Trailblazing North Bay Spirit Award winner Annie Falandes helping the homeless, one at a time
As one of the first female commercial airline pilots in the United States, Sonoma’s Annie Falandes broke through the glass ceiling at 30,000 feet with a steely determination that continues to define her life.
Now 70 and widowed, she’s eagerly embraced another daunting mission: helping Sonoma’s homeless find dignity in a world where that can be difficult to come by.
A year ago, Falandes invited a young homeless couple to live with her, a move she said didn’t sit too well with some of her Denmark Street neighbors.
She’s bound to draw more scrutiny with Homeless Action Sonoma — the nonprofit she founded — as she seeks to open a transitional site for the homeless in Boyes Hot Springs, just outside Sonoma city limits. Such plans have sparked controversy nearly everywhere they’ve been proposed.
The ambitious plans also appear to have caught some by surprise, including Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes Sonoma Valley. Gorin expressed concerns Falandes may be outpacing community support she will need to execute on her vision. At the same time, the veteran supervisor praised Falandes for giving it her best shot.
“It doesn’t surprise me Annie is a pioneer,” Gorin said after she was told Falandes broke barriers in the airline industry. “She’s a gutsy lady.”
Falandes is accustomed to bucking conventional trends. She said when she first started volunteering with the homeless, fellow volunteers warned her to not tell clients where she lived, give out her phone number or give rides in her car.
Her response was, “Why?
“They’re human beings. In theory, yes, some people are dangerous. But some of my neighbors are dangerous,” she said with a laugh.
At an age when many are slowing down, Falandes is ramping up, organizing weekly meet-and-greet barbecues for the homeless at local parks, connecting people to resources, lobbying city and county officials and laying the groundwork for what she and her fellow advocates hope will be a dedicated transitional homeless services facility in the heart of Sonoma Valley.
For her dogged efforts, Falandes was selected to receive August’s North Bay Spirit Award, a joint project of The Press Democrat and Comcast that honors people who go above and beyond to serve their communities and in so doing inspire others to do the same.
Falandes said her volunteerism reflects her New England upbringing in Charlemont, a farming community of about 1,300 in northwestern Massachusetts. Growing up the middle child in a family of five, Falandes was taught the value of hard work and charity, and to fight for what she believes in.
Her parents, who met in New York City, were first-generation Ukrainian immigrants whose families fled the Stalin regime by coming to America. Her father, Max Falandes, purchased 136 acres in Charlemont hoping to live out his dream of farming. But when the financial reality of raising five children sunk in, he returned to school to earn an engineering degree. He went on to a career as a highway inspector.
“He liked his job, and he made very good money. He could support his family,” Falandes said. “But when he came home at the end of the day, always at the same time, he left the job behind and was part of the family. He still worked the farm and had time for us.”
Falandes said the family compound was a refuge for kids who had run away from home or for down-on-their luck strangers who were passing through.
“Back then, there were a lot of homeless. We called them hobos,” Falandes said. “My father would invite them in, give them a meal and let them sleep in the barn. It felt like the right thing to do.”
After graduating high school, Falandes enrolled at a state college where the assumption was she would pursue a career in either nursing or teaching. She earned a degree in social science with a triple minor in political science, sociology and economics.
While trying to figure out her life, Falandes took a job as a waitress and bartender in a local restaurant. One day, a co-worker invited her to go flying with him in his small plane.
Soaring off the New England coast, Falandes knew almost immediately she wanted to make a career out of flying. But this was the early ’70s, when opportunities for female pilots were slim.
Then fortune struck. While vacationing with a friend in the Caribbean, she met a group of men from Napa Valley who later offered Falandes help landing a job and a place to live in California so she could pursue her flying career in much better weather than what she was accustomed to on the East Coast.
Falandes said after she moved to Napa, she was hired as the first female waiter at the exclusive restaurant at Domaine Chandon winery. In her off-time, she took flying lessons at Napa County’s airport and later became a flight instructor in San Jose, which was then staking its claim as the center of the tech universe.