Cover Story - November 11, 2005
A tough mind and a tender heart
Diablo's Elaine Taylor talks about establishing her foundation to help children, as well as her love of rock 'n' roll
by Kathy Cordova
Martin Luther King once said that we must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of a dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.
He could have been talking about Elaine Taylor.
For 15 years Taylor, has been the heart and the mind of The Taylor Family Foundation (TTFF), which she founded with her husband, Barry, in 1991. The Foundation is best known for establishing Camp Arroyo, a 138-acre facility in Livermore that provides a variety of programs benefiting children living with life-threatening illnesses and disabilities. She was honored Sunday by the Dalai Lama at the Unsung Heroes of Compassion 2005 event in San Francisco.
Although she's as charming as a new puppy, Taylor's relentless drive, passion, and marketing savvy have propelled the Foundation to raise more than $12 million, with about a million coming directly from the Taylors, demonstrating that business acumen and a caring nature need not be as incompatible as doves and serpents.
Kathy Cordova, a writer for the Danville Weekly, visited Taylor at her home in Diablo where she lives with her husband and their daughter Katie, a senior at the Athenian School. Their house is perched on a hillside, surrounded by lush landscaping, featuring Taylor's own prized garden in the back yard. The endless views, custom details, and big open spaces are luxurious, yet the house has a warm, lived-in feeling that stretches from the homemade photo frame in Taylor's office to the homegrown tomatoes stewing on the stove.
Taylor, 52, exudes the same comfy feeling, dressed in blue jeans with her hair pulled back into a casual ponytail. Her easy laugh and smile, which can only be described as infectious, make you feel like you could ask her anything. So we did.
DW: How did you meet your husband?
ET: I was a manufacturer's rep for a copier company and Barry was a dealer, so we knew each other. He was always polite, but he never gave me the time of day because he didn't want to get involved with anyone in business.
DW: But you were struck by him immediately?
ET: Oh, yeah! The first time I saw him was at an office convention. I kept hearing about how incredible Taylor Made Office Systems was. I was so enamored hearing about how he was the most successful dealer west of the Mississippi, and he had an exclusive dealership, which doesn't happen in the industry. And, of course, he's very, very handsome!
DW: Not to mention rich!
ET: Not really then. He was living well, but he had not sold his business yet, so he was working all the time. Barry came from very humble beginnings. He was very poor as a child. His dad died when he was 5 and his mom remarried to a man who became an abusive stepfather, so Barry was out of the house by 16. He bought a car and lived in it. He is really a self-made man - the American dream.
DW: How did you finally get together?
ET: We were on a manufacturer's trip to Greece and I said, "OK, this is it. If he's not interested in me, I'm never flirting with him again."
One night we all went out to dinner. There was this great Greek barbeque and dancing and we drank some ouzo and that was it, we never looked back. The way he tells it we went out and danced and he knew he was going to marry me then. Six months later we were engaged and I moved up to Northern California.
DW: At the time you were a single working mom with a great career (Taylor was the top sales rep in the nation for her company), and you had just bought a house in Southern California. Did that seem like a risky move?
ET: The manufacturer did not like me dating a dealer. (The move necessitated her resignation.) They told me that if I quit, there was no re-hire. It was a very impulsive move and I'm not an impulsive person at all, but I was madly in love. Barry's totally the love of my life. And here we are celebrating our 19th anniversary!
DW: So you were a hardworking single mom and then you marry a guy who's doing pretty well financially. Were you tempted to spend your days having lunch and golfing?
ET: No! It was a huge, hard transition for me. I had always been responsible for me. From 15 years old on I had a job and it's just the way I was. It's how I am. I still have trouble with it.
So when I got up here it was really uncomfortable for me in the beginning. Since I had been a working mom, I would see my son when he was getting his bath at night and he would be asleep when I got to work in the morning. The thing that Barry did, which was great, was to remind me that my son had two years until he went to kindergarten, and he said, "Why don't you take advantage and just be at home with him?"
And if I have ever been given a gift in my life, it was that gift. It was such an opportunity.
DW: Then you gave birth to Katie, your daughter together?
ET: Then I had Katie and we started the foundation when she was 2 years old.
DW: Why did you start the foundation?
ET: Barry was involved in (and contributing a lot of money to) a national fundraising group, and I said I'd rather see us start our own foundation. That way we know where the money's going and we keep it in Northern California and people who are donating can see their money used in their communities.
Barry was totally for it, and we had our first event in our back yard. We never at that time thought we would be talking about our 15th annual (held in August of this year). Honestly, when we were cleaning up that event we said to each other, "Well, should we do it next year? It was hard, but it was fun." We thought we raised a lot of money.
DW: How much did you raise that first year?
ET: We raised $56,000.
DW: And how much did you raise this year?
ET: That was after years and years of growth and community support. We had better packages this year, and we had more attendees, and we had more food and more wine, but it's the kids who we serve - that's what raises the money.
DW: Your foundation started by serving kids with AIDS. Fifteen years ago that must have been more than a little controversial.
ET: Nobody wanted to talk about it. They could barely get "HIV" out of their mouths without stumbling on it.
DW: So why did you get involved helping kids with AIDS? Was there a personal connection?
ET: No, not at all. (The foundation's) mission statement was to preserve the wellness of children. One group we were interested in that had the least amount of resources was children with AIDS. Here were kids and families with nothing - barely a BART ticket to get to treatment.
I had read Elizabeth Glaser's book, "In the Absence of Angels," and I thought here's an upper-class family, and because of a bad C-section, she ended up with tainted blood and got AIDS. Her baby got it, and they had another baby before they found out.
To see the hostility they faced and the way people treated them and how they were so isolated. I thought if that's a really successful family and they're having trouble - like the girl couldn't go to birthday parties or nursery school - think of people who have no resources.
We wanted to try to get a face on this so the community at large would embrace it. So it was great - a good public awareness thing for everybody. We learned so much. Our family embraced it.
ET: All the kids are involved - some in the beginning because we said you need to come and do this, and now because they want to come do it.
It's pretty awesome to see their respect for, No. 1, how blessed their lives are and, No. 2, how much they should be involved in making people's lives better.
I remember when Katie was 5 years old and she was face painting at one of the parties and she was the only Caucasian child in the room and she really integrated herself. She was so at peace with those kids. It's one of those things, you jump in and you befriend and they befriend you and you become part of their extended family.
DW: How big is your family?
ET: We have six kids - four of his, one of mine, and one together. We're a huge ol' Brady Bunch family. Katie is the only one still at home - she's 17-1/2 and a senior in high school.
DW: And you have six grandchildren. What kind of a grandmother are you?
ET: Well, I don't babysit much. I'm still "momming"! All the grandkids are wonderful kids. They're beautiful, creative, fun. They love to go on Target runs with me.
DW: Target? What do you buy at Target?
ET: Everything! It's my favorite store on the planet! I'm the first one to get in a Target outfit and say, "Hey, this is great!"
I'm not really a "couture" shopper. I have one black cocktail dress that I wear to every event and then just put a different shawl with it and hope nobody notices.
DW: How do you find balance in your life?
ET: Traveling. Barry and I like to hike and bike. We do a lot of traveling together and we do a lot of family travel where we do a bike trip with the kids or we do a hiking trip with the kids.
DW: A lot has been written about you. What is one thing that most people don't know about Elaine Taylor?
ET: That I really wish I could work in the rock 'n' roll industry! Not that I am so enamored with the entertainers, but I just love that world. I love the music.
DW: You're a closet groupie.
ET: I am, but not like Penny Lane.
DW: Who's your favorite group?
ET: It would have to be the Rolling Stones.
DW: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment? Camp Arroyo?
ET: My kids. They are really good human beings. They have so much spirit and they are loved by so many and they are their own people and they have their own interests and I really admire them for it.
In my business and philanthropic life, it would be the camp - without a doubt.
DW: How would you like to be remembered?
ET: As someone who cared.
The Taylor Family Foundation and Camp Arroyo
The Taylor Family Foundation (TTFF), a private nonprofit organization formed in 1991 by Barry and Elaine Taylor, raises money to support programs for children in Northern California with life-threatening illnesses and disabilities. The foundation has helped thousands of children who suffer from severe skin disorders, heart disease, Crohn's, autism, HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening diseases by providing medical care, psychological support and summer camp experiences. In 1998, the Foundation partnered with East Bay Regional Park District, which provided the land for Camp Arroyo, and in 2002, the YMCA of the East Bay joined the Foundation as camp operators. For more information, visit www.ttff.org or call 455-5118.