December 23, 2018
With this special section Media Play News is honoring the home entertainment industry’s givers, a select number of home entertainment industry members who are known for their charitable work. From an assistant who gathers the team to help families during the holidays, to executives who have transformed their personal struggles into charity involvement, these heroes are making a difference.
SVP, U.S. Sales, Planning and Reporting, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
In 2011, Geri Bluerock’s son, Jack, was diagnosed with autism, shortly before his second birthday. “So much has happened over the past seven years, but it still feels like yesterday,” says Bluerock. “I recall feeling numb, then sad and scared, but I also remember immediately researching online and coming across the Autism Speaks website and accessing the 100 Day Kit. Having a guidebook as we embarked on this journey gave us direction and hope during a very difficult period in our lives. The journey has been filled with trials and tribulations, hard work and dedication, but most of all joy, pride and wonder.”
To help others with their journeys, Bluerock and her family are actively involved with Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy organization that sponsors autism research and conducts awareness and outreach activities aimed at families, governments and the public. “Autism Speaks helped us navigate a critical part of this experience,” Bluerock says. “And, as such, we’ve been committed to doing our part to raise funds and awareness by supporting their annual walk and fundraisers — with an ongoing commitment to supporting the families and improving the lives of those on the spectrum.
“Jack is an example of what amazing progress can be made with early intervention and consistent therapy from school to home. Many lack the resources and wherewithal to advocate for and support their child. Autism Speaks strives to provide tools and resources to enable everyone impacted by Autism to reach their maximum potential.
“I want every child and parent to feel as blessed as we do as we look back at Jack’s progress and the optimism we feel for his future.”
Finance Team, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Back home in Indiana, Evan Fitzgerald — for the past three years a member of the finance team at Universal Pictures Home Entertainment — was a cheerful volunteer at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. It started when he was an undergraduate at Indiana University, and through a student philanthropic group was invited to participate in a 36-hour dance marathon fundraiser. “What really made it special was the families and children coming to the event and telling everyone their stories,” he says. Many of the children were coming in for surgery, or suffering from cancer and undergoing chemotherapy or other treatments, he says, “and what they strive for most is a sense of normalcy, a sense of just being a child.”
After moving to Los Angeles in 2015, Fitzgerald says, he was looking for similar volunteer opportunities and soon joined a program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, a nonprofit, pediatric academic medical center in East Hollywood. There, he routinely pops in to visit the hospital’s young patients, just to bring them a stack of coloring books and crayons — “or maybe some pizza and music for a makeshift dance party, or face-painting; anything to take them away from the idea of being in a hospital,” he says.
Fitzgerald remembers one young girl, about 5, “the same age as my niece,” who was about to undergo surgery for a tumor. She was shy and withdrawn — “you could tell being in the hospital was really weighing on her mind,” he says — but gradually she began to open up. “I still remember sitting with her while she was drawing in her coloring book, just holding my hand,” he says. “It was just a super-special moment. It’s important to remember that despite what they may be going through, at the end of the day these are children, and all they want to do is play and laugh and be silly and explore and do all the things every child wants to do. And to walk out of there and know you’ve provided them with a bright spot, it’s just an incredibly rewarding experience.”
Senior Manager of Global Business Development, Sony Pictures Entertainment
Tyler Halstead launched a global nonprofit called “The Melanoma Angel Network,” a group focused on supporting the friends, families, caregivers and loved ones of cancer patients.
Halstead’s inspiration for the nonprofit stems from the loss of his mother as well as the desire to create a community of support for the next generation of teenagers going through the loss of a loved one or parent with cancer.
“I spent most of my childhood and teenage life trying to live normally, all while knowing my mom was dying of cancer,” Halstead says. “Rather than deny the inevitable, my family chose to rally together to battle her cancer collectively.”
In creating his foundation, Halstead quickly learned that cancer is more than just a “patient” struggle, with family members, friends, caregivers and loved ones drawn together to help and seek comfort in simply being together.
While his mother was dying of cancer, Halstead says he didn’t want to be viewed as a victim or different. Instead, his close-knit community of well-wishers intervened in daily life with a warm plate, a hug, and most importantly, an understanding ear.
“We understood each other, we trusted one another, and collectively we were strong in the face of cancer,” Halstead says. “For me, this group would come to be known as the ‘Angel network,’ and the goal of my charity is to reimagine and recreate this sense of community — on a global scale, so that everyone can feel as blessed and supported as I was.”
Founder, Los Angeles Entertainment Summit
In 2011, while an executive at Warner Home Video, Mark Horak had an idea to develop an event that would have a meaningful business purpose while raising funds for charity. He took that idea to the Entertainment Merchants Association, and the Los Angeles Entertainment Summit was born in July 2011, with business meetings, a golf tournament and a Warner lot party. That annual event continues, benefiting the Southern California Chapter, Los Angeles, of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, for which Horak serves as chairman of the advisory board. In addition to providing the leading forum for the industry, under Horak’s leadership the LAES has raised, directly and indirectly, almost $2 million for the Southern California chapter of the CFF (cff.org/LosAngeles). The proceeds fund drug development and treatments, as well as other assistance to those with the disease.
“It’s a cause that’s near and dear to my heart,” says Horak.
Two of his three daughters have CF, and, in part thanks to new advances expanding life expectancy, Melissa, 31, and Michelle, 29, are thriving. But they, like many others, face new challenges. In the late 1980s those with CF were only expected to live into their teen years. With new drugs that reduce the severity of colds, which can turn into pneumonia, and that improve lung and digestive functions, life expectancy has expanded into the mid-40s, opening up a new set of problems for those with CF.
“Our emphasis has shifted somewhat from raising money for drug development to providing advocacy for people with the disease who are living longer,” Horak says. “Now they face new challenges, like jobs, health care expenses and family counseling.”
Horak is working on encouraging more in the industry to join the cause — and join events such as a golf tournament.
“We’re trying to attract a new group of young professionals in the entertainment business who can bring their talents in helping us with these issues of advocacy and fundraising,” he says.
The benefits go not only to the charity, but to those who give as well, he notes.
“Everyone has someone that they know who has a cause or needs help, and to contribute your time and talent can be very rewarding emotionally, spiritually and intellectually,” Horak says.
Coordinator, Sales Development, Sony Pictures Entertainment
With the evolution of life-saving drugs and greater public awareness, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) have disappeared from the headlines.
But to Omaira Jesus, the disease is personal. Her cousin Elvira “Bibi” Cuevas lost her battle with AIDS 15 years ago — at the age of 19. Cuevas was infected through a blood transfusion when she was just an infant in the early ’80s.
“One of my most important accomplishments is being co-captain of AIDS Walk team ‘Bibi Juice,’” Jesus says. “Our team, made up of family and friends, was founded back in 2003 and continues to be about promoting HIV/AIDS awareness and education.”
In 2013, the 10th anniversary of Cuevas’ passing, Jesus and extended family participated in all three AIDS walks that year — New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, raising about $5,200.
“I had promised my Godparents (Bibi’s parents) that her journey would never be forgotten, and on Dec. 1, 2013, (World AIDS Day) that promise came true when Bibi’s name was added to The Wall La Memorias AIDS Monument in Lincoln Heights,” Jesus says. “This journey has taught me the true meaning of being a team player, making great allies, giving back and giving a voice to those who need it the most.”
Indeed, speaking for the voiceless has become an ongoing passion for Jesus. As current president of VOZ, an employment business resource group at Sony Pictures, Jesus has represented the under-served Latino community in Hollywood.
“As the VOZ president, I’ve had the pleasure to speak to students from local schools, participate in toy drives for local organizations and DVD drives for our troops. I have truly enjoyed helping and giving back,” she says.
Several years ago, Jason Kassin’s 8-year-old son Conrad seemed to be wasting away, but finally he and his wife, Sasha, had an answer: Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disorder associated with inflammation of the digestive tract.
“We knew so little about it,” he says. “We were lost, really lost, so we got involved.”
Kassin and his wife, whose son is now going on 17, hooked up with the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation in 2011. Since then, Kassin and his family have been active volunteers for the foundation, raising more than $150,000. Kassin joined the foundation’s Los Angeles Board in 2016.
In addition to offering education and funding for research, the foundation supports Camp Oasis, a summer camp that helps kids deal with their medical issues — which may involve colostomy bags and other difficulties — while enjoying the usual camp experience.
“It’s a disease that a lot of people don’t want to talk about,” Kassin says. His son has had to have part of his colon removed. Sufferers “know what it feels like to be in real pain,” he says.
Funding provides full-time medical staff to assist the campers should they have an issue. In addition to considerations such as colostomy bags, many have special dietary needs.
“It’s a space that understands the particulars of what they’re dealing with,” he says.
The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation underwrites more than 60% of expenses to send each child to camp. Families who are able to do so pay a fee of either $400 to $200 to defray the cost of the camp experience.
For those who cannot afford the camp, the foundation offers a scholarship program. It is the policy of the foundation that no child ever be turned away because they cannot afford the fee.
Kassin, whose family ran a camp in the Catskills in New York when he was growing up, is happy his son has been able to enjoy that camp experience.
“He’s made lifelong friends there,” Kassin says.
Kassin recently was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease himself, cardiac sarcoidosis. His experience with his son has helped him be more “emotionally mature” about his own problems, he says.
“They always say the best way to be helped is to help others,” he says. “I’m actually magically helping myself.”
Director of Worldwide Publicity, Sony Pictures Entertainment
Joy Moh gives something more valuable than money to charity: her time.
Moh has extensive volunteer experience with local community outreach, including leading the Los Angeles Chapter of Philanthro Productions, a national organization focusing on young professional giving. She was on the board of the former Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce before starting business school at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.
Moh has been a wish granter and Mandarin translator with Make-a-Wish Foundation Los Angeles for the past eight years. She also volunteers with CAPE, the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, to help champion Asian-Americans in entertainment.
“As a Gold Award Girl Scout, volunteer leadership has always been in my blood,” Moh says. “When I graduated from college, I was just starting in the entertainment industry and didn’t have many funds to donate, but I did have a lot of time.”
Moh quickly noticed a lack of general awareness about which nonprofits are efficient, transparent, sustainable and worthy of the donation of time and effort.
“Philanthro was my first endeavor in volunteer leadership, as the organization focused on throwing events partnering incredible nonprofits, such as 826LA, Fisher House and Chrysalis L.A., with young professionals,” she says.
Regardless, talk is cheap to Moh, who considers the impact a charity has on its mission goal a priority to her giving — which is why Make-a-Wish makes the grade.
“The immediate and tangible results are you can see a child’s life change with every wish granted,” she says. “At Make-a-Wish, I have been able to witness the life-changing work the organization does for each family. I have been told many times that a child has gone through treatment knowing they would see their wish granters later that day. Although it may not seem like a big deal, each wish has the ability to impact a family forever.”
Senior Analyst, Sales, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Socorro Oseguera has worked with nonprofit organizations in a variety of capacities for nearly three decades.
She has spent the past 17 years working with the Burbank Coordinating Council on their annual Holiday Basket Project, the latest incarnation of an all-volunteer program that has served the Burbank community for more than 80 years.
Since 1996, the Holiday Basket Project has provided food and gifts to low-income, at-risk and homeless families. More than 2,500 volunteers provide assistance to more than 2,400 recipients, making it the largest service project in the city of Burbank.
Oseguera has served on the project’s steering committee and is in charge of storing, sorting and bagging food collected from three citywide food drives each year. She helped implement a computer program to match donors with recipients throughout the city.
She also works year-round to sort and label all clothing and toy donations. On delivery day in December she coordinates with drivers to deliver the food and gifts directly to their intended families.
In addition to her efforts with the Holiday Basket Project, Oseguera handles logistics and coordination for the annual luncheon fundraiser that raises money for the Burbank Coordinating Council and their “Coins for Camp” program that allows underprivileged children to attend summer camp every year.
Previously, Oseguera spent 12 years volunteering for charitable endeavors while also serving in the Navy. As a Navy veteran, she works with Fundraising for Veterans to organize their silent auction.
She also works with Family Promise, organizing community relations with daycare centers, churches and the YMCA for families in need.
In her spare time, Oseguera volunteers as a consultant for her son’s Boy Scout troop, advising on fundraising strategies.
President, The Procko Group Inc.
Veteran publicist Sue Procko has been involved with industry charities for more than two decades. From 1992 through 2017, Procko worked in various capacities with the Video Industry AIDS Action Committee (later called the Entertainment AIDS Alliance and this year renamed the Entertainment Aid Alliance), serving on the board and as president. She was inspired to join the AIDS charity when a friend passed away, she says.
“We had to take up a collection to bury him because his parents wouldn’t have anything to do with him,” she recalls.
The charity has helped countless people with hospice, living expenses and other assistance. Procko’s brother contracted the disease in 1995 and is alive today thanks to new drugs.
Her latest mission is as secretary and board member of the Christina Grimmie Foundation, named after “The Voice” star tragically shot and killed at age 22 while signing autographs in 2016. Procko got to know “and fell in love with” the Grimmie family, who founded the charity, having worked on Stadium Media’s romantic comedy The Matchmaker, starring the singer.
The organization has a dual mission, to provide aid to families of gun violence victims and to support breast cancer patients and their families. Grimmie’s mother died of the disease this past September.
In addition to helping victims of the Las Vegas Route 91 shooting in 2017, the foundation assisted six of the 12 victims of the Borderline Bar and Grill shooting in Thousand Oaks, Calif., last month, offering help with travel and funeral expenses within the first 10 days. Government and other grants to shooting victims are often restricted and slow in coming, but the foundation’s funds are unrestricted, allowing for a quick response all the more remarkable as a massive wildfire plagued the area shortly afterward.
“We literally can cut a check in 48 hours,” Procko says.
The foundation (christinagrimmiefoundation.org) raises funds in part through two annual events: an annual gala in Hollywood in September and an East Coast event, taking place next year on March 9 in New Jersey.
Procko encourages others to give of their time and money.
“It doesn’t have to be with a large organization,” she says. “Everybody needs a little help now and again, to know that somebody else is there.”
When top executives get involved in charities, their involvement generally consists of sitting on the board of one or two nonprofits. They attend fundraising dinners, shake a lot of hands and pose for pictures.
That description most certainly does not fit Galen Smith, the CEO of Redbox, the No. 1 disc-rental company and one of the Big Eight digital retailers. Based in Seattle, Smith — and his family — are actively involved in more than half a dozen charities, including the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Alaska and Washington, which grants wishes to children with critical illnesses; Operation Nightwatch, which fights poverty and homelessness; WACAP, one of the largest international nonprofit adoption and child assistance agencies; and The Exodus Road, a nonprofit that specializes in staging rescues from alleged human trafficking.
“For Make-a-Wish and WACAP we purchase tables to their gala auctions and we invite our friends to expose them to the great work that these organizations are doing and hopefully help them catch a vision for how they might have an impact through being involved themselves,” Smith says. “We set up a number of endowed scholarships at several of the schools we went to. And each year we volunteer at Northwest Harvest to package food that will be given away during the holidays.” (Northwest Harvest distributes food to a network of more than 370 food banks, meal programs, and high-need schools throughout Washington state.)
For the CEO of one of the home entertainment industry’s top companies, that’s a lot on the proverbial plate. But Smith, a native of Olympia, Wash., insists it’s just what he does — and who he is.
“I spent the first nine years of my professional career working as a fundraiser for two organizations: the YMCA of Greater Seattle and Wheaton College,” Smith says. “It really helped shape my view of the world and the opportunity to give back and help those in need.”
Giving back is a responsibility his family takes very seriously “in light of all we have been given,” he says. “We center our giving and support where we feel we can make the most impact — at our church and through nonprofits that support women, children, education and the homeless.”
Senior Director of Marketing, FandangoNow
Nantalie Song and her husband, Young, director of business development and digital distribution at NBCUniversal, were vacationing in Hawaii when they got the news that their 1-year-old daughter Emi — who had been genetically tested after experiencing some developmental delays — has Down syndrome, a chromosomal condition occurring once in every 691 babies born.
“We were in disbelief,” Nan Song says.
Emi, now 4, has the rare mosaic form, affecting only 2% of people with Down syndrome. While people with Down syndrome have an extra copy (three) of chromosome 21 in all their cells, people with mosaic Down syndrome have a mixture of cells, some with two copies of chromosome 21, and some with three.
“The news rocked our world,” she recalls. “We didn’t know what it meant, and only imagined the scary possibilities of what would be our new normal.”
Luckily, they found Club 21 (clubtwentyone.org) and were welcomed by the open arms of its “amazing” executive director Nancy Litteken, she says. Club 21 is a learning and resources center for individuals with Down syndrome and their families that coincidentally is located in Pasadena, Calif., where the Songs live, but draws families from all over Southern California. From first diagnosis onward, Club 21 empowers families to identify the needs of their child with Down syndrome and teaches them how to navigate the terrain of the medical, educational, and Regional Center systems to maximize their child’s potential. Through its educational pathway, Club 21 is changing the narrative of Down syndrome and opening doors so that individuals with Down syndrome can be fully included and live healthy, self-determined and fulfilling lives.
“It’s not a death sentence nor a disease,” Song says. “It doesn’t mean a poor quality of life. Emi will achieve typical milestones at her own pace, and in her unique way. She’s 4, and she still needs some assistance walking, but the point is, she’ll get there.”
In fact, this year in October Emi showed off her walking skills at Club 21’s biggest fundraiser: the annual Together is Better Walkathon. She was able to the walk the circuit herself, with the force of “Team Emi” fans around her, walking in solidarity to raise awareness of Down syndrome. Team Emi has helped raise more than $35,000 to keep Club 21 programs running for families in need.
“The desire to give back and to be inclusive is the essence of our community,” Song says. “I feel grateful to Club 21 because a lot of people go through it feeling alone.”
Of their daughter Emi, the Songs say, “She teaches us patience; she’s a game changer. We live our life more appreciative of the little everyday things.”
Senior Manager, Trade Marketing, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Brittany Williams has spent seven years working with Treasures, an organization that seeks to reach, restore and equip women and girls in the sex industry and victims of sex trafficking to live healthy, flourishing lives, and to train others across the globe to do the same in their communities.
She became invested in fighting human trafficking after discovering 70% of female sex workers have been trafficked into the commercial sex industry. According to statistics posted on the Treasures website, 89% of women in the sex industry want out but see no other means of survival. Treasures offers a way out, plus aftercare in the Los Angeles area.
Williams serves on Treasures’ leadership team, and offers her skills and resources to provide oversight on marketing, branding, communications and event planning. She leads the annual fundraising gala and charity auction, obtaining corporate and celebrity endorsements, while managing a team of more than 50 volunteers.
Administrative Assistant, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Teresa Woodberry has been an administrative assistant at what is now called Universal Pictures Home Entertainment for 33 years. She joined when the division was run by Louis Feola and Andrew Kairey, remained on board during the Craig Kornblau years and now assists three executives in the team headed by Eddie Cunningham.
But as committed as she is to her daily responsibilities at UPHE, Woodberry has also long been committed to the notion of “giving back.” For more than 15 years, she’s inspired and motivated her teammates to adopt needy families through A Place Called Home, which on its website describes itself as “a safe haven in South Central Los Angeles where under-served youth are empowered to take ownership of the quality and direction of their lives through programs in education, arts, and well-being.” Woodberry and crew make sure the family is well taken-care of; one year, she recalls, they even provided a family of seven with bunk beds, “because while they had a home, they had no place to sleep.”
This year, A Place Called Home had no family for Woodberry and her team to adopt, so “Momma Tess” — that’s what her colleagues call her — reached out to Children’s Hospital and is mounting a toy drive. Woodberry also volunteers her time each week as an usher at the Harmony Mission Baptist Church in South Central Los Angeles, despite the long drive from her home in Santa Clarita.
“I’ve always enjoyed helping the less fortunate,” says Woodberry, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles after moving out west from Michigan when she was 6. “I’m just drawn to helping people, I think because I was raised in a single-parent home. I lost my dad when I was 8, so it was just my mom, who had to raise three kids herself — so I know how tough life can be sometimes and want to do what I can to help.”
Executive Assistant, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Yolanda Wu helps fundraising activities at St. Robert Church, where her son serves as an altar boy. She also helps out in fundraising at her son’s school, where she’s a booster member.
Outside of church, she works with Family Promise to spearhead efforts to plan, coordinate and distribute meals to homeless families.
Wu galvanized the support of Warner Bros. Consumer Products during the holidays, using donations to assemble gift packages for needy families.
She is also involved in the Burbank recycling community, where she finds ways to recycle, reduce and cut costs. Wu has become a “master recycler,” earning the right to select specific community projects.
This year, she is responsible for implementing a food share program that allows children to “recycle” any food that they have not consumed during their lunch or breakfast hour. The idea is to gather the clean, unopened food and reduce food waste in schools. The program launched at various Burbank-area elementary schools and will expand to middle schools next year.