Dr. Davida Coady lives in the home her family bought, in 1965, high in the Berkeley hills. A lemon tree laden with fruit graces the front window, birds cruise a painted bird house and a piano stands ready. It is a place full of light and calm where one could escape the world. Instead the visitor is led straight into the heart of what matters.
Coady is on the phone arranging delivery of a donated stove to a “shelter plus care” home she’s just opening in Oakland. Her gigantic coffee table is piled high with envelopes stamped “San Carlos Foundation.” A glossy of Martin Sheen, bright eyed and presidential, has been reproduced for a fund-raising mailing. She has just returned from Bangladesh, where she traveled as a medical consultant and now, as always, she has no time to lose. The fund raiser is scheduled for February 10, yet hundreds of details must be pinned down. There is no doubt that they will be, but even Coady is beginning to feel stretched.
Coady has, in spades, what many of us are searching for — an unflagging sense of purpose. And if one devotion isn’t all consuming, she directs her intense energies to another. She embodies the concept that one person can make a difference. Then she reaches out to others and incorporates them in her plans, to make an even bigger difference.
Trained as a doctor at Columbia Medical School and Harvard’s School of Public Health, her interest in pediatrics and nutrition has led her to a life long involvement with world wide health issues. When she was not yet 30, Coady traveled to Biafra to offer help for famine relief. Stunned by the “lines and lines of starving people,” she testified before the U.S. Congress underscoring the need for immediate help. Years later, in Thailand, she witnessed a bus of 30 refugees arriving from Cambodia — 28 of whom were already dead.
Despite desperate conditions, Coady continues to consult
with dozens and dozens of international agencies and has used her expertise to relieve people’s suffering, especially children’s.
“I’m most interested in training village health workers,” she said.
Coady serves as a consultant to countries sunk in war. In fact, she was so deeply involved in Central America during its war that she was accused of smuggling drugs. Ironically, she admits she was — the drugs were burn ointments and antibiotics she housed in her garage and shipped to people in “sanctuary” protection.
Coady believes health is a right, not a privilege. While teaching at UCLA’s medical school, she urged students to get involved with the poor to become more compassionate doctors.
Hollywood people came to her for medical information about international travel. Martin Sheen sought her advice when he and his family were going to Nairobi and she was on her way to Uganda. Sheen was profoundly interested in her work and contributed the money from his role in the film “Gandhi” to Coady’s group.
After Archbishop Romero was killed in El Salvador, Coady set up a health program in the Honduran camps for El Salvadorian refugees. In 1984, she and Sheen set up their own foundation. It was during Reagan’s presidency and they had to be careful as, she said, “things were kind of dicey.”
They gave it what they considered a fairly establishment name, San Carlos, which was actually the name of the street in El Cerrito where Coady lived. They researched St. Charles to make sure he didn’t do anything contrary to their beliefs. (St. Charles in fact was a wealthy man devoted to the poor. The rich, however, hated him because he made them feel selfish.) Coady said it puzzled her that the Nicaraguans they worked with always liked the name San Carlos until she discovered they thought it was a code name for Karl Marx.
The non-profit San Carlos Foundation has no paid staff. All money raised goes straight to volunteers in Central America and the Caribbean who provide health and educational assistance to refugees and others living in extreme poverty. Since its inception, The San Carlos Foundation has supported over 96 volunteers including doctors, nurses, engineers, lawyers and teachers.
Grants of $6,000 a year are awarded to people like Ann Hastings, who created an Alternative Bank for the Organized Poor in Haiti, and Nancy McGirr, a photographer from San Francisco. McGirr teaches photography to children in Guatemala. Together they published a book called “Out of the Dump,” full of stories and photos the children created. Another volunteer, Kurt Miron, a mechanic who can fix anything, loaded his back pack with tools and wandered from village to village in Guatemala teaching people to fix everything from corn grinders to bikes and trucks.
Coady has an upbeat faith in her ability to affect change and she takes her ideas dead seriously. The full weight of her intelligence, stamina and drive stands behind her ideas. As she turned 56, though, she realized how strongly she wanted to contribute right here in Berkeley. She looked around for a “piece that was missing” and founded Options.
While “moonlighting” at Children’s Hospital to support her trips consulting, she saw many abused children. During that time, she saw that parent’s addictions were not treated — a significant intervention she felt was missing because those addictions led them to be abusive.
Over a period of several years, Coady developed a comprehensive program that works with the Berkeley court system to treat alcoholics and drug addicts who are arrested. Options, housed at the Veterans Memorial building across from the Court House in downtown Berkeley, is free and immediately accessible to everybody.
Options is a daily program that provides a half day recovery program, several Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings weekly as well as Step Stay discussions (12-Step discussions). Options provides nitty-gritty support, too, including driving people to the DMV to get IDs. IDs are required to enter a residential treatment program. Many of the people the courts send to Options have never had IDs of any kind.
“Less than 10 percent have,” Coady said. “They started drinking at the age of five and six and were never sober enough to get licenses.”
Options operates on the model of clean and sober, as opposed to the harm reduction model of methadone treatment or “learning to drink in moderation.” It is devoted to hard core “bad” addicts, of whom sixty percent are homeless. The reality Coady experiences in her Options work is that most of the clients make great progress. That motivates her and the Options staff, some of whom are former clients.
Her deep regard for those who struggle most is obvious when she stops on University Avenue and Milvia Street to talk to a homeless panhandler and invites him to join her at Options. She engages him in conversation, the same man that most pedestrians have walked a wide swath around. She is unable to convince him, but she will try again. Coady is tenacious, a close friend jokes she is like a “fox terrier.” Where others might see impossibilities, she sees endless potential.
Join Davida Coady and Martin Sheen at St. Joseph the Worker Church, 1640 Addison St., Berkeley on Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m. for a conversation with Martin Sheen — “The West Wing Meets the East Bay.” Call 843-2244 for more information.