Boys & Girls Club up and the North Las Vegas Boys & Girls Club, in terms of getting young people to go there.”

The story of the Dogcatchers’ genesis is reflective of Thorns’ don’t-take-no-for-an-answer approach to life.

“Doolittle Community Center was known for its hoops leagues; it was one of the best in the nation,” Thorns says. “Since I was short, no one wanted me to play. So, at 19, I saved up some money and started my own basketball league, the Dogcatchers.”

The team was open for kids ages 5 to 17. Thorns took all comers—those with little talent, bad grades, behavioral problems and from families who couldn’t afford to buy uniforms. “I didn’t cut anyone.” The league grew to 50 teams, many of whom were coached by like-minded parents. Mostly on his own dime, he took players camping, taught them how to cook and stressed the importance of staying away from gangs. Soon, the Dogcatchers became a village. Over the years, he added more sportss.

“I introduced many inner-city kids to baseball,” Thorns says. “After hoops season, they needed something to do. After baseball, they needed something, so we started football teams. In between the breaks, we’d reward them with trips to Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm. Then we’d hustle to take the high school students to the big AAU tournaments around the country so that they could impress a scout and get a scholarship. Our goal is to help kids succeed no matter what. We send more kids to college than any similar program.”

Ramon Savoy, publisher of the Las Vegas Sentinel-Voice, the Valley’s lone Black newsweekly, calls Thorns a father figure to generations of inner-city youth and credits him with mentoring before it became a fashionable, resum´e-building thing to do. “He stepped in there before a lot of other groups were on the scene and he’s been doing it for a long time. He’s been able to be a father figure and raise his own son, who’s at Virginia Tech. That’s hard to do.”

Thorns also earned praise in a January article on Nevadaprepreport.com: “Over the years, this organization has done many positive things in the Las Vegas community. So when he decided to hold a basketball camp the weekend before Christmas and promised to give over 200 kids Christmas gifts, it really didn’t take the Valley by surprise like it would in ordinary places. In fact, most people just figured it was Thorns just being his usual giving self. And they were right! The truth is, there wasn’t much that wasn’t provided by Mr. Thorns. The kids were talked to and lectured about the importance of education and staying out of trouble, when many of them come from crime-filled communities. They were also given basketball instruction and played in age based games. From there they were treated to jumpers [the smaller kids] and music [the older kids].”

The article also noted the players he’s coached including Banks, NBDL Rio Grande Valley’s C.J. Watson, Virginia Tech’s Hank Thorns Jr., Southern Utah University’s Mike Josserand, former University of Washington and current College of Southern Idaho player Harvey Perry Jr., current Colorado St. signee Donte Poole ... and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Currently the Dogcatchers’ focus is threefold: getting full-ride scholarships for the Dogcatchers’ high school seniors; coaxing improvement out of two teams of first- through third-graders; and finding a way to stop the juvenile violence.

“We can’t stop all the violence but we can put a dent in it,” he says. “But you can’t really help a kid if you don’t have much to help yourself. If you don’t have uniforms to give a kid, you can’t tell them to come out and play. We got $10,000 from the county for the last four years. But that’s just a reimbursement for what I pay. I manage the money well. We’re going on a college tour so our kids can get exposure and the bus costs $3,700.” Car washes aren’t lucrative, and he’s wary of approaching the same businesses and individuals who’ve helped in the past, fearful of wearing out his welcome. “We’re making it by the grace of God.”

Thorns recently hosted an anti-violence event in West Las Vegas aimed at cooling rivalries. He wonders if it’s simply delaying the inevitable. Today’s inner-city youth have a few more recreational outlets than he had and the City of Las Vegas’ decision to close 10 community centers on Sunday to save money worries him.

“When you close gyms and take sports out of schools, unnecessarily kick kids out of school and have unfair disciplinary procedures, you create dope dealers and gangbangers,” Thorns says. “People like me try our best to help these kids and save these kids, but we can’t do it alone.”

American Dreamer

The House Lady helps people buy—and keep—homes.

The run-up to Nevada’s January 19 Democratic presidential caucuses was an exciting time for Margarita Rebollal. Reporters from all over the country quizzed her about the role Hispanics would play in the outcome. (New York Senator Hillary Clinton won the Latino vote 2-to-1 over Illinois Senator Barack Obama).

Once the presidential candidates and the press left, it was back to the harsh reality of Nevada’s nation-leading foreclosure crisis. Now the calls to the East Las Vegas Community Development Corp., where Rebollal is executive director, come from couples on the verge of foreclosure, laid-off construction workers trying to save their homes and families victimized by subprime loans. Many of those hit hardest are Hispanics.

After 12 years of growth—from 41 percent to 50 percent—homeownership among Hispanics fell slightly nationally. In 2006, nearly half of U.S. Hispanic households had subprime loans (that figure topped 70 percent in 2005 for Hispanics making between $90,000 and $150,000 annually).

The ELVCDC has rarely been busier, due to the subprime and foreclosure crises. Last year, the corporation modified the loans of 62 clients about to lose their homes, helped 70 people purchase property and counseled more than 600 in homebuyer education classes, up from 191 in 2002. In addition to putting people in homes, ELVCDC has also built properties. Rebollal spearheaded the construction of Mi Casa En El Sol Townhomes, a $4.5 million, 40-unit complex of affordable homes on Cedar and 30th Street.

Despite helping thousands over the last 12 years, Rebollal is disappointed that fewer people are signing up for the education courses. ELVCDC’s foreclosure prevention classes have become popular—people want to know how to save their homes.

“The problem is that, so far, the people who have come in for foreclosure prevention counseling have not taken the first-time homebuyer education classes,” Rebollal says. The group’s other services include post-purchase counseling, renters assistance and mortgage delinquency and default resolution counseling.

“Clients could learn valuable information about keeping their homes long term, so that they can avoid the mistakes of the past. Though our clients are primarily Hispanics, the foreclosure crisis has really diversified the clientele. The majority of people who come through our homebuyer class are non-Hispanic, which is positive. I just wish more people would use us.”

State Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen met Rebollal in 2002, when she was organizing a Puerto Rican festival, and has developed a fondness for her advocacy for underserved populations. They’ve since teamed to help the now-vanquished Clinton win the Hispanic vote during the state Democratic caucuses. “Now she calls me whenever she needs me in Carson City,” says Kihuen, whose vote Clinton and Obama coveted. “She’s a tireless woman. I don’t know too many people in this community that don’t have respect for her.”

Rebollal tirelessly promotes ELVCDC, which began as an organization of volunteers who met once a week in the spring of 1996 to discuss the benefits of establishing a community development corporation whose goal was improving the quality of life through private and public sector investment in neighborhoods.

The group is one of a handful of counseling agencies approved by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The awards she’s won (from groups like Moms in Business), her community involvement (Metro’s Citizen Review Board, the Southern Nevada Workforce Investment Board, co-founder of the Boricua Association of Nevada and president/organizer of the Hispanic International Day Parade) and the causes she’s backed have doubled as platforms to tout ELVCDC. She was also featured in the 2006 and 2007 editions of the Hispanic Yearbook, a national publication put out by Virginia-based TIYM Publishing.

Another pulpit (albeit less successful) was her 2004 run for the Ward 2 City Council seat in 2004. Rebollal financed her candidacy with $1,500 of her own money and campaigning on a platform of rooting out absentee landlords and stricter city code enforcement. She finished eighth out of 12 candidates.

“I ran because I wanted to put important issues forward. I knew I wasn’t going to win, but I also wanted to promote the agency, to help more people get into homes.”

Earlier this month, HUD launched a month-long campaign to show Americans how to use the Federal Housing Administration to keep their homes. More than 220,000 families have refinanced with FHA since September 2007, HUD reports. By the end of this year, the FHA expects to help 500,000 families stay in their homes. Through HOPE NOW, a private-sector alliance to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, HUD says it has refinanced 1.4 million loans since July 2007.

The combination government bailout programs and flatlining housing prices make it a perfect time for low-income families, minorities and first-time homebuyers to get into a home, Rebollal says. It’s a message she’s tirelessly putting out through flyers, public services announcements, and at meetings of the various organizations she’s involved with. The way she sees it, education is key, both to turning today’s renters into tomorrow’s homeowners and keeping current homeowners from losing their piece of the American dream.

“Right now, many people are leery about doing anything, Hispanics even more so,” Rebollal says. “Many of them were leery about government in the first place and now they’re even more so, especially if the bank won’t redo their loan. We’re here to help people with the process. All they have to do is make an appointment.”

Casey Nguyen works with refugees in Las Vegas, helping them find jobs, social services programs and educational courses.

This Land is My Land

Casey Nguyen helps refugees feel safe again

Perhaps you’ve seen one of them. One of the Lost Boys of Sudan, the blanket name given to 27,000 Sudanese boys orphaned and displaced during that African country’s second civil war (1983-2003), walking down Paradise, near Twain, at a bus stop or in class at UNLV. They began arriving in the United States in 2001, nearly 4,000 spread about more than 40 cities. About three dozen settled in Las Vegas, often taking jobs in the casinos. They’re instantly recognizable: the olive skin, (generally) lanky frames and world-weary eyes. Those eyes have seen man’s inhumanity to man: rape, torture, genocide.

Ours can be an unsettling city for transplants, be they from New York or New Delhi. But anchoring here is especially challenging for refugees whose lives were uprooted by brutality back home. Replacing the familiarity of life amid strife with the foreign rhythms of a city unlike any other in the world—dangerous alleys kitty-corner to expensive casinos, long-hauling cabbies, pretty women making a living in the skin trade—can present its own frightening challenges.

This is where Casey Nguyen, program director of the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC) African Community Center, steps in. Every year 200 refugees from all over the world resettle here. The 5-year-old nonprofit (which is an affiliate of the 20-year-old Washington, D.C.-based ECDC) helps them find jobs, social services programs and educational courses. The center annually serves 400 refugees—a combination of new ones and those currently on the caseload.

Casey Nugyen with members of the EDCD African Community Center

“Our goal is resettling refugees and leading them to self-sufficiency,” Nguyen says. Upwards of 2,000 refugees have taken advantage of refugee resettlement, orientation and adjustment counseling, English-as-a-second-language and citizenship education classes, immigration counseling, housing assistance, translation and interpretation services, transportation, crisis intervention and emergency assistance.

“Resettlement starts the day they arrive and lasts, theoretically, for six months. During that time, we get their first apartments, set up medical care, help them find them a job, and work on cultural assimilation. It’s a huge task. The six-month time frame is wishful thinking. Honestly, the assistance we provide lasts longer than six months.”

Congress enacted the first refugee legislation, the Displaced Persons Act, in 1948, paving the way for 650,000 Europeans to come stateside. Soon, scores of people were fleeing the Communist regimes of Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Korea, China, and, in the 1960s, Fidel Castro’s Cuba. According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (an arm of the federal Department of Health and Human Services), the U.S. has resettled approximately 2.6 million refugees since 1975, nearly 77 percent either Indochinese or citizens of the former Soviet Union. Since the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980, annual admissions figures have ranged from a high of 207,116 in 1980 to a low of 27,100 in 2002. America is perennially the top choice for refugees.

Its name notwithstanding, the ECDC services all manner of refugees, African or otherwise.

“Where our refugees come from often depends on what’ s happening in the world,” Nguyen says. “In the last two years, there’s been a dramatic increase in Iraqi refugees nationwide, not so much here, but we have helped a few. More and more Cubans are coming here because they’ve been successful in establishing themselves in the community. Burma and Burundi have been a source of a lot of refugees. It’s made our jobs harder because you have more diversity, we’re dealing with so many languages and we only have so many resources.”

Refugee resettlement gets lost amid a news cycle dominated by more in-your-face problems such as school violence, medical scares and the foreclosure crisis, a rapidly growing population that knows little about the ECDC and people’s desire to give money, resources and time to charities they’re familiar (and comfortable) with. Community help for ECDC clients usually comes in the form of household supplies—couches, dishes, etc. The rest is provided by federal funds, faith-based organizations and the political science and social work departments at UNLV.

“We fill in the gaps that ECDC can’t,” saysCarisa Lopez-Ramirez, director of Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services, which is the state’s designated refugee coordinator. “ECDC provides basic necessities and we provide employment services, temporary cash adn medical assistance.”

Since October, Catholic Charties has assisted 506 refugees, 77 percent of whom come from Latin America, followed by African countries. Las Vegas remains a destination of choice. “Refugees do really well because we are really a diverse community and they find jobs within the casinos and have opportunities to move up.”

Unlike Catholic Charities, which has nationwide name recognition, ECDC is a struggles with brand awareness. Nguyen is constantly introducing and reintroducing the agency to potential supporters. “The Valley’s growth and transiency makes it hard to connect with people.”

The easier part is finding jobs. Ninety percent of the refugees work in the casino industry, generally on the Strip. Many refugees live nearby, so they can walk to work. Most ECDC clients stay in Las Vegas after their assistance runs out, largely because they can’t afford to return home. The out-migration rate (those leaving) is only 3 percent. Nguyen says success stories abound. Once a stateless society, the Somali Bantus resettled in America and have built a small community in Las Vegas. Several Liberians have started their own businesses. One Iranian refugee now runs a popular restaurant.

Once locals see that refugees are assets to society, Nguyen hopes they’ll be more inclined to help them acclimate.

“The biggest problem is that the general population doesn’t realize that Las Vegas takes in refugees,” she says. “Those who do know this generally work with Social Security or health services and, sometimes, refugees get thrown in the boat with illegal immigrants. They’re not, they’re here legally. But they’re discriminated against a lot because they don’t speak English. That’s not fair.”

Linda Gray and her Amerindian non-profit focus on helping Native Americans in whatever way they can, with food, clothing and educational supplies.

Indian Giver

Linda Gray works to improve the lives of Native Americans

In a city relentlessly focused on willing (and building) itself into a world-beater, whose population annually grows by 50,000-plus, where some streets and subdivisions are still not on Mapquest and history is viewed as something to be made, not preserved—in a city such as that, it’s easy to forget (indeed, ignore) cultural and historical markers such as the dusty plot of land behind the smoke shop on the west side of Main Street, between Bonanza and Washington, one mile north of downtown.

“A lot of people have no idea there’s an Indian reservation in town—48 Paiute families who own the land,” says Linda Gray, who runs Amerindian, a tiny nonprofit with the oversized goal of tackling poverty among local Native Americans and the more moderate one of preaching (and teaching) Indian self-reliance. “If people do know anything about Native Americans in Las Vegas, they know about the Paiute Golf Resort, not about the reservation or the plight of Native Americans in this city.”

Gray is not bitter about the historical whitewash of the Native American contribution to Nevada—the Shoshone (Reno area), Washoe (northern Nevada) and Paiutes (northern and southern Nevada) were here before European visitors and Mormon settlers.

Nor does she lament colonialism’s after-effects on modern-day Indians: rates of diabetes, smoking, alcoholism, obesity and cancer at nearly twice the national average and poverty as pernicious, debilitating and hope-crushing as the depressed economies of America’s worst ghettos. (In response, the UNLV American Indian Research and Education Center has taken aim at many of those issues, conducting research reducing diabetes, tackling obesity and examining suicidal behaviors in junior high and high school students. Native Americans comprise about 1 percent of the state and local population.)

Since 1994, through her Amerindian nonprofit group, Gray has been helping Native Americans in whatever way she can—clothing, food, educational supplies—all on a meager budget that, in the best of times, tops $1,000 a year. Gray, who was born in Ripley, Tennessee, to a father who was full-blooded Cherokee, says her work is simply “Indians helping Indians.” That self-reliance, she says, is a means through which Native Americans can improve and embody the best of their heritage.

“When I first started, people were giving me old clothes and other items, but then, suddenly, people wanted tax receipts for their donations and really didn’t want to deal with the government,” says Gray, who worked for the city, state and library district before retiring. She worried that a nonprofit might be more trouble than it’s worth, that her giving spirit would get mired in bureaucracy. It didn’t. But other issues came up. “I had to cut back when I retired because I no longer had that income and I was living off my retirement.”

With no money to market, Amerindian survives off of Gray’s funding and the kindness of others. Someone will find her website—which, admittedly, she rarely updates—and send care packages from as far away as Connecticut or New York. Years ago, she’d take the care packages to the Hopi and Navajo reservations (Hopi land is 90 miles from Flagstaff; the Najavo nation borders Arizona, New Mexico and Utah). These days, her focus is more local.

“I don’t send out any pleas for money or assistance,” Gray says. “I let things take care of themselves. I believe God sends people who need help and the help comes for the people. I have a little website that I don’t do anything with. I don’t even have a PayPal to ask for monetary donations, but they still come. I never lived on a reservation, but I grew up hard.”

Gray came to Vegas in 1964 with her late husband, Richard Gray, who was an attorney for billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. After raising three children, Gray wanted to give back, but she wanted her service to be spiritually fulfilling. Reading “The Starfish Story” in Reader’s Digest in 1991—the narrative comes from Loren Eisley’s The Star Thrower and is, ostensibly, about the power of one person to make a difference—convinced her to take the next step. And who better to direct assistance to than Native Americans, perhaps America’s most marginalized ethnic group?

At Christmas, she supplies a family with toys and food. During the school year, she works through the Clark County School District and local Native American groups to help to fund field trips, buy sports uniforms for athletics and assist with college expenses.

When James Valdez murdered former girlfriend Teresa Tilden and stabbed her 12-year-old son Shiloh Edsitty in November 2004 and the Edsitty family couldn’t afford to get Tilden’s body released from the funeral home so she could be buried on the Navajo reservation, Amerindian chipped in for funeral expenses.

Given the enormous challenges Native Americans face in transitioning from the reservation to the big city, Karen Jensen, office coordinator for the 36-year-old Las Vegas Indian Center, Native Americans often find themselves in a bind. The center provides employment services, substance abuse counseling, transitional housing and prevention programs.

“There’s really no work on reservations, so they come to big cities like Las Vegas and there’s so many issues that we face,” says Jensen, who’s Ojibwe. “They do need help securing employment and meeting their basic needs. Three hundred dollars is a lot of money on a reservation, but living in the city $300 is going to last one day.”

Lorissa Lubimiv, executive director of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Nevada, says providing social services and equipping Native Americans with business savvy are all part of empowerment. “It’s about us working together to help each other.”

Gray’s In the future, Gray plans to rebuild her library on Indian culture—the tomes were destroyed in a house fire five years ago—and lend them to the school district because Indian history, she says, is American history. “I work on the small end of things. This is what I like doing. I fully believe that God’s in control. This is a passion for me. I feel it down to my being.”


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