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An Altruist’s Icon - Remembering Duane Chapman’s life of empathy and service

Regardless of how often you volunteer, or how much you give back to your community, most of us can admit that we could always do more. Such was not the case for Richmond’s Duane Chapman. A nurse, an advocate for the homeless, an alcohol and drug counselor, a social worker, a board member, a volunteer—Duane dedicated his life to helping others, and remained consistent in those efforts for decades until his very last day on October 30, 2018.

“Even up until the point of him passing he was still working on things,” said Duane’s nephew Charles Rembert. “He was just born with the gift of wanting to help. He didn’t even have to know you, the man would bring you home, buy you something to eat, if you ain’t got no clothes he’d have something for you to wear; he’d probably only let you stay for one night because he liked his privacy, but he’d still let you stay.”

At the time of his passing, Duane was chair of the Contra Costa County Mental Health Commission. Professionally, he helped his community as a nurse for 30 years. Outside of work and family, his influence was felt all over the county. He co-founded Richmond Rainbow Pride (Richmond’s first LGBT organization), at one point he was in charge of every single homeless shelter in the county, he logged 20 years of volunteer efforts with the Richmond Police Department (RPD), helped fundraise for Richmond PAL … the list is immeasurable.

Duane also helped organize Juneteenth and many other city festivals. “He wanted to make sure there were opportunities for the community to come out and get resources and information; and have a good time!” said RPD’s Crime Prevention Manager Michelle Milam.

“He worked on our Foster Care Youth Conference, doing everything from helping us raise money, to getting special speakers to participate, to even helping make sure there were enough barbers to cut the boys’ hair,” she continued. “He gained favor with people of influence so he could help the people who did not have the access he had.”

Michelle shared an example of when Duane went above and beyond. “One day a package showed up full of $20,000 in electronics for foster care youth because he charmed a secretary into getting her boss to believe he should help foster care kids,” she said. Be it reaching out to Chipotle, or President Obama, Duane utilized every resource he could possibly think of in working toward the greater good. But it wasn’t just the community he watched out for, it was his family as well.

“He got me around two months old,” Charles said. “In recent years I’ve started to call him my uncle-father,” he laughed. Duane raised Charles like a son, as well as Charles’ brother Richard from age 7, his sister Keithia from age 9. “He was like a powerhouse,” Charles said. “The ability to have done and accomplish everything he’s done, being a single, black, gay male, and raising three kids alone?” Powerhouse, indeed.

“We definitely really miss him,” Michelle said. “Even while he was being treated for cancer he was still coming in and volunteering, wanting to help people.” She tells us that there are so many people who knew Duane from his work as a homeless resource specialist, and his work as a drug and alcohol counselor, that would unequivocally say: Duane saved my life.

“He touched a lot of hearts,” Charles added. “And it wasn’t because he wanted to be rich, or wanted to be nationally known for what he did. He was a genuine, caring person.”

According to Michelle, Duane had always wanted to see the county have a mental health response team. “He would always say: police officers aren’t social workers and we’re asking them to be.” But resources were limited, so he decided to ride along with some officers to both understand their approach, and offer some insight. “Now, we have a clinician that rides with an officer to go out and respond to mental health calls, and that was something Duane advocated for.”

As we mourn Duane’s loss, it’s time to step up and help fill his shoes so his legacy of service lives on. Charles suggests getting involved with Richmond PAL at (510) 621-1221, or reach out to Michelle at (510) 620-6546 to discuss some volunteering possibilities. At the very least, heed some of Duane’s advice, via Charles:

“The most important thing is life, and how good of a person you are while you’re here. Stand up, and use your voice to change something you don’t like, or make it better. Duane always instilled in me: it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Your voice is the strongest tool; it can cause people to do some of the meanest things, and it can cause people to do some of the greatest things. Don’t be afraid to use your voice.”

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