Honoring a True Lady: Philanthropist and Professional Volunteer, Léni Fé Bland
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Léni Fé Bland passed away last year, December 14, at age 99.
Léni’s involvement with the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, for example, brought the organization more than 800 private donations ($1.25 million) to double the capacity of the formerly overcrowded women’s facility. It was her vision to build a separate women’s residential drug-and-alcohol-recovery facility. She cared deeply for the homeless, people suffering from mental illness, and abused mothers.
One of her other love was the arts.
After a life in England, France, and Switzerland and the passing of Léni’s husband (1990), she settled in Montecito, CA. Immediately after, she founded the Léni Fé Bland Foundation. The Foundation offered scholarships to young musicians. It was a natural fit, since she was brought up in a musical family and was a musician herself. As a young girl she sang for the blind and it left an everlasting impact.
Léni’s Foundation organized national piano and vocal competitions with mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne and pianist Warren Jones as judges.
Over the years, the Foundation awarded thousands of young musicians. It seemed that Léni cemented her calling. She was expanding on what she was doing all along.
Decades ago, she supported a now established musician: Hsing-Chwen Hsin.
The Director of the Yehudi Menuhin School for gifted young musicians in England heard pianist Hsing-Chwen on a tape, and asked if she would audition for the school. Hsing-Chwen was 13 when she left Taiwan.
A scholarships was needed for Hsing-Chwen and the School approached Léni. Hsing-Chwen writes that she was informed that a certain lady, saddened by her son’s illness, but uplifted by helping children in music, wanted to take her on as her protégé. In addition to providing funding, Léni started to play an active role in the life of Hsing-Chwen.
Hsing-Chwen, “From then on, Léni and I started a correspondence, every two or three weeks. She would be like a mother, listening and encouragingly writing back, fully involved in my youthful experiences. Every three months or so, Léni would drive out to see me at the school in her little red Austin Mini, always with a box of chocolate. It was really like a dream to see her—so elegant, kind, and motherly—she who knew everything about arts, culture, and humanity. She would also meet with the staff and talk about my progress, and from time to time would come to a school concert I played in London, if she happened to be in town.”
Léni arranged concerts in France, England, and the U.S.A. for Hsing-Chwen. During Hsing-Chwen’s Royal College years in London, Léni helped her with rent. With Léni’s support, the young pianist spent a summer at the Music Academy of the West in Montecito, California. Later, when Hsing-Chwen was studying for her master’s degree at UCLA, Léni arranged a performance with Maestro Varujan Kojan and the Santa Barbara Symphony. Léni also brought Kojan’s protégé Christophe Boulier (a young French winner of the Thibaud Violin Competition) and Hsing-Chwen together to perform a recital at the Lobero Theatre, before the students’ New York debut in 1990. Hsing-Chwen said, “The two of them [Léni Fé Bland and Varujan Kojan] were like proud parents!”
Hsing-Chwen finished her doctorate studies in Stony Brook, New York, and established herself back in Taiwan as a performing artist and piano professor. “Naturally, Léni and I continued our correspondence, more and more by phone. Everything Léni has given me has been a treasure—her time, affection, advice, and warm heart, as well as her generosity … On top of her enormous funding of my schooling, [she shared] her friendship and motherly instinct (she would worry if I didn’t call after driving back to L.A.) …” Hsing-Chwen counts her connection with Léni to be “among the most endearing relationships. … [Léni] is family to me… She just wants me to be happy and live a fulfilled life.”
Hsing-Chwen is one of the 1,500 students Léni supported with scholarships. In addition, Léni personally auditioned thousands of musicians. Thousands of personal accounts of Léni’s active interests and support of young musicians’ similar to Hsing-Chwen’s.
Léni dedicated her life to giving. You could count on her, from volunteering at the Rescue Mission, bringing groups of people to artistic performances, to buying pointe shoes for ballerinas.
You have given to so many causes. What stands out?
There are several causes worth helping that do a really wonderful job in the world.
One is Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders).
The other one is something that was actually started here in Santa Barbara: See International. These ophthalmologists—surgeons—they go all over the world. They use their own equipment. They pay their own way to go. They give sight to many people that are blind. Sometimes, it is as simple as a cataract operation, suddenly the patients can see.
The third is helping the homeless, addicts, and abused mothers. Actually, there are several homes here in Santa Barbara, where we keep the addresses secret; where women, in the middle of the night, when they’re injured, they can seek support with their children.
Why do you give?
Initially, I threw myself in the arts because I thought nothing was left in my life.
Today, I’m getting all these calls from people that adopted me, their mama. I think just that if you really help people, it gives you an awful lot of joy.
I remember when my father—who is a musician—my father and my mother were singers, and my sisters and I… We were all singers. We didn’t make money out of it. We did it just like I used to sing to the blind. My father used to put on concerts. My father had a string of artists who he would call on, and he would support these for people. Every summer, my mother and father would take a group of youngsters, probably 7 or 8 years old, on summer holiday. My two sisters and I would go with them.
I believe in giving time, not only money. It is easy to write a check if you have it. It is giving time that is important.
Why should others become more involved?
You get so much pleasure from giving. Until you start to give, you don’t realize that. If you see you’re helping people, you are rewarded.
I think America is very, very generous altogether.
Léni’s comments were made Mother’s Day, May 12, 2013.
Photo: Santa Barbara Foundation.