10 People Making L.A. a Better Place

10 People Making L.A. a Better Place
Kevin Scanlon

From to a 70-year-old woman teaching others how to use medical marijuana to a man dedicated to saving the sea lions, these Angelenos prove that do-goodery can be vastly more interesting, creative and fulfilling than writing a monthly charity check or two.

Check out our entire People 2012 issue here.

10 People Making L.A. a Better Place
Kevin Scanlon

10. Denise Hunter: The Really Good Wife

by Simone Wilson

Everywhere Denise Hunter goes, she's mistaken for Michelle Obama.

"I was in San Francisco at a meeting," she says, perched in a fine Sunday pantsuit on a couch in a back room of the First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church in South Los Angeles. This office belongs to her husband, Rev. John Hunter, but her presence transforms it into the set of a spunky women's talk show.

"And as I came out of the hotel and got into a cab," she continues, "the cab driver freaked out, because he couldn't figure out where my security was. So I had to calm him down and tell him, 'No, that's not who I am!' "

But she's clearly tickled by the comparison.

Hunter has made various public appearances with Michelle Obama over the last two years, ever since FAME's "first lady," as her husband's congregation calls her, was chosen to help lead Mrs. Obama's national "Let's Move" campaign for healthy living. And while the reverend came with her to the White House Christmas party last year, "I was the primary," says his wife.

The couple's public relationship is an intriguing mix of old-fashioned and modern. In his rousing sermons, Rev. Hunter makes '50s-era cracks about their marriage. "Denise and I don't always perceive things in the same way. Amen," he tells a sea of fancy hats one Sunday in March. The punch line: "Sometimes she's wrong!"

Yet there's no mistaking that Denise Hunter is the star of this show. The crowd adores her. Throughout her husband's sermon, titled "We Really Do Have Choices" ("He got that from me," she says later), two big-screen TVs above the pulpit often zoom in on Hunter's regal face in aisle two, as if she's a celebrity at a Lakers game.

"I'm an oddball," she says. "I don't wear hats; I don't play the piano; I don't sing in the choir."

Not once during a two-hour conversation with a reporter does she mention God.

The Hunters arrived in 2004 from Seattle, where Denise (who gives her age only as "40-plus") got her start in nonprofit work. Now, just down the hill from their church, at a stately brick building on West Adams Boulevard, she runs FAME Corporations, an affiliated, nonprofit organization formed in the painful aftermath of the L.A. riots to plant seeds in the ashes.

While her husband has faced scrutiny for charging $122,000 in personal expenditures to the church credit card -- and a lawsuit from a former FAME employee claiming she was forced into a sexual relationship with the reverend because it was "God's will" -- Hunter has become a darling of the Democratic Party. After helping run Kamala Harris' campaign for state attorney general in 2010, Hunter hints she's even been approached to run for office herself.

For now, though, she's focused on Los Angeles. In one of her most controversial initiatives, Hunter has brushed aside the abstinence-only approach to tackle South L.A.'s chlamydia problem head-on -- by running an STD-prevention campaign. Organizers hand out testing kits and hold sex education classes for young people.

"We know the kinds of things that are going on. Hormones are raging!" says the first lady of FAME. "So we have to move beyond what our tradition has been, and what our conservative views might be, and do something about this."


10 People Making L.A. a Better Place
Kevin Scanlon

9. Paula Daniels: Like Water for Strawberries

by Alissa Walker

Growing up in a Korean-American family in Hawaii, Paula Daniels had a precocious awareness of the natural environment. When her 12-year-old friends made "slam books," soliciting salacious opinions about their classmates, Daniels focused her book's questions on water conservation. "Mine asked, 'Do you turn off the water when you brush your teeth?' " she says, laughing. "I have always, always cared about water."

Daniels majored in broadcast journalism at USC but was dismayed after graduation to find few opportunities for environmental documentary work. So she went to law school. She'd already made partner when, in 1989, she saw a reminder of her 12-year-old activist self: a Heal the Bay T-shirt. "They had this very hip message about ocean water quality," she says. "I knew I wanted to help."

She began volunteering for the organization, eventually becoming its president. In 1999, Antonio Villaraigosa, then speaker of the California Assembly, appointed her to the Coastal Commission. "That was the turning point for me," she says. "I was starting to see how you can really make change through politics and policy."

Six years later, Mayor Villaraigosa appointed her to the Public Works Commission.

But it was thanks to another board appointment, to the California Bay-Delta Authority, that she started to see the connection between her water work and Los Angeles food issues.

Namely, she wondered why residents of L.A. -- a place where nearly every fruit or vegetable grows within a 200-mile radius -- weren't eating more local produce. Daniels labored to establish a food-policy council, and in August, she gained two new titles: senior adviser on food policy, special projects in water in the office of the mayor; and founding director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council.

The council is a collective of farmers, educators, activists, chefs and food writers. "The way we accomplish things is just by bringing together people who didn't talk to each other before," Daniels says.

As an example she points to the L.A. Unified School District, the largest food provider in the city. Inspired by the council, the district pledged to source 50 percent of its produce from local farms. And, Daniels says, "They've achieved it already. They hit 57.4 percent by the end of last year."

Daniels, 56, hopes the council can help two groups: small farmers and underserved communities in South Los Angeles. Both would benefit from a food hub -- a central market that would help farmers distribute local produce to L.A. residents.

Now, L.A.'s food culture is caught up in third-wave coffeehouses and pork belly confections, but it's also learning about the strawberries Phil McGrath grows on his Camarillo farm -- and understanding why there's a monolith of Cheetos in a Boyle Heights bodega. That's the kind of consciousness, and civic engagement, Daniels hopes to see manifest in L.A. eaters.

"I hope people realize that you're voting with your food dollars," she says. "Every time you make a choice about food, you're voting. And the change we can make is huge."


10 People Making L.A. a Better Place
Kevin Scanlon

8. Liz McDuffie: Holy Smoker

by Liana Aghajanian

Growing up in Louisiana in the 1950s, Liz McDuffie's only relief from debilitating migraines was pushing her skull against the headboard of her bed to release pressure. As an adult, the headaches continued to plague her, to the point that her only refuge was a dark room and a bag of ice.

Then, one day in 1969, on the advice of a doctor she met while teaching in Germany, she tried hashish. For the first time, she was able to function without the throbbing pain.

As her headaches subsided, they were replaced with an insatiable curiosity about the medicinal properties of cannabis. The deeper McDuffie dug, the more she realized how much the plant was shrouded in misinformation, despite its 3,000-year history.

After teaching for the U.S. Army and the Pasadena Unified School District, earning a postgraduate degree from USC's School of Public Administration and running the upscale consignment boutique Ritz Resale, McDuffie shifted her focus. In a self-described "holy endeavor," she dedicated her life to the one thing that had allowed her to reclaim hers.

"It seemed like it was the only road for me to take," she says in an accent that still carries hints of Southern twang.

The passionate educator's energy and determination belie her age. At 70, McDuffie's petite frame is all the more accentuated as she stands where she's most comfortable -- in front of a classroom full of students. Her copper-streaked hair falls softly around her delicate glasses, but her fervor shines through, with eyes that rarely stray and hands that whirl to emphasize her words.

Her creed, at its core, is that "knowledge is power."

"It all has to do with education," she says. "That's really how you change anything."

Since 2006, McDuffie has been director of the Medical Cannabis Caregivers Directory, or MCC, a nonprofit center where students learn how to grow, use and sell medical marijuana.

The agency's reliance on community-based outreach -- and insistence on adhering to the legal limits of what, as McDuffie says, the "great state of California" has afforded its residents -- has led to groundbreaking collaborations with law enforcement. The MCC has developed computer software allowing collectives and physicians alike to protect themselves from litigation. It also recently received state licensing to teach a course on California's medical marijuana program and how it relates to adult residential facilities.

Despite MCC's nonexistent advertising budget, more than 4,000 people have come through its doors in Pasadena's Old Town shopping district. Some are cancer patients; others are looking to open a dispensary of their own. Still others seek a natural remedy to replace prescription medication.

As a grandmother and small-business owner, McDuffie has been instrumental in giving marijuana an image makeover, even as federal raids dominate the headlines.

"Historically, at least in my lifetime certainly, this is bringing cannabis back into pharmacology, in the wake of 70 years of really horrible persecution," McDuffie says.


10 People Making L.A. a Better Place
Kevin Scanlon

7. Mayita Dinos: Much Ado About Water

by Jill Stewart

Mayita Dinos' soft hands belie the fact that she's dug through acres of stubborn subsoil on a one-woman crusade to mulch, harrow and hoe as much of Los Angeles as possible. She's a key influencer in the band of pioneers who introduced sustainable gardening to this arid land, helping turn low-water landscaping into a major trend.

Dinos' 12 years as a bilingual education teacher in New York gave rise to her appealing blend of dreamy optimism and political urgency. But then she left the job she loved to move with her actor husband to L.A. in 1998.

"Moving from east to west was like language immersion -- I surrendered myself to this climate, and to growing things in it, body and soul," Dinos recalls.

She had studied landscape architecture earlier at the University of Wisconsin-Madison but ultimately earned two degrees in bilingual education. Here, she learned more in a course at the Los Angeles Arboretum and began attracting clients, with her gardens featured in Elle Decor and other magazines. She began competing at gardening events, and in 2006 her "outdoor rooms" delighted viewers of TLC's While You Were Out. Now the landscape designer is involved in the local Association of Professional Landscape Designers and chaired its sustainability team.

She cheerily disarms those who cling to their lawns. Dinos describes a typical yard as a series of unseen ecological disasters: "Most people give their lawns three times more water than they need," she says. "Lawns get compacted very, very quickly -- a key problem! -- caused by mowing and watering. It compacts the earth! That eliminates the air pockets in the soil, so the organisms that keep the soil alive die off. So people add water -- the water rolls off and into the street. So now we have another big problem! Your fertilizer washes right into the ocean!"

Dinos wants people to stop repeating the urban legend that Los Angeles is a desert. It is not. "Pasadena gets 15 inches [of rain] a year; where I live" -- in Culver City -- "it's 13. We are in a Mediterranean climate. West Hollywood is Zone 23 -- do you know how much grows there? L.A. is not a desert."

Dinos urges L.A. residents to divert their roof drains to the garden, not the street; to remove the grass on parkways "so water seeps into the soil"; to throw succulent "pass-along" parties; plant a tree that's "well-researched and well-placed in your yard"; and, above all else, "mulch, mulch, mulch."

Two of her most beautiful projects are Arlington Garden in Pasadena and the rooftop at exclusive Petit Ermitage in West Hollywood, where butterflies and birds hum through a low-water fantasyland on the formerly tarred roof. At Arlington Garden, Dinos planted 48 sickly orange trees rescued from an art exhibit. The trees found a secret water table and began churning out thousands of oranges; the nonprofit garden's board sold out 1,200 jars of marmalade at $10 each.

Now, Dinos would love to take a crack at the Occupy L.A.-ruined lawn at Los Angeles City Hall. The city need only ask.


10 People Making L.A. a Better Place
Kevin Scanlon

6. Varun Soni: The Real Spirit of Troy

by Adam Gropman

When he was named dean of religious life at USC, Varun Soni became the first Hindu in American history to serve such a role. Even today, four years later, he's the only non-Christian, non-ordained dean holding such a position at any U.S. university.

Soni coordinates USC's contingent of 50 clergy, who conduct services and provide counseling in numerous faiths.

His history is rooted in Orange County, where he grew up Hindu yet attended a Catholic elementary school and had best friends who were Jewish. Soni calls those years a time of "hope and wonder."

He went on to edit the Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law at UCLA, and as a student lived in a Buddhist monastery in India.

Soni sees USC through an unusual lens: "We have more student religious groups and campus religious directors than any university in the country," and while that atmosphere can be highly charged, "each challenge also offers a potential learning moment."

Soni's friendly, engaged style softens the academic formalism of his conversation. Heavily influenced by the Buddhist emphasis on journey over destination, he wrote his dissertation on Bob Marley. In a recent blog post, Soni quoted French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience."

Soni points to real-life applications of that notion at USC, including an LGBT Bible study group, an interfaith spirituality and sexuality retreat, and an interreligious memorial service held by students from India and Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

But human experience isn't always so heartening. USC chaplains, he notes, work with counselors to help students who are "suicidal, depressed, bipolar or suffering from substance-abuse issues."

Soni holds degrees from Tufts University, Harvard Divinity School, UCLA School of Law, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Cape Town. Yet he keeps one foot planted in the "real world": He runs a successful small firm, Calibrated Juristix, which provides support services to immigration law firms, and he has produced a graphic novel, Tina's Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap.

The novel, the first such work to feature an Indian-American character, has strong personal resonance for both Soni and filmmaker-writer Kashyap. Soni says seeing the novel (and its 800 illustrations) to completion with Kashyap and her creative partner, illustrator Mari Araki, felt almost like a movie project.

Not surprisingly, the story addresses spirituality. "It's not just an Indian-American take on high school life," Soni says. "It's also an introductory text to Krishna, Jean-Paul Sartre, Rashomon and nirvana. ... It creatively explores the big questions -- of meaning, purpose and authenticity -- that we all face as human beings."

Aimed at teens and young adults, the book celebrates "the diversity, creativity and possibility of Southern California." It's a badly needed message, he says. "College students in this day and age may have 500 friends on Facebook, without having any real friends in real life."


10 People Making L.A. a Better Place
Kevin Scanlon

5. Gill Boyd: Farmers Markets Made Easy

by Ali Trachta

It's a drizzly day at the Crenshaw Farmers Market in South L.A., and the small cluster of shoppers around chef Gill Boyd's booth gathers closer -- getting their heads out of the rain, yes, but also getting a better view. Boyd is warming avocado oil in a wok while behind him two students from Le Cordon Bleu chop carrots. He's demonstrating how to cook cabbage with feta cheese and almonds, one of five dishes he'll make today with cabbage as the main ingredient. His observers clutch yellow pieces of paper with Boyd's recipes printed on them, following along.

"I've never seen greens that young," one woman says. "They look great."

"You get them right over there from South Central Farmers," Boyd tells her, pointing to a nearby produce stand.

Just about every ingredient he is using can be purchased within a few feet of his booth. That's his thing: He sets up shop at various farmers markets around town -- having graced Crenshaw, Hollywood, Atwater Village and Watts -- and sources ingredients from the purveyors, creating health-conscious recipes based on what's in season. Then Boyd teaches people how to make them.

"I'm always thinking about a short number of ingredients and short preparation," he says. "I'm not a guru -- I'm not a nutritionist, either. I'm just a chef. My job is to show you how to use produce in a way that's easy for you, so you'll eat it."

But why has he made this his job at all? A certified executive chef who once worked under famed California cuisine trailblazer Jonathan Waxman, the 49-year-old Boyd could be running a kitchen somewhere, charging high prices for high-end food.

"You can go the route of feeding the rich," he acknowledges. "I could've gone that route years ago, but I said, 'You know what, that's not really for me.' My wife and I have eaten at three-star Michelin restaurants, and I enjoy it, but that's not my mission."

Instead, he loves teaching. By day an instructor at Le Cordon Bleu, he calls himself a "back-to-basics guy."

"If I can get people to cook for themselves," he says, "they're going to eat better, and they're going to use the great produce of the Earth, which I believe in. That's the thrill for me."

At the market, Boyd doles out samples of various slaws, and asks a student to get another head from his aunt. His aunt and uncle are watching his other booth, at which he sells pre-made, healthy meals. He's trying to grow that business, as well as his website, on which he posts recipes and sells meal-plan packages.

As the proverb goes, Boyd is all about teaching the world to fish. "My mission is to get people to enjoy food by inspiring them to prepare it in a better way," he says.

If you'd rather buy the fish, however, Boyd still has you covered: "And if you can't cook, I'll make it for you."


10 People Making L.A. a Better Place
Kevin Scanlon

4. Luis Rodriguez: Coming Clean

by Sarah Fenske

In 1993, Luis J. Rodriguez published a book about fighting his way through the mean streets of East L.A. He wrote about friends he'd lost to gang warfare, drugs he'd snorted, girls he'd screwed. And he wrote about how art, and activism, had saved him -- how they had helped him leave behind la vida loca. Called Always Running, it became a sensation, earning Rodriguez a six-figure paperback deal and selling a half-million copies.

Last year, Simon & Schuster published the sequel: It Calls You Back. Rodriguez's second memoir, which came after well-received volumes of poetry and fiction, focuses on the difficulty of fully abandoning la vida loca. Years after leaving it, he found himself still wrestling with its siren call.

Rodriguez writes about marrying, having two kids, holding down a series of factory jobs. But he and his wife divorced; he drank too much. Violence beckoned.

He writes about a night when his son Ramiro was 4 -- "loud, ornery -- the way a kid should be." But Rodriguez, drunk, picked up the boy and threw him against the wall. "As a toddler, my son always looked up to me, always wanted to know what I was doing, was always interested in my talks with him," he writes. "After that day, things weren't the same."

Ramiro, too, ended up running with a gang, and was eventually sentenced to prison on charges of attempted murder.

An in-demand speaker at schools and prisons, Rodriguez also runs a nonprofit community center and bookstore in the San Fernando Valley with his third wife, Trini. Tia Chucha's, named for Rodriguez's "crazy" aunt, aims to connect an underserved neighborhood to the transformative alchemy of art.

At 57, Rodriguez is small and soft-spoken; a goatee mostly covers the feature that led to his gang nickname, "Chin," and the tattoos of his crazy years are barely visible beneath his short-sleeved shirt.

Sitting in Tia Chucha's, he explains that he and Trini moved back to L.A. in 2000 after 15 years in Chicago to be closer to family. Married 24 years, they have two boys together, both of them heading to college next year.

"You can see how a stable family life can help kids," he says, and his son from his first marriage, Ramiro, is clearly on his mind. "My oldest kids are great, but they went through hell and back."

Writing this memoir, he says, "it really was my failure that I had to look at more than anything." After Ramiro was born, "I transformed holding him. I made a vow that I would be the best dad. Two and a half years later, my wife and I broke up, and I abandoned him. I was sincere when I vowed that -- and yet this happened.

"The rages, the addictions, even the violence -- that's what I meant by 'it calls you back.' Every day you make that choice of will I do that -- or not?"


10 People Making L.A. a Better Place
Kevin Scanlon

3. Keith Black: The Tumorator

by Gendy Alimurung

When Keith Black was 8 years old, his mom caught him dissecting a chicken heart by the side of their house. Instead of reprimanding the boy, Black's dad brought him home a cow heart the following week. In 10th grade, Black performed his first surgery; at 17, he performed his first organ transplant. Shortly thereafter, at a time when other kids are making volcanoes for the science fair, Black published his first research paper: "The discocyte-echinocyte transformation as an index of human red blood cell trauma."

It was clear early on that he was, as the saying goes, kind of a big deal.

At 54, Keith Black is now Dr. Keith Black, chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery and director of the Brain Tumor Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. In the field, he's known for figuring out how to get chemotherapeutic drugs past the blood-brain barrier so they can be delivered directly into the tumor.

He also is known as the go-to guy for extremely difficult brain surgeries. To put that in perspective, there are some 3,400 neurosurgeons in the United States. Eighty percent of those focus on spine operations. Only a handful -- fewer than 100 individuals -- do what is understood to be brain tumor surgery. And of those, Black is one of the few surgeons to whom other neurosurgeons send their most challenging cases.

Black's modus operandi is to find a safe corridor, sneak up on the tumor "like a thief in the night" and have as little contact with the brain matter as possible. "Get the tumor, and get it out," he explains, "without the brain ever realizing you were there."

At the end of the day, how a patient fares depends on how much of the tumor one removes. Thus, there is a fine line between safe and harmful. Stay too safe, and you don't get all the cancer out. Be too aggressive, and you risk causing terrible things, like blindness, paralysis and speech loss. Getting right up to the edge of that envelope, Black says, is most difficult.

Sitting in his office, where bluish-pinkish jellyfish float in their corner tank like so many brains in a jar, Black is serious and soft-spoken, with a quiet sense of humor. His fingers are slim and tapered. He loves surgery because you can see its immediate benefits. Being able to restore function in a patient is the best feeling in the world. Plus, you get to work with your hands.

And it's a good thing he's got that brain surgery thing going, because his golf game, he says, pretty much sucks.


10 People Making L.A. a Better Place
Kevin Scanlon

2. Peter Diamandis: The Doctor Will Wow You Now

by Skylaire Alfvegren

"We have a "moral obligation to be thinking of where humanity is going," says entrepreneur and brainiac humanitarian Dr. Peter Diamandis. And if he has anything to do with it, humanity is going places that are both interstellar and off-world.

As a premed student at MIT, the Long Island native co-founded Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, a group with chapters on dozens of campuses that has helped to pioneer the space tourism and commercial spaceflight industries. While Diamandis earned his Harvard medical degree after snagging degrees in genetics and aerospace engineering, his heart lay in the potential of the final frontier.

Today, he is best known for the X Prize Foundation, which offers flashy cash incentives for private-sector breakthroughs in space tech, medicine, the environment and beyond.

In late 1999, Diamandis received a call from Bill Gross, CEO of Pasadena's Idealab. He says, "I was in D.C., having launched the X Prize and ZERO-G," the space tourism company that floated Stephen Hawking and other civilians in zero gravity. "Bill had just raised a billion in capital to fund a private moon mission, and he wanted me to be the CEO of the company. I couldn't pass it up."

Simultaneously, Scaled Composites, whose SpaceShipOne would eventually snag the $10 million Ansari X Prize and become the first privately funded manned spacecraft to cruise suborbital space twice within two weeks, was buzzing along at the Mojave Spaceport. Inspired by the confluence of events, Diamandis relocated to California, bringing his X Prize Foundation to Playa Vista.

Occupying the same orbit as Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson and Tesla Motors' Elon Musk -- both of whom contributed glowing review quotes for Diamandis' recent bestseller (with Steven Kotler), Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think -- Diamandis outshines them both. "I wrote Abundance to get people to understand that the forces that have made the world better are accelerating," he says.

Diamandis' approach to tackling "humanity's grand challenges" is multipronged. As a highly sought-after public speaker, he recently expounded on optimism at TED and the future of education at South by Southwest. Last October, spurred by the Deepwater Horizon horror, he awarded the $1 million Oil Cleanup X Challenge. Then, in January, while delivering the keynote address at Las Vegas' Consumer Electronics Show, Diamandis announced the $10 million Tricorder X Prize, which "challenges teams to build a handheld mobile device that can diagnose a patient better than a board-certified doctor."

Revolution through competition, indeed: "145 teams from 22 countries registered in the first six weeks," he beams.

Diamandis, 50, recently announced the funding of Planetary Resources, the "asteroid mining company" long in his mind's eye. "Everything we hold of value on this planet -- metals, minerals, energy, real estate -- is in near infinite quantities in space," he explains.

As the father of young twins, he doesn't have much time to relax. But he will admit, "I think about two X Prizes we don't have yet: the transporter beam and cloning. I could use both of those."


10 People Making L.A. a Better Place
Kevin Scanlon

1. Peter Wallerstein: This Sea Lion Walks Into a Sandbar ...

by Paul Teetor

An anxious crowd quickly encircled the sea lion. Lying prone on El Porto beach, it was foaming at the mouth, with red bulging eyes. "Do something," a fat man in a too-tight Lakers T-shirt yelled out.

Suddenly, a white Ford F-250 bristling with hoops and nets stopped a few feet away. Peter Wallerstein jumped out and asked the crowd to give the animal some breathing room.

From the truck, he pulled a large hoop net and slowly circled the sick sea lion. When it began to move, Wallerstein cut off its path to the ocean. He danced around until he placed the hoop over the animal's head and maneuvered it to the bottom of the net. He lowered to the sand a steel cage from the back of the truck and pulled the beast into the cage.

Then, before taking the sea lion to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, Wallerstein quietly explained to the crowd what had just happened. His diagnosis: another case of domoic acid poisoning, caused by an outbreak of red algae bloom.

"Part of our job is to educate the public," he says later.

That rescue last summer was one of more than 4,000 marine mammal rescues the 60-year-old Wallerstein has performed. Hundreds more sick birds and other animals have found their way to his office.

As the only marine mammal rescue specialist on the West Coast, Wallerstein oversees the ocean and shore from Pacific Palisades south to Long Beach. The ruggedly handsome waterman rises at dawn and patrols the shoreline 365 days a year. "In 25 years, I've never missed a rescue call," he says. But he wistfully confesses that Pumpkin, the little rescue mutt who rides shotgun in his truck, is his closest companion. "I'd like to find a girlfriend," he admits, "but it would have to be someone who shares my empathy for animals."

Before he settled on his vocation, it was left to lifeguards and animal-control officers in coastal towns. "They did the best they could," Wallerstein says, "but I had a vision that it could be done much better."

Using his savings and donations from sympathetic friends, he started patrolling the beach in the mid-'80s, looking for animals to rescue. He met resistance from lifeguards and shoreline town officials, but his professionalism and competence won them over. By the mid-'90s, Wallerstein had contracts with cities up and down the Southern California coast, and five years ago he merged his operation with Friends of Animals.

Wallerstein runs his organization as a nonprofit, with an annual budget of $150,000. He lives in a donated RV, which he parks at the beach in Dockweiler State Park, like a modern-day Jim Rockford. His charity recently acquired land near Dockweiler for a state-of-the-art Marine Mammal and Rescue Rehabilitation Center, for which he is trying to raise $10 million. He has pledges from Clint Eastwood, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Pierce Brosnan. (For more information or to donate, go to

"I want this to continue when I'm dead and gone," he says.

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