Healthy Communities of Southern Inyo is saying farewell to its longtime director at the end of this month and in the meantime, community members are invited to join various local officials and residents in bidding Charles James a fond farewell later this week.
The Healthy Communities Board of Directors, along with a number of residents whose lives have been touched by James, are planning a farewell celebration of his service at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at “The Building” in Lone Pine.
James has served as Healthy Communities director for more than seven years, helping to plan, organize and host a number of family and youth-oriented community events and programs in the communities of Big Pine, Independence, Lone Pine and Olancha. In the process, he brought the struggling non-profit from the peripheral of Inyo County’s collective view to the spotlight, making it a force for positive change in the valley.
James moved to the Owens Valley in 2000, when his wife, Sherrie, took a position as the local WIC director. But his roots in the community date back farther.
According to James, while working as a Red Cross administrator for the greater Los Angeles area, his duties often brought him to the Owens Valley to conduct first-aid and lifeguard training. During one of these training sessions with county Health and Human Services staff, he made a passing comment about the area’s beauty, and how he would like to move to the area if he and Sherrie could find work. When he mentioned that Sherrie was a WIC director, “the nurses there wanted more and more information about my wife,” James said.
Eventually, Inyo County Director of Public Health Tamara Cohn contacted Sherrie regarding Inyo’s need for a WIC director, and house hunting in the Owens Valley began for the couple.
James said the couple first moved to Bishop and he continued to work for the next three years as a Red Cross administrator before that organization rewrote its regional programs and offered a number of employees a severance package.
He said he took the Red Cross’ offer, and shortly thereafter, then-Healthy Communities Director Jeff Quackenbush announced that he would be leaving the area, and recommended James as his replacement.
“I had worked for years with Jeff Quackenbush, training lifeguards there in Lone Pine, and he suggested (the Healthy Communities Board of Directors) ask me if I would replace him,” James said. “It was actually a very good fit, because I like working with people.”
Since taking his position as director of Healthy Communities, James has been responsible for expanding and adding services for youth and families in the communities of Independence and Lone Pine.
Healthy Communities Board Vice President Lis Mazzu said James has been instrumental in organizing Kids Club programs for Olancha, Lone Pine and Independence, he has expanded open gym days for local youth and expanded the Lone Pine pool program, in addition to helping organize community events such as the Fiesta de Lone Pine.
“He tirelessly works for the youth,” Mazzu said. “I don’t know how he does what he does – he’s one of the most giving, caring people I’ve ever seen. The pool in Lone Pine wouldn’t even be open if it wasn’t for Charles. He personally trains the lifeguards every year.”
James, along with Lis and her husband, Kevin Mazzu, was instrumental in starting a new program through Healthy Communities that brings parents, students and school faculty together.
According to Mazzu, James was the driving force behind the Healthy Communities Breakfast with the Family programs at Big Pine, Independence and Lone Pine schools.
While overseeing and planning day-to-day operations at Healthy Communities, James also dedicated countless hours to a number of local organizations, including the Alabama Hills Stewardship Committee, the Lone Pine Film Festival, the Lone Pine Economic Development Corps and more. “It is hard to separate my job from everything else,” James said. “I help whenever they need help. I pretty much attend any meeting they have.”
“We think Charles is great,” Kevin said. “The positive impact he’s made through these initiatives for kids and families is amazing. He is in a paid position, but the compensation doesn’t really match the work he puts in. It’s going to be a loss when he retires, because people like him are hard to find.”
Much of James’ work in Southern Inyo has been behind the scenes, but another aspect of his job with Healthy Communities put him behind the lens of a camera, where he captured scenes from many community events to accompany articles he wrote for The Inyo Register to promote the local communities.
“At Healthy Communities, part of our mission is to help improve things,” James said. “So I started writing for the paper to help advertise our programs and local businesses.”