HILLSIDE HOUSE AND PLANNED COINCIDENCES

We gathered on the shady grass patio of El Mirador Estate, 10 to a table under a canopy of rangy palms and oaks. It was the Hillside House annual benefit luncheon and most of the fundraising drive had already been taken care of – $75 a plate for each woman and $1,000 for each of “Men of Excellence,” among them Ed Birch and outgoing Westmont College President Stan Gaede. Everyone of the 200 guests in attendance wore nametags, except for the Master of Ceremonies, the indefatigable Larry Crandell, whom as Hillside House board member Nancy Read observed, “thinks everyone knows who he is.”

Either way the nametags were helpful as people shook hands and made introductions at their tables, which were dressed in fine dining cloths and outfitted with pots of flowers, Beanie Babies, Brighton water bottles and Herban Essentials towelettes.

As lunch drew down, luncheon co-chairs Jim Wolfe and Norris Goss provided a brief history of Hillside House, about how it serves 59 residents, ages 12 to 71, each suffering from a development disability, from cerebral palsy to autism. The center receives $3.1 million a year in government funding, from the state and federal program Medical. But that isn’t enough to defray all costs, say the co-chairs. Without private donations, Hillside House reportedly runs a $59,000 debt per month. Which is why we were here at El Mirador, on May 18.

The lone auction item of the afternoon, a painting of El Mirador by local artist James Dow, went for $2,000 and was matched for the equal amount.

Minutes later, Birch introduced his longtime friend, community stalwart and erstwhile Westmont College President Dr. David Winter, Hillside House’s first recipient of the “Man of Purpose Award.” In his acceptance speech Winter, who has been ailed by partial blindness and hailed by friends for his stoic response to his struggle, said the occasion, and his condition, should remind us “to be conscious of and appreciative of our caregivers. This begins for me with Helene (his wife) and it also extends to Hillside House.”

The day’s musical, and inspirational, entertainment was handled mostly by Renée Bondi, a traveling author, singer, speaker, writer, mother and motivational voice. Last month 14 years ago, Bondi shattered her spine when she fell from her bed at night, rendering her a quadriplegic. A fracture one vertebrae higher and she would have breathed through a ventilator for the remainder of her days.

A singing teacher at the time at a school in San Juan Capistrano, Bondi was told by doctors she’d never sing again. In time, however, her voice returned. She recorded CDs, selling about 200,000 of them, the profits of which go to her full-time caregiver. She also wrote a memoir, “The Last Dance, But Not the Last Song.”

In her hour-long program, Bondi retold her story, as she has hundreds of time, weaving Christian hymns throughout the presentation. By mid-afternoon the sun bled through the tree cover to reveal tear-kissed cheeks throughout the audience, as Bondi marveled at the miracles of her survival and recovery, instead of dwelling on her malaise.

She credited her roommate for finding her in her room in the middle of the night; her husband, Mike, for sticking by her all these years; and to fate, which brought her back to the singing classroom and kept true to the Plan. She calls it “God-incidence.”

“There’s no such thing as coincidence,” she says. “Truly.”