ORINDA -- Susan Garell, the 2014 Orinda Citizen of the Year, has known famine and feast. As past president of the Orinda Arts Council board, she's been a one-woman tour de force during lean years, when volunteers were few and far between. This year, as co-president with Lawrence Kohl of a full-roster board of directors, she's floating on a cloud of rekindled community enthusiasm.
Garell, who will be honored at a March 14 dinner at the Orinda Community Center, succeeds 2013 "Citizen" winner Pat Rudebusch.
"Susan is certainly deserving of this recognition for all that she has done for the arts in Orinda," Rudebusch said. "In a town that is so centered on youth sports, there haven't always been venues for youth whose talents tend toward the arts."
"Lamorinda Idol," the multimonth beehive of musical workshops and performances culminating in a final competition in early Fall, has been the most public of Garell's endeavors. Now in it's ninth year, what began as "Orinda Idol" has blossomed as overwhelming interest and local talent exploded its initial boundaries. It's a flagship, Garell conceded in an interview, but far from the only activity her beloved OAC supports.
"We've done concerts in the park, film arts, a visual arts competition in the schools, liaisoned with Orinda Unified School District to get sketchbooks in the hands of every third-grader, we curate the Orinda Library Art Gallery --" Garell said, pausing only to inhale. "If we had more members and awareness, we'd want to add more programs."
Spoken like a true renaissance troubadour, Garell said there are untapped areas, like dance, she'd like to have the funding bandwidth to support.
Garell made her home in Orinda in 1999, after being attracted to the area while working in an Orinda office of a financial sector firm and enrolling Jacqueline, her now-20-year-old daughter, in a city preschool. She later became a television news business reporter for an independent station, a job she calls "a great intellectual and creative treat." During a career transition, OAC board member and Lamorinda Idol founder Petra Michel crossed paths with Garell and recognized her reliable, detail-oriented skills and her interest in Jacqueline's singing ambitions.
"She was not pursuing her career at the time and (was) highly qualified. Hence, ideal prerequisites for a challenging task!" Michel writes in an email explaining why she enlisted Garell to help launch the program.
Recalled Garell, "In the beginning, we didn't know how it would pan out. We had such an overwhelming response, not just from the kids, but from the community."
Garell's rewards have come not just from the program's success, but from watching children become mature, confident performers. "To see those kids develop was so gratifying. It just blew me away. Parents have told me, 'If it hadn't been for 'Lamorinda Idol,' my child would never have found their voice.' "
When Garell learned she was to be recognized as Citizen of the Year, she said she was shocked. "I was flattered because all of the folks who've received the award before me have been involved with the community for decades," she said. With 15 years actively supporting the local schools and the arts community, Garell said she's learned the definition of "citizen" by observing those around her.
"Everyone is genuinely interested in making life better. A citizen is somebody who is actively involved in the community setting." She credits her mother -- the first person she called after receiving news of the award -- with providing the best example of engaged, civic participation. "My mother taught me always to care about what was going on. She was interested politically, in the environment, in other parts of the world. She was worried about saving the world. I don't have interest to that extent, but I have it," Garell said.
With her daughter (now a University of Southern California student studying in London) too far away to attend the award dinner in person, Garell was already plotting a performance via satellite. "She can make a video and it'll be like the Oscars," she said. Expect to be entertained as Garell accepts the 2014 Orinda Citizen of the Year award.
No-host cocktails at the March 14 Orinda dinner begin at 6 p.m. at the Orinda Community Center, with dinner starting at 7. Reservations for the dinner can be made by calling 925-254-7766 or by stopping in person at the Park Place Office, at 18 Orinda Way. Diners have a choice of prime rib, chicken picatta or vegetarian. Tickets are $45.