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January 8: Valerie Sobel
Valerie Sobel; Founder of Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation Where she's from: Hungary Current home: Los Angeles and Idyllwild, California Former career: Actress (she starred in a movie with Jimmy Stewart!) When she started the Foundation: 1995
A survivor of the Communist era, Valerie Sobel fled her native Hungary during the 1956 uprising against the Soviet regime, eventually settling in Toronto, Canada. She vividly remembers that time and recalls carrying her younger brother on her back while walking eight miles with her parents through a marsh to cross the forbidden border to the safety of Austria. After the elation of the escape, there were many months in refugee camps.
In high school, Ms. Sobel was interested in acting. Through a fortuitous encounter, she was flown to Los Angeles for a screen test and won the role in "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation" with Jimmy Stewart. In 1962 she became a California resident and has lived there ever since. Her marriage was followed by the birth of her son Andre and daughter Simone. She eventually left film to focus on her family and later developed a successful career in interior design with her projects appearing in several books and magazines, including Architectural Digest.
A new period marred the life of Ms. Sobel the day her teenage son Andre was diagnosed with a malignant and inoperable brain tumor. He was treated at University of California San Francisco Hospital under the care of Dr. Michael Edwards, head of Pediatric Neurosurgery, who is now at Stanford. In 1985, only a year after her son's diagnosis, the family suffered Andre's devastating loss. Shortly thereafter her mother died, and a year later — to the day — her husband Erwin, 54, took his own life. Through the subsequent months of crushing grief, Ms. Sobel sought to re-direct her life.
What has continued to haunt her was witnessing children who were alone in hospitals, having to face their fears, their pain, treatments and, at times, even their deaths alone. In most cases, these children were from single parent/caregiver homes.
Upon reflecting on her own experiences with her child, she found it hard to imagine how brutal it must be for those in a similar situation but without the financial means or support of a caring partner.
This motivated Valerie to establish the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation (ASRL) in 1995. "Experiencing the sudden onset of a life-threatening illness of a child devastates every family," she said. "But for the single parent without financial resources, it is inconceivable."
In addition to serving in the full time role as President and Founder of the ASRL Foundation, Valerie is a recognized speaker on the subject of caregiver support, a trained Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a charter member of the Women of Washington/Los Angeles, the Music Center's Blue Ribbon Society, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Council of Women World Leaders and a founding member of the Women's Foundation of California's Donor Circle.
Ms. Sobel has been honored with many awards including Stanford University's 2009 Purpose Prize Fellow for social innovators over the age of 60 who have created social change in their "encore" careers. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa honored Ms. Sobel and the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation with a Resolution commending their work, she was named "Best Caregiver" by Readers Digest in its "Best of America: 35 People Who Inspire Us" issue in May 2008 and won the Los Angeles Business Journal's Women Making A Difference: 2007 Philanthropist of the Year Award.
When she is not traveling, Ms. Sobel spends time between Los Angeles and her mountain home in Idyllwild, California. Daughter Simone is a recent graduate of Lynn University and a top-ranked United States women's chess player.