By JOHN HARLOW | Editor-in-Chief
The terrible grief of loss can anger, destroy and even send you into madness. Look at King Lear.
Or it can reboot, inspire and drive you to embrace life as never before—all in the name of love.
For long-term Palisadians Harriet Zaretsky and Steve Henry, the shock of losing their 17-year-old son Dillon Henry in a car wreck on Sunset Boulevard nine years ago will never fade.
And yet, while still lost in the miasma of pain, the couple reached out in Dillon’s name to other young people in need. And, as a result, they have transformed hundreds of lives.
So far, 83 Palisades Charter High School students have benefited from their financial aid scholarships for college.
And then there are the paid 16 summer interns, or Dillon Henry Fellows, helping the environment through Surfrider Foundation.
Or the many children in foster care in Los Angeles, helped through CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) and the Henry family’s support.
Because that is what Dillon, who once helped a stranger stranded at a gas station, who rescued a young woman meandering in a street in a drug haze, who gingered up 300 students at Pali High protesting curbed summer vacations, would have liked.
But next month, on Sept. 25, a day that honors what would have been Dillon’s 27th birthday, Harriet and Steve are raising the stakes at their third annual Copa De Dillon Soccer Tournament by launching World Soccer Day.
The event will be held at Pali High, with families and friends in the community invited to attend. They will be entertained and will watch eight teams play soccer on the gorgeous sward beloved of Dillon—“a hardworking defender who was respected by his teammates for playing with heart,” recalled Harriet.
The day will be a meeting of old and new friends including, hopefully, young Palisadian actor Alden Ehrenreich—breakout star from the Coen Brothers latest, “Hail Caesar!”
Ehrenreich, who will play the young Hans Solo in future Star Wars movies, helped create a video supporting World Soccer Day.
It’s a powerful kickstarter to a $350,000 campaign to build a very different school 8,800 miles away in Mumosho, a village near the Democratic Republic of Congo’s border with Rwanda. The family hopes the Congo Peace School and premier soccer field will share the same generous spirit that Dillon loved at Pali High.
So, why Africa?
“When Dillon was a young teen, he watched [the 2004 film] ‘Hotel Rwanda’ with us, and he was broken hearted and in tears after watching the genocide.
“He wanted to take action to aid the people of Africa, as that was the kind of boy he was. He became engaged in a water well project in Dafur. After his accident, we formed a partnership with Jewish World Watch, as we felt we could make his ambitions and aspirations come true.”
The family, while drowning in sorrow after the tragedy on July 6, 2007, shared this sadness at a funeral attended by over 1,000 mourning friends.
Yet weeks later, the family, with deep roots in liberal social activism, were transmuting their agony into action.
Within 12 weeks they had raised $100,000 for a new building in the Central African Republic on the border with Darfur, a center that still boasts the name the Dillon Henry Community Health Clinic.
And, another $100,000 for the Dillon Henry Youth Centers, providing activities for children of all ages, in the dismal refugee camps in Darfur.
“I still don’t know how we did it, I don’t know where all the money came from, friends and relatives, but we knew it had to be spent as Dillon would have wanted,” recalled Harriet last week.
Their focus has moved to the Congo, a nation with arguably the most brutal recent history in Africa that is still being bloodied by never-ending civil war, to work with local leaders in Mumosho.
They have partnered with a local Mumosho educator, Amani Matabaro Tom, thus avoiding the “nice white people rescue Africans” aid trap that all too often ends in corruption and waste.
The Afro-Palisadian partnership got off to a flying start last September when Amani organized a soccer tournament between the local Institute Mumosha and three rival teams. The organizers, who were providing Dillon-emblazened caps and T-shirts for fans and dictionaries for the winner, expected maybe 100 people to turn up.
By the end of a jubilant tournament, more than 3,000 Africans were celebrating both the game and the life of a boy they had never met in an event now known as the Copa De Dillon.
A second tournament in Congo this September, now with four boys teams and four girls teams, will cement the partnership to create an educational facility for these same children.
Former Pali High student, Irvin Kintaudi, visited Mumosho in 2014 and said today Dillon is famous in eastern Congo.
“I was warned that I could be snatched away by a militia at any moment, but I know the attitude that I share with Dillon—positive and humanitarian—will help me get through anything. And this is what I wanted to share there with my people,” said Kintaudi, whose parents come from the Congo.
Kintaudi was one of 10 Dillon scholars at Pali High in 2008.
It was an award that he said changed his life.
“It opened up other worlds to me and has carried me to grad school [at the University of Southern California], which might otherwise never happened.”
Ten days ago, he was at the annual barbeque that Steve and Harriet throw at their Rustic Canyon home for their scholarship kids and families every summer.
“It is the opportunity where we can all catch up and share stories—one person who won a scholarship the same year as me, just got married, two weeks before—but also stay connected like the big family that Harriet and Steve have brought together.”
For Steve, Harriet, and (sister) Taylor, there will always be a Dillon-shaped hole in their hearts.
But for the hundreds who will be helped in Dillon’s name over the coming years, some even thousands of miles away who may never know his full story, this is one Palisadian spirit who will continue to shape the world.
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