Rodney Banducci

If there is one thing we are the very best at, it is being generous.

Our spirit of giving is a hallmark of our community, as evidenced by the hundreds of nonprofits across the county. Many were born as a memoriam to a loved one and compete for the same donors.

According to Kristen Beall, president and CEO of Kern Community Foundation, there are approximately 800 true nonprofits in Kern, though not all are active.

“The term ‘nonprofit’ tends to be a catch-all for any tax-exempt organization, including churches, sports clubs, service clubs and parent clubs,” she said.

Some, like JJ’s Legacy and Marley’s Mutts, are familiar to many locals. Others, like Rod’s Heart, a relatively new charity in a sea of nonprofits, are still finding their footing. But in the land of local charitable organizations, Rod’s Heart has made considerable inroads since its inception in 2014.

In just two years of hosting its annual, well-attended dinner and auction, it has raised nearly $200,000, tapping into the generous farming community thanks to the reputation of its namesake, the late Rodney Banducci, a prominent Buttonwillow cotton farmer. Nearly all of the monies raised have been doled out to local pediatric needs.

Tonight, at its third annual event, that number is expected to climb significantly. It is a remarkable tribute to a man by his grief-stricken wife, whose only worries before his death were keeping up with the laundry and fixing dinner.

On an October morning in 2013, Cindy Banducci kissed her husband Rodney goodbye for the day. She never saw him alive again. He was just 57 when he died of what his family believed was a massive heart attack. The pair had been married 33 years.

“I was a mess,” Banducci recalled. “I just knew the minute he was gone that, that couldn’t be it. I was determined his memory was not going to end just like that.”

At 6 feet, 8 inches, it was hard to miss him in a room.

“Rodney touched a lot of lives. He was a good guy. A decent man,” she said.

His death turned her world upside down.

“I was forced to step into the role of managing the business and making sure our son graduated high school,” she said. “Life goes on and you have a family to take care of.”

But it also inspired her to extend his legacy beyond the farm he loved and cared for.

“Creating Rod’s Heart helped me cope and it gave me something I could do while keeping his memory alive,” she said. “It took me four years to feel like I’m somewhat normal again and coming out of the fog.”

Once she acquired nonprofit status for Rod’s Heart, 56-year-old Cindy designated local pediatric needs as the organization’s beneficiary.

“One of our friends pointed out that adults have a choice in how they live, but children do not,” she said. “The need is here and needs to be met above and beyond.”

Rod’s Heart funds have benefitted the Robert A. Grimm Children’s Pavilion for Emergency Services and the S.A. Camp Companies Burn Unit at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital. The charity has also committed future support to Valley Children’s Eagle Oaks Specialty Care Center.

“Local donors like Cindy and her friends and Rod’s Heart have made it possible for pediatric services to grow along with our community,” said Caryl Schweitzer, Memorial’s Foundation development director. “With more services available locally, families are able to stay close to home when a child has a health crisis.”

At the charity’s inaugural fundraising dinner in 2017, Cindy welcomed supporters by imagining out loud what her late husband might have thought.

“I remember saying how Rod would have hated the name and all the fuss being made about him, but he would have loved the cause,” she said.

Cindy wears a silver necklace with a crystal heart, a constant reminder of her husband’s heart and affection for his children, their nieces, nephews and grandchildren. 

Opinions expressed are those of Lisa Kimble.

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