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Anoosheh Oskouian

Anoosheh Oskouian

FEATURES

Living to Give

By Jerry Hicks

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10.25.17

For O.C.’s charitable souls, philanthropy is personal—a desire to help others because of their own experiences, those of the people they love or even of folks they’ve never met. Here, we share the stories of extraordinary individuals who are destined to change the world.

The Globalist
Anoosheh Oskouian is promoting arts and culture here and abroad.

This is a woman who used to walk into executive offices at manufacturing plants to talk about getting rid of pollutants. “They always thought I was the secretary,” Anoosheh Oskouian says with a grin. “No, no. I am the chemical engineer.” Her Ship & Shore Environmental firm is in high demand worldwide. She’s spending much time now in China, where new regulations are forcing companies to reduce pollution. But Oskouian has another interest that’s equally important: promoting the arts. She once arranged for Iranian musicians to perform with the Pacific Symphony. She serves on its board of directors, but much of her work is through the Farhang Foundation, which celebrates Iranian art and culture, and recently gifted The Freedom Sculpture to L.A. She calls it the “Statue of Liberty West,” to honor religious freedom and cultural diversity. To stay ahead of the Iranian revolution, her parents sent her to America at age 14 to live with relatives so she could pursue her studies. Says Oskouian: “My parents gave me the wings to fly. I hope that someday the borders will not stop other young people from experiencing what I’ve experienced.”

Photo by Jay Reilly 

Albert and Deidre Pujols

Albert and Deidre Pujols

The Champions
Albert and Deidre Pujols are winning the philanthropic game.

Angels baseball slugger Albert Pujols is a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, and he’s a household name in O.C. But in some circles, wife Deidre is more well-known. He calls her “Wonder Woman” because she champions so many causes. For 12 years, she’s spearheaded the Pujols Family Foundation. It raises awareness about Down syndrome (their daughter was born with it) and helps impoverished families in the Dominican Republic (Albert’s native country). “Over the past 10 years, we have treated [more than] 18,000 people living in the most destitute areas of the Dominican Republic,” Deidre says. She created Open Gate International last year to assist vulnerable populations around the world through vocational training; a culinary skills program in Costa Mesa was one of its first efforts. Their latest endeavor, Strike Out Slavery, launched in the summer to support groups fighting labor abuses and sex trafficking. A Nick Jonas benefit concert was held after a game at Angel Stadium. They plan to expand to other baseball communities too. “After learning about children as young as 4 years old being forced into labor and sex trafficking, I felt compelled to act,” Deidre says. “I know that if Major League Baseball teams, players and fans join us, we can spread awareness about modern slavery and help an international network of nonprofit organizations rally against it.” And there’s another reason Albert calls her “Wonder Woman”: He credits his home runs to her special chicken, rice and beans recipe.

Photo by Robert Benson 

Chris Keller

Chris Keller and his family

The Mother Figure
Lauri Burns channeled her own experiences in foster care to help teens achieve their dreams.

A foster child aged out of the system turned to drugs, alcohol and prostitution, and ended up homeless, pregnant, raped and forgotten. This isn’t the story of a young person Lauri Burns has helped. It’s her story. Abused by her father, she ended up living in 12 group homes and eight foster placements. Between the ages of 18 and 23, she bounced among some two dozen other spots. With help from a recovery center and her own determination, Burns got into vocational training, became a success in the computer world and now owns a consulting firm. But she devotes nights and weekends to helping foster kids; more than half who age out of the system become homeless, she says. She set up a home for girls in South County: “Not a group home—a family home” that falls under The Teen Project. The organization just celebrated its 10th year and is prepping to open a new crisis residential treatment center in the spring. (Its annual Fashion Show Benefit is tentatively set for May 6.) Burns has also been a foster parent to dozens of kids and serves on advisory boards for related causes. Recently, her daughter, Summer, and several of her graduates surprised her with a guest appearance on the Steve Harvey Show to thank her for all she’s done. Burns shares her story in the book Punished for Purpose ($25, Savannah Star Publishing). And there’s another accomplishment she can be proud of: 30 years of sobriety.

The Advocates
Chris Keller and his family were born to help others impacted by Down syndrome.

America fell in love with ever-smiling Rocco Keller when he was 3 and a TV star on A&E. His parents, Chris Keller and fiancee Amy Amaradio of Laguna Beach, are thrilled to share his story. But it wasn’t always fun. Rocco, who turns 4 in December, was born with Down syndrome. Pregnancy tests showed a 1-in-750 chance it would happen. “We had to adjust to our new normal,” says Amaradio, who worked in marketing at Keller’s successful hotel and restaurant chain (most noted for La Casa del Camino). Rocco then became her full-time focus. They involved their son with the Intervention Center for Early Childhood—a place they drove by almost every day. Now they support it financially, along with Special Olympics Southern California, Down Syndrome Association of Orange County and the National Down Syndrome Congress. Alexis, Rocco’s elder sibling, once told a radio interviewer: “I can’t imagine my life without Rocco. ... He’s the light in my life.” She’s been an advocate from the start as well, participating in The Buddy Walk and volunteering with ICEC, the latter of which the family credits for getting them on the right path. “We would’ve felt lost,” says Keller. “They helped us see what we needed to do as parents.” That involvement led to the call from A&E’s Born This Way, a reality program that shows viewers how well-adjusted those with Down syndrome can be. Its stars are mostly teens—and Rocco. There’s a new baby girl in the family too, perfectly healthy. And they expect to continue with the show’s new season. Rocco’s easy to spot: He’s the one wearing the T-shirt touting “Rocco’s Rad Life.”

Chris Keller and family photo by Cameron Gardner