2017 Open Hearts Award RECIPIENTS



At Bay Area Lyme, our mission is to put a stop to Lyme disease. Our focus is on prevention and the development of better diagnostics and treatments.




President of Board of Directors

Laure Woods offers a unique perspective to Bay Area Lyme Foundation as a clinical researcher and a person with late-stage Lyme disease. Her clinical research experience includes trials for treatment of cystic fibrosis, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, cancer and infant nutrition. She has held clinical research positions at California Bay Area companies like Matrix Pharmaceutical and Genelabs Technologies. Early in her career, she founded Woods Consulting, Inc., to advise companies that test the safety and efficacy of medications, devices, diagnostic products and treatment regimens intended for human use.

Laure is the President and Founder of Laurel STEM Fund, a private foundation focused on the education, health and welfare of children, and serves on the Board of the L.K. Whittier Foundation, a private foundation focused on medical and technology research. Ms. Woods holds a BS in Animal Science from the University of California at Davis.



Maximize the talents of artists on the autism spectrum with customized instruction and hands-on experience to prepare them for gainful work in digital arts and animation.




Yudi Bennett is a passionate advocate for all those with special needs, especially young adults with autism. She is the co-founder and past director of Exceptional Minds, an innovative visual effects and animation school and studio for artists on the Autism Spectrum. Her dream is to see all these young adults in meaningful jobs, leading independent and productive lives.

Yudi comes from the motion picture world. She has been a member of the Directors Guild of America since 1978 and received their Frank Capra Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. She is also a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences with credits in over 30 movies, including “Broadcast News” and “Kramer vs. Kramer.” She is the founder and past president of Foothill Autism Alliance and currently serves on the FAA board as well as on the board of the Uniquely Abled Project.

Yudi is inspired everyday by her son, Noah Schneider, a young animator who was diagnosed with ASD in 1997. She is fond of quoting Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Let us all go forth and change the world!



Susan Zwerman is the heart and soul of the Exceptional Minds Studio, known for her work on Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 while working as the VFX Studio Executive Producer at Exceptional Minds, a non-profit vocational school and studio that prepares young adults on the Autism Spectrum for careers in digital animation and visual effects.

Her credit has appeared on a succession of high-profile motion pictures including Broken Arrow, Alien Resurrection, Men of Honor, Around the World in 80 Days, and The Guardian. She is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America, and the Visual Effects Society. She is the recipient of the 2013 Frank Capra Achievement Award in recognition of career achievement and service to the industry and to the Directors Guild of America.

A special highlight in Ms. Zwerman’s career was winning the Grammy Award for Best Concept Music Video in 1988 for producing I’m Fat, the music video starring Weird Al Yankovic.

In addition, Ms. Zwerman is a well-known seminar leader at many universities, teaching visual effects techniques in the entertainment field. Ms. Zwerman is a co-author of the seminal book on producing visual effects, The Visual Effects Producer: Understanding the Art and Business of VFX.



Ernie Merlán is the Executive Director of Exceptional Minds, a non-profit school and digital media studio serving young adults on the autism spectrum. With a dedicated team of parents, board members, behaviorist, teachers, support staff and industry professionals Ernie has been the architect a one of a kind 3yr program that teaches social skills side by side with the technical skills Hollywood is actually looking for.

He has over twenty years of experience in the entertainment industry, 12 years working on Disney Imagineering projects: Indiana Jones, Inventions and Tokyo Disney Seas. His television and motion picture projects include: Pee Wee's Playhouse, The Mask of Zorro, and Dance with Me. As CEO of Merlán Creative Studio, he managed top creative talent to produce content for clients like Disney, Universal, and ABC. “I learn more everyday working with our students than I ever did in the entertainment business. When visionaries asked me to help build a school for these Exceptional Minds, that was nowhere on my bucket-list. Today, I can't imagine doing anything else!"



Provide mobility solutions, education and advocacy to children, teens, and adults with disabilities around the world so that they are equipped and empowered to live fulfilling, purposeful lives.




David Richard is the founder- began his global mission as a volunteer working with his family to provide wheelchairs to children in Guatemala, as the founder of Wheels for Humanity, a non-profit organization he established out of his Studio City garage in 1996. David personally directed hundreds of international seating clinics to custom fit wheelchairs. He led trainings and educational outreach with international partners and governments, and participated in numerous conferences involving wheelchair seating, design, disability rights and advocacy, and international policy. Then in 2012 he created Global Mobility with the primary purpose to provide free wheelchairs to persons with disabilities around the world, primarily in, but not limited to, developing nations.


Drew Plotkin is the Chairperson of Global Mobility. Mr. Plotkin is also the founder and Chief Creative Officer of Launch DRT, a full-service infomercial production company and direct response marketing agency. He has extensive international development and philanthropic volunteer experience, as well as knowledge of global wheelchair and mobility issues.