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DJVal spinning for Petaluma nonprofits

Her full name is Valerie Richman, but in Petaluma she is better known as just Val, or DJVal when she hosts dance parties that rock Petaluma and raise money for local charities.

Richman loves dancing and has been collecting music since she was a kid. She’s been hosting dance parties since the 1990s and many may remember her huge Halloween parties. She always made her own dance mixes, first with mix tapes and then by burning CDs. She and her husband bought a big sound system for their parties and she soon began to mess around with live DJing.

The rest became Petaluma history.

Richman started with a birthday party and then did a midnight show at the former Zebulon’s Lounge. After playing a lot of gigs at parties and bars, she put herself out there as a DJ for nonprofit fundraiser events.

“I never charged a fee for the fundraisers,” Richman said. “I love to see a dance floor full of smiling happy people.”

She likes to play music from the past eight decades and from around the world, with a lot of funk in the mix. She eventually became the regular DJ for the Aqus Community Pub Crawls.

“We'd usually end up with a couple hundred people crammed into a space, often at the River House, when it was a club, dancing like crazy,” Richman said.

DJing wasn’t the only way Richman was helping out her community. She helped start the Mentor Me Program at McNear Elementary School. It began as the McNear Mentoring Program and she was one of the first mentors, volunteering as she was needed. She became their executive director, at first volunteering for that position as well.

“Even in its first year of operation, when I became involved, the positive impact on mentored students was obvious,” Richman said.

Word got around about how successful the program was and other schools became interested. Richman helped make the transition to a city-wide focus and the name was changed to Mentor Me Petaluma.

“Teachers were very enthusiastic about students becoming more self-confident and participating more in class,” Richman said. “Teachers nominated more and more students to the program every year.”

Richman eventually moved from Mentor Me to become the Executive Director of the Petaluma Arts Center. It too needed help and Richman was ripe for the task. For one year she donated her salary to help get the Arts Center on its feet.

“Our fund development efforts were slower to come to fruition than we'd hoped, and we needed to cut expenses,” Richman said.

Richman donated her salary back because she wanted to keep the programming staff, volunteer coordinator, office manager and data person on board.

“Once you start cutting that critical ‘pedal to the metal’ staff it becomes very difficult to continue operations,” Richman said. “I was fortunate to be in a position to be able to volunteer my time, so I did.”

Richman said that two of the most exciting things they did were the Degas exhibition, a private collection of original Degas works, and the Black Lives Matter exhibition, in partnership with a gallery in Oakland, at a time when the BLM movement was just getting underway.

“Launching the program Visual Thinking Strategies was a highlight for me,” Richman said, adding that VTS is an interesting way of looking at and discussing art. The VTS program became very popular among local teachers and school groups. “I firmly believe that communities need art and arts centers,” she said.

Richman had left the Petaluma Arts Center and had spent a few years traveling when she found they were again in need of help. She again volunteered, this time as a grant writer and events volunteer. This past summer she became involved with DEEDS: Art as Action exhibition. As DJVal she played a Power to the People playlist at various events.

Through the pandemic, Richman said the PAC is thriving with lots of community members volunteering their time.

“They've received a few good-sized grants and have hired some staff,” Richman said. “All very good news.”

Richman said that the PAC is hosting its first virtual fundraiser with an online art auction. Richman’s devotion extends to the larger community.

“As a lifelong liberal Democrat who believes in social services and government helping citizens, not to mention a strong belief in equality of genders, races, ages, etc, the past four years have been extremely difficult on many levels,” Richman said. “I think that the impacts on the local community will be felt in a variety of ways. Much of it will, I hope, be a sense of fairness and intelligence that will be the foundation for all actions.”

If so, then perhaps eventually DJVal will lead us in celebration.

“Everyone loves to dance,” Richman said. “I can't wait for the damn pandemic to be over so we can celebrate and dance!”

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