While it can take years, even decades, for a newcomer to establish himself in a community, Santa Ynez Valley’s 2019 Community Enhancement Volunteer of the Year wasted no time becoming an invaluable member of nonprofit boards, a key player in the construction of Stuart C. Gildred Family YMCA as we know it today, and a constant supporter of countless valley nonprofits.
Now 23 years in, Gary Riches has become woven into the fabric of valley charity.
“I always knew I wanted to volunteer and do stuff for my community. You see the fruits of your labor. When I’m done building a house and it’s raining and people are warm inside, under that roof, in the house that I built, you can see what you did. It’s the same thing with charity. If the community benefits from something you give to the community, it’s very rewarding,” Riches said.
But he never expected to receive any accolades for his efforts, and initially balked when asked to talk about himself.
“Gary is one of the most humble and sincere men you will ever find as well as having the most positive outlook on life with a very generous, loving and giving heart,” wrote Linda Johansen, who served with Riches on the YMCA board of directors.
When Gary and Sandy Riches moved to Solvang from Los Angeles, they jumped into their new community with both feet. Gary joined the Men’s Club at the River Course at the Alisal, and within two years he was an active golf team member. Through friendships formed there, he found his way into service with the YMCA where he served on the board for 18 years, two as its chairman.
“I really believe in the Y’s message and trying to help people in the valley,” Riches said.
He brought his professional building experience to the Y as it completed two successful capital campaigns that ultimately provided for the construction of the YMCA. Through the build, Riches also served as liaison between the board and the contractor on the project.
“I’m really proud of what we did there. It took a lot of time and a lot of effort, but mostly good times,” Riches said.
All the while, Riches was also serving as an active member of Solvang Breakfast Rotary for which he has played the roll of joke master for most of his 21 years there.
“He has been involved in organizing countless golf tournaments to benefit local charities and student scholarships, as well as organizing the football board that have raised over $1,000 each year in support of polio eradication around the world,” wrote Johansen, who also served on the YMCA board with Riches.
Riches served on the board for Valley Oaks Bank for several years before the merger with Montecito Bank and Trust.
“Gary did his due diligence when making sure that the purchase of the bank was the best thing for the community and for the individual share holders of the bank,” Johansen wrote.
He was also among a handful of volunteers who started the pet therapy program at Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital where he has also helped with the hospital’s auxiliary for a decade.
Riches said his volunteer spirit arises from the leadership of family members who came before him, particularly his grandfather, Jack Pessin.
“He was a very giving person. He once told me it’s easy to write a check to charity, but it’s a little different if you’re going to put your time into it. It was hard not to learn that, and do it, too,” Riches said.
When it comes to choosing charities, Riches said it’s simple.
“If I’m going to spend time on something, I want to enjoy it and make a difference. The Y and Rotary have provided that,” Riches said.