ALUMNI PROFILES — Winter 2004
   

 
Howard Birnberg, M.B.A. '74

From Slapshots to Scholarships

Howard Birnberg, M.B.A. '74, laced up his first pair of ice-skates when he was 4. In high school, he played organized hockey. When he came to Washington University, he played intramural hockey with some of his fellow business students and professors.

"We played with a group of professors, including Bob Virgil (former dean of the business school)," Birnberg says. "A lot of times, we would play at Shaw Park at 6 in the morning, then get cleaned up, eat breakfast, and go to 8 o'clock classes."

After graduation, Birnberg moved to Chicago and stopped skating—until around the time of the birth of his son in 1989. Two years later, he had his son on the ice, and then into the Johnny's Jets hockey program in the affluent Lincoln Park and Gold Coast areas by age 4. Birnberg served as assistant coach, coach, and the second president of the organization in following years.

In 2000, Birnberg met another coach named Brad Erickson, who was involved in a program offering kids from the Garfield Park area (a blighted area on the west side of Chicago) the opportunity to play ice hockey. Some of the better players were recruited to play in the Johnny's Jets program, and Birnberg and Erickson became more involved in the players' home and school lives.

"The Garfield Park kids were all going to Chicago public schools. The education they were getting was so poor that some of these kids, who were 10 and 11, could barely write. They were nice kids who weren't into any trouble, but they lacked the guidance and discipline to succeed on their own," Birnberg says.

Erickson created the idea of offering full scholarships to qualified hockey players, and Birnberg provided the expertise and resources to help create the nonprofit Inner-City Education (ICE) Program. With significant assistance from a law firm that provided all the necessary legal work pro bono, the ICE Program was incorporated in March 2003.

The program offers full tuition and related costs for players involved with a USA Hockey-sanctioned program to attend the De La Salle Institute, a well-respected, archdiocesan college preparatory school. The annual cost to attend De La Salle is between $6,000 and $7,500, depending on a family's financial situation. In its first year, the program raised approximately $25,000, and Birnberg expects to double that in the coming year.

"We have had no trouble raising money. Our biggest problem now is finding enough kids who can pass the entrance exam," Birnberg says.

Last year, two young men passed De La Salle's entrance exam and were admitted to the school. One student dropped out midway through the school year, due to overwhelming family problems. The other is enrolled in his sophomore year. A third, Sidney Merriweather, started at the school this fall. He says it was challenging moving into a new educational environment, but now he is comfortable at De La Salle. His favorite courses are world history and English.

"It is not as hard balancing my school work and playing hockey—and basketball—as I thought it would be," he says. "I'm looking forward to finishing high school, and it is my hope to attend Syracuse University. My scholarship is helping make all this possible."

And the ICE Program is shooting for exactly this kind of impact. "Brad and I created the program to make a difference for a few kids of any background, and to help them break out of their current environments, get a decent education, and contribute to society and stay involved in hockey," Birnberg says.

—C.B. Adams


Amanda Harrod, A.B. '97

Working to Alleviate Social Ills

Amanda Harrod, A.B. '97, was in Africa with fellow  Washington University students, visiting Kenya and Tanzania on a Catholic Student Center service trip during her senior year.

Amidst working on community projects, they took some local teenagers on a climb up towering Mt. Meru. The young people had lived their lives in the mountain's shadow but had never had money for climbing fees. "They were so excited to get to the top and see the view," Harrod says.

Her Africa experience served much the same purpose for her, giving her a dramatically new perspective on the world and its economic disparities. "Experiencing that was a catalyst for everything I've done since," she notes.

What she's "done since" has been remarkable. After graduation she began a Bill Emerson Fellowship with the Congressional Hunger Center (CHC), then a domestic anti-hunger leadership program under VISTA, the federal Volunteers in Service to America. The fellowship provided for fieldwork and then a six-month "policy placement" in Washington, D.C. The program took her to a large community action agency in Seattle, where she recruited university nutrition students to teach healthy cooking to food pantry clients, and then to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, D.C.

As her year ended, she was asked to apply for a CHC director's opening. She had hoped to return to Africa. "But I had such a formative year as a hunger fellow," she recalls,  "I thought it would be great to help provide this for other people." So at 23, she became associate director and soon program director of the Hunger Fellows Program. She managed training, travel, office administration, the VISTA partnership, fundraising, bookkeeping, public relations. She traveled three months of the year, checking on fellows in the field. The job, she says, was "fun and exhausting."

After two years she was ready for more community experience, so she returned to St. Louis as campus minister at the University of Missouri's Newman Center. There she encouraged students in service projects, including Oxfam's hunger programs and Habitat for Humanity, and helped them explore how "their faith called them to be active in social justice."

But she found herself looking for more focus. "I'm interested in alleviating a lot of the world's ills," she admits. "But which one am I supposed to focus on?" With an undergraduate degree in biology and a keen interest in health issues, she began to explore public health, and now she is completing a master's degree at Saint Louis University, concentrating in epidemiology and behavioral science.

In November, as winner of a prestigious award from the public health honorary society Delta Omega, she presented a paper on her National Cancer Institute-funded research. In a study titled "Altering Dietary Patterns in Pre-School Children," she worked with the national Parents as Teachers organization in southeastern Missouri, introducing a healthy curriculum that encourages eating more fruits and vegetables and more physical activity.

She also researched restaurant dining and discovered that the more a family eats out, the fewer fruits and vegetables they consume. "It's amazing," she says, "how much our meals have changed because of eating out."

And the future? Harrod is keeping her options open, though she has a deepening interest in social epidemiology, the study of social determinants of health. But wherever the future leads, she's grateful both to her family, who nurtured her social conscience, and the Catholic Student Center, which exposed her to a world she had never seen. "When we traveled," she says, "we weren't just seeing the sights. We were interested in meeting people and acting on the experience. It was hugely formative for me."

—Betsy Rogers


Historic, High-Flyin' Flags Decorate Debate Site Image © 2004 Zaricor Flag Collection. All Rights Reserved.

In the weeks leading up to the University's hosting the second presidential debate on October 8, the Athletic Complex was abuzz. The Field House was transformed into a town-hall setting, along with six platform areas for various TV networks. The Recreational Gymnasium became the Media Filing Center, and coaches' offices, classrooms, conference rooms, and hallways were turned into campaign and debate commission offices. A truly special part of the transformation was an exhibit, The Flag & America's Presidential Campaigns, of unusual and historically significant American flags.

Seventeen rare flags—part of the highly acclaimed exhibit, The American Flag: Two Centuries of Concord and Conflict, displayed in 2003 at The Presidio of San Francisco—hung in various locations within the Athletic Complex. Provided by alumni Louise Veninga, M.A. '72, and Ben Zaricor, A.B. '72, founders of Good Earth® Teas of Santa Cruz, California, the exhibit included an original 13-star flag (above), with blue stars on a white star field (a motif that dates from the 1790s). Believed to be one of the oldest surviving 13-star flags, the version on display had been modified for the 1880 presidential campaign when Democrats Winfield S. Hancock and William English placed their names prominently on the flag. The 13-star flag also is one of the most priceless flags in Veninga and Zaricor's collection of more than 1,700—a collection that got its start while both were University students.

"Louise and I felt privileged to share the flags with the University community (and with those present at the debate)," says Zaricor, "as it is very rare—one to have flags of this size survive, two to have a place big enough to show them, and three to have the opportunity."

The exhibit was supported with the cooperation of The Flag Center and Good Earth® Teas, the University, and the Commission on Presidential Debates.

(Image © 2004 Zaricor Flag Collection. All Rights Reserved. This image may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the express written consent of the copyright holder. Not to be used for commercial purposes.)