Three causes were brought to the forefront during Friday’s night’s 2nd annual star-studded Hilton Homewood Suites Tree Lighting ceremony in Agoura Hills: the launch of Rock Life, a new campaign aiming to curb the alarming rise of suicide and depression among teens in the area; families in need and the fight against breast cancer.
Eric Kramer, a retired NFL player whose 18-year-old son, Griffen Kramer, died last year from a heroin overdose, came out to honor his son’s life and show his support for Rock Life’s mission.
“Tonight, everyone is out here for a noble cause, deaths in our community and my son is one of them,” Kramer said. “For those of us who deal with it, it’s hard ... and what do we do it about now? Those of us with children know it can happen to anyone. There’s more that needs to be done and this is a great event to showcase that.”
Celebrities such as former WNBA player Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks and actress Antonique Smith joined Rock Life’s founders and sponsors in hanging ornaments on the tree to commemorate the young lives lost. The ornaments were crafted by the Rock Life Youth Board in their memories.
“Evergreens stand for renewal,” said Valerie Sheppard of Rock Life, who was joined in front of the tree by the , and Calabasas City Councilman David Shapiro. Sheppard added that evergreens “remind us to remain vital … in the midst of harsh circumstances.”
Smith, whose new movie, Yelling to the Sky, opens in theaters on Friday, serenaded the crowd with traditional holiday songs.
“I’m so glad to have been here for the cause," Smith said. "It was really great.
“I have a sister who is special needs and she’s been bullied and teased. It’s so sad to know there’s children who take their lives because of it.”
The Homewood Suites hotel was also collecting donations on behalf of the Cardenas family, who were recently evicted from their apartment in the midst of caring for ailing 14-year-old Alyssa Cardenas, a patient at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
The hotel is helping the Cardenas family to purchase necessities such as toiletries and bus passes to help Alyssa get to medical appointments.
“I believe there’s so much we have to give back,” said Sofia Rebellon, the hotel's general manager. She initiated the holiday tree lighting event last year after she began working at the hotel. It’s a personal tradition that she has brought to her places of work for nearly three decades, and it’s one she intends to continue.
“For years to come, we want see if we can engage our community not just to stay here, but to come enjoy our hotel,” she said. “We’re not working; we’re saying hello.”
Hotel staff were assisted by more than 20 volunteers from the Agoura Hills/Calabasas Community Center, who donned pink ties crafted by Rebellon's mother Clara Rebellon in support of the fight against breast cancer, as they circulated appetizers throughout the crowd and served an extensive holiday menu.
“It’s a good, old-fashioned Christmas,” Rebellon said. “It’s about us as a whole being able to have a great time.”
The entire event was designed to bring the community together and help those in need, she said.
As children sat on Santa’s lap, guests enjoyed complimentary coffee, cocoa and a full dinner spread of traditional fare including roasted ham, turkey, bread pudding and a Baked Alaska, which, after being splashed with rum and lit afire, was paraded through the entry way by volunteers.
A free photo booth also provided festive holiday cards for families to take home.
Donations for the Cardenas family will be accepted through the month; those interested in contributing can contact Homewood Suites at 818-865-1000. To join the fight against breast cancer, click here, and to learn more about Rock Life, who helped sponsor the event, click here.