The Saints of Todos Santos: Donna Viglione of The Palapa Society, Volunteer Extraordinaire

by Todos Santos Eco Adventures

So there she was in Boston on Patriot’s Day 1976 explaining to Rosalynn Carter that her (Rosalynn’s) luggage had been stolen out of her (Donna’s) car while they made a campaign stop on the way to the hotel from the airport. Rosalynn was sad because the bible that Jimmy had given her years before was in the luggage. Donna was sad because she thought this snafu pretty much spelled the end of life as she knew it. She was right. To help the luggage-less future first lady Donna ran around town and bought Rosalynn all of her favorite beauty products, and Rosalynn was very touched by this act of kindness. So touched that when she and Jimmy moved into the White House she invited Donna to a state dinner in honor of German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Now invitations to state dinners at the White House are traditionally bestowed only on the true elites of the business, political and entertainment worlds, not 26-year-old legal secretaries cum campaign volunteers. Donna was stunned by this remarkable expression of thanks for a kindness she had rendered, and she took to heart what it means to not only help people when you can, but to express gratitude for the kindnesses you have received. The children of Todos Santos are benefitting greatly from these lessons.

But long before arriving in Todos Santos (and not so long after leaving her secretarial job) Donna moved into a very elite world herself, co-owning and operating one of the finest restaurants ever to grace the city of Boston, L’Espalier. Often credited with being the first independently owned restaurant to bring haute cuisine to Boston, L’Espalier opened in 1978 and to this day remains the only independent restaurant in New England to receive Five Diamonds from AAA. When she sold her share of the business in 1988, Donna moved to Virginia and thought she would concentrate solely on being a mother for a while. She did. But not long after she’d enrolled her youngest child in kindergarten she decided to open another restaurant, which she also sold for a nice profit a few years later. But not before she married one of her best customers, a BMW dealer named Marc Viglione.

School’s in Session with Donna Viglione at The Palapa Society

Now Marc is a man who has always loved the water and not long after he and Donna married in 1995 they decided to move to an ocean-side town in New Jersey. When they bid at a silent auction for charity they naturally put their money on a week at a 16,000 square foot ocean-side vacation house in Cabo… and won! So in 2003 the whole family headed down to Baja. But the surfing in Cabo was not to the liking of Donna’s son Omar so he persuaded the family to take the drive up to Los Cerritos in Todos Santos, a drive that they wound up repeating every single day of the vacation. But Donna and Marc weren’t making the drive just to cater to Omar’s surfing passion; they had quickly developed their own love for Todos Santos, one of the loveliest ocean-side towns they had ever seen. By the time they got on the plane to go home they had bought a house in Todos Santos, albeit with a limited deposit of $300 as that was all the cash they could get out of the ATM machine.

When they got back to New Jersey the Vigliones closed their business, sold their home, sent the rest of the money for the house in Todos Santos, and returned to Baja for good just a few months after first stepping foot on the peninsula. Omar was thrilled and Donna thought she would concentrate solely on being a mother for a while. She did. But soon the house had been remodeled and her son’s days were filled with surfing and high school so in the summer of 2004 she enrolled in a conversational Spanish class. She thought it would be fun to teach her Spanish-speaking friends English, and by the fall of 2005 she’d started an after-school English-language program that met at the Cultural Center. At around the same time she started volunteering at the library of The Palapa Society – a Mexican non-profit focused on improving the lives of local children – and they soon invited her to be on the Board of Directors. Not long after Donna was invited to bring her after-school Bridge-to-English program into The Palapa Society and when they moved into their new space in 2007 the program really took off. The numbers tell the story.

For this current 2011-2012 school year 70 students ranging in age from 5 to 17 are registered for the program, and 16 of those receive Palapa Society scholarships. An additional 45 Todos Santos students receive scholarships from The Palapa Society to pay for their high school education, and 19 receive Palapa Society scholarships for universities in La Paz. It’s a remarkable achievement.

One of the keys to Donna’s success is the passion of the volunteers in Todos Santos who give so generously of their time and talents. These include Todos Santos “Saint” Mario Berceril, the entrepreneurial surfer who runs an 8-week swimming program for the Palapa kids each summer; Todos Santos “Saint” Erick Ochoa, who took over from Donna as president of The Palapa Society in fall 2009 and works with local artists such as Gloria Van Jansky to teach the kids arts and crafts each Wednesday; and hero volunteers like Serena Saltzman and Tim Doyle who have so steadfastly nurtured the program and the abilities of the kids over several years.

Volunteer Serena Saltzman with Palapa Society Student

The efforts of all these people and many more have made The Palapa Society’s programs so popular with the local families of Todos Santos that the society needs a larger facility to meet the demand. But where to find the money to purchase a permanent home? Well, as it turns out, two things we previously suspected are true: 1) rock ‘n roll really can save the world (or at least some parts of it), and 2) Rosalynn Carter is not the only one who knows how to make a grand gesture.

Peter Buck of the band REM bought a house in Todos Santos about 4 years ago and found he wanted to do something for the town, something specifically connected to education. He hooked up with the Hotel California and the Journal del Pacifico and about 60 days later – in January 2012 – the first annual Todos Santos Music Festival was in full swing. By the time the last guitar chord wafted from the stage $40,000 had been raised for The Palapa Society. But this was not just some one-off fundraiser. Peter Buck plans to make it an annual event to raise money for The Palapa Society and the next Todos Santos Music Festival is already scheduled for the 3 weekends of January 10-26, 2013. Plenty of time to get your tickets!

But if you can’t make it to the Todos Santos Music Festival or if music is just not your thing, there are other ways to get involved. You can:

• Visit The Palapa Society web site to donate, volunteer or both
• Participate in the Todos Santos Eco Adventures VolunTourism Adventure Week

Martin Buber once wrote, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Rosalynn Carter. Peter Buck. Donna Viglione. The Palapa Society has been the secret destination for these and so many other travelers. Perhaps it could be for you too.

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2012