Toni Lagunoff sat comfortably in the chair, quietly leafing through Angels Amongst Us programs going back 20 years. Memories came flooding back, and she couldn’t help but sigh, giggle, and become emotional when reading a few names. Dale Miller, Gene Krieghoff, Bruce and Jean Eaton ... all gone.
“There are so many stories with each page I turn,” said Lagunoff, 72. “My best friend, who was on board with Angels Amongst Us from day one, Jean Eaton, died six years ago. My husband, Alan, who died recently, was named honorary support angel in 2001 - his bear has a little devil at the base because he played devil’s advocate on the angel selection committee. Roman and Laura Zabecki won in 2007 because of all they did for the community, and the following year, Roman nominated his staff at Crab Cakes for their emotional support following the death of their 17-year-old son, Danny.”
Among the photos, there’s a group shot with Rusty Murphy, Top Male Angel in 2000. He and his wife Sarah were close friends of the Lagunoffs. “Alan and Rusty died within 100 hours of each other,” Lagunoff said, shaking her head in disbelief. Attendees at Rusty’s recent memorial at the Met couldn’t miss the bear he had been awarded nearly two decades ago.
Angels Amonst Us, begun in 1997 and renamed Angels and Heroes Amongst Us in 2014, has awarded personalized bears to nominees over the years. While Lagunoff believed the event might survive two or three years, she never dreamed it would still be going strong today.
“I started this because I believed we lived in an incredibly unique community, one where we were always honoring people in town we all heard about, but I wanted to recognize those behind the scenes, those people who help others quietly,” Lagunoff explained.
For that very first event, with 135 nominees, everyone basically flew by the seat of their pants, with no one having a clear idea of what they were doing, or how the community would respond. One thing was certain, though. It was an angel theme all the way, including the food, which included angel-hair pasta, and angel and bear shaped cookies.
“The very first RSVP came from a nominee who asked for reservations for 38, and we thought, ‘oh my gosh, what have we gotten ourselves into,’” Lagunoff recalled. “Inside, we were filled to capacity, with 30 to 40 standing outside who couldn’t even get in to the hall of what is now the New Community United Methodist Church.”
All these years, the meals have been offered at no cost, other than the requested donation of a new or like-new teddy bear to add to the gifting program. As the event continued to grow, to defray costs businesses and individuals in town have become sponsors.
“I’ve received calls from 10 different cities around the country about this program and the possibility of starting one there,” Lagunoff said. “But those cities were too large, and didn’t have that personal touch. This is an area where everyone knows everyone and everyone cares.”
Back to 1997
While several of the first Angels Amongst Us winners have died, some continue doing what they’ve always done, with no fanfare, behind the scenes.
Carol Breit of Ahwahnee was nominated for her dedication to offering support for caregivers of those requiring continual care, often “sitting” for free to give caregivers a much-needed respite.
Vicky Parr, whose husband was critically ill at the time, said, “I nominate Carol for the Angel award as she has truly been our personal angel. Without her help and care, our lives would have been very miserable and what is worse, alone, in dealing with my husband’s illness.”
Because of his staunch support of his wife’s efforts, Carol’s husband, Vic, was also nominated. Other reasons included his volunteering to organize for Madera County Hospice and Heart Association fundraisers, as well as Angels on Wheels, and driving people to Fresno for medical visits using his personal vehicle.
Surprised that they were nominated and won, the Breits feel the same about the recognition.
“We do what we do because we love doing it,” Carol said. “We don’t do it for the praise and feel a little uncomfortable getting the recognition when it’s something we believe we’re supposed to be doing. We feel good just knowing we have made someone’s life a little happier, a little easier.”
Troy West was coordinator between Manna House and the Mountain Area Ministerial Association. As a church leader, he was also generous with his time and money in helping those in need. The person nominating West called him “one of the good bears in these mountains.”
“I was thankful to the community for nominating me as an angel, and I’m still trying to live up to that honor,” West laughs. “It was a real privilege to receive the award, but I wasn’t volunteering at Manna House all those years for myself, or for man ... I was doing it for God.”
In the first Angels Amongst Us event, winners included: John Hillborn (Male Angel of the Year), Penny “Pie” Jones (Female Angel of the Year) and Manna House (Fanny Alfson, Gene Cassaro, Edith Watkins and Troy West) as Angel Business of the Year.
A logical union
Lagunoff approached several area service clubs about becoming involved with Angels Amongst Us, but was turned down by all that first year. So she got the idea to have the Mountain Bear Fan Club, which she and Eaton had started five years earlier, to act as sponsor. This is the reason each winner is awarded a teddy bear that has been personalized to fit the honoree’s commitment to the community.
The thinking behind the bear awards was that teddy bears are known worldwide to be therapeutic and comforting, so why not transition that to human “angels” who strive to help and comfort others - those who take the extra time to enrich the lives of others with no thought of being recognized for their labors.
The Mountain Bear Fan Club continues to sponsor the event today. The club is an organization of generous teddy bear lovers who annually provide 10,000 stuffed animals to fire departments, the sheriff’s department, California Highway Patrol, hospitals, shelters, social service agencies, veterinary hospitals, churches, nursing homes, schools, and urgent care for families who have been affected by a traumatic incident.
“I don’t know what I’d do without my bears,” Lagunoff said. “You can’t help but have a positive reaction when seeing or holding a teddy bear. They have always comforted me and made me smile.
Lagunoff started the Bear Club 25 years ago after her son, Adam, committed suicide at age 23.
“I just needed something good to come out of it,” Lagunoff explained. “I attended a bereavement meeting, but it just wasn’t for me. I left asking myself, what makes me smile, and it’s teddy bears, so I ran a tiny ad in the Sierra Star, six people showed up, and we started the club.”
Lagunoff guess-timates that a total of 250,000 bears have been handed out over the years, and that on average over the last 10 years, more than 10,000 each year have been passed out to comfort thousands of people.
“Sometimes, it’s so funny the things you remember,” Lagunoff said. “I always carry 100 bears or so in my trunk, and I was down to my last bear. He was a bit scruffy, and looked a little worse for wear. Well, I came across a woman who had been through a lot physically, and she latched on to that little bear, saying it reminded her of herself because she looked that way - a little scruffy and worn around the edges.”
Angels and Heroes luncheon Sunday
There are 10 Angels and Heroes Amongst Us nominees this year. A luncheon will be held noon this Sunday (Nov. 6), at Evergreen Conference Center (ECCO) in Oakhurst in their honor.
Nominees are Donna Dozier (Oakhurst), Waunetta Fuchs (Ahwahnee), Father Gordon Kamai (Oakhurst), Howard Kemp (Raymond), Mike Kling (Coarsegold), Tony and Lori McLean (Oakhurst), Kenneth Petty (North fork), Jess Rodriguez (North Fork) and John Signes (Oakhurst).
Several years ago, Lagunoff was surprised with a Victorian-dressed teddy bear, a thank you for all her hard work in the angels and bear organizations.
While the printed programs always list the winners by year, her name has been intentionally left out because she doesn’t want the recognition or praise for something she said has been called to do - something she loves doing for those special people (like herself) who do what they do just because they can - like the earthly “angels” they truly are.