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Claremont Club CEO gives back, steps back

When Mike Alpert, president/ CEO of The Claremont Club, rides through the crowd during Claremont’s Fourth of July parade, he may feel a bit uncomfortable, and not just because of the summer heat.

While Mr. Alpert is honored by his selection as Grand Marshal for the annual event, he generally prefers anonymity to accolades.

“Mike is great at initiating and great at the vision, and then he steps back and never wants to take credit for anything,” said Hal Hargrave, vice president of the Be Perfect Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to meeting the financial and rehabilitative needs of people with spinal cord injuries.

The strength of Mr. Alpert’s vision became clear 5 years ago when Mr. Hargrave’s 17-year-old son was involved in an automobile accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

Hal Hargrave, Jr., a “gym rat” who worked out at The Claremont Club 5 times a week, had just graduated from Claremont High School, where he lettered in football and baseball. He was planning to play college ball at Cal State Long Beach, where Mr. Alpert’s daughter, Justene, was also headed.

Justene was heartbroken when she learned about her friend’s injuries. When the Alperts visited Hal Jr. at Casa Colina, where he spent 63 days in acute care, Mr. Alpert was moved to make a promise to the Hargraves.

“I opened my big mouth and said, ‘When he gets out of here, come down to the Club and we’ll help him spiritually, emotionally and physically,’” Mr. Alpert recalls.

Afterward, he was faced with a conundrum. “I asked myself, ‘What did I say? Where will I put him?’”

Mr. Alpert co-opted a racquetball court, transforming it into a spinal cord rehabilitation studio. When he realized Claremont Club trainers were afraid to work with the injured teen, he sent a delegation to the Calabasas-based Project Walk, where they were trained in spinal cord rehabilitation.

Hal Jr. also benefited from the rehabilitation services at Project Walk. It was there, at Christmastime, that he received inspiration for his nonprofit.

When he told a fellow patient, “I’ll see you after the holidays,” his friend said he wouldn’t be coming back because his treatment coverage had run out. The man had already sold his car and house, and had to figure out how to provide for his family.

Convinced that everyone with spinal cord injuries deserves the chance to recover and thrive, Hal Jr. used his accident settlement to create the Be Perfect Foundation, which—in partnership with Casa Colina and The Claremont Club—provides an exercise-based recovery service that currently serves 24 clients with spinal cord injuries. 

Participants work out with the help of Claremont Club trainers in a program that is completely funded for the first 3-6 months. Afterward, clients pay for half of their rehabilitation, which the Club offers at a deep discount.

While someone is involved in the Community Fitness Program for Spinal Cord Injuries, their entire family is offered access to facilities at The Claremont Club. The same courtesy is extended to the families of people who have gone through the Club’s Living Well After Cancer Program.

For people worried about their loved ones, access can make all the difference.

“To be able to sit in the café and have coffee or lunch, or to get in the pool or take a group exercise class, is very meaningful,” Mr. Alpert said. “Why not treat the whole family in an atmosphere that is nurturing, electric and safe?”

“Why not?” seems to be Mr. Alpert’s credo when it comes to finding ways to help financially underprivileged children and people devastated by illness.

This summer, 150 students are attending The Claremont Club’s popular children’s summer camps on scholarship. In the fall, students from 4 school districts who are struggling with academics will be tutored through the Club in a program that asks kids for an hour of effort, then gives them an hour of playtime at the pool or on the courts.

The Claremont Club will also provide Angels tickets to hundreds of local schoolchildren. The system is simple: a kid is spotted reaching out to a child who has trouble making friends, or making another kind choice, and they are called into the office.

The Good Samaritan is then offered enough tickets to take his or her entire family to the game.

The connections with neighboring school districts are indicative of the CEO’s genius for creating and sustaining strategic partnerships, says Doug Keeler, former superintendent of the Claremont Unified School District and a longtime friend of Mr. Alpert.

“Mike sees a need and he jumps on it,” he marveled.

Mr. Alpert is not perfect, said Mr. Keeler, who now makes his home in Florida. Among other foibles, the businessman and philanthropist is in last place in the fantasy baseball league in which both men participate. Nonetheless, Mr. Keeler has a great respect for Mr. Alpert.   

“He’s become an incredible icon in this town as far as his help for the young people and his willingness to do good deeds,” he said. “He’s just a wonderful human being.”

Maggie Weeks, director of The Claremont Club’s Ambience Day Spa, and front desk manager Laura Van Dran say they appreciate the way Mr. Alpert encourages Claremont Club personnel to seek out community needs and fulfill them—things like shoes for kids who can’t afford them and exercise equipment for local schools.

Ms. Weeks and her staff have been inspired to organize programs like one in which spa stylists and aestheticians give makeovers to the women and girls of House of Ruth, an organization assisting the victims of domestic violence. Ms. Van Dran notes that, in these tough economic times, staffers are empowered to suspend billing for longtime members who have lost their jobs or had their jobs cut. It’s done like many of Mr. Alpert’s endeavors: quietly and on a handshake.”

“We say, ‘When times get better, you can come back and we’ll get you back into billing.’” Mr. Alpert said. “Our why is very simple: We save lives through exercise, activity and social-based therapy through this recession.”

Things are good for Mr. Alpert, who has managed to keep The Claremont Club flourishing over the past 15 years while expanding his wellness and outreach projects. He also has a thriving family, which brings him joy on a daily basis. (Mr. Alpert notes that his wife, Annie, is a dream come true: “I always wanted to marry an Annie.”) It all comes from what he calls “a very spiritual” model of success.

“I’m not a genius, I’m not the best at what I do,” he said. “But what I’ve found is that if you’re guided that way and do things for the right reason, everything works out.”

—Sarah Torribio

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