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WHS History

The history of White Heron Sangha is a story of friendship, community, and appreciation of the dharma. Since White Heron Sangha is an all-volunteer organization, what follows fails to mention literally hundreds of Sangha attendees who, over decades, have helped to make the Sangha what it is today. Thus, a deep bow of gratitude and heart-felt apologies go to all who contributed time, effort and financial support but are not specifically named.

Early Days
In the spring of 1991, Audrey Furey, who now lives in Boulder, CO, and Rosemary Donnell each attended a different retreat with the Vietnamese Zen master, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hahn’s teachings frequently emphasized the value of having a Sangha to help support a Buddhist practice and encouraged people to start one if there wasn’t a Sangha available nearby.

That fall Audrey and Rosemary met through a mutual acquaintance, Joan Carter, and the three of them decided to get together to meditate on a trial basis. On a Sunday evening in mid-October 1991, they had their first meeting in the beautiful, dedicated shrine room in Audrey’s condo on Oceanaire Blvd in San Luis Obispo. It was an auspicious beginning. With its idyllic location, beautiful hardwood floor, and tasteful, open decor, it generated an immediate feeling of serenity, conducive to meditating. In those early days, the meetings did not occur on a regular schedule, but they always occurred on a Sunday evening.
Accordion Widget

A short time later, James Coleman (a Sociology professor at Cal Poly, and Rosemary had been his student) joined the group. Within a few months they were joined by Barbara Mori, Berda Armentrout, Bob Blackstone and Bob McQuade (all now deceased), and a few others. The meetings continued to meet at Audrey’s condo until January 3, 1993. By then the meetings consisted of a ½ hour meditation in the formal shrine room followed by a dharma talk on cassette tape.

December 6, 1992, was a milestone night. The attendees decided to begin meeting regularly each month on the 1st and 3rd Sunday evenings and they came up with a name for their meditation group. James pointed out that the name should be something thematic to our specific area, like, “What about those white birds we see beside the road?” And although technically these birds are called great egrets in this country, “White Heron Sangha” sounded better and the sangha had a name. Several years later, Jim Donnell created the Asian-inspired White Heron Sangha logo.

The Sangha grows

For two months, with donations from the 12-15 attendees, White Heron Sangha rented space two Sunday evenings per month at The Healing Arts Center on Santa Barbara Street (the building is no longer there). When the group was forced to move, Bobbe Scott (died 2018), who had recently joined the group, suggested they meet rent-free at her office in downtown San Luis Obispo. This allowed the Sangha to start meeting every Sunday in the large carpeted hallway outside her office. To avoid sitting directly under a huge glass skylight in the unreinforced masonry building, the group started sitting in a circle or oval. This circle became a tradition they continued to practice in multiple other locations.

Periodically anyone who attended the Sangha meeting was invited to a planning session at Rosemary’s house, gathered around a large living room table. In March 1994, with about 20-25 people now attending every Sunday, the decision was made to establish a bank account and Rochelle Becker volunteered to be the first treasurer.

At another of these meetings, Bob Banner volunteered to do a newsletter for the Sangha. The first edition was published in August 1995. Members of the growing Sangha wanted to stay in touch with each other, so Bob also published the first Sangha directory, with about 60 entries. 

Barbara Scott decided to move her counseling practice to her home, so the Sangha was on the move again. They temporarily met in Bob McQuade’s office and then the Sangha found a home at The Yoga Centre on Monterey Street, where they stayed for 4½ years. A generous, anonymous donor paid the rent for the entire first year.

Barbara (Bobbe) Scott


Primarily because it was becoming difficult to rent a meeting place without being a nonprofit, Carole Maurer, Treasurer since 1998, with help from James Coleman and Barbara Mori, undertook the task of preparing the paperwork required to become a California nonprofit religious corporation and applying for the IRS 501(c)(3) charity designation. White Heron Sangha officially received its IRS nonprofit charity status as of September 1, 2000, which allowed all donations to be tax-deductible and the Sangha to rent facilities at the nonprofit rate.

White Heron Sangha has been very fortunate to have such dedicated people to lead the organization. Rosemary Donnell was the first president of White Heron Sangha, with the initial Board of Directors consisting of 7 active members. The Board and has since grown to 15 members who have been meeting quarterly since 2000 to discuss the operations of the Sangha and provide financial direction and oversight. In 2007 Michael Moran took over as President and held that position for 8 years. Carole Maurer relinquished the Treasurer position in 2015 to become President of the Sangha for the next 5 years. Sharon Rippner took over the position in 2020.

Other meeting places

In order to have a handicapped accessible place, in 2000, Sunday meetings moved to the Community Room of the Laguna Lake Mobile Home Park, where a Sangha member Leona Fairchild lived and was able to reserve the room weekly. 

After just over a year at the mobile home park, its new owners refused to allow standing reservations and the Sangha was forced to move on short notice. The kind people at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship came to our rescue. They allowed the Sangha to meet for a month at their space on Foothill Blvd. 

The Sangha had four more moves between February 2001 and March 2007, ending with the sublet of Unity Church at Southwood and Johnson. The Sangha stayed with Unity Church through their move to Orcutt Rd in 2014. As the Sangha membership grew and more programs besides Sunday evening meetings were added, the space at Unity Church became too small. It was time to consider taking the leap from subletting a meeting place to renting our own space. See the Sangha meeting place history.

In April 2017, White Heron Sangha became the primary leaseholder on a property in Avila Village, moving into our own White Heron Sangha Meditation Center at the end of May.

Meditation Retreats and Practice

Gratitude for the teachings of the Buddha and the wish to share the dharma with others in San Luis Obispo County was always uppermost in the minds of the founders of White Heron Sangha. Since the Sangha was non-lineage, it was important to bring teachers from different traditions to the area whenever possible for retreats and Sunday evening dharma talks. In addition, Sangha members occasionally led Days of Mindfulness in various rented facilities, where participants could meditate together in silence and share songs and readings.

The first non-residential weekend retreat was held at the Morro Bay Community Center in June 1995 with visiting teacher, James Baraz from Spirit Rock. Fewer than five months later, November 1995, the Sangha held its first, and only, residential retreat at El Chorro Environmental Education Center, across Highway 1 from Cuesta College. The teachers for this retreat were Thich Nhat Hanh’s senior students, Therese Fitzgerald and Arnie Kottler.

In the early days, the Sangha sponsored 2-3 weekend non-residential retreats each year and that number grew to 4-5 weekend 2-day retreats a year. Most of these retreats were held at the Morro Bay Vet’s Hall. Teacher Jason Siff of the Skillful Meditation Project conducted several small weekend retreats, usually in the home of one of the attendees. Some of the teachers who led retreats over the years are pictured on the retreat webpage.

Website, Newsletters, Directory

In the beginning, the White Heron Sangha Newsletter was published each quarter and mailed to all persons on the newsletter mailing list (about 200 in the year 2000) and available as a PDF on the WHS website, which was hosted in the beginning by Janelle Younger. In October 1998, John Dilworth took over all the duties of the website, newsletters and directory. He facilitated the migration of the website to the Wild Apricot membership software and aided the group in the change from a printed newsletter to an entirely online, quarterly newsletter and a website-only member directory. The number of persons interested in the programs and activities of White Heron Sangha, called members, has nearly doubled since 2000. Recently, a newly formed IT committee has converted the White Heron Sangha website platform to the more modern, user-friendly ClubExpress membership system.