During a visit to a Burbank middle school some five years ago, Janet Diel simply couldn’t believe what she was hearing. The stepdaughter of a Holocaust survivor, Diel, 67, sat and listened to students dismiss the death camps as fiction.
“I just sat there and thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Diel recalled.
Soon after, Diel began serving as a member of the Burbank Kindertransport Association, a nonprofit dedicated to sharing the narratives of the daring rescue efforts that brought Jewish children from Nazi Germany to Great Britain. She has coordinated speaking engagements by survivors at schools in and around Burbank.
“It’s really important to me to know that children are not being taught that this was a fairy tale of some sort,” Diel said.
Though not a descendent of a kindertransport refugee, last year she also chaired an event in honor of World Kindertransport Day that involved creating an in-depth presentation on the history of kindertransport and other programs. Survivors and their relatives spoke at the commemoration, which was attended by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale) and then-Burbank Mayor David Gordon.
Diel is involved in a wide range of other community work as well. As president of the Burbank Coordinating Council, a volunteer-based charitable organization that dates back to 1933, Diel spearheads the collection of donations from Burbank’s film studios, local businesses and individuals in the community. Donations support “camperships,” scholarships that send more than 100 Burbank children to camp each summer, as well as holiday baskets for 550 low-income families.
Diel and company hold two food drives per year outside local grocery stores, collecting non-perishable items. Closer to the holidays, local businesses and community members donate fresher items, as well as toys for children. Each family in the holiday basket program receives three full bags of food from volunteers as well as at least one gift for each child.
Now that she oversees the program, Diel misses the personal touch of actually delivering baskets — but she remembers the difference they make.
“When delivery drivers come back, they always say, ‘You should have seen the family. If you only could’ve seen the looks on those children’s faces when they got their toys!’ I just smile and say, ‘I’ve seen those looks.’ ”
A mother of five and grandmother of one, Diel is immensely proud that her 9-year-old grandson is one of the volunteers. Too bad that’s not the norm, she said.
“My grandson was so proud to be handing out and helping make holiday baskets,” she said. “If we want to make this world better, we all have to participate — not just grown-ups, but kids too.”
Diel lives her mantra of community service, despite personal challenges that she’s had to overcome along the way. In 1979, she went to the hospital, complaining of severe back pain. After an MRI and complications from treatment, Diel was partially confined to a wheelchair — she can walk with a cane only about 50 percent of the time.
Even here, though, she’s found a way to tie it into her desire to give back. In her role on Burbank’s transportation commission, for example, she oversaw the completion of a handicap-accessible playground at Bret Harte Elementary School in Burbank that doubles as a public park after school and on weekends.
“My purview is children, bicyclists, pedestrians, disabled — everyone in the community should be able to use everything in the community,” Diel said.
And she has no interest in letting her condition slow her down.
“Being disabled isn’t a way of life. It’s a state of mind as well,” Diel said. “You can either decide you are going to be active and contribute or you are going to sit and moan.”