News

Heroes in Home Entertainment 2021

For a fourth consecutive year, Media Play News has selected a panel of honorees in the home entertainment industry who are known for their charitable work. From the executives who serve on boards or participate in direct charitable giving and activities, to those focusing their talents as foot soldiers in philanthropic endeavors locally, nationally and abroad, this group is contributing how and where they can.

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Mike Aaronson

EVP, digital distribution and global strategy,
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

The Westside Infant-Family Network (WIN) addresses a key issue at the root of many problems facing underprivileged communities in Los Angeles, says Mike Aaronson, who has been on its board for four years, including two years as board chairman.

“A lot of what we do as a society is focus on the problems we see, like how to feed meals to the homeless, how to get them into a safe place to live — which is all super important,” he says. “But equally important is how do we prevent more people from landing in that situation, and I think most people may not appreciate that it starts really, really early on in life. Something like homelessness is probably not something that just happened to a 30-year-old. It’s something that results from experiences that happened long before.”

Mike Aaronson (left) with Henry Winkler, who was honored by WIN in 2020.

WIN offers in-home mental health services for families with young kids, mostly 5 and under, to ameliorate adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. ACEs can range from divorce or parental incarceration to physical or mental neglect, physical or mental abuse and racial discrimination.

“The impact ACEs have on kids is very well known in the pediatric community, but not well known among the public, and ultimately is responsible for massive economic and social costs that we bear as a society,” says Aaronson. He says he learned more about the issue from his wife, a pediatrician whose employer, Kaiser Permanente, in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, produced some of the underpinning research on ACEs in the late 1990s.

Studies have shown a direct link between the number of ACEs a child experiences and the incidence of negative outcomes, such as poor school performance, depression, anxiety and risk behaviors as youths and, ultimately, illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes as adults.

“Imagine if you’re a 4-year-old kid and your parents are struggling to put food on the table or a parent has been incarcerated or taken by ICE, detained and maybe deported — your brain is in fight or flight mode most of the time,” he says. “What that means is these kids have cortisol flowing through their brains all the time. That can drastically alter the chemical makeup of a child’s brain, especially between the critical ages of 0 and 5 when most neural connections are created.”

Through referrals from local clinics and other sources, WIN intervenes, providing between 50 and 100 families annually with free in-home mental health therapy designed to build a stronger bond between parent and child. They also facilitate meeting the family’s basic needs by supplying things such as food, diapers and metro passes, all designed to stabilize the homes and foster healthy environments in which each child can thrive.

“They focus on the years where there’s the most plasticity in the brain, when there’s the most opportunity to change the trajectory of how the brain develops and the trajectory of a child’s life,” he says.

Aaronson has helped the organization win contracts from the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health and grow fourfold. During his term, WIN has also mounted fundraisers honoring those who do similar work in the space. In fall 2018, the nonprofit awarded Robert Redford’s son Jamie Redford (since passed) for his documentaries related to the topic, including Paper Tigers about teenagers in a high school for troubled kids. In February 2020, WIN honored Henry Winkler for his years of advocacy for children with learning disabilities as well as his daughter Zoe for her work creating better conditions for children and families at the border.

 

Sherry Brennan

GM and EVP,
Whip Media

Sherry Brennan

The cause is personal for Sherry Brennan, who is on the board of directors of the Food Research & Action Center.

As a child, she and her family depended on food assistance, and Brennan grew up knowing what it was like to come home to a bare kitchen.

Her own story is the reason she got involved with FRAC, a nonprofit on a mission to improve the nutrition, health and well-being of people struggling against poverty-related hunger in the United States. For about a decade, Brennan has worked with FRAC on lobbying efforts in support of nutrition assistance programs. She has spoken at their annual Conference on Hunger and received FRAC’s 2017 Distinguished Service Award.

Brennan first got involved when a lobbyist friend asked her to write about the food assistance she had received as a child for a booklet put together for incoming senators and members of Congress. “These programs were very important to me as a kid, and as I grew into adulthood and obviously became a successful executive, it was very important to me to give back and to work in whatever way I could to help those who are still struggling on their own paths up the ladder,” Brennan says.

There are two types of food insecurity, she notes. One is persistent lack of access to food, and the other is lack of access to quality food.

“About 15% of American families face some form of food insecurity, and that is a shocking number to many people, including me,” she says. “The other thing that’s shocking to me is that so many American families rely on cheap processed food as opposed to fresh, whole, nutritious food, and that is something that the SNAP (the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) tries to address by giving people access to coupons that they can use to buy food. There’s been a lot of progress made about places like farmers markets taking SNAP payment for fresh produce, which is really important to me.”

FRAC also supports free breakfast and lunch programs in schools, another program that Brennan depended upon as a child.

“All I had to do was find a way to quietly slink into the cafeteria manager’s office to get my lunch card every week, and after that I was able to get lunch just like all the other kids,” she recalled in her published story. “I was grateful for the mercy of a lunch system that made it possible for me to feel ‘normal.’”

Brennan is passionate about continued support for that program.

“Children cannot focus on school if they are hungry,” she says. “And we know that education is pretty much the only way out of poverty, unless you happen to be a star athlete, in which case you also need to eat.”

In addition to lobbying congress for continued financial support of these programs, FRAC also lobbies state legislatures. (The federal programs are administered by the states.) The mostly privately funded organization also supports numerous food banks.

The help makes all the difference in the trajectory of many Americans’ lives, she says, recalling one single mom’s story about putting herself through college. “She talked about the fact that SNAP benefits were the difference between her being able to have a 20-hour-a-week job and a 40-hour-a-week job,” Brennan recalls. “If she hadn’t had access to SNAP, she would have either had to quit school or she would have had to work more hours while being in school. You can imagine the dilemma there because if you quit school you’re stuck forever in a grinding cycle of low-income jobs. If you stay in school, you are faced with how to feed my kid.”

 

Richard Foos

Executive Chairman and Co-Founder,
Shout! Factory

Richard Foos’ journey with nonprofits is rooted in his love of music.

Richard Foos

He has been in the entertainment business for more than 35 years, starting with a small record store called Rhino Records, which grew into an audio label with more than $100 million in annual revenue. He and his partner, Harold Bronson, sold Rhino to Time Warner in 1998, and in 2003 Foos and his partners started Shout! Factory, a leading independent video and music distributor.

“For most of my career in the music industry, I was just kind of horrified that especially in the two biggest cities, L.A. and New York, they had stopped music education in the schools, so I really wanted to really get involved in an organization that was restoring music education,” he says.

He now serves as chairman emeritus for the nonprofit Little Kids Rock, with which he’s been involved for the past dozen years.

“They are the largest provider of music programs into inner city schools throughout the country,” he says.

Founded by David Wish, an elementary school teacher, Little Kids Rock offers a curriculum and musical instruments to about 2,500 schools across 48 states.

“When we adopt a school, we send them rock music instruments, guitars, drums and keyboards, 40 or 50 instruments maybe, depending on how many kids are in the class, and then the school provides a teacher,” Foos says. “Many times, it’s not a music teacher. It could be a math teacher who plays guitar and had a band in college 20 years before, and we teach them how to be Little Kids Rock teachers.”

Foos has been able to leverage his music connections to boost the program.

“I have a relationship with Joe Walsh of the Eagles, and I brought him to a class once and he was just amazing to watch,” he recalls. “You know these kids had probably never heard of Joe Walsh or the Eagles, but he had the class in the palm of his hand. You saw what a charismatic performer can do. They were mesmerized by him.”

One particularly inspirational teacher at Pio Pico Middle School in Los Angeles instructs about 300 kids.

“He has adolescent kids, and they all have instruments, and it could be a total cacophony, and instead he has them all playing together and helping each other,” Foos says. “He introduced us to a seventh grader who’d had some traumatic experiences and had written about them, and she sang us two or three songs she had written, and they were just unbelievable.”

Music led Foos to yet another nonprofit. He’s on the board of the Pico Union Project, started in Los Angeles by a friend, Craig Taubman, who previously had a musical show on the Disney Channel called “Craig and Company.” (Rhino had published his songs.) The Pico Union Project is an interfaith spiritual organization that does work for the community.

Foos is also involved in several other charities. He’s on the boards of the Volunteer Collective, a community service group he founded locally with friends, and College Match, which helps bright students in inner city Los Angeles schools get into top colleges. He also supports The Narrative Method, a nonprofit teaching empathy, cooperation and teamwork to at risk populations. It was founded by his wife, who started out as a punk rock singer.

“She used to sell her records to my record store,” Foos notes.

 

Judy Guevara

VP, Global Brand Marketing,
Sony Pictures Entertainment

Judy Guevara believes in volunteering wherever she is needed, whether it’s in her own backyard in Los Angeles, in another state or abroad in countries such as Haiti.

She is a hands-on volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and The Fuller Center for Housing. She has traveled to Uganda, Guatemala and Mexico, as well as Haiti, working with children and building homes and rebuilding homes after natural disasters. In recent years, she’s worked in Puerto Rico to help rebuild post Hurricane Maria and in Nicaragua, building a home for a young family. In September, she traveled to Louisiana to work with Saint Bernard Project’s disaster relief team to help families impacted by Hurricane Ida.

Locally, Guevara also volunteers with the L.A. Foodbank once a month and supports Good City Mentors as a mentor, meeting weekly with high school students.

“Working in entertainment, sometimes you kind of need a reality check,” Guevara says. “Life is difficult for a lot of people, and it kind of gives me a reality check trying to help others and just make the world a better place, being able to contribute and make a change in people’s lives.”

Her international volunteer work started when she read an article on “voluntourism.” Since then, she’s traveled to many countries, including five trips to Haiti.

“Haiti will always have a piece of my heart,” she says, recalling a special moment in the town of Pignon, where she had volunteered the previous year. Walking down the street, she heard kids yelling her name.

“It was these kids that I’d met the year before — and it’s not like we’d talked to each other,” she says. “They didn’t know I was coming, but they recognized me.”

Judy Guevara (center) with Saint Bernard Project’s disaster relief team in New Orleans after Hurricane Ida.

She also recalls building a home for a family in Nicaragua. “We were basically able to build their home where they could move in within that week, which was just a great feeling, to see the looks on their faces, the pure joy,” she says.

She knows such travel isn’t for everyone. “If you have fears about traveling internationally, there’s plenty to do here, in your own backyard,” she says.

The food bank Guevara helps out is just 10 minutes from her house. “People always say they don’t have the time, but if you make it part of your schedule or part of your life, it’s not that difficult,” she says.

Her mentoring duties with Good City Mentors (since the pandemic hit) involve a weekly, one-hour Zoom call. “I’m now mentoring a STEM school in Hollywood where we basically just get on a Zoom call with all the kids — they’re high school age, young adults,” she says. “We just kind of talk about values and ourselves and them, as well as what they’re going through.”

Further afield in New Orleans this year she helped clean up houses damaged by the hurricane. “We had to wear hazmat suits in 96-degree heat!” she recalls.

But she likes to get out of the country at least once a year and encourages people to do their research and volunteer abroad.

“They’re not going to allow you to go into a dangerous situation, these organizations,” she says. “You’re safe and secure, and the people are all lovely people, full of love, and they want your help. It’s just a great way to kind of see the world and to help others.”

During her travels, Guevara has developed a tight circle of voluntour friends.

“Once you get your first trip, I think you’re kind of hooked,” she says.

 

Hilary Hoffman

EVP, Global Marketing,
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Big Sunday connects people who want to help with those who need it most, says Hilary Hoffman.

“The organization has always believed that we’re all in it together, a particularly important message in these unprecedented times,” notes Hoffman, who became engaged with the nonprofit through NBC Universal’s corporate initiative.

Their mission is expansive. “They offer an enormous variety of opportunities to get involved,” she says. “They produce, promote, sponsor or are involved with more than 2,000 helping and giving activities every year that engage, empower, bring together and connect more than 50,000 people annually.”

Hilary Hoffman

Hoffman was drawn to the organization’s belief that “absolutely everyone has some way that they can help someone else.”

Big Sunday provides NBC Universal employees volunteer opportunities throughout the year.

“Our home entertainment division has supported several of these events over the years, enabling us to demonstrate to our employees that we are committed to fostering a positive culture. It is not just about the work we do, but about understanding that by giving back to our community we create a better, more engaged work environment,” Hoffman says.

The nonprofit excels at matching volunteers’ talents with the many needs in the community, she says.

“There are so many people in our communities who need your help and there are so many ways to get involved,” Hoffman says. “On a weekly basis,

Big Sunday provides opportunities to participate in person, virtually, or by donating. They have projects supporting every passion, from homelessness, literacy and the environment, to seniors, veterans and hunger. The organization welcomes, embraces and maximizes every talent offered, from cooking, cleaning, painting, gardening, electric, plumbing, legal aid and medical assistance, to singing, dancing and art.”

One of her favorite events during the year is the annual MLK Day Clothing Drive and Community Breakfast.

“Over the past few years we’ve given away 100,000 items of new and gently-used clothing,” Hoffman says. “The donations are distributed to grateful people of all ages at scores of nonprofits and schools throughout the greater L.A. area.”

The event serves the community by providing breakfast, live music and experiences such as the Civil Rights History Exhibit and the Something in Common project, where people are asked to find a complete stranger, find something that they have in common and have their picture taken together. The upcoming MLK event takes place Jan. 17 at Big Sunday headquarters on 6111 Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles.
Big Sunday also has an “Emergency Fund,” which they use to make quick grants of up to $100 each to hardworking people who are having trouble paying their bills. They pay all or part of any kind of bill — electric, cable, phone, car, medical, rent or mortgage. The fund is completely supported by donations.

 

Savannah Kattan

Employee Experience Specialist,
NBCU Direct-to-Consumer/Fandango and Vudu

Mentoring is key to both Savannah Kattan’s professional and volunteer career. She’s a human resources executive and for the past six years also has been a “Big Sister” for Big Brothers, Big Sisters — Los Angeles.

Helping youngsters is about giving back for Kattan.

“I was mentored when I was in high school when I really needed it,” she says. “I had a stressful time in high school. My family was going through a lot and the extra support I received was the boost I needed to keep my confidence up and get into college. In college I mentored incoming college freshmen during their junior and senior years of high school, and it was really rewarding watching them apply and be accepted into school. Through another collegiate program, I had the opportunity to tutor kids 7 to 14. You don’t just help them with homework, but really get to know them on an emotional level. After I graduated college and started working, I wanted to get back to that — support the youth in my community. A few friends had successfully participated with BBBS-LA, so I applied.”

Savannah Kattan and her ‘Little Sister’ Desiree at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.

As a Big Sister, Kattan formed a strong bond her Little Sister.

“It was immediate,” she says. “When you’re paired, you do this short chemistry meeting first to see if it will be a fit. Within the first two minutes we had each other laughing. Desiree was 14, and I was twice her age, and it was, like, this instant sibling magic. We loved the same junk food, the same types of music, and our family structure mirrored each other. She was driven, interested in everything around her, and wanted someone to take her seriously. She told me, at 14, she wanted to be a doctor, and I said, ‘Great! I’ve always wanted to know a doctor!’ And I’ve just always believed she could do it. Now, she is pre-med at Humboldt. She has stayed focused and determined, and I’m extremely proud of her.”

Kattan also sees herself as a guide for fellow employees. At the start of 2020, she oversaw Fandango’s inaugural launch of five Employee Resource Groups and assisted in their immediate pivot into digital spaces as necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would actually say that the more community work I do, the better I am at HR,” she says. “Working in the community offers a pretty broad perspective on the desires, wants, and needs of people. How does that translate to the office? How can I meet people where they are? There is a lot of mindfulness and patience I practice in my regular day to day that I bring with me to work. I lean in to our company values and root myself as an ambassador of our internal culture — this determines how I am best able to show up for folks.”

Her desire to help also extends to her community.

“Community isn’t just the neighborhood you live in, but the people who live in it,” she says. “I volunteer when I can and I try to inspire all my friends and family to come along, too. And I’m not just talking your typical food drives, but sustainably supporting community fridges — and pitching in by signing up for a cleaning session. Sweep in front of your apartment building and keep things tidy where you can. Have extra? Get a couple loaves of bread, some PB&J and water. Hand out a quick bite and drink to houseless folks on your block. Volunteer for reading programs at the library. I just try to stay active and productive for the people I share the world with. We are all just trying our best — and I just want people to know they are seen, and that they matter.”

 

Dina Wiggins

SVP, Legal Affairs,
Sony Pictures Entertainment

When Dina Wiggins found out that $250 could change a child’s life, she joined the cause of Mending Faces. Founded by a group of medical professionals, the charity’s mission is to restore hope and provide a brighter future to those whose lives are burdened by a cleft lip, cleft palate and other deformities. All medical, dental and outreach personnel donate their time and expertise and fully fund their own travel and lodging expenses, allowing Mending Faces to perform procedures for roughly $250 each, provided at no cost to the patient or their family. These same procedures in the United States cost approximately $10,000 to $15,000 each.

Inspired by her brother, who is an anesthesiologist and founding board member of the charity founded in 2010, Wiggins has donated and participated in fundraisers for the cause for more than a decade.

Dina Wiggins (right) with her brother Dr. Sami Lababidi at a hospital in Kalibo, Philippines.

Children born with facial defects face many disadvantages, such as difficulty in feeding and getting proper nutrition, which can lead to numerous other health problems. When the roof of the mouth is not closed properly, it can lead to constant upper respiratory tract and sinus infections. Children can also have difficulties speaking properly.

“Sadly, many of these children are kept out of school because of the stigma and illnesses associated with their deformity, preventing them from receiving a proper education, limiting their opportunities and causing self-esteem issues,” she notes.

In February 2020, shortly before the pandemic hit, Wiggins joined the annual medical mission to the Philippines as a volunteer.

“I assisted in the pre-screening, surgical prep, transfers from pre-op to operating room to recovery, and obtaining and organizing supplies for a very busy mission consisting of 63 patients and 77 cleft lip and palate procedures in one week,” she says.

As part of outreach in the community, she visited an elementary school where the charity provided each of the children with dental education, a toothbrush, toothpaste and an oral hygiene pamphlet.

Changing one young life particularly affected Wiggins.

“There was a young patient (approximately 7 years old) that I was able to be with throughout each stage of the process,” she says. “I assisted her as she went through screening to determine that she was a good candidate for surgery and pre-op preparation. When it was time for her operation, she literally skipped into the operating room full of masked strange adults and medical equipment. When asked if she was ready for her operation, she said, ‘Yes!,’ hopped up on the operating table and laid down. After her surgical recovery time in the hospital, I also accompanied her home with a backpack of supplies for her post-op care and bags of rice, fruit and bottled water for her and her family. Their home was very modest — made of cinder block, plywood and corrugated metal sheeting for the roof — and they were so gracious and grateful. It was obvious that there was no way they could have paid for the surgery without Mending Faces.

“As we were leaving, I asked her if she would like a sticker from a Barbie sticker sheet I brought from home because she had been such a wonderful, brave patient. As she eyed the sheet trying so hard to decide which one she wanted, I told her she could keep the whole sheet. The utter joy on her beautiful, newly repaired face as she clutched that sticker sheet to her little chest is something I will never forget.”

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