Learning Matters: Foundation’s event honors trio of GUSD graduates

While raising funds to “enrich and enhance the programs and projects of the Glendale Unified School District” and honoring three of the district’s distinguished graduates, the Glendale Educational Foundation, recently celebrated with a “Denim and Diamonds” event at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank.

The diamonds refer both to the honorees and the prize featured in the opportunity drawing, donated again this year by Odette Kahwajian of Orphan Jewel.

Since its revival as an organization in 2005, the foundation has contributed more than $1.3 million to the district in its three areas of focus — health and fitness, science and technology as well as arts — areas parents and the district agree are chronically underfunded in California.

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The Glendale Educational Foundation initiated the Diamond awards in 2011 to honor some of its most distinguished alumni.

This year’s awards went to Dr. Patrick McLaughlin Nemechek (Crescenta Valley, 1978) for distinguished achievement in health and fitness; Christine Walters (Glendale High, 1982) for distinguished service; and Ardashes (Ardy) Kassakhian (Glendale High, 1994), for significant achievement early in his career.

Most of the attendees were familiar with the accomplishments of Walters, who will soon complete her second and — by her choice — final term on the Glendale Unified school board, where she has served twice as president.

As she did last year as a presenter at “Denim & Diamonds,” Walters expressed her appreciation and affection for her teachers, especially her third-grade teacher at R.D. White Elementary, Melinda Lanzafame.

I’ll take this opportunity to say that the district will miss Walters’ skills as a certified public accountant, her matter-of-fact manner and her good humor. I’m glad I had the chance to serve alongside her.

Kassakhian is another well-known figure as well as a long-time supporter of the foundation and local schools. Kassakhian is completing his third term as City Clerk and is running unopposed for a fourth.

Audience members accustomed to seeing him in his official capacity, in which he offers thoughtfully chosen invocations at City Council meetings, experienced an unusual opportunity to hear him express his passion for public education.

But it was physician Patrick Nemechek, classmate of CV graduate and last year’s honoree, Phil Lanzafame, who proved the hidden gem of the evening, coming as more of a surprise to the audience.

According to the information provided in the program, Nemechek, who flew in from Arizona for the occasion, has a national reputation as an HIV health provider and was a founding researcher of the HIV Research Network.

Now practicing medicine in Arizona, Nemechek has also become “a recognized pioneer in the reversal of brain inflammation and autonomic symptoms from chronic injury.” He is scheduled to appear in a PBS documentary on brain health and will soon be releasing a book co-authored by his wife.

As if that weren’t enough, toward the end of the evening, as many guests were leaving, Nemechek stepped calmly in to assist with a guest’s medical emergency until an ambulance arrived.

As I wrote after last year’s “Denim & Diamonds” event, teachers matter, and Glendale Educational Foundation, through its honorees, does a good job reminding us of that. But this year, I was especially struck by the mix of honorees, past and present, and by the collection of guests, many of them board members in multiple nonprofit organizations serving our community, all involved in raising funds for community causes.

While I can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the proliferation of gala fundraisers in Glendale, I appreciate the spirit of the Glendale Educational Foundation’s event as well as its cause. This year, there were cowboy hats and boots aplenty. Next year, at another venue, it will be “Disco and Diamonds” — and another crowd of civic-minded individuals.


JOYLENE WAGNER is a past member of the Glendale Unified school board, from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves on the boards of Glendale Educational Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. Email her at