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Banjo player/singer Terry Finch serenaded key Switzer Learning Center leaders during Boots, Brews and BBQ. From left, board of trustees chair Julia Parton; board member Carol Marcil; Finch; Switzer Center principal Colm Coffee; philanthropist Jerry Marcil and board member Lynn Lord. (Photo by Meredith Grenier)

If the aim at the shooting ranges or the cards at the blackjack tables were a bit skewed, it was all part of the fun at Boots, Brews & BBQ where guests sampled wines, craft beers, boutique tequilas and vodkas and perfected their Western line-dancing skills to a live band.

The Switzer Learning Center’s campus was transformed into a Western hoedown in which guests could ride a mechanical bull, partake in casino games or spin a “booze wheel.” They also bid for trips in live and silent auctions and enjoyed a delicious barbecue dinner. There was even a banjo player from Knott’s Berry Farm, who doubled as the live auctioneer.

The committee went all out this year because they had something very special to celebrate. They burned the nonprofit center’s mortgage. It was a Herculean task, but they succeeded.

It all started in December when Palos Verdes Estates residents Jerry and Carol Marcil offered to help pay off the $1.95 million mortgage if the school for students with learning disabilities could raise $975,935 within about six month’s time.

It was a big task, but Switzer executive director Becky Foo went into action and tapped community leader Bill Oberholzer, who by March had launched the Phoenix Campaign with a committee of about 20 supporters.

“It was an extremely generous gift by the Marcils, but we really couldn’t have matched their gift without the three lead donors – Judy Borck, Dr. John Sealy and Joel and Colleen McCloud, plus donations from all the trustees and so many other supporters,” said Oberholzer. With the mortgage paid, the school will have $138,000 annually, which will go toward increased salaries for teachers and aides, said development director Beth MacAller.

Since 1972, the Torrance school has offered therapeutic services, autism programs, enrichment classes and extracurricular activities for students from 3rd grade to age 22, who have moderate to severe learning disabilities, emotional issues, attention problems and behavioral disorders.

Classes are limited to 12 students for every credentialed special education teacher and instructional aide and enrollment is about 100-120 students. Typically students are referred from their own school district when they have been unsuccessful in a traditional public school program. Colm Coffey is the school’s principal. He took over in 2017 after serving as a teacher with the center for 18 years.

Switzer trustee Lynn Lord’s admiration for the center was echoed throughout the evening. “What hooked me was sitting in on one of the graduation ceremonies and hearing these incredible stories about these kids and how the Switzer Center has helped them. For many, it is their home of last resort,” she said.

Clearly the Marcils were the couple of the evening. Carol is on the Switzer board of trustees, and Jerry is a business entrepreneur and active in Southern California political circles.

“We did it because the work here is so important. This place is all about the kids,” said Jerry Marcil. “It is not easy to raise an autistic kid (some of whom have no verbal skills while others are high functioning) or a child with problems. I am a businessman, and I like to get a lot on my investment. The teachers and staffers that run this school are awesome and you can see real results with these kids,” added Jerry, who also is chairman of the fundraising committee for the Torrance YMCA and chairman of the New Majority for Los Angles County and vice chair for the New Majority state organization.

Before sitting down to a barbecue feast, guests sipped craft beers and local wines and sampled food from area restaurants. Guest Jann Feldman opted for a lemon drop martini from the open bar. She said it was “the best ever.” And there were kudos for the pork and chicken tamales from Tortilla Cantina in Downtown Torrance. Owners Shelly and Rick Gomez were on hand to greet guests. Shelly also operates two dog rescue operations – Noah’s Bark and Rover Rescue. Drop by the restaurant and ask her about any dog training issues. Over the years she has transformed hundreds of unruly and difficult dogs to become much loved family members.

As the Torrance breezes subsided, following an evening of gaming, sipping and tasting, guests sat down for a Western barbecue. Switzer Center board chairwoman Julia Parton welcomed supporters and dignitaries.

Members of Center co-founder Judy Borck’s table, including Jann Feldman, Bill Yeager, Switzer trustee Beverly Mitchell, Peggy Tremayne, Harry Fussganger, Joep Oderkerken, Jeff Morris and Gina McDuffie, led spirited bidding on live auction items from a backyard barbecue dinner to a seven-day safari in Kenya or six nights in Maui.

A highlight of the benefit was a testimonial by a Switzer student who credited the learning center for turning around her lifetime of adolescent drugs, abandonment and abuse.

For information on the Switzer Learning Center, call 310-328-3611.

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