Established 1978

Two Local Women Making A Difference

by Valerie Reilly

Michelle Lewis, Northern Light School

Northern Light is the kind of school you want to believe exists. It recruits from some of the toughest neighborhoods in the East Bay to find kids that would otherwise have been lost in the shuffle. It does “whatever it takes” to get them up and into the hills of Oakland every day, where they are introduced to a new and healthy world:  nutritious food, a restorative environment, robust challenges, and tremendous amounts of support.

The goal is to educate the “whole child” from preschool through eighth grade with an academic curriculum complemented by comprehensive music, sports, art, drama, and volunteer programs. The school molds the heart and spirit of each student while also preparing him or her for the pivotal eighth grade year—and the daunting private high school application process. “It’s like getting into college now,” explains founder and a co-principal, Michelle Lewis. “It is horrendous. It is very stressful, and they know that the alternative is some public school in Oakland. They are not going to go that route, so going to a private high school the only option.”

The school’s track record backs up Lewis’s stubbornly determined mentality. Since its founding 25 years ago, 214 of the 215 graduates have gone on to local private high schools, such as De La Salle, The Bay School, and Bishop O’Dowd on full or partial scholarships. Many students have gone even further—getting their Ph.D.s, medical and law degrees, becoming Navy SEALs, business leaders, and even an astronaut.

The reason these kids are reaching for the stars has almost everything to do with one woman: Michelle Lewis. Since starting the school 25 years ago, she has done whatever it takes, and sometimes it gets personal—from skipping paychecks when necessary to having one young student, born to a drug-addicted, jail-bound mother, live with her (he is now a thriving junior at De La Salle High School). It is Michelle’s mission in life to make sure that these kids are successful. She says, “Where else are they going to go? Where else are they going to have someone nurturing them and giving them hell and expecting them to be the best they can be? The pressure is hard. But look at my rewards!”

The pressure she speaks of is tangible, and for the most part comes in dollar format. Fundraising for the school’s $1.5 million annual goal falls squarely on Michelle’s shoulders and soliciting from the school’s own population is not an option. While there is a tuition amount listed on the website, Michelle says most families can afford to pay “maybe” $50 dollars a month, and some are unable to pay anything at all. That means she must look to other places for funding. She credits her “bloodline,” mostly from Marin and San Francisco, for keeping the doors open, often in creative and always meaningful ways.

Northern Light’s annual gala on March 1 will be auctioneered by Dana Carvey, and it features private dance lessons by MC Hammer, appearances by sports legends such as Vida Blue of the Oakland Athletics, and a live acoustical performance by Jackson Browne. Mill Valley’s John Novick instituted “Impossible is Nothing,” a monthly motivational speaker series for the seventh and eighth grades, and then there is the retreat, which is donated by supporters Chris and Liz Wright.

Just before the start of their daunting eighth grade year, members of the class are whisked away via airline tickets (purchased annually by retired Kaiser Aluminum CEO Cornell Maier) that take them to the Wright’s “compound” at the Yellowstone Club, an elite ski and golf community in Montana. Over the next week, they get “very, very close and connected as a family.” The kids receive their special “class symbol”—handpicked for them by Michelle, based on her observations during the seventh grade year—and bond over a ropes course, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting. On the second-to-last day, they summit a 10,760-foot- tall mountain. “It takes us seven and a half hours, rain or shine, and we ALL get up there,” Michelle says. “Some of the kids come back down time and time again—to bring other kids back up to the top. It’s an unbelievable experience; really unbelievable for them.”

Michelle says, “People ask me, ‘What do you think is going to happen to these kids when they go into the real world?’ I say, ‘They are going to blow it away!’  They meet the rude world, and they change it.”

To find out more, visit

Isabel Allende, The Isabel Allende Foundation

If Northern Light is a school built on dreams, the Isabel Allende Foundation is an organization born from a nightmare. When the well-known novelist and Marin County resident Isabel Allende lost her 28-year—old daughter suddenly and tragically more than ten years ago, her heart was broken. She wrote the memoir, Paula, and used the seed money to start a foundation that celebrates her daughter’s mantra: “You only have what you give; it’s by giving that you become rich.”

The foundation focuses on helping women and girls in the Bay Area and Chile by offering grants and scholarships through non-profits that work to make improvements in the areas of reproductive self-determination, healthcare, education, and protection from violence, exploitation and/or discrimination. Isabel has continued to personally fund the organization since its inception, growing it ten times over in just as many years.

Possibly because of how it started, the foundation has flourished on a philosophy that is unapologetically based on “heart and instinct,” explains executive director Lori Barra. “A lot of it has been done by the seat of our pants, and it’s a little crazy, but we really trust our instincts. Our take on it is to do deeper, richer work. That might be completely wrong, but that’s how we do it.”

For example, if the foundation gives scholarship money to a student, it follows that same student all the way through her schooling—however long it takes. If it sponsors a woman’s beauty school, the foundation also pays for her equipment and supports her operational expenses. “Helping them with operating expenses is not so sexy,” says Lori, “but the people working there have to get paid!” Each year the organization picks a theme—last year it was “reproductive rights”—and then gives to that theme in a way that is most impactful; whether several small grants or a few large ones. The foundation does what “feels right” on a case-by-case basis.

By giving this way, Isabel has been able to personalize her giving to her grantees. She truly cares about and is inspired by them. She says about her latest book, Ripper, a mystery (her first!) set in San Francisco:  “There is a mother and two daughters—I know them! I mean, I even use their real names because I know them, and they are wonderful, strong people. The foundation works with women that are very at-risk and are survivors—people who are able, against all odds, to stand on their feet, survive, heal, and then be worth something to the community. These strong, wonderful women, who help other women, are my focus.”


To learn more, visit


     Valerie Reilly is a freelance writer, reporter, and on-air contributor living in San Francisco. She shot an AK-47 in Vietnam, swam with wild dolphins in Kealakekua Bay, backpacked through Yosemite backcountry, tried to out-drink the Irish, and sailed around the British Virgin Islands. She is currently experiencing her biggest adventure yet: raising a baby daughter.


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