FEATURE — Summer 2008

From left to right: Jeff Buening, B.S.B.A. ’05 (finance) — executive director; Eric Kuhn, A.B. ’05 (economics) — co-founder and executive director; Jon Dembling, A.B. ’05 (philosophy) — co-founder and executive director; Josh Mandel-Brehm, A.B. ’05 (biology) — executive director
Playing for the Children

The Linus Foundation’s board of directors consists of four young alumni. Sponsoring social events in six cities, they support fun, innovative programs that empower kids.

By Terri Nappier

The sweat drips off your forehead. You’re thirsty. It’s summer, and hot in Harlem. You’re in the stands, waiting for the game to begin.

Then the Linus Lobos take the field. They’re dressed in new uniforms, dark blue jerseys and gray pants.

You remember the feel of a pressed, fresh uniform and the thrill of choosing a number. A warm breeze blows. The ump says, “Batter up.”

The 7-year-olds, only “knee-high to a grasshopper,” don’t seem to notice the heat. It’s baseball season. They’re ready to play.

Jon Dembling and Eric Kuhn remember how much fun they had playing baseball as kids, and how it felt to wear a new uniform. That’s partly why, as co-founders of the Linus Foundation, they sponsor the Linus Lobos team from Harlem RBI.

Harlem RBI (www.harlemrbi.org), recently awarded charter school status, offers year-round scholastic and athletic programs for inner-city children.

When Dembling, A.B. ’05, and Kuhn, A.B. ’05, first met the team, Dembling said it felt like a flashback. “When we walked into the schoolroom, we saw the cutest little kids all sitting at their desks doing their exercises,” he says. “The teacher introduced us: ‘This is Eric and Jon. They are from the Linus Foundation. They are the ones who make it possible for you to do your favorite thing in the world. And what’s your favorite thing?’ And they yelled, ‘Baseball!’”

Alumni Eric Kuhn (left, center) and Jon Dembling (right, center) meet with boys from Harlem RBI. Kuhn and Dembling’s Linus Foundation sponsors programs at the youth organization.

Favorite things in the world resonate with Dembling and Kuhn, who founded Linus Foundation while students at Washington University. One of their favorite things was to have a good time with friends.

The two often hosted social events at off-campus venues. They rented buses to carry their friends, upward to 600 people from all affiliations, to a pre-arranged site. The venue owner covered the cost of transportation for the guaranteed business.

Although these social events originally focused just on having fun, Dembling and Kuhn recognized the opportunity the events provided to raise funds. With graduation only months away, they decided to focus their efforts on collecting cover charges at their events, donating all the money to a St. Louis charity. Both from the East Coast, Dembling and Kuhn had grown to love St. Louis and felt compelled to give back. The two promptly teamed with close friend, Josh Mandel-Brehm, A.B. ’05, and began considering charities.

Dembling, a philosophy major; Kuhn, an economics major; and Mandel-Brehm, a biology major, chose the Kingdom House as a first beneficiary. Kingdom House
(www.kingdomhouse.org/services) provides child day-care and youth after-school programs for low-income families who are working, attending school, or training for a job. Their donation helped children, and it helped them have fun by providing for a summer basketball program.

When the three discussed a group name, Kuhn mentioned the Peanuts® character Linus: a smart little boy who needs a blanket for protection. They thought the “Linus Foundation” would symbolize their desire to help, protect, and inspire kids. The foundation’s logo incorporates a blanket and the phrase: “because every child deserves a security blanket.”

“We recognized many worthy causes in the community, but we felt strongly that sometimes the greatest gift to a child is a reason to smile, and to feel safe,” Dembling says.

After graduation, Dembling and Kuhn found their way to New York City: Dembling working in a law office and Kuhn in real estate development. Mandel-Brehm moved to Boston to pursue a job in biotech. Another alumnus, Jeff Buening, B.S.B.A. ’05, who also had become integrally involved with Linus, went to work for NBC.

The Linus Lobos of Harlem RBI sport new uniforms, made possible by Linus Foundation funding.

The four committed themselves to starting a branch in New York, although bus trips were no longer an option. After pooling money and planning for six months, they hosted a formal attire cocktail party, “Have a Heart for Linus,” in February 2006.

“We started pricing things,” Kuhn says. “We figured if we could get 200 people at $100, we’d have $20,000. Spending $10,000 on the party would leave us a pretty good margin to donate.”

During this time, the Linus Foundation became a 501(c)(3) organization. The young men put together a Web site (www.linusfoundation.org), solicited sponsors, sold tickets, and searched for a charity—all in their spare time.

In choosing a charity, the group wanted an organization that was big enough to be efficient and well-run, but small enough that their donation was going to really make a difference.

“When you’re trying to get other young professionals excited about something,” Dembling says, “you need to be able to say, ‘Look, look what this $5,000 can do.’ On our Web site, you can see photos of Harlem RBI’s Linus Lobos with the Linus Foundation sponsor on their backs, and that’s exciting.”

Over the last few years, Linus has parlayed a lot of support and enthusiasm beyond New York and St. Louis. Four other branches flourish in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and London—thanks in large part to Buening and Mandel-Brehm bringing other close friends into the fold. Other fundraising events include “Linus Bats for Kids,” “Linus Lights Up Chicago,” “Linus Plays the Blues,” and “Leap into Linus.” These events serve to connect young leaders, and they serve as a quasi-Reunion of Washington University friends who come from all over the country to attend. They also draw family members and other friends, all in the name of having a great time for a great cause.

“…sometimes the greatest gift to a child is a reason to smile…,” Dembling says.

Of the foundation’s 60+ volunteers, two other alumni are on the national board: Josh Farber, B.S.B.A. ’05, is vice president of finance, and John Woock, B.S.B.M.E. ’05, is vice president of programming. Jennifer Williams and Sarah Williamson, graduates of Boston University and Boston College, respectively, also are board members.

As board directors, Dembling, Kuhn, Mandel-Brehm, and Buening consult with all branches. Each branch must live up to the Linus Foundation’s mission: “dedicated to supporting fun, innovative programs that educate and empower children, encouraging them to reach the full power of their own potential.” At the same time, branches have autonomy. Kuhn believes it’s integral to allow volunteers to contribute their own special talents, whether in finance, marketing, graphic design, law, or whatever else it may be.

Tapping into others’ potential runs through the organization and its charities, to which Linus has given $70,000 over three years.

Working with Groundwork, a nonprofit that provides high-quality educational programs and support services to families in Brooklyn, the Linus Foundation provided funding for travel. When Dembling and Kuhn learned that children who live in this area often do not leave the nine-block radius of their neighborhood, they signed on to help. Last summer, one Groundwork group went on a wilderness adventure, and another went to Williamsburg, Virginia, to learn history and visit the College of William & Mary—and to learn about educational possibilities.

Looking toward the foundation’s future, the board is fine-tuning its business model, moving beyond just being an intermediary raising money.

“Our goal is to donate more than just dollars to our beneficiaries—we want to use our resources to implement programs that we can help grow,” says Dembling, now in law school at the University. “We want to be involved in helping these programs sustain themselves by bringing in volunteers, those who have expressed an interest at our social events,” Kuhn adds.

And both stress that Linus volunteers are in this for the long haul, because they’re in it foremost for the kids.

Running toward home base, the little Lobo hears his coach yell, “Slide.” Not hesitating, he hits the brown dirt, trusting his new pants will carry him over the plate. Before the dust settles, he hears, “Safe!” …because every child deserves a level playing field.

Terri Nappier is editor of this magazine.