Skip to content
Press Release

Six Californians Receive $1.2 Million as Recipients of the 2017 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards


February 9, 2017

Contact: Vaishalee Raja

Senior Communications Officer


Local and state leaders honor recipients’ innovative approaches to some of California’s most critical challenges

SACRAMENTO (February 9, 2017) – State leaders and nearly 300 guests will join The James Irvine Foundation in Sacramento today to recognize six Californians receiving the 2017 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards. Given for advancing innovative and effective solutions to significant state issues, each recipient’s organization will receive $200,000 (for a total of $1.2 million this year).

The 2017 award recipients (see more information below) include:

  • Ken Berrick, Founder and CEO, Seneca Family of Agencies (Oakland), for improving student success through Unconditional Education
  • Tony Brown, Executive Director, Heart of Los Angeles (Los Angeles), for inspiring youth achievement through after-school programming
  • Areva Martin, Co-founder and President, Special Needs Network (Los Angeles), for extending autism care to underserved families
  • Doniece Sandoval, Founder and CEO, Lava Mae, (San Francisco), for restoring dignity to those experiencing homelessness
  • Dora Westerlund, CEO, Fresno Area Hispanic Foundation (Fresno), for fostering opportunity through entrepreneurship in California’s Central Valley
  • Julia Wilson, CEO, OneJustice (San Francisco), for broadening access to justice and legal aid in rural California

“This year’s Leadership Award recipients are exceptional for their ingenuity and persistence in advancing new solutions for some of the most difficult challenges facing California,” said Don Howard, President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine Foundation. “With the Leadership Awards we want to shine a light on their vital work and expand the impact of each of the award recipients to benefit even more Californians.”

Local and state officials will honor the award recipients today at a luncheon at Sacramento’s Sheraton Grand Hotel, with presentations from California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, State Senators Hannah-Beth Jackson and Andy Vidak, Assemblymembers David Chiu and Cristina Garcia, and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. Photos and video of the recipients are available here.

The Irvine Foundation has honored more than 75 Californians with a Leadership Award since the program began in 2006. Award recipients are chosen by an independent selection committee that reviews nominations based on several criteria, including the significance, effectiveness, and innovation of the leader’s work.

More detail about the work of this year’s recipients is below. To learn more, please visit

Ken Berrick, Seneca Family of Agencies (Oakland)

Berrick’s model of “Unconditional Education” is based on the idea that young people with disabilities and/or facing trauma – in foster care, juvenile justice, or in schools – who receive proper interventions and care can not only improve their academic outcomes but also the school environment for all. “Kids aren’t failing the system, the system is failing kids,” he says. Seneca’s approach includes providing schools with training and professional teams that coordinate interventions and resources to move quickly to keep struggling children in class and in school, helping students and educators alike. Seneca’s services are in approximately 50 schools and have served more than 8,000 students in California and Washington State.

Tony Brown, Heart of Los Angeles (Los Angeles)

Under Brown’s leadership, HOLA has grown from an after-school sports program into a community campus that provides music, art, athletics, and college preparatory programs to 2,300 young people each year. HOLA engages students with high-quality arts and athletics (including partnerships with the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Philharmonic) to increase students’ engagement in education broadly. For students enrolled in HOLA, 97 percent of whom live in poverty, 94 percent of elementary-age students performed at or above grade level, and 80 percent of middle schoolers improved their grades (maintaining a B or higher).

Areva Martin, Special Needs Network (Los Angeles)

Martin, whose own son has autism, learned firsthand the difficulty of navigating systems of care. Recognizing that low-income families often lack the time, resources or networks to effectively advocate for their autistic children, Martin founded Special Needs Network to help Los Angeles families access important resources and therapies for children with developmental disabilities. She launched the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, a one-stop clinic providing autistic children with assessments, behavioral and speech therapies, legal services, and case management. Martin also holds boot camps to help families learn how to access resources available to them by law. Special Needs Network has served more than 40,000 families and, through advocacy, has created access to vital therapies for more 83,000 children.

Doniece Sandoval, Lava Mae (San Francisco)

Sandoval had an epiphany when she encountered a woman on the street crying, “I will never be clean!” Learning that San Francisco had only 16 bathroom facilities for as many as 7,000 people living on the streets, she formed Lava Mae (“Wash Me”) in 2014. She transformed retired city buses into mobile hygiene units to provide showers, and recently launched “Pop-up Care Villages” that connect nonprofits, public agencies, and social entrepreneurs to provide medical and dental care, Medi-Cal registration, haircuts, clothing, and job counseling. They deliver a level of care termed “radical hospitality,” to help restore dignity and resilience to people moving through homelessness. Lava Mae has served more than 3,000 people in the Bay Area alone, has expanded to Los Angeles and Venice, California, and is creating an open-source toolkit for the hundreds of requests to replicate the model.

Dora Westerlund, Fresno Area Hispanic Foundation (Fresno)

Westerlund offers would-be business owners in the Central Valley new avenues to economic opportunity through entrepreneurship. She expanded the foundation’s existing microloan program and launched a bilingual incubator (the first in the Western U.S.) to provide new entrepreneurs with technical assistance, business planning, and on-site services needed to start and sustain small businesses. Westerlund is expanding her work to bring small business workshops to the region’s rural areas. Since 2011, the foundation estimates that it has helped create or retain more than 12,000 jobs in the region with an economic impact of $200 million.

Julia Wilson, OneJustice (San Francisco)

Wilson became aware of the shortage of legal assistance available to low-income Californians living in rural areas when helping a family member recover from a financial scam. She learned that there is only one legal aid attorney per 5,000 eligible Californians. Realizing that legal problems can isolate individuals from employment, housing, healthcare, and safety, Wilson launched the first-of-its-kind Justice Bus (and other innovations) that enable volunteer attorneys to provide legal assistance to residents of rural communities. Today, 3,000 volunteer attorneys have served 6,200 clients at legal clinics throughout the state, and 77% of clients report that their legal situation improved as a result of OneJustice intervention.

About The James Irvine Foundation

The James Irvine Foundation is a private, nonprofit grantmaking foundation dedicated to expanding opportunity for the people of California. The Foundation’s grantmaking focuses on expanding economic and political opportunity for families and young adults who are working but struggling with poverty. Since 1937 the Foundation has provided more than $1.6 billion in grants to more than 3,600 nonprofit organizations throughout California. With about $2 billion in assets, the Foundation will make grants of $90 million in 2017. For more, visit: