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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.

Family lessons

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.

Taking flight

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.

Automation and the emergence of small regional carriers fueled more opportunity, opening the door to Falandes landing a job with a commuter airline in Maine. She worked there for a number of years before the majors came calling.

Falandes said she was hired by United Airlines in 1986 at a time when fewer than 5% of pilots in the airline industry were women. It did not go well at first.

As the only woman in her training class, Falandes said she was regularly subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment on the part of her male classmates and instructors. Even after she became a flight engineer assigned to United’s fleet of Boeing 727s, Falandes said, her job duties included gathering up pornographic material her fellow pilots stowed away in nooks and crannies of the cockpit.

Looking back, Falandes said she “absolutely” felt demeaned. But she said she also learned to “pick my battles.”

She said an airline crash a few years after she started at United sparked a company-wide re-training program that helped bring an end to the good-ol’-boys era. When she retired from United in 2003 after 18 years with the company, she had earned the rank of captain and the respect of her peers.

By then, Falandes was living in Sonoma and commuting to work in San Francisco. She had returned to California, driven by fond memories of her time in Napa and a desire to escape harsh New England winters.

While renting a home on Denmark Street, she befriended her next-door neighbor, Larry Castelli, who worked around the world in U.S. Navy communications. After Castelli’s wife died, he and Falandes developed a deeper relationship that led the couple to marry in 1993. She moved into his house, where she lives today.

The couple enjoyed traveling the world until Parkinson’s disease forced Castelli to slow down. Falandes began volunteering at Sonoma Overnight Support, a local homeless services center, as a means of coping. Her husband died of pancreatic cancer in 2018.

Grieving her loss, Falandes threw more of herself into her volunteer work.

“I found I really liked these people,” she said of the homeless she encountered at the services center. “They had such interesting stories and they were genuine. They just needed a hand.”

Building trust

A keystone of Homeless Action Sonoma is its Befriending program, which aims to build trust slowly between volunteers and the homeless. Almost every Sunday, Falandes and a cadre of volunteers gather with the homeless in a local park to enjoy a barbecue. Over time, that has led to lasting relationships.

Another of the nonprofit’s programs is Sonoma Professionals Share. Through it, homeless people receive free services from local therapists, dentists, hairdressers and other professionals who volunteer for the program.

Falandes described the case of a 23-year-old man who was injured in a serious bicycle crash, leaving him to suffer for years with severe dental deformities and pain. Falandes enlisted her own dentist and an oral surgeon to treat the man.

“You wouldn't believe how happy that young man is,” Falandes said. “He goes, ‘Look at my smile. Maybe I can get a girlfriend!’”

Bucking warnings from her well-meaning friends, Falandes invited 22-year-old Shayla Finato and Sam Heckler, 26, to move into her home while the young couple struggled to escape the cycle of homelessness and unemployment.

Finato, who was born and raised in Sonoma, said she dropped out of Sonoma Valley High School when she was 16 at a time when her parents were struggling themselves to maintain jobs and housing for the family.

By the time Finato and Heckler met Falandes, the young couple were sleeping outside near a cemetery in Sonoma while trying to avoid encounters with the public and police.

Nearly a year after moving in with Falandes, Finato said, she and Heckler are making progress on leaving their former lives behind. Finato holds a job at a local thrift store and obtained her driver’s license. Heckler is employed with QuickHaven, a Rohnert Park company that constructs transitional shelters for the homeless.

Finato said the couple are exploring finding a place of their own to rent.

“She’s really turned my life around,” Finato said of Falandes. “She’s really been there for me when I didn’t think anybody was going (to be). It’s like having a fairy godmother.”

Falandes’ longer-term ambitions include executing her vision for a transitional homeless facility in Sonoma Valley. She said her nonprofit is in escrow on property off Highway 12 in Boyes Hot Springs just north of the McDonald’s restaurant.

She said plans for the site include QuickHaven shelters, showers and bathrooms.

“Our whole goal is to end homelessness,” she said. “What I see happening now is almost every facility feeding these people, giving them a place to shower and a place to sleep, but not giving them self-respect and not treating them as individuals.”

Falandes said she looks forward to working with county officials on gaining the necessary approvals for the Boyes Hot Springs site. Gorin, too, expressed a similar desire, while cautioning that she and the public will need more information about the plans before any decisions are made.

Falandes acknowledged her ideas are “outside the box” and that it may take some time for people to appreciate how they might work to alleviate chronic homelessness, not just in Sonoma Valley but in any community.

One thing is certain — she’s not giving up the fight.

“If I didn’t have the energy to get up in the morning and work a 10- or 12-hour day, which is what I usually do, it wouldn’t be possible,” she said. “Fortunately, I can, and I like it. I like making a difference.”

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