The Federoff Family
Devotion in Motion
By Brook Cosby
“Dad, I want to skate” were the words lifelong skateboarding enthusiast Gary Federoff had waited a lifetime to hear. It was April 2020, and Gary and his wife Ryan, residents of Mill Valley’s Sycamore Park neighborhood, were newly in the throes of facilitating distance learning and everything-from-home for their children, Alexa, now 12 and a 7th grader at Mill Valley Middle School, and Oliver, now 8 and a 3rd grader at Park Elementary School.
Photo by Cameron Cressman Photography
Oliver had always been an especially active child, participating in football, basketball, lacrosse and more, but Covid restrictions had halted the various local youth sports opportunities, leaving him restless and yearning for a new physical pursuit. So when he announced, seemingly out of the blue, that he wanted to skate, Gary and Ryan did what they do both instinctually and by their training as professionals working with children: they followed their kids’ passion and let it open new doors.
Like many in the helping professions, Gary and Ryan found themselves drawn to working with kids following their own rocky childhood experiences. Ryan was born in Inverness into a community of musicians. Her father Jeff Myer had played for the Charlie Daniels Band, Van Morrison, and others, and was the drummer at the time for Jesse Colin Young, so the family lived on Jesse’s compound. Jeff’s touring schedule became too much for Ryan’s mother Barbara, so she and two-year-old Ryan left and moved to Mill Valley. Her mother remarried a few years later and had two more daughters. Ryan would visit her father when he wasn’t touring with his new band The Edge. By the time she entered Mill Valley Middle School, she was beginning to act out but at age 14, when her father’s career had slowed down, she moved in with him full time providing the consistency necessary to get refocused. She graduated from Tamalpais High School, and earned a BA in Economics from UC Davis, a Teaching Credential from Dominican University, and a master’s degree in Educational Administration from San Francisco State. Ryan reflects on how “becoming a teacher really inspired me to have a greater impact on teens. It was my passion for the classroom, working with kids and later when I met Gary, his inspiration to get me thinking outside the box about the greater impact my skill set could have in working with teens and supporting families.”
Ryan also credits the rich creative history of Mill Valley with helping her find her footing. Because her family was in the music business, she remembers countless hours spent at the original Sweetwater. “I love that I was a part of some of that history and that I knew Mill Valley back when… Those of us from here know what I mean!” One significant local, creative influence in Ryan’s life throughout her childhood and to the present day is her godfather Mark Fishkin, executive director of the California Film Institute and founder of the Mill Valley Film Festival. She lived with Mark and his wife Lorrie after graduating college. She proudly notes of Mark’s accomplishments with the Film Festival, “You can catch me every year on the first Thursday of October as my stepdad’s date to opening night.” Her relationship with her stepfather, Dan Godfrey further reinforces her connection to the local arts scene; he ran the Mill Valley Music Festival for many years as a fundraiser for the schools and was also the founder and owner of StudioD Recording in Sausalito. A recording studio famous for working with Huey Lewis, Earth Wind and Fire, The Pointer Sisters, Soundgarden and more. “My roots here run deep and it is just very special to be raising my kids here,” Ryan says.
Gary, a self-described “late bloomer,” says his path to working as a drug and alcohol counselor for the past nine years is a “textbook” story. He grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District with divorced parents. Though he adored his father, as a child he couldn’t understand that his dad’s volatility and unpredictability arose from PTSD and alcoholism following his service in the Vietnam War. Given his father’s condition (which has now rendered him fully disabled), Gary’s mother – whom he describes as “very loving” — raised him and his two brothers, all rambunctious boys, essentially on her own. His behavioral issues expelled him from Catholic school in third grade, prompting the family to move to Daly City. When Gary was in 6th grade, his mother remarried and the family moved again, this time to Willits, CA (Mendocino County) where his descent into truancy, drugs and alcohol began. “I felt like an outsider, and I missed my dad,” Gary says.
With the perspective of an adult and trained counselor, he understands that his parents did the best they could with their difficult circumstances and limited resources but moving to Willits set in motion a series of events that would define Gary’s young life. The slow pace of the small town, the lack of goals and supervision, and the ready access to marijuana in Willits made for an all but foregone conclusion that he, an outsider with low self-esteem, would travel the path of substance abuse starting in middle school, eventually graduating from an alternative high school, and find himself taking hard drugs, “jobless, homeless and spun out by age 22.”
His turn around came from a “moment of clarity – I just knew that this kind of life wasn’t my purpose.” With help from his mother, Gary went into treatment and eventually moved into a sober living facility in Marin. He began building his way up from “the bottom,” working at Longs Drugs, an experience that despite its humble nature planted the seed for his future career. Because he didn’t have a car, he skateboarded everywhere, attracting a “group of younger kids, skate kids, who would come in to hang out with me.” These relationships and seeing himself as a role model planted the seed for his later work. Inspired by Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin’s passion for animals – which he admits “sounds weird” – Gary sought that type of purpose and joy in his own work, so he took a job at the Marin Humane Society. Through the course of this work, which he loved and excelled at, he came to realize that his own passion was working with kids. He shifted his course work at College of Marin to focus on sociology and psychology (he would eventually complete a BA in Sociology at Ashford University at age 32), started working at the Novato Teen Center, and the next chapter of his life began to take focus.
By 2004 Gary was running the Novato Teen Center, and through this work he met Ryan, then a teacher at San Marin High School. To look at them from the outside, it’s easy to see their differences, but they recognized their shared vision, passion, and skills instantly. As Ryan puts it, “we’re different on the outside, but we’re 100% mission aligned.” The synergy of their goals, their willingness to work on themselves, and their passion for helping the community led them to marry in 2007, and shortly thereafter take on an enormous new challenge that would bring their passion and training home quite literally.
Six months after they married, Ryan’s father Jeff’s best friend Larry Wax, was diagnosed with cancer. He had asked Ryan and Gary if they would care for his daughter Rachael when he died, and the young couple of course agreed, but never imagined the cancer would claim his life within weeks. So, they adopted 14-year-old Rachael and threw themselves into helping this young woman grieve the loss of her father, address the wounds of her parents’ divorce, and adjust to a whole new reality. Raising Rachael through high school and beyond – she graduated San Diego State with honors, has traveled the world including a year spent in Spain, and now holds a graduate degree in epidemiology/cancer research — affirmed for them they have the skills, the patience, and the love to work with a kid with a traumatic past and help her succeed.
If Rachael proved to Ryan and Gary that they could change the direction of one child’s life, Jamison Monroe, whom they met in 2014, and Ryan still gets visibly emotional when mentioning, empowered them to take their skills to scale. Monroe had recently founded the Newport Academy, a residential teen treatment center, then a small program (just 20 beds) based in Orange County, CA. He approached Ryan and Gary to come work for Newport, but the offer came at an inconvenient time. They just bought their first home in Novato and were raising their two young kids. Nevertheless, he wanted Ryan to come on board as Director of Education and Gary, as a counselor. Despite all the “rational” reasons to say no, they knew this was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. Within three weeks they had rented out their house and moved to Southern California, now calling it “the best thing we ever did.” Working at Newport took their professional skills to another level; they thrived in the community of top-notch professionals and from one location had the ability to work with kids from all over the country – an experience which allowed them to see what makes Marin kids’ struggles both the same and different from their peers across the rest of United States.
The move to Orange County then led to an even larger adventure: moving to Darien, CT, an affluent suburban community outside of New York City. Newport had by then expanded to the East Coast, and Monroe needed them to solidify the fledgling program. With his full sleeve tattoos, skateboards, a Pitbull and a Boxer, Gary jokes that he “fit right in.” But being outsiders proved to be to their advantage, as it gave them a fresh perspective on the work and an even greater capacity for insight and innovation because they weren’t rooted in that community. After a year though, and now three-plus years away from the Bay Area, they started to feel the pull towards home. They missed the sense of place, of being enmeshed in community. In addition to Ryan’s family roots in Mill Valley, they had spent so many years working deeply in the various academic and youth institutions across Marin, Gary reflects that he can’t walk down the street without seeing someone he knows. It feels like “every coffee shop in Marin knows my order.” (Coffee, he admits, is his last vice.)
Returning to Marin, this time back to Ryan’s childhood home of Mill Valley, meant leaving Newport, albeit temporarily. Gary helped start a nonprofit, working as Program Director for a MediCal/Kaiser funded treatment center in San Anselmo, launched through Side by Side, formerly Sunny Hills. Ryan was able to do some remote contract work for Newport, supporting the various academic programs across the growing centers, but Newport had not yet opened in Marin (though plans were brewing), and she describes this time as “a bit of a lull.”
Lulls never seem to last long for Ryan and Gary… Within two years Newport was launching its first outpatient treatment facility in San Rafael, and Monroe had reenlisted Ryan to oversee the opening and Gary as counselor, and the program’s expansion ever since speaks to their success.
With the outbreak of Covid-19 in the Spring of 2020, Ryan and Gary found their established routines turned upside down. But “disasters” are not something they shy away from; a sign in their living room proudly states: “In the midst of difficulty, lies opportunity.” They seized the opportunity of the pandemic and let it direct the latest iteration of their community involvement. As professionals working with kids, Ryan and Gary were aware of how the pandemic’s disruption to the structure of their kids’ lives could play out. They knew that they needed to build in protective factors for their kids – ways for them to stay connected to their friends and to themselves. Because “isolation is so dangerous for anyone, but especially children.” They wanted their kids to maintain a sense of passion and purpose.
Protective Factors to help kids
What will prevent a kid from going down the dark side? This combination of factors is unique to each child, but some common themes for parents to engage with are:
- Know who your kids’ friends are. Stay involved and aware with how they’re spending their time and with whom.
- Is your kid involved with sports/arts/some type of passion? Watch out for when this passion shifts, it may be an indicator of an inner struggle
- Keep an open dialogue with your kids about how they’re feeling, what fills them up and gives them a natural high.
- Facilitate relationships for your kids with other safe adults. They may not always want to talk to you, so allow them a network of trusted adult confidants who care about them.
Bottom line per Ryan and Gary: parents need to be present. Just because your kid is showing up at school and getting good grades, your job is far from over. Kids have a hard time “connecting the dots” – they don’t know how to put together what makes them feel good or bad — which people, activities, situations, foods (such as caffeine or sugar) have what sort of impact on them. You can help your kids identify how their choices impact their felt experience by asking, “how does that make you feel?” In professional-speak, you’ll be helping them learn how to identify feelings of “emotional dysregulation.”
For Alexa, then 10, this need was somewhat easier to accomplish. She is by nature a grounded and resilient child. She has a tight group of friends who she’s been close with since elementary school (Park School), and many of their mothers are among Ryan’s closest friends as well. Alexa also had – and continues to have – multiple avenues of creative expression. She’s excelled at dance since she began tap and jazz five years ago at Happy Feet, and she’s now pursuing hip hop at RoCo. She’s also a talented artist and has been writing fiction stories since 2nd grade. In addition, she’s an avid volleyball player and honor roll student at MVMS. With all of these passions, counted among the protective factors her parents have established for her, Ryan and Gary are confident that she’ll be involved in something social-good related as she gets older. Alexa shared that she already enjoys being a confidant to her friends as they talk through the ups and downs of their days, and that she appreciates her parents for being “good listeners.”
Oliver, then only 7, needed more support to navigate the upheaval of last Spring. They seized on his interest in skating and built a community around it to help him stay happy and engaged. They brought Gary’s old skate ramps out into the street every night after dinner, and soon, Oliver and Gary weren’t the only one’s skating. Neighbors would come out to join the scene and enjoy a socially distanced way to be together. More and more kids became part of the nightly skate jam, and more and more parents would wander over and create connections. “It felt like the old days,” says Ryan. And what looked on the outside like a simple neighborhood gathering was something much more intentional and significant – it was the building of community relationships that we all, and especially children, need to thrive.
Now well over a year later, Gary is (happily) even more involved in his kids’ lives then he was before. In addition to lunch time volunteering at MVMS, he spends countless after-school and weekend hours helping to set the tone at the Harrison Skatepark on Sycamore Ave. As someone who grew up skateboarding and abusing drugs and alcohol, he’s aware of the cultural baggage and negative associations that come with the sport. He sees his time at the park as serving two purposes: first and foremost, to help Oliver and the other kids have a safe, positive experience, to foster confidence and self-esteem. But he’s also on a mission of sorts to change the narrative around the sport, to showcase the positives – the technical skills, the sense of community, the personal development happening within the kids – and he’s taking advantage of the recent positive press skateboarding received via the sport’s Olympic debut this Summer. There’s a reckoning, he explains, happening among the older generation of skateboarders that “like me, see the mental health implications of the darker choices we made as kids – and that they aren’t inherent to skating, that skating can be a positive, transformative experience in kids’ lives.” He’s been quietly but noticeably successful at reinforcing that the skatepark is an inclusive place for kids of all genders and ages, that drugs and alcohol are not welcome, and that aggressive attitudes do not dictate the tone. Perhaps it’s his cool but approachable demeanor, or it may be because even at age 44, Gary can still pull off some impressive tricks on the ramps.
Ryan’s work has evolved significantly since last Spring as well. She now works for the Discovery Land Company, a real estate developer and owner of private residential club communities with a mission to create spaces where families can be together. She was recruited last year to build all the experiential learning programs for kids, as DLC recognized that during the pandemic, they needed to do more to support their members’ families. While her focus is now on the prevention side of the spectrum, Ryan’s goal remains the same: to help kids identify their passions, build confidence and self-esteem, and to create the same type of protective factors that she and Gary install for their own kids and seek to foster in their local community.
What’s next for Ryan and Gary? While her work now takes her to DLC’s exotic locations, she’s still very much rooted in the Marin community, helping parents with struggling kids on an ongoing basis to navigate the school system, connect them with the services and professional help they need, and offer moral support. Gary is currently in graduate school finishing his master’s degree in Counseling Psychology and licenses in Marriage and Family Therapy (LMFT) and Professional Counseling (LPC) at Dominican University and will celebrate 10 years of sobriety in January 2022. Until then and well after, they intend to continue doing what they do best: creating a thriving community, being kind, and trying their hardest to help as many kids as they can. Thank you Federoff family for all you’ve done and continue to do for Mill Valley and beyond!