Called to Action

June 22, 2016

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BUFFALO, NY - America is in the midst of a boom – a compassion boom. We’re at a time in history when giving back is a priority for millions of people; an era in which acting on good intentions is becoming a way of life.

Of course, giving back is a pillar of a Canisius education. Here, students pursue their academic passions while the college’s Jesuit mission prepares them to use what they learn to do more, be more and give more back to the world around them.

After four years of learning and living the mission, students graduate as leaders of character and integrity and able to confront difficult questions with open hearts and open minds. Many go on to commit their lives as advocates for truth, justice and the greater good. Oftentimes, these alumni forsake a comfortable living wage for the reward of helping those in need, providing hope to those who have none and giving a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves.

Their numbers are high and their names too many to mention but the following stories showcase a few alumni who have made it their life’s work to answer the call to action.

JAMES A. MCCARTHY '57

GIVING PARENTS A CHOICE AND CHILDREN A CHANCE

When James A. McCarthy ’56 retired to California in 1995, he found a struggling public education system.  The state ranked among the worst in the nation for diplomas earned, and in San Francisco, where McCarthy lived, the school district reported dismal, below-average grades. 

System-wide reform was needed but that takes time – “time these children didn’t have,” says McCarthy, a former Merrill Lynch executive. 

To help lessen the number of children falling through the cracks, Jim and his wife, June, established a scholarship program for K-8 students in San Francisco. The idea was to give underserved families an opportunity for their children to receive a quality, private school education.

“If we could help even a few children in their earliest years, we felt they would have a better chance at success,” recalls McCarthy. 

It was a simple and immediate solution to a difficult and ongoing problem and it was a solution that’s endured.               

Today, the Bay Area Scholarships for Inner-City Children (BASIC) Fund is one of the largest privately supported, non-sectarian scholarship programs in the country.  It provides annual financial aid to approximately 4,000 kindergarten through eighth grade students at 300 private and parochial schools throughout the nine Bay Area counties.  By this September, McCarthy notes, “The BASIC Fund will have raised and distributed more than $100 million since 1998, and supported more than 20,000 students.”

It’s also changed the trajectories of their lives. 

Ninety-eight percent of BASIC Fund recipients graduate from high school (compared to less than 70 percent of students in Bay Area public high schools); 92 percent of BASIC Fund recipients attend college. 

“It’s remarkable what these students can accomplish when they’re in an environment where they feel safe – physically and emotionally – and where there’s a sense of structure, nurturing faculty and small class sizes,” McCarthy says.  

The BASIC Fund awards scholarships based solely on a family’s need.  Once a family qualifies for a BASIC Fund scholarship, all children in that family are promised financial support through eighth grade. 

The BASIC Fund is a partnership, and financial and emotional investments are required of parents. They, not the Fund, choose the schools their children attend.  Parents are also required to contribute a minimum of $500 annually toward their children’s educations.  

“Parental involvement is a key factor in a child’s academic success,” McCarthy says.  “It takes their hard work and the hard work of the students to break the cycle of poverty.”

The work of The BASIC Fund is far from complete. 

Even as San Francisco’s public school system implements new academic standards, the need for scholarships is at an all-time high. The BASIC Fund consistently sees a waitlist of nearly 1,000 every year.   

“Our challenge is to get more children who need this support into the thousands of desks available in the private and parochial schools throughout the Bay Area,” McCarthy says.

It’s a challenge that McCarthy is confident can be surmounted by giving parents a choice and children a chance. 

“Poverty exacts a high toll on education,” he says, “but it’s my belief that all young people deserve an equal opportunity education, regardless of their home lives, so they may better themselves and become contributing members of their communities.”

TJ ROGERS '11

ADVOCATING FOR ASYLUM-SEEKERS

Just when TJ Rogers ’11 thinks he’s heard the worst, someone new walks into Detroit’s Freedom House with an unimaginable story of persecution, torture and imprisonment endured in a country desecrated by government corruption, civil wars and violence.

Like the woman who spent months in a Cameroon prison, beaten to the point of near death for encouraging young girls to obtain an education. Or the Uganda man who was nearly eaten alive by red ants, which his captors released over his body because of suspicions about his sexual orientation.

“These gritty realities are part of my daily existence,” Rogers says. “It’s a helpless feeling but my job is to channel those feelings into action and advocacy.”

Rogers is the program manager at Freedom House. Nestled at the foot of Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, the non-profit residence is a beacon for asylum-seekers who travel to the U.S. to escape punishment for their political opinions, religious affiliations, race, ethnicity or social associations. Freedom House is the only organization in the country that provides comprehensive services – food, clothing, shelter, English education, legal aid and medical and psychosocial care – to this courageous population.

“When someone walks into Freedom House, our staff inadvertently becomes the face of America,” Rogers says. “It’s our moral and ethical obligation – as human beings and Americans – to welcome these asylum seekers with open hands instead of clenched fists.”

Under current U.S. immigration law, asylum seekers have one year from the day they enter the country to file their applications with the government requesting asylum. They’re not allowed to work throughout the application process so during that time, Rogers steers residents through the arduous legal process, and prepares them for self-sufficiency and employment.

“The residents who come to us are well-educated professionals who worked in government, medicine and business,” Rogers says. “They embody American ideals and values, and once they receive asylum, they’re eager to give back to the country that welcomed them.”

Rogers found Freedom House by way of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). Assigned to the Detroit center, he served as a full-time volunteer, subsisting on a nominal $100 per month stipend. Rogers originally committed to one year of JVC service with Freedom House but stayed on a second year.

“I was filled with this desire to deepen my spirituality and engage in more direct service, community living and a simple lifestyle,” Rogers recalls. “Canisius instilled these Jesuit values in me and I wanted to see where they would take me.”

The JVC experience proved indelibly more than a detour on Rogers’ path to a profession. Instead, it marked the beginning of a journey to promote social justice. Rogers is a proud member of Amnesty International and newly appointed to the LGBT Freedom & Asylum Network Steering Committee, which assists those seeking asylum because of persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“People deserve to live free from oppression and be treated with compassion and dignity,” Rogers says. “The asylum seekers at Freedom House advocated for these human rights in their native countries. Now, I must be their advocate, ensuring they receive the support and opportunities they deserve. It’s a fundamental American principle - inscribed on the Statue of Liberty – to provide safety for those ‘yearning to breathe free.’”

MATT RATH '09

FOCUSING ON RELIEF EFFORTS

Matthew H. Rath ’09 travels the world to shoot social documentaries as a producer for Samaritan’s Purse, a non-denominational international relief agency. But one story, in particular, affected him more profoundly than any other.

Titled “Love Your Neighbor: A Gift of Forgiveness in Rwanda,” the documentary tells the story of Rath’s best friend - a Rwandan genocide survivor.

“I watched and filmed as my friend, Alex, returned to Rwanda to forgive the neighbor who killed his entire family, right in front of him,” Rath recalls. “Alex’s forgiveness was complete and genuine. I never before witnessed something so powerful.”

Based in North Carolina, Samaritan’s Purse is named after the New Testament’s “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” which teaches people to love their neighbors as they love themselves. The organization provides emergency relief to countries around the world affected by war, poverty, natural disaster or disease. That relief comes in the form of food, water, shelter and medicine.

Rath’s role is to shoot, direct and produce video documentaries that visually illustrate the mission of Samaritan’s Purse, and educate a wider audience about the plight of the people it serves. His videos appear on the Samaritan’s Purse website, are posted to social media, and often shared with individuals who have interests in supporting the organization.

Rath’s video “Forgiving ISIS,” for example, caught the attention of American television personality and radio host Glenn Beck. The documentary chronicles the efforts of Samaritan’s Purse volunteers as they work to bring relief to persecuted Christians and Muslims in northern Iraq. After viewing the video, Beck and Christian leader Johnnie Moore raised enough money to evacuate nearly 150 Iraqi Christian refugees.

Iraq is one of 20 countries Rath has been to on behalf of Samaritan’s Purse.

When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, Rath chronicled the organization’s efforts to provide temporary shelter, clean water, food and hygiene items to those affected. Rath also traveled to the outskirts of Hermosillo, Mexico, to capture a story about “the poorest of the poor” who live in a community built on an abandoned trash dump.

The days in the field can be long, and emotionally and physically exhausting. Mainly, however, Rath focuses on the positive side of human nature.

“People always say to me ‘It must be really sad to see all these terrible things around the world.’ But it’s really quite the opposite,” he says. “I see people who stand up to support those who are in crisis. That is what I see.”

Rath describes his work with Samaritan’s Purse as his “dream job,” and one that was directly influenced by his undergraduate studies with the Canisius College Video Institute.

“The Video Institute encourages student filmmakers to do meaningful projects that impact the community and others,” Rath says.

But it wasn’t until he started traveling and documenting humanitarian efforts that Rath truly realized he could make difference in the world and bring about positive change through video.

Rath says: “I am compelled to tell stories that matter.”

KEVIN TURPIN MS '84

EMPOWERING LIVES THROUGH LITERACY

For Rev. Kevin H. Turpin MS ’84, being a Christian means “getting outside the four walls of the church. We need to be the legs and hands of Jesus.”

It’s why Turpin opened the Life Enrichment Center (LEC) with his wife, Wanda.  The non-profit outreach provides literacy tutoring to underprivileged, at-risk elementary students, in and around Norfolk, Virginia.  Developing fundamental literacy skills early is the foundation for future academic success, Turpin explains. 

“During their first three years of school, students learn to read. After that, they read to learn,” he says. Students who can read at or above grade level by the end of third grade “are four times more likely to graduate from high school,” he says.  The opposite is true for students reading below grade level.  Two out of three end up on welfare or in jail.  Some states, Turpin says, even project their future prison needs based on third-grade literacy scores.

“If we can keep these kids from dropping out of school,” he says, “we can hopefully keep them off drugs, off the streets and out of prison.”

To achieve this, the Life Enrichment Center sets up technology and literacy labs within the schools with which it partners.  The labs are outfitted with computers, literacy software and interactive white boards.  LEC tutors go into the schools to work one-on-one with students for one hour each week.  The tutors are all volunteers, and many are officers from the Norfolk and Virginia Beach police departments. 

“This interaction helps students establish a positive view of police officers,” Turpin says.  “It also helps the officers understand the challenges faced by minority youth and diminish negative stereotypes.”

The LEC worked with just one school when Turpin launched the literacy program in 2007.  Today, the LEC partners with 12 at-risk schools and has provided literacy tutoring to more than 800 elementary students. Turpin says he is grateful if the program helped to change the life of just one. 

“When you invest time in the literacy of a young person and you see that lightbulb go on, there is no greater feeling in the world,” he says. 

Reaching and teaching people for Christ are at the heart of Turpin’s ministry. 

Long before he established the Life Enrichment Center, Turpin co-founded Norfolk’s New Life Church.  The non-denominational, multi-ethnic church is a place where people from all walks of life can come and feel welcome.

“New Life members are African American, Caucasian, Asian and Hispanic,” he says.  “They are Catholics, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Baptists and Methodists – all worshipping under one roof.”

The idea to open New Life Church grew out of a conversation about racial reconciliation, which Turpin had with a classmate while studying for his theology degree at Regent University.

“People are looking for a church where all cultures are honored and where they can grow in their understanding of different traditions,” he says.  

Turpin obviously saw a great need within the worship community.  What initially started as a church with 600 members now welcomes more than 5,000 people. 

“New Life Church is a true reflection of the Gospel,” he says. 

It’s also a reflection of the man who dedicates his life to educational and spiritual outreach, in Christ’s name.  It’s a commitment, Turpin says, “to reflect God’s love despite our differences.”

ADRIENNE M. BERMINGHAM '11, MS '14

EDUCATING A NEW GENERATION ABOUT CONSERVATION

Adrienne Bermingham ’11, MS ’14 heard a small voice squeal with delight.

A first-grader stood in the middle of his elementary school gym with cardboard binoculars pressed to his eyes. Using Google Cardboard technology, he was transported to Tanzania where he watched chimpanzees swing through the trees in Gombe Stream National Park.

“It was an emotional moment for me,” Bermingham recalls. “I couldn’t think of a better way for a child to learn about deforestation and chimpanzee habitats than this virtual reality alternative to viewing animals in captivity.”

Bermingham is the U.S. program coordinator for Roots & Shoots, the global, youth-led community action arm of the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI). Roots & Shoots empowers young people to identify challenges (human, animal or environmental) in their communities, to develop solutions to those challenges and to take action.

Started in 1991 by the one of the world’s most famous conservationists, Jane Goodall, PhD, and a group of students from Tanzania, Roots & Shoots is 150,000 members strong and represents 130 countries.

As the U.S. program coordinator, Bermingham develops educational materials, including online courses and toolkits, for educators interested in getting their students involved in a Roots & Shoots project. She also travels the country to provide hands-on demonstrations.

Her work has a global reach as well. Bermingham represented JGI at the World Youth Congress in Brazil and the Global Student Leaders Summit in Costa Rica.

Back in the U.S., Bermingham engages members by providing guidance through email, social media and the Roots & Shoots website.

“It’s a daunting but rewarding task,” Bermingham says. “I collaborate with the next generation of conservation leaders about issues that are important to the future of our world.”

Bermingham notes that Roots & Shoots isn’t just for school-based programs but for all young people who want to make a difference in their communities. Like a group of children in Florida who solved the issue of black bears coming into their neighborhood, attracted by uncontained garbage.

“The ‘Be Bear Aware’ campaign encouraged people to be better citizens of the Earth and showed them how to share their community safely with animals,” Bermingham says.

All members draw inspiration from Jane Goodall.

“Dr. Jane encourages young people to take action now and be leaders today,” she says.

Bermingham always knew that animals and conservation would be integral parts of her life. She just wasn’t certain how they would translate into a career.

“It was serendipitous,” Bermingham says.

While pursuing a degree in political science, she discovered Canisius’ world-class animal behavior program. Through that, Bermingham was introduced to leaders in the conservation field, among them Goodall.

“I was struck by her fierce determination and confidence as a powerful voice for animals and the planet,” she says. “I realized then that my passion would help me find my way.”

The rest is history.

Bermingham earned her undergraduate degree in political science with coursework in animal behavior, and later a master’s degree in anthrozoology. Her Canisius education, she says, was “an exercise in compassion and humility.”

Today, Bermingham works to prepare the next generation to intrinsically care about the welfare of animals and the environment. With Jane Goodall as her partner, the future looks bright.

 

PAUL D. WEISS '61

PROVIDING FOOD FOR THE SOUL AND MIND

Bringing change to the world is a tough business. Paul Weiss ’61 knows this all too well. He has traveled to the infamous garbage dumps of Tijuana, leper colonies in the Philippines, the ghettos of Washington, D.C. and the jungles of Guatemala, all to feed, nurture and educate the world’s poorest children.

So committed is this missionary that he founded and directed two international nonprofit organizations to serve children over the past four decades. Through his current humanitarian initiative, Rainbow Ground, Weiss aims to educate people about the inequities of poverty and the plight of children. “I used to feed hungry children, now I provide food for the soul and the mind.”

A current project, for instance, sets its sights on the tobacco industry. “Hundreds of millions of children between the ages of 12 and 17 are smoking cigarettes, many addicted for life,” says Weiss. “Targeted by big tobacco companies, these children need our protection as much as they need nutrition and education.”

Today, Weiss reaches the masses as a videographer, blogger and author. His journey began shortly after he graduated from Canisius and moved to California.  

Living in the affluent city of Santa Barbara, Weiss and his family drove to Tijuana one weekend. What was meant to be an enjoyable trip to Mexico instead turned out to be life-changing. “I saw poverty everywhere,” he recalls. “The image of hungry children living in unspeakable conditions stayed with me.”

Disheartened that children were starving just miles from his home, Weiss made a commitment that day to take food down to Tijuana every other week. A month later, he quit his job as director of Sansum Medical Research Foundation and established Los Niños, a nonprofit, interfaith organization in 1974. Los Niños is Spanish for “the children.”

In the beginning, it was a family affair. Weiss started the foundation with his own resources. His wife, Esther, and their five children, drove to Tijuana in the family station wagon every week and delivered food.

The organization grew and after 10 years, Weiss had delivered hundreds of tons of food, medicine and clothing to Tijuana. More than 20,000 volunteers came with him to respond to Tijuana’s children.

Weiss expanded the scope of his ministry in 1984 when he founded Children of The Americas to provide resources to children in the U.S., Mexico and Central America. The numbers of volunteers swelled when he offered immersion experiences for people to meet those they served and see extreme poverty firsthand. Weiss also began to address the question, ‘Why are children hungry, poor and neglected?’ “It became clear that if we don’t act to eliminate the causes, we will need to provide aid to children in the same areas forever.”

Weiss continued his work with the organization, now Americas Children, for 30 years.

His story, and the lessons he learned along the way, live on through his book, Touching the Rainbow Ground: 8 Steps to Hope, a thought-provoking account of his life, faith and ministry.

A deeply religious man, Weiss says it’s a privilege and a gift from God to do this work. “I’m grateful every day.”

KATHLEEN T. GRIMM '77, MD

HELPING TO HEAL THE MOST VULNERABLE

Kathleen T. Grimm ’77, MD, believes there is a social commitment in medicine that goes far beyond the clinical skills physicians traditionally use to treat patients.

“For me, being a doctor is a profession and a calling,” says Grimm. “I want to have a positive impact on my patients, not just through medication but in a way that builds community and increases better overall health.”

Throughout her 30-plus years in the medical profession, Grimm has worked hard and with compassion to fulfill that calling.

In her full-time position as director of palliative medicine services for the Erie County Medical Center (ECMC), Grimm oversees clinical care and community outreach programs. ECMC, she explains, provides significant treatment to low-income, uninsured and vulnerable populations.

“These patients often come to us with irreversible illnesses and face the end of their lives in isolation because they’ve either out-lived or don’t have family and friends who visit them,” says Grimm.

Because “no one should die alone,” Grimm launched Western New York’s first Mercy Doula program. The initiative recruits and trains future healthcare providers (medical, nursing and social work students) to provide dying patients with emotional and support services.

“Meaningful connections are made that touch the lives of both the dying patients and the volunteers,” she says.  

The critical care Grimm delivers to these patients is paralleled only by the preventative care she provides as co-chair of Buffalo’s Community Health Worker Network (CHWN). Formed in 2010 by advocates in healthcare, public health, academia and community-based organizations, the non-profit works to improve the quality of and access to healthcare for Buffalo’s most underserved populations.

At the time it was established, Grimm says, “investments in medical care for the poor and minorities were at all-time highs but outcomes were not improving.” That’s a failing she attributes to social, environmental and economic circumstances, which are key determinants of health.

To combat this chronic problem, CHWN implemented a bottom-up strategy under Grimm’s leadership. It partnered with the Canisius College Center for Professional Development to train and certify people – already working at grassroots levels – in skills and practices that empower individuals, families and communities to be active participants in their own health and well-being.

“Community health workers are frontline public health workers and trusted members of the communities,” explains Grimm. “They help people navigate the often complicated health care system, and address issues such as housing, food access and education that can affect health.”

Community health workers are expected to become a vital part of healthcare delivery in the United States, as the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented, explains Grimm.

“Our job now is to encourage self-sufficiency through a range of activities, including outreach, community education, informal counseling, social support and advocacy,” she says.

The prognosis is good.

Grimm tells the turn-around story of a homeless, drug-addicted woman who sought help via the CHWN. The woman not only stabilized medically, but became a certified community health worker. She represents just one of several success stories for the CHWN.

It’s a simple prescription, really, Grimm says: equal parts care, compassion and community.

“Relationships are the key to better health care. It all starts with a positive interaction between the doctor and patient.”