Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation in Walnut Creek fields 200 calls a day. None of them are barks from dogs or meows from cats asking for assistance.

"They are from people calling ARF who need help with their pets," said Elena Bicker, executive director of ARF since 2006. "And all of them want their pets to receive the necessary care and avoid suffering. ARF's mission is people rescuing animals, animals rescuing people."

Bicker, 48, has a long history with ARF, one that started in 1993. That's when a friend, who knows Bicker is a country music fan, invited her to a concert featuring Wynonna Judd. That concert happened to be a fundraising event for ARF.

"After the show, Tony La Russa came up onstage and said, 'If you have a love for animals, contact us after the show.' And I did," she said. "I started as a puppy foster (guardian), which is a great job at ARF."

At the time, Bicker was working at GE Capital as a field marketing manager. As she spent more and more time as a volunteer, ARF got to know her and her passion for animals. Five years later, she joined ARF's marketing staff and raised more than $1 million. In 2006, the Southern California native and graduate of Saint Mary's College in Moraga was promoted to executive director, overseeing a $4.3 million budget.

Under her leadership, ARF's Charity Navigator rating -- a scale in which a charity's financial health and sustainability is measured -- went from a two to a four, the highest rating possible.


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Baseball legend Tony La Russa, the center's founder, couldn't be happier.

"I think she has an ideal combination of skills," he said. "And she has the correct passion. When you work in a nonprofit, especially when it involves animal rescue, you need to have the passion, the love and the skills. I give her a lot of credit and respect."

So do leaders in Walnut Creek. Bicker was recently recruited to be on the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

Rusty Sealy, president of the Chamber of Commerce board, met Bicker in a Contra Costa County leadership program in 2007 and worked with her on special projects during the program.

"The more I got to know her, the more I realized she is a very skilled communicator and she's very well organized," Sealy said. "When I assumed the role as chair of the board, Elena came to mind instantly. When you look at the whole bundle of skill sets she brings to her role as a director of the chamber, she's pretty effective."

Stroll through ARF's headquarters in Walnut Creek and you will see a place that cares for the welfare of dogs and cats. The rooms the animals spend their days in are big, bright and littered with toys. The descriptions of each animal's nature are heartwarming. Cats are categorized by terms like "leader of the band" or "personal assistant" while visitors can see what a dog's energy level is; they will let you know if Rufus is a couch potato or an active dog that needs a job.

ARF, which then-Oakland A's manager La Russa founded after he rescued a terrified cat that wandered onto the field during a home game, takes in animals for whom no homes can be found and that are scheduled to be put down at shelters across Contra Costa County and the Central Valley. In its first year of operation, ARF saved 11 dogs and 146 cats; over the span of 20 years, its volunteers and employees have found permanent homes for more than 21,000 dogs and cats.

It's clear that Bicker finds it to be meaningful work.

"I love my job," Bicker said, tearing up. "I like to tell everyone that I have my dream job."

As executive director, Bicker keeps the trains running on time. That includes not only keeping an eye on ARF's hundreds of volunteers, but overseeing programs such as animal visits to hospitals and making sure the books are balanced.

The latter is no easy task. In the down economy, donations are down and the center, even though it has a celebrity founder, thrives from grants and donations. An average donation is $30.

"The demand for our programs is at an all-time high," Bicker said. "People have got to make their mortgage payments and pay their gas bills. Pets sometimes fall down in the priority rating. We have a low-income clinic, and they are just besieged with people who need help with their animals. It truly behooves ARF and the animals to get people to keep their pets instead of surrendering them to animal shelters."

She says that buying a ticket to the annual concert or giving an annual gift to the shelter is key to keeping it open and helping both animals and people.

"We need everybody's support," she said. "We still cannot meet the demands of every call to ARF."

HOMETOWN HERO
Who: Elena Bicker
Age: 48
Hometown: Danville
Education: Graduate of Saint Mary's College in Moraga
Current role: Executive Director of Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation in Walnut Creek
Quote: "To see this organization go from the back of a thrift store to this big building where we're able to care for 150 animals each day is really something special."

Hometown Heroes, a partnership between Bay Area News Group-East Bay and Comcast, celebrates people in the East Bay who make a difference in their communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the Hometown Heroes feature aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofits and key causes in the area and create a spirit of giving.
Read about a new Hometown Hero every other Monday and watch the program on Comcast On Demand at Channel One-Get Local-Hometown Heroes.
Do you know a Hometown Hero? Let us know about the work they do at HometownHeroes@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Fundraising Concert
Stars to the Rescue XX, a benefit concert for Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation, will feature performances by trumpeter Chris Botti, Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles and comedians Lewis Black and Kathleen Madigan. The show is at 7 p.m. Jan. 7 at Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Tickets range from $50 to $250 for VIP seats. Call 925-943-7469 or go to www.arf.net for more information or to purchase tickets.