North County heroes will be honored

This "Looking Forward" op-ed piece by Jeanne Sparks was published in the Santa Maria Times on May 7, 2015:

The Poetic Justice Project is helping people transform their lives.

Deborah Tobola started the local program in 2009 to engage formerly incarcerated youth and adults in original plays that examine crime, punishment and redemption.

Through the project, 87 actors have appeared in 12 theatre productions. Many are active in their communities — creating art, mentoring at-risk youth, counseling people coming out of jail and prison, advocating on behalf of indigent people, and studying at Hancock or Cuesta colleges.

Several PJP actors have gone on to act in local community theatre productions. One started a theatre company. Another stars in a new web TV show.

Santa Barbara County Action Network will honor Tobola and the Poetic Justice Project with the Looking Forward Award during the 2015 North County Looking Forward Awards Dinner on Sunday, June 7, at 5 p.m. at the Historic Santa Maria Inn, 801 S. Broadway, Santa Maria.

SB CAN is giving this and four other awards to highlight the dedication of individuals and organizations and to encourage others to continue their good work.

Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt will receive the Social Justice Award. She is the president of the Santa Maria/Lompoc NAACP and hospitality chair and trustee of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. She is a member of the Five Cities Diversity Coalition and of the Santa Maria Valley Democratic Club.

She is chief investigator for the county Public Defender’s Office, the first African American female in California to hold this distinction. She is a founding member of the Defense Investigator Training Accreditation Academy, and a board member of Defense Investigators Association.

Growing up with the injustices prevalent in the Deep South developed her passion for defense-related work, civil and human rights, and social justice.

Laura and Ron Selken will receive the Giving Back to the Community Award. They volunteer with the Santa Maria Noontimers Lions, where Ron has served as club president, and Laura is serving as secretary and newsletter editor.

They are involved with the Democratic Club of Santa Maria Valley, with Laura serving on the board and editing the monthly newsletter. They are active in their mobilehome park, assisting with various activities, including the monthly news magazine.

Laura also sits on the boards of the local Literacy Council, North County Manufactured Homeowners Team, the AAUW and the Santa Maria Public Library. She also serves on the county Library Advisory Committee.

Al Thompson will receive the Environmental Protection and Sustainability Award. He has interpreted Chumash uses of native plants and became the garden historian at La Purisima Mission. He encouraged exploration of wildflowers and plants along the mission trails, eventually having one of the trails named after him.

He has written garden columns on sustainability, encouraging the idea that gardens can be practical and artistic. He is a docent at the Arroyo Hondo Preserve, where he leads hiking tours and explains the importance of natural habitats. His own garden is open for the sharing of ideas.

People’s Self-Help Housing will receive the Working Families Award. PSHH develops affordable housing and community facilities for low-income households and homeownership opportunities for working families, seniors, veterans, the disabled and the homeless in the Tri-counties. Since 1970, they have developed about 380 self-help homes in Guadalupe, Santa Maria, Tanglewood and Los Alamos, including 117 in Santa Maria for farm workers and their families, and 57 units for limited-income elderly residents and developmentally disabled households; 80 units in Orcutt and 80 in Guadalupe.

If you want to help celebrate these progressive leaders in our communities, visit for more information.

Jeanne Sparks is associate director for Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN). She can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward runs every Friday in the Santa Maria Times, providing a progressive viewpoint on local issues.