A Christmas lift: Susan Brooks, the Kiwanis Club, and a very special gathering
by Mark McDermott
Many holiday gatherings will take place on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in the next two months. Most will be warmed by the spirit of togetherness that animates this time of year. Many will include fine wine, beautiful music, and exquisite food. Some will be dedicated to larger causes.
But on the afternoon of the first Sunday in December, a gathering will take place that combines all of these qualities and will do so in a way that reflects the understated elegance and sweet sense of service indicative of both the organization and civic leader hosting it.
“Christmas with the Kiwanis” takes place December 3 at Spectrum Club Rolling Hills. It will feature a champagne greeting, music by pianist Richard Sherman, hors d’oeuvres, and wine tastings curated by Susan Brooks, who in addition to being a community stalwart and three-time Rancho Palos Verdes mayor is a Rennaisance woman of a sort, equally adept at navigating the intricacies of local governance and pairing a wine with a particular palate.
But after 38 years of involvement with every level of the Palos Verdes community, Brooks’ ever-growing legacy is perhaps best epitomized by her work with the Kiwanis. The word “Kiwanis,” which translated from Algonquin means simply “We build,” speaks both to Brooks’ and the club’s ethos.
“I’ve been involved with almost everything in the 38 years I’ve lived here, from the Art Center to the League of Women Voters, to the Assistance League to so many different nonprofits and philanthropies,” Brooks said. “But what makes this little club so different — and it is an international club, Kiwanis — is nobody gets a handout. We lend a helping hand instead.”
Brooks oversees the club’s scholarship program. The idea behind the program is echoed in an old saying often repeated by her son, Aaron, a fisheries biologist for the Jamestown S’Kllalam tribe in Washington State. “Give a man a fish and he has a meal,” the saying goes. “Give a man a fishing pole, and he has a life.”
The scholarships, which are mostly awarded to students from underserved nearby communities, intend to do just that — help kids who demonstrate a special gift for helping others, and who want to lift themselves through education. The scholarships are the fishing poles.
“I’ve seen the impact it has on these children, these students,” Brooks said. “Many of them are the first in their family to choose to go to college. Yet they are so accomplished in what they do, extracurricular-wise, and through school. Some are STEM students, and they’re doing robotics. And their parents are so proud of them. They’re hard-working, many are blue-collar workers who are rolling up their sleeves all day long. So if their kids receive a $1,000 scholarship, they are so appreciative. And that money doesn’t go to the schools, it goes to the students, for them to choose — they may need school supplies, or sometimes they just need to get some clothing, to help them get started.”
The Kiwanis are looking for a certain type of student, those who are not only interested in helping themselves, but others. The application process helps them find those kids.
“In addition to getting good grades, there is often a desired area we focus on,” Brooks said. “Last year, we focused on STEM students in underserved communities. We have some students from Palos Verdes, as well, but wherever they are from, they must have a special heart. They have to do something on the outside that is volunteer and that demonstrates that they care about their community. We have students from the Boys and Girls Club, for example, from San Pedro and Harbor City that I am working closely with now — and these kids, it’s amazing what some of them have to go through, but they are focused. They go into the community, they go into nursing homes and read to the elderly, or they help developmentally disabled students. There’s got to be some demonstration that you care.”
Brooks knows about the character of such students because she was once one herself.
“My philosophy in life, and the reason why I was put on this Earth, is really to serve others,” Brooks said. “And that’s what I have tried to do ever since I was a child.”
How to care
Brooks grew up in a working class family on Long Island, New York. Her father was a milkman and her mother was a school secretary. She had to pay her own way through college. She initially attended a community college in Buffalo, and then attended the esteemed Columbia Teacher’s College. She was an art history major and worked as a student teacher, teaching art to kids with special needs.
In high school, she did something unusual for a popular girl — she tried to create a bridge between the cool kids and those who had special needs.
“I would reach out to those kids,” Brooks said. “I wanted to include those kids in those other groups, where very often they were rejected. I would meet with those kids, make friends, and do things with them separately.”
As a student teacher, Brooks worked with a center founded by Henry Viscanti Jr., one of the first disability rights activists in history, a man who was born with no arms and no legs who became a craftsman. He designed the China for the Nixon White House, and was an adviser to eight presidents. Her student teaching got the attention of administrators at Columbia, and she was given a scholarship to graduate school to study what was then a new field, called Special Education.
After graduation, Brooks taught in Brooklyn, which at the time, in the early ‘70s, contained some of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States.
“I chose the worst possible ghetto in all of New York, which is in East New York, Brooklyn,” Brooks said. “I used to take the Double L train. When I think about it, those three years of teaching — you know, some people will say they got their combat duty in Vietnam or whatever, and I would say, I did my time. I did my service. But it was the most rewarding of all the teaching experiences I ever had.”
She would take the kids out of the ghetto. She’d tie up her long blonde hair, often being the only white person in sight, and take the kids on the subway to see parts of New York City many had never before seen — parks, museums, even trips to the beach.
“I wanted them to know that they could get out into this larger world,” Brooks said.
Eventually, Brooks married and raised two kids of her own. Her husband was admitted to Georgetown Law School, and the family moved to Arlington Virginia. Then he was offered a partner position in a law firm that required the family to come to California. At first, looking for a place to raise her kids, Brooks was dismayed. The sprawl of LA County felt like a concrete jungle. But then a colleague of her husband’s told them about Palos Verdes. She still remembers her first drive around the bend leading from Long Beach to Peninsula.
“I was in heaven,” she said. “I remember saying, ‘This is it. This is it. This is just so beautiful. I can’t believe it.’”
Brooks still lives in her family’s first, 2,000 sq. ft. house in the Mira Catalina area of Rancho Palos Verdes. And she still feels exactly the same way about where she lives.
“Every time I drive down, every time I go down that switchback, it takes my breath away how beautiful it is,” she said.
One of the things she and her kids loved to do together in Palos Verdes was go to Marineland, where the two orca whales, Orky and Corky, were local celebrities, and would kiss visitors. Given her capacity to care, it is unsurprising that the closure of Marineland — and more specifically, her concern over the handling of these orcas — led her into the public sphere as an activist. She has been a force to be reckoned with on the Hill ever since.
Eileen Hupp, president of the Palos Verdes Chamber of Commerce, recalled a moment she shared with Brooks seven or eight years ago. Coincidentally, this took place exactly where Marineland used to be, at what is now Terranea Resort. Brooks, who’d returned to serve as mayor and councilperson from 2011 to 2018, after earlier having served from 1991 to 1995, was with her colleagues for the Chamber’s annual economic forecast breakfast. It was 7 a.m. and she had a smile on her face. She leaned over to say something to Hupp.
“There was this beautiful sunrise over the Pacific, and she looked at me she said, ‘You know, we live in paradise,’” Hupp said. “Sshe had said that many times before, and other people say it, but her point was that we are so fortunate and so blessed to live, work, and raise our families, be involved with and be a part of the Palos Verdes community.”
Another old, wise saying is “Gratitude is heaven.” And if Brooks feels like she is living in heaven, it’s a feeling she wants to share. She becomes emotional just trying to express what this place, and the people who live here mean to her.
“I love my community,” she said. “And because of that, I have a really strong sense of contributing and continuing with the community that I have come to grow, to love, and to know, with all our failings, and all the challenges.”
The Kiwanis way
Service clubs sometimes seem like a quaint notion from a bygone time, because they are simply about serving others, with no sense of personal ambition or gain.
The early history of Kiwanis International is documented in old black-and-white photos of all white men. It was founded in 1915 in Detroit and was originally called the Supreme Lodge Benevolent Order of Brothers and focused more on business networking. By 1919, its name and intent had changed. The Kiwanis’ mission became to serve children.
Brooks’ mission, beyond helping children, is to make sure this service club remains something more than a remnant of times past. She hopes to attract a younger generation of Kiwanis, and gatherings such as the Christmas with Kiwanis are a way for this to happen. The hope is people will come for the wine and the music and through the warmth of the festivities see what the Kiwanis are about.
“There are not a lot of younger people who want to do this type of charity,” Brooks said. “Not that they’re not into helping, but I think a lot of people would rather help save the planet, focus on clean energy, and make their contributions there. Meanwhile, you have communities all over the United States where people need people, right where you live….We need to bring in some new, energetic talent that’s going to continue to do the work for others.”
Hupp said the Kiwanis and other service clubs go beyond doing good for the kids they help, but help form the fabric that binds communities together. Few things forge stronger bonds than a group of people working together to help others.
“It’s the same thing that Susan does,” Hupp said. “She brings people together, for a good cause….It is the fabric of the community, whether it is service clubs, people giving back through their church or their synagogue, or the many different nonprofit and philanthropic organizations we have on the Peninsula — it’s more than even the work that they do, but it creates a sense of community, a sense of extended family.”
Another Kiwanis party takes place later in December. This party gathers kids from the Boys & Girls Club in Harbor City for a riot of gift opening. A video from last December’s party captures pure, unadulterated joy — shrieks and laughter and smiles as wrapping paper is unfurled and the gifts are revealed to the children. But the real gift is larger and unseen. “It is through giving that we receive,” the Prayer of Saint Francis says, and it is that sense of fulfillment that keeps Brooks and her fellow Kiwanis doing what they do. Brooks notes that even at this party, the children are learning the lesson of serving others — each makes an ornament dedicated to their family before opening their gift. It thus becomes a full-circle moment of giving and receiving.
“You see how wild they are, and so happy,” Brooks said. “They are so excited to receive those gifts. Some of these kids don’t get Christmas…The idea is we’re helping to change the world, one child at a time.”
“Christmas with Kiwanis” takes place December 3 from 2 to 5 p.m. at Palos Verdes Bay Club, 32821 Sea Gate Drive, Ranchos Palos Verdes. The event features a champagne greeting, music by Richard Sherman, Hors d’oeuvres, fine wine tastings, a silent auction, and more. For more information about the event or sponsorship opportunities, see KiwanisClubRHE.org. PEN