Up Close and Active: Fisher Alumni Put Service into Action
Collegium takes a closer look at how Fisher alumni—from New York to Alaska—have committed to lives of service.
In 2016, Campus Compact, a national coalition of over 1,000 colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education, celebrated its 30th anniversary. In honor of the anniversary, President Gerard J. Rooney was one of hundreds of college presidents from across the country to sign the Campus Compact 30th Anniversary Action Statement. In doing so, he reaffirmed Fisher’s commitment to preparing students for democratic citizenship, building partnerships for change, and reinvigorating higher education for the public good.
As part of the College’s commitment, it will implement a Civic Action Plan. In light of that, Collegium takes an up-close look at how its alumni—from New York to Alaska—have committed to lives of service.
Living a Service Life
From his earliest position working with people who are blind and visually impaired to three decades of leading the Al Sigl Community of Agencies, Dan Meyers ’71 is the definition of a life committed to service. Working in the human services sector has been at the core of Meyers’ career, none more so than at Al Sigl.
One of the first of its kind in the nation, the then Al Sigl Center opened its Elmwood Campus in 1968. Bringing together several independent rehabilitation agencies under one roof, the Center provides resources and support to the member and affiliated agencies who serve adults and children with disabilities and special needs. The original building boasted fully-accessible classrooms, therapy suites, a swimming pool, and gymnasium. Meyers said the original campus was fully accessible long before the American Disabilities Act of 1990 made such characteristics a requirement for buildings.
“It was the first consciously designed, barrier-free building in the Northeast,” Meyers explained. “In terms of social progress, this is remarkable. You wouldn’t think of any public space that wouldn’t be fully accessible and adapted today.”
After volunteering with Al Sigl for more than a decade, Meyers was tapped to be the organization’s first executive director and president. Under his leadership, Al Sigl has grown to serve more than 55,000 people on six campuses, all under the guiding principal of taking the “dis” out of “disability” and ensuring that all abilities are included.
“The pure blue flame of the mission that connects Al Sigl’s member agencies is that the respect, dignity, and determination of the people we serve is shared so deeply,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we didn’t disagree or change over time, but it kept us at the table together. And the reward has been that when you get to agreement, it was pretty easy to mobilize community support to make it happen.”
During his tenure, Meyers’ ability to communicate its vital importance to the community was an integral piece of several successful fundraising campaigns that helped expand the footprint of the Center. It’s not likely that there is a resident of Rochester or Monroe County who isn’t familiar with the agency’s “Just One” campaign, which launched in 1990.
“We needed to find a new home for CP Rochester, and had about half a million dollars left to raise,” he recalled. As he tells it, advertising executive Jerry Infantino doodled on a notepad as he poured his heart out.
Meyers went on to say, “I wasn’t sure he was listening, until he held up a folded sheet of paper and said, ‘here’s an idea: Ask everyone in the community for just a buck in self-mailer. We might just catch people’s imagination. Everyone knows someone who has been helped by Al Sigl.’”
The “Just One” blue envelopes were sent out on a Thursday. On Monday, the mailman came in with a bag—not his normal bin—and it was heavy.
“He said, ‘I have five more in the truck,’” Meyers recalled. “And at that moment, we knew we were on to something.”
Twenty-six years later, the “Just One” campaign continues to be a major source of support for the Center.
Now in retirement—Meyers stepped down as president in June 2016 and is now president emeritus—he hasn’t stopped flexing his “volunteer muscle.” He is an active member of several boards, including Rochester Regional Health, George Eastman Museum, and Greater Rochester Independent Practice Association. He’s also headed to Belize in spring 2018 on a service mission through Intervol, a nonprofit that provides medical equipment and supplies to developing parts of the world. Meyers said he’s ready to assist the mission wherever he’s needed.
“I’ll be there to offer a pair of willing hands and feet.”
Advocating for Adolescents
Ernie Manzie’s passion for advocating for at-risk youth began shortly after his time at Fisher, when he served as a youth worker at Industry Residential Center, a juvenile detention center run by the Office of Children and Family Services. Now, after a long career as a teacher and administrator in secondary education, Manzie ’80 has returned to that work, shaping the curriculum and direction of a Fairbanks, Alaska center that serves youth from across the state.
Following graduation, Manzie faced a tight hiring market for teachers so he began to explore overseas options, and found Alaska to be an interesting location in need of educators. Recalling an article he read in Fisher’s student newspaper, The Pioneer, about Erling Johansen, a student who worked in Alaska’s fishing industry, Manzie said the idea grew. After corresponding with Johansen about living above the Lower 48, Manzie sold his car to his best friend, packed up his belongings, and moved to Alaska.
His first teaching placement was in a rural, native community boasting roughly 450 people.
“It was total culture shock being there, but the community was wonderful,” he said. “I learned so much more than I ever taught there, and still keep in touch with my students.”
Manzie said the experience opened his eyes to the impact education could have on kids and how important culture is in the education process. From there, he taught and held principal and superintendent positions in various communities, until settling with his family in Fairbanks.
Today, he is the director of the Family Centered Services of Alaska Residential Treatment Center, a facility that provides individualized mental health or substance abuse treatment and education services to children and young adults and their families. At the Center, each resident receives Individual and group therapy provided by therapists and supported by mental health technicians.
“We serve a lot of kids who have had trauma in their lives and our goal is to provide them with skills needed to better address their problems. Our hope is that when kids transition out, they are in a better place,” he said. “And, we’ve had some success there.”
While Manzie’s job with requires him to take a “10,000-foot view” of the facility, rather than work directly on its programs or initiatives, he keeps youth at the forefront of his efforts.
“I’ve always been interested in administration, but if you’re not careful, you can lose the reason you got into it in the first place,” he said. “I try to make sure I spend time with the kids and they know who I am. Whether it’s just walking through the cafeteria to talk with kids, I try to build relationships with them to the extent that I can.”
In addition to working with the youth at the facility, Family Centered Services is just that: focused on the family. A psychiatrist, clinical director, nurse, and therapist meet with family members to help them work through concerns and develop new solutions to any issues that may arise once the child returns home. Creating a solid home environment, Manzie said, can be critical to their success.
“Every child needs a safe, loving, secure family situation,” he said. “Some of our kids come from loving, supportive families, but not all of them. And I think, if every kid had a safe, loving, secure family setting—whatever the structure of the family is—it would go a long way in helping them.”
Spreading Smiles and Creating Confidence
As a dentist, Dr. Susan Berlin ’81 has the skills and tools to “fix a smile.” But throughout her career, she has done so much more to spread smiles than the technical part of her job requires.
It all started when a biology professor at Fisher encouraged her to consider a career in medicine.
“I wanted to go into the tech field, and she said, ‘Are you nuts? You need to be a doctor of some sort,’” Berlin recalled. Taking the statement to heart, she shadowed her family dentist and fell in love with the occupation.
“I like to do things with my hands,” she said. “And this profession just really caught me.”
Berlin completed an advanced degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine, and several years later, opened a private practice in Palm Beach, Florida. Through her volunteerism with The Lord’s Place and the American Association of University Women, you could say she does as much with her heart as she does with her hands.
She found her service passions thanks to two patients.
One of her patients is the head of the men’s campus at The Lord’s Place, which provides shelter, food, health care, and job training to homeless men in Palm Beach County. When Berlin heard that many of the residents served by The Lord’s Place have had little to no dental care, she offered her services. Now four years into the partnership, Berlin and her staff provide cleanings, tooth extractions, fillings, and dentures to about 18-20 residents a year.
“Many of our Lord’s Place patients are in training programs to find employment, and they tell me how much the dental services have changed their lives—how they feel better when they go out to find a job and present themselves,” she said. “And, it really pulls us together as an office. Helping out The Lord’s Place is something we all feel pride in.”
On the recommendation of another client, Berlin found a second passion in the American Association of University Women (AAUW), an organization that promotes women and girls in higher education. During more than two decades with AAUW, she has held leadership positions at the local and state level, including president of AAUW Florida.
Among her many accomplishments with AAUW, perhaps the most impactful is Tech Trek Florida, a week-long camp that engages eighth grade girls in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. A residential experience, the camp is held on a college campus and offers activities in cyber security, chemistry, module robotics, forensics, and physics, among others.
“Research shows that more than 70 percent of camp graduates go on to pursue a college career,” Berlin said. “It makes a big difference to get girls involved at a very early stage. They’re at an age where maybe it’s not that cool to be a smart girl, but when we get them all together, they blossom.”
Now in its fifth year, Tech Trek Florida has attracted more than 60 participants, and Berlin hopes to grow that number year over year, perhaps even offering two camps across the state.
“It’s really become my pride and joy,” Berlin said. “I love to see how much it touches the campers.”
Navigating the Unknown
As an independent consultant, Michele Lawton ’83 helps families with disabled adult children secure housing and support services. In 2015, she became certified through the New York State Housing Navigator program to help find independent residential settings for adults, a challenge deeply familiar to Lawton.
Her 27-year-old son, Jack, was born with severe autism and as a child, was non-verbal and prone to self-injurious behavior. Throughout his life, Lawton has fought to ensure Jack had the education, therapies, and living environments that would help him be a part of a community to the best of his abilities.
In her research of theories and strategies for children with autism, Lawton found that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) was the best fit for Jack. Grounded in the strategy of breaking down activities into small parts and using positive reinforcement to promote successful completion of those activities, ABA helped Jack imitate speech and non-verbal behavior, respond to those around him, and complete daily living activities including eating, toileting, and brushing his teeth, among others.
To keep him on a positive path, the Lawton family enrolled Jack at the age of 7 at the New England Center for Children (NECC), which offered ABA. In his 14 years at the Center, with much hard work and constant advocacy, Jack made significant progress. At age 21, though, the Lawtons faced a new challenge. Jack was aging out of NECC, and now needed an adult housing facility.
“There is a lot less funding and a lot fewer options for adults,” Lawton said. “Jack needed a group home with ABA therapies and a behavioral management program. Or, he’d end up in a psychiatric setting on heavy medication.”
It wasn’t until a family friend introduced her to Catholic Charities of New York that she found Cardinal McCloskey Community Services (CMCS). Operating under the umbrella of Catholic Charities, CMCS is a social service agency that helps at-risk children and adolescents as well as adults with disabilities. The Lawtons and CMCS planned and fundraised to create a group home for Jack and four other adults. The home offers ABA treatment, clinical services, and a high staff-to-resident ratio, helping Jack and his fellow residents live as independently as possible, while engaging with the larger community. During his time at the group home, Lawton said Jack has made significant milestones. He can now communicate in full sentences using an iPad and his behavior rates have been kept low.
“To hear him say, ‘Hi Mom, I would like to have a meal. I would like to have a hamburger and French fries’ is huge—it’s a major achievement,” she said. “Jack’s a success story in the way that he’s the best he can be—he is social, he is part of a community.”
And now, Lawton is on a mission to provide that level of success to other families. An accountant by education and trade, she’s used her professional acumen and life experiences to find self-sustainable housing and financial solutions.
“It’s hard to navigate through the system and every case is unique,” she said, noting that it can take as long as a year or more to find the right home setting and develop the best plan for her clients. Part of that, she said, is because there is a lack of resources for a growing number of adults in need of these services. “The demand is so great, there really needs to be more people who are doing what I am doing. My goal is to help as many individuals and families as possible.”
“I want to deconcentrate poverty. I want people to live in communities where they are not restricted from opportunities. I want communities that are viable and enable economic improvement, that are very much supportive of the lived experiences of all cultures, and don’t just tolerate, but embrace all cultures, where everyone is invited, welcome, and has the opportunity to thrive.”
As executive director of the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI), Dr. Leonard Brock ’09 (Ed.D.) has a strong vision for the Greater Rochester community. And, as the leader of the initiative, he is using his education, lived experience, and professional background in human services to lay the groundwork to achieve the community’s goal of alleviating poverty in Rochester and Monroe County by 50 percent over the next 15 years.
A native of Rochester, Brock grew up in public housing, and completed his undergraduate work at The College at Brockport while living in poverty. That experience has driven his professional work, both as a social entrepreneur who launched his own business consulting firm and as the leader of RMAPI.
In his role as executive director of RMAPI, Brock is charged with leading the identification and development of strategies and system-wide changes needed to reduce poverty in Rochester. After two years of research, conducting and analyzing community-wide needs assessments, raising awareness, and facilitating community planning and engagement, RMAPI has identified three guiding principles for its efforts: build and support the community; address structural racism; and address trauma, in addition to several priorities including the creation of person-centered systems of social support. It’s different from other community initiatives that address poverty in that it doesn’t provide direct services or run programs; by design, RMAPI is about changing cultures, beliefs, systems, and policies.
“My job is to create a foundation and container for work to take place, while ensuring that RMAPI can be a catalyst for structural policies that can create change,” he said.
To that end, Brock functions as a bridge builder, bringing together all of Rochester’s stakeholders—community members, politicians, business leaders, educators, and service providers, to name a few—required to implement those changes.
Brock said several organizations and community entities are adopting recommendations from RMAPI’s first report. The City of Rochester has implemented several initiatives, the United Way is working toward system changes, and the Rochester Area Community Foundation has adjusted their giving strategies to support RMAPI’s work.
“The community need is so pressing—we need this to be a success. We have to be persistent,” he said. “We can’t stand on the sidelines, we have to get in the game and play.”
Pursuing a Passion
A graduate of the Wegmans School of Pharmacy, Dr. Meghan Kukla Santana ’15 (Pharm.D.) is no stranger to service. As a third-year student at Fisher, she traveled to El Salvador as part of a service trip, where she provided pharmacy services to patients as part of a mobile medical clinic. During her time there, she dispensed medication, provided health education, and counseled to patients at the clinics.
Upon returning to the U.S., Santana continued to engage in service work. She selected a service–based clinical rotation at St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center as one of her clinical rotation electives in her final year. Precepted by Dr. Christine Birnie, now dean of the School, the six-week rotation allows students’ to learn about a non-profit organization while assisting the center and the underserved, diverse community it reaches. A full-service medical center, St. Joseph’s primarily assists patients who do not have medical insurance, providing primary care, mental health counseling, and chiropractic and dentistry services, to name a few.
“At the time I started, there was only a pharmacist there every once in a while who would organize the medication room,” she explained. “I took it and ran with it. I was there for six weeks and had a lot of time, and I wanted to leave my mark.”
And leave her mark she did. In the form of color-coded labels, she identified and organized all of the medication in the med room, making it easier for any provider to find what they needed quickly. In addition, she set up references and information they might need when looking for medication. She also assisted with medication reconciliation in the patient’s medical records, counseled patients on their medication, and assisted providers in their selection of medications to ensure it was economically accessible to the patient population.
After investing her time and passion into the center, Santana found she couldn’t step away.
Speaking of her organization of the med room, she noted, “It had become mine, in a way, and I felt like I wanted to continue to maintain and contribute to this amazing organization.”
And, so, she spent the rest of her fourth year at the School volunteering her time between other clinical rotations. Then, when she accepted a position at Strong Memorial Hospital working nights in the inpatient clinical pharmacy, she still returned to St. Joseph’s every other Tuesday night to organize the med room and assist the staff with any medication related needs. Soon, she became a permanent member of the health care team.
Her sustained presence at the clinic has encouraged more pharmacy students to be involved at the Center, providing the opportunity for health care providers and pharmacists to build a rapport and become a stronger health care team. Ultimately, that means better services for the patients at St. Joseph’s.
“The providers, nurses, and students at St. Joseph’s really make it St. Joseph’s—it’s a very inspiring place to be involved with,” she said. “It’s nice knowing that we have a place in the community where people can access the care they need.”