Tom and Libby Purdy of Ben Lomond are being celebrated for their efforts at Wilder Ranch State Park along the coast in Santa Cruz. (Contributed)

On May 8, the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz is throwing a fête to honor the contributions of those who give their time, talent and treasure to local agencies. Hosted at the Cocoanut Grove in Santa Cruz, the Be The Difference Awards 2024 event will pay homage to volunteers across Santa Cruz County.

The awards honor the top 50 area volunteers who are transforming Santa Cruz County with their volunteerism. Awards are given in six categories: Social and Economic Justice; Families and Youth; Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability; Health and Wellness; Arts and Culture; and Building Community.

This year, Ben Lomond has a pair of honorees topping the list. Tom and Libby Purdy are being celebrated for their efforts at Wilder Ranch State Park along the coast in Santa Cruz, and true to form, the Purdys are a bit shell-shocked by the recognition.

“I think that a lot of our neighbors have been watching what we do, and they see us volunteering and thought we deserved to be nominated,” Tom said.

Their neighbor, Marianne Wyllie, was the catalyst for putting the pair in front of the judges for consideration.

“I read in local news that the Volunteer Center was looking for nominees for their yearly awards. I’ve always thought the Purdys should receive this kind of acknowledgment, so I spearheaded a campaign, asking the Purdys’ friends and neighbors to fill out the forms online that the Volunteer Center made available,” Wyllie said. “A number of us wrote how we admired the Purdys’ volunteerism. With two kids in our Valley, they always volunteered at the schools.”

Libby created Arts and English programs, and Tom always tutored in the sciences. They have been docents for a very long time at Wilder State Park, as well.

“At any special event, you will see them in their historical garb. It is for this volunteering that they are being recognized,” Wyllie said. “Every year they volunteer at Yosemite. For the past two years they have worked with a global foundation that helps those in need of housing. They’ve built a house in Armenia and they are going to Portugal later this year.”

The Purdys, who have lived in Ben Lomond for 35 years and been married for 42, met while volunteering in Denver at an agency called Partners Inc. that helps troubled youth. The kids weren’t violent, but had made some questionable choices.

“The junior partner that Tom was paired with hadn’t gone to school for two years; mine had been picked up for shoplifting. I was the volunteer coordinator for the group, and Tom was my pick for volunteer of the year. After that, I thought, why not just marry him?” Libby said.

While the pair has been active in the San Lorenzo Valley community since their arrival, their main area of volunteerism has been at Wilder Ranch.

For 12 years, the duo have been docents at the park, teaching tourists and school groups about life on the 7,000 acre coastal dairy ranch. Visitors are introduced to the grounds and are welcome to explore the 1897 Victorian home, 1859 Gothic Revival farmhouse, 1896 water-powered machine shop, rodeo arena, barns and other historic buildings during weekend tours.

There are four annual historical events that take place at Wilder, and the Purdys are usually front and center during those festivities, decked out in their 1890’s costumes and supporting various activities. While Libby works closely with the cows, goats, sheep and chickens on the farm, Tom finds his wheelhouse is within the electrical and science-related educational presentations.

“I’ll give people tours of the houses and the machine shop, and since I know about the 100-year-old player piano and Victrola, I’ll talk about that and how families entertained themselves a century ago,” Tom said.

Tom’s modesty comes through in conversation, but Libby is quick to point out the depths of his commitment. 

“Tom is there at Wilder any time they need him, and he also helps out in the animal program,” she said. “He was in the Peace Corps, and we’ve volunteered at various places together. Our whole background has been about community service and volunteerism. It’s what drives us.”

Libby was also a pro-skateboard activist and helped to fundraise for the skate park at Highlands Park in Ben Lomond.

With two kids of their own, the Purdys expanded their own household each year by hosting foreign exchange students from places like Sweden, Italy and France.

“For me, growing up, I always felt like I should be doing something for someone else,” said Tom, explaining why he joined the Peace Corps. “Many years later, I learned that teaching science to high schoolers would have been the better path for me. Those two paths just never aligned, but I’ve made my way through volunteering and contributing in that way.”

Libby was working in medicine, and spending each day in a lab B.V. (Before Volunteering). 

“I felt like I was doing things, but it wasn’t fulfilling my need to be of service to others. It’s a real strong need for us both,” she said. “Now, seeing the kids with the animals and introducing them to nature at Wilder in that way is teaching them life lessons that they’ll carry with them.”

Come celebrate the Purdys and all the nominated volunteers on Wednesday, May 8, from 11:30am-1:30pm. The admission includes lunch and an uplifting, inspiring afternoon. For more information, visit scvolunteercenter.org/be-the-difference-awards/.

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Christina Wise covers politics, education, art & culture, and housing issues. She has a degree in Communication from San Diego State University, and has lived in the San Lorenzo Valley since 1996. She's a community advocate and a mother of two.


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