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.”

Netflix Establishes Chadwick Boseman Scholarship at Howard

Howard University and Netflix have announced a $5.4 million endowed scholarship to honor the late actor, director, writer, producer and Howard alumnus Chadwick A. Boseman.

The Chadwick A. Boseman Memorial Scholarship will provide incoming students in the College of Fine Arts with a four-year scholarship to cover the full cost of university tuition.

“It is with immense pleasure and deep gratitude that we announce the creation of an endowed scholarship in honor of alumnus, Chadwick Boseman, whose life and contributions to the arts continues to inspire,” said Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick, M.D. “This scholarship embodies Chadwick’s love for Howard, his passion for storytelling, and his willingness to support future generations of Howard students. I am thankful for the continuous support and partnership of Chadwick’s wife, Mrs. Simone Ledward Boseman, and to Netflix for this important gift.”

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The Chadwick A. Boseman Memorial Scholarship was established with the support of Boseman’s wife, Simone Ledward-Boseman, and sponsorship from Netflix, the inaugural donor. It will focus on students who exemplify exceptional skills in the arts reminiscent of Boseman, and who demonstrate financial need. Four students representing one member of each class are being awarded the scholarship in the first year. The inaugural class of awardees are Sarah Long, a freshman in musical theater; Shawn Smith, a sophomore studying acting; Janee’ Ferguson, a junior in theater arts administration; and senior Deirdre Dunkin who studies dance. The award will in subsequent years be distributed to an incoming freshman each year on an annual basis.

“Many exemplary artists are not afforded the opportunity to pursue higher learning, we hope to support as many students as possible by removing the financial barrier to education. This endowment represents Chad’s devotion to the craft, his compassion for others, and his desire to support future storytellers,” said Ledward-Boseman. “My deepest thanks to Ted Sarandos, Scott Stuber and our family at Netflix for their generous investment into the education of all present and future Boseman Scholars, and to President Wayne Frederick, Dean Phylicia Rashad and Mr. David Bennett for their partnership and continued commitment to Chad’s legacy at Howard. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude and amazed at the love and dedication shown by so many continuing to honor my husband’s work. I know he’d be proud.”

“It is with enormous pride that we announce our endowment of the Chadwick A. Boseman Memorial Scholarship,” said Ted Sarandos, Netflix co-CEO and chief content officer. “While he was taken from us too soon, his spirit is with us always in his work and the good that he has inspired. He always spoke of his time at Howard and the positive way it shaped his life and career. Now, we will have the opportunity to give many future superheroes a chance to experience the same. We are grateful to Simone and Chadwick’s whole family and our partners at Howard University for making this possible.”

In continuing the actor’s legacy, preference for the scholarship will be given to students in the dramatic arts who exemplify Boseman’s values.

For more information about the scholarship, contact finearts@howard.edu.

Heroes in Home Entertainment 2020

It’s been a year of tragedy and controversy, topped by the coronavirus pandemic — an unprecedented event — and also including protests over police brutality, widespread denunciations of racism and a contentious election.

Key players in the entertainment sector stepped in to help.

To support the mission of When We All Vote, a nonprofit co-chaired by Michelle Obama and founded to increase voter participation, HBO Max streamed for free to non-subscribers a get-out-the-vote election special featuring the original cast from “The West Wing.” For the first time in 17 years, the cast came together for a stage presentation of the “Hartsfield’s Landing” episode, and WarnerMedia made a financial donation to When We All Vote.

Moved by the murder of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, ongoing racism and disproportionate suffering in the black community as a result of the coronavirus, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings and his wife, Patty Quillin, in June announced they would donate $120 million to educational institutions emphasizing access to students of color.

Also in June, The Walt Disney Co. pledged $5 million to support nonprofit organizations that advance social justice, beginning with a $2 million donation to the NAACP. On May 2, Disney aired a slate of special programming on a number of its TV networks to encourage a discussion of racism and oppression in America.

Disney also stepped up to assist health workers during the pandemic. On April 1, the company announced the donation of 100,000 N95 masks and 150,000 rain ponchos to healthcare workers in California, New York and Florida.

In the spring during the initial shutdowns, Lionsgate presented “Lionsgate Live! A Night at the Movies,” a program of free movies streamed live on YouTube, and hosted by Jamie Lee Curtis, to benefit theater employees furloughed by the COVID-19 crisis. The studio, along with Fandango and YouTube, live-streamed four of Lionsgate’s most popular library titles — The Hunger Games, Dirty Dancing, La La Land and John Wick — on Lionsgate’s YouTube page and Fandango’s Movieclips YouTube page. Lionsgate’s initial donation as well as audience and partner donations throughout the event benefited the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation, dedicated to helping workers throughout the motion picture industry.

To support the shuttered live theater industry, Universal Pictures on April 2 announced a “The Shows Must Go On” YouTube Channel, providing live theater fans with a West End and Broadway experience online for free. Fans on the site could make a charitable donation to a variety of organizations, including Acting for Others, Broadway Cares and Actors Benevolent Fund. The initiative came from the Universal Pictures Home Entertainment Content Group, a London-based “repertoire centre” of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment that acquires and produces entertainment for distribution across theatrical, home entertainment, television and digital platforms.

Meanwhile, with public schools switching to online classes during the coronavirus pandemic, Comcast Corp. CEO Brian Roberts and his wife, Aileen, in March pledged $5 million toward the purchase of laptop computers for school children in Philadelphia.

While giving was and is widespread in Hollywood, Media Play News for a third consecutive year has selected a few honorees in the home entertainment industry who are known for their charitable and activist 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 and activist endeavors, this group is contributing how and where they can.

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Sheila Appleton

Senior Analyst, Business Operations, Disney Platform Distribution

Sheila Appleton

While most of us have been making a sport of being a couch potato, bragging about our binge-viewing prowess during the pandemic, Appleton has found a way to stay busy, even when she’s sitting down.

Among her many volunteering efforts, she helps out a nonprofit called Zooniverse through the Smithsonian Museum by entering historical statistics on climate change, wildlife patterns and other phenomena into a computer.

“Research vessels have gone out and tracked the weather in certain regions or tracked migration, and those are all hand-written logs,” she says.

Appleton takes scans of those logs and transcribes them for easy use and search on the Web.

“Different scientists trying to do a study, students, all sorts of people then have access to this research that was done, rather than it just sitting in a storage room somewhere in a notebook,” she says. “I’ve done one where you’re documenting a photograph in the Serengeti of the different wildlife, where you count the wildlife, write about what they’re doing, put down what type of wildlife it is.

“It’s great because it’s helping a scientist, a biologist or someone who’s studying climate change and the effect of that. If I can help do my little part, I’m thrilled.”

This type of volunteering also holds a special interest for Appleton, as she was a history major in college. She is currently working on transcribing data from the Holocaust.

“I think the more we learn from history of mistakes made in the past, the more we will prevent those mistakes from happening again,” she says.

“Mentally it’s very draining because these are people that most likely didn’t make it, and they had to give all the information on their entire family and those people were then getting rounded up and imprisoned and killed.”

The work is affecting in another way. Growing up, her grandparents’ next-door neighbor was Gerda Weissman Klein, a Holocaust survivor who wrote a book about her experience (All But My Life), which she read.

“I knew her, so when I saw this project it was like I’m going to do this in honor of her because this is someone who was in my life, who survived this, who shared her story,” Appleton says.

During the pandemic, her daughter, who is a nurse, kept her apprised of the PPE needs at the hospital. Appleton made face masks for the hospital, as well as for volunteers at a local food bank experiencing a crush of needy citizens. Lately, she’s been making scrub caps for the nurses.

“I guess they’ve found recently the coronavirus does tend to cling to different parts of your body, especially your hair, and a lot of the nurses have longer hair, and typical scrub caps were made for men with short hair,” she says. “So I make scrub caps that have little ponytail pockets that can encapsulate all their hair.”

Among the other charitable ventures in which she’s involved are working for a clean-water nonprofit, serving as the communications chairperson on a Disney employee resource group in the disability space, spending time as a ski patroller providing first-response medical care (though she doesn’t even ski), composting, recycling, donating to local animal shelters — and serving on the board of a nonprofit that supports a school in Haiti.

“We’re so spoiled in this country because we have free education,” Appleton notes. “In a country like Haiti, you have to pay to go to school. Few kids get to go to school, so very few people learn to read and write and have the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.”

A lot of the girls at the school are basically indentured servants. “You’d think in this day and age that doesn’t happen, but it does, and by providing them a meal every day, all of their school supplies, their tuition, the uniform, everything, it gets their whole family out of poverty because they can then get a job, earn money, not have to work basically as an indentured servant,” she says.

Giving back is important to Appleton and her family, and she says one bright spot in the pandemic is that it’s allowed her to convert some of her two-hour commuting time into volunteer activities.

“I’m someone who doesn’t like to sit still,” Appleton says.

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Ryan Black

VP, Acquisitions and Development, Grindstone Entertainment Group, a Lionsgate Company

Ryan Black

Black’s work with the veteran community began as many stories do — with a dog.

Stan Wertlieb, head of acquisitions and a partner at Grindstone, and Karen Kraft, chair of the board of directors for Veterans in Media and Entertainment (VME), met while walking their dogs in their neighborhood.

VME is a nonprofit organization of more than 4,200 members that unites current and former members of the military working in the entertainment industry through programs for jobs, internships and education.

“VME had been searching for a way to get some of their talented writers experience in pitching projects and to get their scripts seen by more studios and production companies,” Black recalls.

Out of Wertlieb and Kraft’s dog walks would come the Grindstone-VME annual script pitch program and the opportunity for Black to begin working with veterans.

With the encouragement and support of Barry Brooker, president of Grindstone, Black spearheaded the first of several script pitch events, in which VME members pitched their scripts to the Grindstone team. This pitch program gave the veterans experience pitching to film executives and offered Grindstone the opportunity to find good scripts that it could help get produced.

Ryan Black (left) and VME members Danillo Prieto (Marine veteran, standing) and Mark Maley (Army veteran) after the L.A. Marathon.

“One of the old adages about screenwriting is write what you know, and these folks have lived through a lot of experiences that someone like me can’t even fathom,” Black says. “What they bring to these scripts is from personal experience. That’s something that you just can’t teach.”

The Grindstone team has since put several of these scripts into development. The subjects fit right into the action-thriller genre for which the company is well known.

Inspired by the veterans he met in VME, Black then volunteered to be the civilian co-lead of the Lionsgate Veterans Employee Resource Group at its inception in 2017 (a position he held until the end of 2019).

Along with co-leader Leon Pilosof, Navy veteran and Lionsgate EVP and head of procurement, Black led numerous philanthropic and volunteer events to benefit veterans in the Los Angeles community with organizations such as Veterans Day L.A., New Directions for Veterans, Operation Gratitude, Mission Continues and Honor Flight Homecoming.

Ryan Black and other Lionsgate employees with members of the VME at American Legion Post 283 in Pacific Palisades carb loading prior to the L.A. Marathon.

Black also helped organize roundtrip shuttle buses for homeless veterans to participate in the Los Angeles Veteran’s Administration’s Stand Down Day which provided assistance such as dental and medical services, haircuts and hot meals. He also led Team VME/LG Vets in running the 2019 L.A. Marathon, raising more than $11,000 for VMEconnect, an online platform for veterans and hiring managers.

The Lionsgate ERG group also helped facilitate several veteran hires at the company.

“I’ve always been in awe of the military and the bravery of those men and women who serve this country,” Black says.

Black wants to encourage other civilians to get involved.

“It’s an honor to be able to give back in some small way to help show appreciation for those folks who have put their life on the line for our freedom,” he says.

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VaNiesha Honani

Software Developer Engineer in Test, FandangoNow and Vudu

VaNiesha Honani

For Honani, a member of the Hopi Nation, giving to her community is a family affair.

Her great-grandfather was a Bronze Star code talker during World War II. A code talker is the name given to Native Americans who used their tribal language to send secret communications on the battlefield. Her grandfather served in the Navy in the same war (lying about his age at 16 to enlist after Pearl Harbor). And she served in the Navy as an IT technician from 1998 to 2005.

Honani now gives back by working with and talking to kids in her Hopi and other Native American tribes about jobs in STEM. She has also shared her career path to becoming an engineer at local elementary school career days and at the University of California, Riverside, Science and Entertainment Exchange, and Hopi Education Endowment Fund events. She also is a regular speaker for AISES (the American Indian Science & Engineering Society).

From the small village of Walpi, one of the oldest inhabited places in North America located on the Hopi Reservation (population 19,327) in northern Arizona, Honani learned from her grandfather Perry Honani Jr. to serve those around her.

“It’s something that he just really drove into us,” she says. “If we’re going to leave the reservation or we’re going to leave home, we do something to help our people.”

(L-R): VaNiesha Honani’s cousin Caroline Sekaquaptewa, her paternal grandmother (Mary Ann Honani), Honani (holding the gold medal) and her aunt Rosa Honani in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 20, 2013. The medal was awarded to the tribe on behalf of 11 Hopi code talkers.

Honani, who has also played semi-professional football as a lineman for the Los Angeles Warriors, sees herself an unconventional role model. She got into IT by teaching herself and gaining experience in the Navy. Starting as a radio technician on the ship, she moved into networking and at one point got a book on how to repair computers.

“Before you knew it, I was managing our network shop, our IT shop,” she says. The Navy started sending her to schools for certifications, and she got into QA work, which eventually led her to MGO, which was acquired and became FandangoNow.

She uses that experience to show kids “you can come from a village with no electricity and water and be in technology.”

There’s not one pathway to success, she emphasizes.

“I was horrible at math and my teacher told me, ‘That’s OK if you don’t know math. You’re probably not going to be an engineer,’” she recalls. “Today that’s what I do.”

At a hackathon for AISES, she helped a dyslexic girl working on a dictionary for her native language learn how to use computers to make it easier to read. After speaking at a school for Fandango TECHWomen, Honani received a thank you card from one of the girls who attended. Honani always brings her football equipment with her and shows kids how to run a test on the screen. In her note, the girl said she wanted to get into coding and play football, as well.

“I come from a very traditional family. As far as Hopi, Native American, we’re very traditional people. I’m like an octagon in a square box,” she says. “You reach somebody like that — and that was what it was all about.”
As a veteran, she has been a member of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) for 10 years, utilizing resources through IAVA to raise awareness about PTSD, suicide prevention and mental health in conjunction with the Hopi’s local American Legion Post. She recently finished her first “ultramarathon” (50K) to raise awareness for Hopi water issues. She started her own blog, “1,000 Words and a Cup of Coffee,” where she writes about a variety of topics, including the history of Hopi code talkers and her military service.

At one point several years ago, she helped folks in the town of Piru in Ventura County, filled with agricultural workers, install solar panels that took them off the grid. Recently, she has been raising money for Hopi Relief, which is providing supplies during COVID while the reservation is in lockdown. The closest stores are about 100 miles away.

All the while, Honani has recalled the core Hopi values of community — sumi’nungwa, meaning “come together for the benefit of all”; and nami’nangwa, helping others in need without being asked or expecting something back.

“Be useful,” she recalls her grandfather telling her. “Don’t be a lump on a log. Be useful.”

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Michael Murphy

President, Gravitas Ventures

Michael Murphy

For Murphy, there’s no place like home to make a difference.

Murphy is an executive at independent supplier Gravitas Ventures — which has had a footprint in his hometown of Cleveland since 2013 and completed its move from Los Angeles in 2019, buying a building in the city. He’s also been working for years at another hometown venture — Boys Hope Girls Hope of Northeastern Ohio, a college-prep program for high-potential, underprivileged kids in the city’s Garfield Heights suburb.

“The executive director was a high school classmate of mine, and I’ve known him for a long time,” Murphy says. “I initially got involved in the big fundraiser each year that’s a golf tournament. I was able to help him out with that, and he said, ‘Well, we really need you to join the board.’”

Murphy has been on the board of directors since 2016 and has raised more than $1 million for the mission.

“It’s an outstanding organization, and they are extraordinarily effective at what they do,” he says.

Boys Hope Girls Hope identifies children in fifth grade who are recommended by principals, teachers or others in the community as having potential and needing assistance.

These kids, called “scholars,” he says, “have some real motivation but are in bad circumstances through no fault of their own.” They stay with the program through high school and receive support through college graduation and career launch. About 18 scholars live on the campus in Northeastern Ohio while another roughly 180 non-residential scholars visit the campus at least weekly.

“Only 11% of children from poverty who are the first in their family to attend college actually graduate,” he notes. “For the scholars of Boys Hope Girls Hope, who fit the same profile, the persistence and graduation rate is nearly 90%, so the efficacy of the program was what drew me to it.”

Michael Murphy in 2019 at the dedication for the football field donated by the Haslam family that owns the Cleveland Browns.

The Boys Hope Girls Hope campus offers scholars assistance such as counseling and tutoring and amenities such as physical centers for yoga, basketball courts, and even a football field that was donated by the Haslam family that owns the Cleveland Browns. In fact, the organization was the first non-school recipient of a field from the family. The kids, who go to school throughout Cleveland, are transported to the campus by volunteers and staff.

“Some of these are students who, if they were left wherever they were, probably wouldn’t graduate high school,” he says. “They’d be an unfortunate statistic that’s very real in our community.”

The campus also offers amenities to the community surrounding it, and during the pandemic shutdown, Boys Hope Girls Hope was able to assist local schools with “at risk” students, allowing them to use the campus.
“I thought what does ‘at risk’ mean?” he recalls. “That meant they’re homeless. These were students that had nowhere to go. If you’re homeless and you’re at a shelter where you may have to vacate during the day or, even if you don’t have to vacate, you can only imagine trying to do Zooms or other things in that type of environment.”

During the shutdown, the organization also brought food to and checked in with their scholars, who were eager to get back to campus.

“The poverty in the city of Cleveland is very high,” he says. “It’s actually some of the highest in the nation, and it’s unfortunate that it’s happening in the place that we love and we call home. Margaux (his wife) and I decided that we’re going to take an active role in this.”

Murphy notes education is an important tool in breaking that cycle of poverty. Many of their scholars are the first in their family to attend college who will “be able to go back to their neighborhood and their community and say, ‘I did it.’”

“They become a role model, and hopefully what they’ve done is something that can be replicated,” he says. “A kid can say he or she did it; I can do it too.”

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Tara O’Donnell

Director, Global Digital Marketing, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Tara O’Donnell

“Think globally, act locally” is a common phrase among advocates, but it sums up O’Donnell’s activism.

She has been volunteering with the ONE Campaign for more than a decade. ONE is a global movement that seeks to end extreme poverty and preventable disease by 2030. O’Donnell lobbies members of Congress about legislation that aligns with the organization’s mission and has helped to pass more than 10 important bills.

She is currently the congressional district leader for California’s 29th district (where she lives), represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by Tony Cardeñas.

“ONE strives to have congressional leaders in all of the congressional districts across the United States,” she says. “It really matters to the representative that you live in their district, that you’re their constituent.”
O’Donnell organizes people in her district who are supportive of ONE’s aims to make their opinions known to the representatives. They set up tables at like-minded events to spread the word. Every February ONE has a summit in Washington, D.C., during which volunteers meet with their members of Congress or their staff and talk to them about issues of concern.

“This past February I was in Washington, D.C., and we were talking about replenishing the United States funding for GAVI, which is the Global Vaccine Alliance,” she says. “GAVI helps vaccinate almost half of the world’s children against deadly infectious diseases like measles and mumps.”

The United States is an important supporter of GAVI.

“The funding bill will expire every few years for GAVI, so we went in to talk to our representatives about making sure that the United States replenishes our funding commitment,” O’Donnell notes.

Tara O’Donnell (right) with U.S. House Representative Tony Cardeñas.

In fact, her work often involves just keeping funding in place from the United States.

“One of the things we campaign on regularly is the international affairs budget,” she says. “That’s the portion of the United States budget that gets allocated to international affairs. It’s a very small part of the budget. It’s like less than 1% of our overall budget. It covers all sorts of things like the Peace Corps and embassies, but also programs like the Global Fund, PEPFAR and GAVI. It’s always a challenge to make sure that none of that funding is cut, and you know it’s always a big success when it isn’t cut.”

While ONE’s work may seem remote from the kind of boots-on-the-ground aid of other organizations, it is having an effect, O’Donnell notes. In a recent tourist trip to Tanzania, “I saw a lot of signs around for projects from USAID and that’s the international affairs budget — so you could see the United States’ impact on the areas of the country that I was visiting,” she says.

She also talked to locals who mentioned the job opportunities created by those programs.

“I’m actually not a fan of politics,” she says. “That’s why I like ONE because it’s not about politics; it’s about advocacy.”

In fact, the group is nonpartisan and doesn’t support any piece of legislation that isn’t co-sponsored by both sides of the aisle in both houses. In persuading those unsure of giving overseas when there are problems at home, she says, “It’s a national security issue for us when there are countries that aren’t stable.” She also discusses the aim of moving countries “from aid to trade,” making sure people have jobs, can send their kids to school, etc.

“Then they become trading partners, which is good for us as a country because we have people we can sell goods to, and then that creates jobs in our country,” O’Donnell argues.

It’s also just the right thing to do, she says.

“We’re the greatest country in the world,” O’Donnell says. “We should be a leader. We should protect people who can’t protect themselves. We should have a voice for people who don’t have a voice.”

O’Donnell notes the ONE world focus is all the more important as the globe faces a pandemic.

“What COVID has taught us is that we are not alone in this world,” she says. “It’s a global economy. It’s a global world. We all impact each other. That’s why we should focus externally, as well as internally. We should fix our problems here, but we should also not ignore what’s going on outside of our borders.”

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Donny O’Malley

Founder and Chief Content Officer, VET Tv

Donny O’Malley

In his profession and as a volunteer, retired Marine Capt. O’Malley epitomizes the adage that laughter is the best medicine. He has employed comic relief in entertaining and salving the wounds of the veteran community, both as founder of San Diego-based subscription streaming service VET Tv (veterantv.com), which offers humorous content about military subjects, and as architect of the veterans nonprofit Irreverent Warriors.

Irreverent Warriors brings military veterans together at “Silkies Hikes” around the country, as well as at other events, to help build social connection while improving veteran mental health and reducing the number of veteran suicides.

“Silkies are these tiny little green shorts that used to get issued to us in boot camp,” he explains. “They can be worn as underwear. They can also be worn as outerwear. But they’re really short and they expose a lot. And so naturally in the military, when a bunch of guys are wearing silkies, you can’t help but laugh.”

The idea for an irreverent event came to him as he watched the dark humor of his fellow veterans and experienced one of them, a friend who had enjoyed his blog of funny stories about combat, die from suicide.

“His mother was crying over the casket, ‘Why?,’” he recalls. “I thought to myself maybe I can give his mother a reason why, maybe her son died so that others could live. If we could just come together and laugh, laugh with each other, good things are going to come from that.”

Donny O’Malley (left) with a veteran at a
Silkies Hike.

O’Malley decided to get a group of men with whom he served together for a hike. The idea was to “put some backpacks on, feel some weight on our back, have a little bit of that pain that we used to feel as infantrymen, put our combat boots on, and go hiking along the boardwalk of San Diego and stop at bars and laugh and tell stories and just have a good time.”

A buddy agreed, “Yes, let’s do it in silkies!”

The first hike was organized around the number 22 — with participants carrying 22 kilograms on their backs and hiking 22 kilometers for the 22 veterans who kill themselves every day.

O’Malley planned on a dozen participants, and 75 showed up, he says, attracting news coverage and spawning similar events hosted by volunteers around the country.

O’Malley later incorporated Irreverent Warriors as a nonprofit to facilitate safety and quality. Though he’s turned over day-to-day operations, O’Malley still attends a number of events around the nation. To date, Irreverent Warriors has brought together more than 60,000 veterans with dozens of hikes a year. While the hikes have been curtailed due to COVID-19, the group was able to sponsor 30 in 2020.

Then, in 2016 via a Kickstarter campaign, O’Malley brought military comedy to the streaming marketplace with VET Tv. At $5 a month, the SVOD service offers primarily original programming and has grown to 90,000 subscribers with 20 series and other content.

As a professional and as a volunteer, this former Marine’s mission is the same.

“The desire to bring veterans together to laugh, that’s what it all came from,” O’Malley says.

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Michael Roberts

Customer Marketing, Paramount Home Entertainment

Michael Roberts

Promoting the power of the vote is Roberts’ passion.

For the past few years, he has worked with various organizations helping voters use their voice up and down the ballot. Getting out the vote is incredibly important to him, particularly in underrepresented communities. He stresses that voting selects not only the president, but also district attorneys who enforce the law and school board members who determine how to teach our kids.

“These people put in these positions, everything from president to school board, they work for us, and we hire them,” he says.

Roberts has canvassed door to door (pre-COVID-19), phone-banked and through Vote Forward has written letters to voters across the country. Preliminary research from Vote Forward shows that hand-written letters, and sharing personal stories, have the same efficacy rate — if not a higher efficacy rate — as traditional canvassing door to door and talking to people face to face, he notes.

“I feel like hand-writing letters is a nice, personal touch,” he says.

“Whoever this person is they actually cared enough to take the time to fill out my name and address, put a stamp on this thing.”

He has sent letters to voters in Florida, Texas, Georgia and Michigan, among other states. The letters are not necessarily designed to persuade voters who to select, but to share why he votes.

“One of the things that I try to write in every letter is that I vote because I believe that every person in this country deserves a fair shot at health and happiness,” he says. “That’s how I start all my letters. At the base of it, that’s how I feel.”

For the Viacom Virtual Day of Service, Roberts led a team in texting, emailing, posting and calling people in their circle to get out the vote in concert with Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote nonprofit. He’s now focused on the Georgia Senate seat runoffs.

For Roberts, it’s all about engaging the power that voting affords those who didn’t start out with his advantages.

“I grew up in Southern California. I certainly never experienced any of the hardships that a lot of people around this country have experienced,” he says. “I’m grateful for the privilege I was given and born into, but I think that at the end of the day none of it really matters unless we are all given a fair shot.”

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Nicole Tiesma

Senior Manager, Digital Marketing, Paramount Home Entertainment

It was an old friend, J.D. Brown, who led Tiesma to put her expertise in digital marketing to work for a worthy cause. Brown had recently become COO of Trans Can Work, a nonprofit committed to advancing workplace inclusion for transgender individuals through training strategies and workforce development.

“He was asking me some questions about social media marketing,” she says. “They’re a very small team of six people, and the work they do is really great, but they can’t afford a full-time communications person, especially a full-time social person. So I offered to help give him and some of the staff members some training and consulting and basically help them build a toolbox so they can think like strategic social marketers and start to build out their social presence more effectively.”

Nicole Tiesma and her friend J.D. Brown (at top) have collaborated via video since the pandemic started.

Trans Can Work helps transgender and gender non-conforming job seekers in their search, assisting those looking for everything from entry level to executive positions.

“Looking for jobs is really hard, and then when you add on top of it being an othered person like that, I think it’s cool that they’re helping make that job search more approachable,” she says.

The other mission of the organization is working with companies to help teams and HR better understand gender non-conforming and transgender employees. Trans Can Work has assisted WarnerMedia, Bank of America, the City of West Hollywood, Netflix, Viacom and Macy’s, among other companies.

“I think sometimes a lot of companies now have LGBTQ training but a lot of it is focused on sexual orientation and not as much on the trans part of the letters, so I think it’s wonderful that there’s a resource for companies to go to,” she says.

In the past year, the group (founded in 2016) reports it has provided free employment services to 1,800 gender-diverse job seekers and has helped place more than 200 gender-diverse job seekers in full-time employment.
“We’ve seen so much progress just in the last few years in terms of awareness and inclusion in that area, so I love that they’re doing this really practical work in trying to make trans people more included in the workplace,” Tiesma says.

Since the pandemic hit, she’s been meeting with the Trans Can Work team remotely twice a week — and they are focused on a big December fundraising campaign.

“They have a matching grant from their board of directors up to $20,000, so I’ve been helping them craft their social media graphics and their communication around that,” she says. “I love social media marketing, and I love doing it for movies, but if ever I can take that skill set and try to have an impact somewhere else, I love that.”

It’s also a way to strengthen her bond with friends.

“I have a lot of LGBTQ friends, and it’s a way for me to be an ally,” Tiesma says. “I recognize my privilege as a cis person, and it’s so cool to be able to try to help have an impact for people who don’t have that privilege.”

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Chris Yates

GM, Redbox On Demand, Redbox

Chris Yates

Yates credits his mother and sister — both teachers — for his involvement in Los Angeles Team Mentoring (LATM).

“What they do is just life-changing for children,” he says. “I grew up around teachers and know the impact it’s had on me and the impact it has on other kids. It’s resonated with me throughout my life.”

Growing up in Australia and moving to the United States, Yates observed the American public education system’s challenges. “Public education is massively underfunded in the U.S., and no child should struggle for basics like food, security and safety. These schools serve such an important role for so many students — they provide so much more than just learning a curriculum,” he says.

Since 2012 Yates has served on the board of LATM, which supports Los Angeles-based middle school students by teaching them life and emotional skills. The nonprofit partners with 14 schools across Los Angeles, serves more than 1,400 kids every year, and focuses on driving opportunities for students from low-income and traditionally under-recognized populations of the school system.

For Yates, the goal of LATM is to empower students to “dream big.” Set up as a group mentoring program, students meet with their mentors in small cohorts and use a structured program developed by LATM to provide the students a variety of life skills, including emotional learning, confidence-building and conflict resolution. Students also have the opportunity to be exposed to new experiences such as visiting a college campus and learning about the college enrollment process. The program results include much higher high school graduation rates (22%), as well as improved GPAs and improved self-esteem and resiliency ratings.

LATM students at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

2020 has been a tough year for many nonprofits and organizations, including LATM. A breakthrough for LATM this year was when it launched an e-learning program, called e-works.

“Our students need us now more than ever. E-works allows our students to stay connected to the LATM program,” Yates says. Led by LATM executive director Maria Melton and director of programs William Figueroa, the program has moved its learning to a virtual environment during the pandemic.

“With e-works, students are given the support they need, are better able to stay on track with their education; they need this stability more than ever during such a tumultuous time,” Yates says.

Yates sees the investment in student mentorship and public education as paving the way for a brighter, more inclusive future both in society as a whole but also for the entertainment industry.

“Representation matters,” he says. “A multitude of diverse voices better serves the entertainment industry. LATM helps their students become the next generation of leaders in this world and the entertainment industry.”

HBO Max Launches ‘Superintelligence’ Charity Campaign

HBO Max has kicked off a “20 Days of Kindness” campaign on behalf of its new film Superintelligence, launching Nov. 26 on the service from New Line Cinema.

Star Melissa McCarthy and director Ben Falcone announced the campaign Nov. 10 during their appearance on “The Today Show” while launching the first trailer for the movie. With a “20 for 20 in 20” initiative, HBO Max will highlight and donate $20,000 to a different good cause daily for 20 days while encouraging others to lend their support. In addition, AT&T helped kick off the campaign with a $1 million contribution to Girls Who Code, an international non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology and change the image of what a programmer looks like and does.

On Nov. 13, World Kindness Day, the campaign will celebrate acts of kindness shared across social media. Content can include a post, tagging someone with a kind word, or showing a short video of a random act of kindness.  Talent and influencers will help launch the program, encouraging others to participate using the hashtag #20DaysOfKindness.

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Consumers can go to https://20daysofkindness.com for more information and to follow the different charities daily. As part of the #20DaysofKindness campaign, McCarthy, Falcone and HBO Max are also launching a Prizeo charity sweepstakes, giving away a Tesla, a hangout with McCarthy and Falcone, and chances to attend the premiere with all funds raised benefitting Conservation International, World Central Kitchen, and Make-A-Wish. For more information visit prizeo.com/superintelligence.

In the film, when an all-powerful Superintelligence (James Corden) chooses to study the most average person on Earth, Carol Peters (Melissa McCarthy), the fate of the world hangs in the balance. As the A.I. decides to enslave, save or destroy humanity, it’s up to Carol to prove that people are worth saving.

Stars of Sony’s ‘Center Stage’ to Gather for Virtual Fundraiser for Ballet

Stars of the film Center Stage, including Amanda Schull, Zoe Saldana, Sascha Radetsky and Ethan Stiefel, will gather Sept. 1 for a virtual fundraiser in support of American Ballet Theatre’s Crisis Relief Fund, which provides aid for dancers, production crew, musicians, ballet staff and faculty impacted by canceled tour engagements due to COVID-19.

During the pre-recorded reunion, moderated by “CNN Newsroom” anchor Poppy Harlow, the actors will look back at the making of the film that spawned two sequels and helped bring the ballet world into the pop culture spotlight.

The reunion will premiere simultaneously on the American Ballet Theatre and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment YouTube channels at 7:30 p.m. ET. Viewers on both channels will be able to use YouTube’s integrated fundraising capabilities to donate to the ABT Crisis Relief Fund.

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Center Stage, which celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this year, follows a group of ballet students in the competitive world of professional dance where they must devote themselves to their art with the rigor of Olympic athletes. While experiencing the joys, sorrows and conflicts of youth, they vie for a place in a prestigious ballet company and strive to take center stage. The film has inspired two sequels, Center Stage: Turn It Up and Center Stage: On Pointe, as well as an upcoming series in development with Sony Pictures Television. Center Stage is available now on disc and digital.
American Ballet Theatre will also be hosting a ticketed pre-event reception via Zoom, beginning at 6:15 p.m. ET. Moderated by ABT dancer Erica Lall and ABT Accelerator co-chair and Gagosian Gallery director Sarah Hoover, the reception will feature an exclusive conversation with Sascha Radetsky, former ABT soloist and artistic director of ABT Studio Company, and Ethan Stiefel, former ABT principal dancer and current faculty member. Tickets, benefitting the ABT Crisis Relief Fund, will start at $150; for more information please email specialevents@abt.org.

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OTT.X to Honor Industry Heroes

OTT.X (formerly the Entertainment Merchants Association) is looking to honor industry “heroes.”

The group is looking for a team member who has gone out of his or her way to help neighbors, to help the community, to support health care workers, or to just do something good during the pandemic — or for a team member who has gone out of his or her way to help the company continue to serve its customers during the crisis.

“Just as the hard work of grocery and pharmacy teams are keeping our pantries and medicine cabinets full, all of the teams in our industry, at digital platforms, channels and retailers; at content companies; and at all of the service and technology companies that facilitate the flow of content ultimately to the consumer are playing an important role in providing the needed entertainment to keep everyone sane during these stay-at-home days,” according to OTT.X. “We need to recognize our own heroes.”

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Entries should include a brief paragraph nominating a hero or heroes and a photo if possible. In mid-June, OTT.X will hold an online live ceremony recognizing all the heroes and presenting a few special awards. Nominations must be sent no later than May 30 to mfisher@ottx.org and include “our ottx hero” in the subject line.

In addition, OTT.X is soliciting pictures of home offices and awarding prizes. Photos should be sent to mfisher@ottx.org and include “my new home office” in the subject line.

Netflix Offers Free Documentary Streaming to Teachers on Its YouTube Channel

Netflix has expanded it free documentary screening program for teachers, offing a selection of titles on the Netflix U.S. YouTube channel.

“For many years, Netflix has allowed teachers to screen documentaries in their classrooms. However, this isn’t possible with schools closed,” read the Netflix blog post. “So at their request, we have made a selection of our documentary features and series available on the Netflix U.S. YouTube Channel.

“Each title also has educational resources available, which can be used by both students and teachers — and we’ll be doing Q&As with some of the creators behind these projects so that students can hear from them firsthand.

“We hope this will, in a small way, help teachers around the world.”

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The documentaries are currently available in English, but subtitles in more than a dozen languages will be available later this week, according to the post. “Please check the ratings so that you can make informed choices for your students and children,” the post requested.

Offered on the channel is the film 13th, Ava DuVernay’s documentary with a title that refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay, featuring a mixture of archival footage and testimony from a activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men. Educational resources are here.

Also available is season one of the series “Abstract.” “Abstract: The Art of Design” takes you beyond blueprints into the art, science, and philosophy of design. The series goes inside the minds of the world’s greatest designers, showcasing the most inspiring visionaries from a variety of disciplines whose work shapes our culture and future. Educational resources are here

Select episodes of the series “Babies” are available. Filmed over the course of three years, “Babies” explores the miracle of the first full year of life through the pioneering work of leading scientists from across the globe. The series examines the epic journey every person embarks on, from helpless newborn to independent toddler. The series follows the life-changing adventures of 15 international families and featuring the latest research from eminent scientists who share their personal journeys of discovery into the infant mind. Educational resources are here.

The film Chasing Coral  taps into the collective will and wisdom of an ad man, a self-proclaimed coral nerd, top-notch camera designers, and renowned marine biologists as they invent the first time-lapse camera to record bleaching events as they happen. Educational materials are here.

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Available are select episodes of the series “Explained.” In partnership with Vox Media Studios and Vox, this explainer series takes viewers deep inside a wide range of culturally relevant topics, questions and ideas. Each episode explores current events and social trends pulled from the zeitgeist, touching topics across politics, science, history and pop culture — featuring interviews with some of the most authoritative experts in their respective fields. Educational resources are coming soon.

The film Knock Down the House follows four women who mount grassroots campaigns against powerful incumbents in the 2018 midterm elections that tipped the balance of power. When tragedy struck her family in the middle of the financial crisis, Bronx-born Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had to work double shifts as a bartender to save her home from foreclosure. After losing a loved one to a preventable medical condition, Amy Vilela didn’t know what to do with the anger she felt about America’s broken health care system. Cori Bush, a registered nurse and pastor, was drawn to the streets when the police shooting of an unarmed black man brought protests and tanks into her neighborhood. A coal miner’s daughter, Paula Jean Swearengin was fed up with watching her friends and family suffer from the environmental effects of the coal industry. Educational resources are here.

The series “Our Planet”  is available. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, the eight-part series explores the wonders of our natural world from the creators of the award-winning series “Planet Earth.” Educational materials are here.

The short Period. End of Sentence. is available. The documentary short directed by Rayka Zehtabchi tells the story of women in a rural village outside Delhi, India, who fight against the deeply rooted stigma of menstruation. For generations, these women didn’t have access to pads, which lead to health problems and girls missing school or dropping out entirely. But when a sanitary pad machine is installed in the village, the women learn to manufacture and market their own pads, empowering the women of their community. Educational resources are here.

The short The White Helmets is available. The Netflix original short documentary, set in Aleppo, Syria and Turkey in early 2016 follows three volunteer rescue workers as they put everything on the line to save civilians affected by the war, all the while wracked with worry about the safety of their own loved ones. Educational materials are here

The short Zion is available. It’s the portrait of Zion Clark, a young wrestler born without legs who grew up in foster care. Educational materials are here.

 

Lionsgate Teams With Fandango and YouTube on Free Streamed Movies Benefit

Lionsgate is presenting “Lionsgate Live! A Night at the Movies,” a program of four Fridays of free movies streaming live on YouTube hosted by Jamie Lee Curtis, to help benefit theater employees furloughed by the COVID-19 crisis.

The studio is mounting the campaign to “honor the communal experience of watching movies in movie theaters and support the people who make those places great with a special program that reminds everyone how much we love going to the cinema,” according to a Lionsgate press release.

Beginning Friday, April 17, and continuing every Friday spanning four consecutive weeks, the studio will team with Fandango and YouTube to livestream four of Lionsgate’s most popular library titles — The Hunger Games, Dirty Dancing, La La Land and John Wick — on Lionsgate’s YouTube page and Fandango’s Movieclips YouTube page.

Host Curtis will share her own movie memories as she is joined by special guest celebrities and YouTube personalities, according to the release. Each week’s night at the movies will feature programming and interactive opportunities for fans, such as real-time fan chats via YouTube Live, live tweeting @Lionsgate and partners, and shared fan engagement opportunities in-show, including movie trivia and movie-themed challenges.

Lionsgate’s initial donation as well as audience and partner donations throughout the event will benefit the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping workers throughout the motion picture industry. The event will link to the Foundation’s charitable page so that viewers can donate. The Will Rogers Foundation is currently providing financial assistance to theater employees furloughed by the COVID-19 crisis.

The schedule of free movies that will livestream Fridays at 6 p.m. PST/9 p.m. EST is as follows: The Hunger Games April 17, Dirty Dancing April 24, La La Land May 1 and John Wick (age registration required) May 8.

To present the live movie event, in addition to Fandango Lionsgate is joining with exhibition partners such as the National Association of Theatre Owners, AMC Theatres, Regal and Cinemark Theatres, among other regional circuits.

Popcornopolis, purveyors of gourmet popcorn, will support the event with a consumer movie night offer, with 10% of sales donated to the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation. SnackNation will curate a movie-themed snack box with a special price and free shipping.

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“There’s nothing that will replace the magic of seeing a movie together with your fellow moviegoers in a theater on a big screen, but this is a chance for America to come together to recreate the experience,” said Joe Drake, chairman, Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, in a statement. “This is a great chance to show the country’s theatrical employees how much we miss going to their theaters and how much we support them. Jamie Lee Curtis — a woman who literally grew up with the movies and movie theaters — is one of the world’s biggest movie fans, so it’s a real thrill that she’ll be our host for this event. Let’s have some fun watching some classic movies together at home while celebrating moviegoing!”

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“Throughout the 125-year history of the cinema, this is the first time that movie theaters have been shut down across the country,” said John Fithian, president and CEO, National Association of Theatre Owners, in a statement. “Whether it was the Depression, wars, disasters, or local calamities, movie theaters have always been a gathering place where audiences can come together to laugh and be moved, reacting as one, to put their troubles behind them or forget about their hard week at work, and just get lost in the amazing stories on the big screen. Until we can gather again in our nation’s theaters, we’re grateful to Lionsgate for honoring the theatrical moviegoing experience and we are thrilled to join together with them over these next four Fridays, not only to see four classic movies for free, but also to allow fans and celebrities to share their own moviegoing memories. We love that so many people will be talking about what makes going to the movies so unique and memorable.”

Heroes in Home Entertainment 2019

For the second year, Media Play News honors the home entertainment industry’s givers, a select number of those in the industry who are known for their charitable and activist 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, to the “actorvist” who helps women see beauty differently, this group is contributing how and where they can.

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Chris Bess

Executive Director, Global Publicity, Disney

Publicists are known for their skill at putting others in the spotlight, and Chris Bess has put that talent to work with foster youth at Kids in the Spotlight.

For the past eight years (mostly under Fox and now as a part of the Disney team), Bess has been volunteering his time for the children’s charity, which serves underprivileged youth living in the Los Angeles area foster care system by introducing them to the art of filmmaking. The program features instruction in screenwriting, acting, casting and editing — all taught by noted industry professionals. It cultivates teamwork, creativity and discipline resulting in a greater self-image, confidence and sense of accomplishment. Kids in the Spotlight provides a positive platform for foster youth to tell their stories.

“It brings together people who are in the entertainment industry — actors and directors — and they come to the various foster homes where kids participate in the program, and these kids are given a chance to write their scripts, to cast their films,” Bess said. “They work with the directors who shoot their films and then they edit them, and through that whole process they learn to communicate, work with others, build self-esteem — which is probably the biggest thing — and then when their films are done, the films are all registered with the Writers Guild, so they all get Writers Guild of America credit, and it just really gives them a chance to share their story.”

Bess supports the charity’s communications as well as playing an integral part in their fundraising and partnership marketing effort, including support for the Kids in the Spotlight film festival and awards presentation each year. This year’s annual awards took place Nov. 2 at Paramount Studios and was hosted by “Modern Family” star Ty Burrell.

“My wife and I foster parented,” Bess said. “We’ve foster parented two kids, and I started even in college just volunteering to help underprivileged youth. It’s something that is kind of near and dear to my heart, and what I love about this program is it kind of marries two things that I’m passionate about, entertainment — movies — and helping foster kids.”

 

David Bishop

Industry Veteran and Leadership Development Expert

Amy Jo Smith

President and CEO, DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group

Fighting hunger has long been a mission in the video industry, and home entertainment veteran David Bishop and the DEG’s Amy Jo Smith are continuing to carry that banner.

Bishop began working on the problem in the 1990s, in concert with star Jeff Bridges’ End Hunger Network. Out of that came the video industry initiative Fast Forward to End Hunger.

“We organized all the video stores around the country to raise money,” Bishop recalls. The program raised $20 million in three years, he said.

Later on, Bishop met a board member for the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank who had learned of his work on hunger. He asked Bishop to join the board for the organization, which serves 300,000 people a month.

“One in seven people in Los Angeles County are what is described as food insecure,” Bishop said. “They have food, but it’s not sufficient. A lot of times people hear the name Food Bank and think it’s for homeless people or it’s a soup kitchen. This is actually a massive distribution center with trucks loaded with food from grocery stores in the area, from Walmart, from Starbucks.”

“It’s an enormous organization,” added Amy Jo Smith, who joined the board at Bishop’s request.

“I became chair of the board about three years ago, and we were looking for more passionate people to add to the board, and Amy Jo was at the top of my list,” Bishop said.

“It’s an enormous umbrella organization that feeds to food pantries, churches, temples and schools throughout L.A. County for people who are not necessarily, and most likely not, living on the streets — but food insecure,” she said. “As you have a good economy like we have right now you have higher rents. People have jobs, but they have higher rents. Toward the end of the month, there isn’t enough money left for food.”

The organization distributes food to different agencies around the county.

“It could be a small church; it can be massive food pantry,” Smith said.

Smith has volunteered in food distribution for the L.A. Regional Food Bank.

“It is done with such dignity,” she said.

In addition to volunteering, offering monetary aid is welcomed as well, noted Bishop.

“Donating money is really efficient in this organization; every dollar that is donated distributes enough food to feed four meals,” he said.

 

Sharon Blynn

Proofreader, Lionsgate

Sharon Blynn is an “actorvist,” writer and founder of Bald Is Beautiful, a women’s wholeness organization dedicated to ovarian cancer awareness and empowering women to define their beauty and femininity on their own terms — in sickness and in health. She has shared her Bald Is Beautiful message via her website baldisbeautiful.org, as an actor and all over the world as a public speaker, garnering honors such as the BraveHeart Courage Award, Revlon Role Model, Lifetime TV “Remarkable Woman” and Lilly Tartikoff/EIF Hope Award.

Blynn was diagnosed with ovarian cancer nearly two decades ago at 28. The disease made her question “what makes me a woman,” she said, especially when she lost her hair during treatments.

“My hair was my trademark,” Blynn recalled. “It was really like a big part of who I was. I was annoyed as a feminist. I was annoyed with myself for being so concerned about my hair.”

She started to question the way we define beauty.

“If you are going through a health thing that is going to alter your body, temporarily or permanently, we don’t have to, on top of that, deal with feeling ugly, frankly,” she said.

In 2002, she started the website to share her story and increase awareness of the disease — and she kept her bald look. She has never let her hair grow.

“I wanted to do something to change the paradigm, create a shift in how we perceive ourselves and how society defines what is a whole woman, what is beauty, what is femininity,” she said. She wanted to counteract the notion that “you’re not a whole woman if you don’t have this long, flowing hair,” she said.

Since then, she and her website have appeared in Glamour, Marie Claire and In Style, among other magazines. She’s also appeared on such TV shows as “Body of Proof,” “Shameless” and “Lie to Me,” and in the film Captain Marvel.

“I’m putting images out there that support women who don’t want to cover up their cancer journey to protect other people from their discomfort,” Blynn said.

Awareness of ovarian cancer and supporting research, via such organizations as the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance, also are key goals.

“We don’t have a screening test even,” she said. “Other cancers have the advantage of early detection. Ovarian cancer, if it’s detected earlier, it’s a 90% survival rate. Only 22,000 women a year are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, so that’s not a huge number compared to breast cancer or lung cancer, but out of those 22,000 women a year, 15,000 die because they don’t have early detection.”

 

Allison Ceppi

Director, Format Marketing, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Allison Ceppi has found a recipe for helping others.

“I have a culinary background,” she said. “I went to culinary school way back in my 20s and had worked in restaurants, and then ultimately decided that I didn’t really enjoy it.”

Fast forward several years and driving to work, she saw a Project Angel Food van and found the charity provides meals to critically ill patients who might not otherwise be able to have access to healthy food. The organization, first started to service those suffering from HIV/AIDS, now cooks and delivers more than 600,000 nutritious meals each year, free of charge, to the homes of those affected by all life-threatening illnesses. Every week, the organization serves 12,000 meals to 1,400 people in need from Metro, South and East L.A., as well as areas as far as Pomona, La Mirada, Long Beach and the Antelope Valley.

She decided to volunteer.

“I thought, ‘Well, this is perfect for me because I have this restaurant background,’” she recalls. “I went in and I found that everyone was super friendly and grateful, and it was just kind of a good time, versus working in an actual restaurant, which is really difficult and there’s a lot of pressure.”

Ceppi has done everything from cooking vats of rice and beans to cooking tofu stir fry for 30 people — all medically tailored to strict

guidelines in terms of fat and salt. She’s also organized a group from Universal to spend a day at Project Angel Food.

“They might just have you chopping onions for a couple of hours. Last time I was there, my job was to wipe the edges of the plastic tray before it goes into the sealer,” she said. “Sometimes it’s not that glamorous, but it doesn’t matter because it’s contributing to a larger mission.”

While she finds working on some of the fancier meals fun, she is happy “to put her pride aside” and use her experience to help others learn to navigate a kitchen.

“I feel a little bit like an elder,” she said.

But that’s not what drives her taste for volunteering.

“I like the idea of volunteering for volunteering’s sake or giving back to the community in a way that’s meaningful, but it doesn’t have to be running the show,” she said.

 

Nicole McLeod Coleman

SVP, Trade Marketing, Retail Planning and Theatrical Catalog, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Coleman is connected to the charity Autism Speaks via her vice chairmanship of the Southern California chapter, and also through her son, Jack, who was diagnosed with autism shortly before his 2nd birthday. She and her partner, Geri Bluerock, SVP at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (a Hero in Home Entertainment last year), have been working with the organization ever since.

“Rather than believing in a limitless future for our child, we prayed that he would be able to grow up to live independently,” Coleman wrote in a

recent letter to potential donors. “We felt helpless, sad and scared, but of course we didn’t sit idle. We began researching and networking, and as a result came across the Autism Speaks website, which provides a wealth of resources for those impacted by autism throughout the lifespan.”

In addition to the annual walk in Southern California, Coleman via the local chapter supports the national organization raising funds and giving grants to local agencies.

“The earlier days of the organization were focused on the diagnosis piece, the diagnosis at an early age because the outcomes are much better for kids the earlier they are diagnosed, and now that that seems to be much improved, it’s focusing on those that are reaching adulthood and developing resources and support in that area,” she said.

Warner recently co-hosted an event with KPMG where they brought in a number of companies that are employing people on the spectrum, and brought in those on the spectrum who are employed to help those like them looking for work.

Coleman in her donation letter wrote about Jack’s play with his twin sister, Alex, and how he is developing his skills in baseball.

“Jack is an avid Dodgers fan and plays baseball for Sherman Oaks Little League,” she wrote. “He is working with a private coach once a week and is developing into a pretty big hitter. He likes to pitch, dreams of playing in the major leagues, and plans to be an umpire when he retires. And while Jack still has a long road ahead of him, we remain very optimistic for his future.”

 

Garson Foos

Founder and CEO, Shout! Factory

Garson Foos has been working in the nonprofit world for much of his life, often mentoring and supporting kids in need. For the past seven years he has been volunteering his time and expertise to C5LA, an organization that works with under-resourced, inner-city L.A. youth to help them graduate from high school and go to college. The organization, with the motto “college in five years,” was founded by John Alm, former president and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises. Foos has served on the board, as board chairman and on the leadership committee.

Starting in the summer after middle school, 72 kids, chosen from about 800 applicants, go through their journey to college with C5LA.

“The summer after eighth grade they go to this camp in Wyoming for a month and have this incredible experience in the middle of nowhere,” Foos said. “It’s the first time most of them have gotten out of the city and have been in remote nature like that.”

In the following years, the kids do a 12-day wilderness backpacking trip after ninth grade, go on a college tour after 10th grade, go to live on a college campus after 11th grade, and live on a college campus again after 12th grade. During the process C5LA helps the kids with college applications and essays and instructs them on the basics of living in college.

“Most of them have to get jobs to support themselves while they’re in school, so they do mock job interviews,” Foos said. “This year I participated in that.”

Foos has also been to the Wyoming camp.

But C5LA is also more than a college-prep organization, he said.

“They become community for the kids who are often in troubled situations,” Foos said. “They can help them find resources. Some of them have been homeless. Most members of the staff are bilingual so that they can help the parents find resources that they need if they’re having issues with basic needs. It’s a point of expertise and community and stability in these people’s lives.”

The changes spearheaded by C5LA, which welcomes both individual and company involvement, are inspiring, Foos said. At events, the kids are encouraged to tell their stories.

“One girl in particular was from a family with a sibling who was a gang member and was from a really difficult home situation and talked about how this program really kind of saved her life,” Foos said. “She felt like if she wasn’t in the program, she’d probably be in a gang. There are just so many amazing stories. You hear these kids talk, and you’re in tears thinking about what they had to deal with and how they’re overcoming this adversity.”

 

Kristen Hermanson

Manager, Sales Administration, Paramount Home Entertainment

Kristen Hermanson supports a variety of causes by donating her time and energy. She has raised thousands of dollars for pediatric cancer research at Children’s Hospital L.A. through her participation in the Malibu triathlon for more than four years.

Hermanson also volunteered for a week to support the AIDS/LifeCycle event, which raises money for HIV services. She served a critical role by camping alongside the riders and rising at 4 a.m. each day to prepare breakfast for all staff and participants, then resetting to feed everyone again come dinner time from 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Finally, Hermanson has served faithfully during Viacommunity Day, Viacom’s companywide effort to serve the communities in which it operates. This past year, she was a task captain at the Paramount Ranch where she supervised a team of 10 to brighten up the Ranger Station. Always willing to roll up her sleeves, she and her team cleaned, painted and decorated to make the space more pleasant for the rangers.

“For me, to be able to give of my time and effort volunteering allows me to connect to a greater purpose, meet some amazing people and share in the success of knowing that I have helped to make life for someone else better,” she said.

 

Alan Meier

Publicist, Paramount Home Entertainment

Meier combines his love of outdoor activities with fundraising for causes he cares deeply about. In 2016 he began training for the AIDS/LifeCycle event, which raises funds for HIV services for the Los Angeles LGBT Center and San Francisco AIDS Foundation. In 2017 he completed the 545-mile, week-long bike ride and followed it up that same summer with a fundraising hike in Buckskin Gulch, Utah, to raise funds for The Trevor Project.

In 2018, Meier raised funds for Bike Zambia, which donates money to Zambian charities that support HIV treatment and prevention, as well as economic and social support for women and girls. He rode 325 miles through the heart of Zambia, meeting with representatives from the charities along the way, as well as local citizens.

In 2019, Meier once again took on the AIDS/LifeCycle event and plans to continue his efforts in the years ahead as well as the Best Buddies Hearst Castle Challenge this year with a 62-mile bike ride to support individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“I feel lucky to have been involved with fundraisers that foster a strong sense of community among the volunteers while the funds raised make such a demonstrable difference in people’s lives,” Meier said. “It’s made for some great experiences.”

 

Seda Melkoni

Production Planner, NBC Universal

It was an experience on a shoot in Armenia that would lead Seda Melkoni years later to raise donations for kids.

“One of the locations we were filming at was a very ancient temple, and in the morning after we finished our actual shooting day, it opened up to the public and a bunch of school field trips were pulling up,” she recalled. “I noticed one or two groups of schoolchildren came up to the entrance with their teachers and it looked like they were pretty much going to leave, and I asked what was going on. I guess it was new information to these schools that these tourist sites were now charging an entrance fee. These teachers couldn’t afford to pay for their entire class, and even these individual students, their families can’t afford to pay for field trips.”

Knowing they were from rural areas several hours drive away, and that they would go back disappointed, Melkoni asked and was allowed to pay for their tickets.

“It really wasn’t much at all in U.S. dollars,” she said. “It sorta got me thinking.”

Years later, at Universal she met a co-worker

who, like Melkoni was of Armenian descent and would send school supplies to a school she used to attend in the country where a friend was a teacher.

Melkoni looked at pictures of the school of about 500 students.

“There were leaky roofs, broken windows, and this is an area where it snows, so kids usually will make a circle around the heating unit in the classroom so they can stay warm in class during the winter,” she said.

She did some research and found help in the Paros Foundation, a nonprofit founded to help people in Armenia. She is now raising funds through Paros to help fix that school. All of the donations go to the projects, as the founder pays administrative expenses for the charity.

“It’s something we take for granted here,” she said. “We send our kids to school and don’t worry about them ever being cold or not having windows that shut.”

As co-chair for the studio’s Women’s Network SuperMoms group, Melkoni also helps kids at home, creating donation bins for the Baby2Baby organization at the group’s events.

“Being a parent myself and having kids in schools, I think we’re fortunate here,” she said. “Just by dedicating a little bit of time and resources, we could kind of spread those resources to places that need it most.”

 

Rema Morgan-Aluko

Director, Software Engineering, Fandango

With more than 15 years of experience in technology, engineering leadership and software development, Rema Morgan-Aluko heads up the technology group for Fandango’s transactional VOD service, FandangoNow.

In pursuit of her goal to improve diversity and inclusion across the technology industry, she co-founded Fandango’s TECHWomen chapter, which aims to advance opportunities for female technologists within the company and beyond. In her spare time, Morgan-Aluko mentors in the community and hosts additional workshops to inspire young women to pursue technical career paths. Morgan-Aluko hosted two all-day tech workshops with the Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA), an all-girls, STEM-focused school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Girls Build, an initiative of L.A. Promise Fund, for young women in public middle and high schools. At Girls Build, girls learn the principles of the software development lifecycle, receive one-on-one mentoring with employees from all technical disciplines and engage in hands-on activities to put in practice what they have learned.

She also participated in the City of STEM event, helping create a simple programming logic game for more than 100 kids ages 5-12 and providing hands-on coaching to help the girls during the course of the game.

Morgan-Aluko partnered with the Los Angeles chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority’s Delta Academy group, facilitating and teaching a six-month intro to STEM careers course to girls ages 8-14 on Saturdays.

“When I was starting out, I was struggling to find a mentor, someone who I could not only lean on for guidance, but someone with a story and a background I could personally resonate with,” she recalled. “Now that I’m further along in my career, I have responsibility to be an example and mentor for those who come after me. I believe that sentiment is shared by other leaders I work with. That’s why we started Fandango’s TECHWomen chapter, to help women navigate barriers and build a community where they can thrive. It’s gratifying to see many talented women, entry level and senior execs, working together for the same goal, the same vibe. It’s also rewarding to pay it forward, beyond the company, and help foster a passion in STEM for young girls.”

 

Lori Nakama

Director, Creative Services, Paramount Home Entertainment

Nakama’s volunteer work includes a wide range of organizations and programs benefiting children, animals and people of color. Within Paramount, she has devoted hundreds of hours of her time to the studio’s Kindergarten to Cap & Gown mentoring program, offering encouragement to students over the past four years, one of whom will graduate from Woodbury University this spring with a degree in graphic design.

She has also been highly active in Viacommunity Day as a site leader, taking special needs students to the California Science Center, hosting third graders for a screening and afternoon of arts and crafts, and taking high school students on tours of UCLA and USC.

Nakama additionally co-chairs the Asian Media Professionals employee resource group, which organizes events at Viacom Hollywood, Nickelodeon and Paramount.

Outside of Paramount, she has volunteered and raised funds for the APEX Wolf Sanctuary, the Stray Cat Alliance and the Westside German Shepard Rescue. She also volunteered at the Asian American Pacific Islander Film Festival and the East West Players, a theater company for people of color.

Finally, Nakama has participated in the AIDS Walk for four years, as well as the 2016 Triathlon, which raised money for Children’s Hospital L.A.

“My grandmother used to say you show your happiness by smiling — so if doing something can make someone else smile, I’m in and hope to spread some happiness,” Nakama said. “Lucky to work for a company that supports it and have family and friends who feel the same way.”

 

Glenn Ross

EVP and GM, Universal 1440 Entertainment

Home entertainment veteran Glenn Ross has found a way to pay forward some of the knowledge he’s garnered over his many decades in the industry — and draw on his artistic talents.

A graduate of the Philadelphia College of Art (now called the University of the Arts) before embarking on his career, Ross has found an artistic connection with those he helps both young and old.

Through NBC Universal initiatives “Young Story Tellers” and “Story to Stage” he mentors elementary kids on how to bring their ideas to life.

“Young Story Tellers” is a one-day session with fifth or sixth graders in which he helps them create a poster and logline for a story of their own and present it. “Story to Stage” is an eight-week program to help the mentee write a five-page script.

“We are basically taking down their ideas,” he said. “They’re writing it. We’re not writing it. We talk to them about the structure of a script.”

The process culminates in a performance for fellow schoolmates and parents.

“After the script is written, we bring in actors and the kids cast,” he said. “The actors immediately after that will perform the script with the scripts in their hands.”

Ross relishes bringing out the creative spark in these kids.

“It’s a lot of fun and it’s very gratifying to them to see their ideas come to life,” he said. “I’ve had kids that don’t want to talk, but after a week or two the stuff that comes out of them is phenomenal.”

Meanwhile, at Temple Israel of Hollywood, he’s found a way to connect with the older generation through the Sages program.

“They will match us up with somebody who is older, maybe they’re not as mobile, maybe they don’t have as big a social network,” he said. “And once a month, I meet this woman, and I’m not sure who gets more out of it, me or her, but we go to lunch together, and we talk about all kinds of things. It turns out, she used to run an art gallery. I still paint and I brought her some of my artwork to look at, and she’s commenting on it and it’s something that I enjoy a lot.”

Ross is also involved in another mentorship program, “Minds Matter,” for those just starting their careers.

“I’ve been really lucky in my life and in my career and a few years ago, I just decided I need to do more to say thank you to the world for this,” Ross said. “You get so caught up in achieving that sometimes you forget there’s a whole world out there that you have the skill set to help, and I think that’s what it’s really all about.”

 

Kurt Schroeder

SVP, Distributive Retail and Rental for Home Entertainment Packaged Goods, Lionsgate

Anyone who has ever talked to Kurt Schroeder knows he’s a jovial, kind guy, but it was an unintentional unkindness that pushed him to take a plunge.

“This is not something I’m very proud of. I used the ‘R’ word in front of a friend of mine, and it offended her,” he recalls. “She has a special needs child.

“In a conversation to someone else who said they were challenged about getting something done, I said, ‘What are you, retarded?’ And she looked at me and she was offended, and I could see that she was, and it hurt me because I try to think of myself as being better than that. And I apologized, but I really didn’t think that covered it, and I wanted to do something to suggest that I understood.”

Thus, began Schroeder’s plunge into the icy cold waters of Lake Michigan in support of the Chicago chapter of the Special Olympics, which puts on a sports competition for those with intellectual disabilities. Over five years, wearing various costumes, including a polar bear head, he’s raised about $25,000.

“My friends were very generous toward my fundraising efforts,” he said. “The colder it was going to be the morning of the plunge, the larger the donation. Friends enjoy watching friends suffer — if just for a moment.”

Even with single-digit temps with wind chill, Schroeder took it in stride.

“I was not really challenged by the cold water as much as other people,” he said. “I have a face for radio and a body for cold water.”

Dipping into the freezing water, he wore the names of two kids who participate in the Special Olympics, Maddy and Lila, children of his friends.

“They’re part of the support,” he said. “I’m carrying them into the water.”

It’s a cause that means more to the kids than just a sports competition.

“Special Olympics to me gives children the opportunity to participate in sports in a setting that they can develop confidence and learn about sportsmanship and physical health, and it improves their quality of life and it helps them believe in themselves,” he said.

Schroeder has also previously volunteered for the Starlight Foundation, which grants wishes to ill kids — of course, dressing up again, as Santa Claus.

“I don’t [have kids], but a challenged child to me … I’ve been unbelievably lucky in every aspect of life and when I see a challenged kid, it makes me thankful for what I have, and it creates a desire to share it, to do something for somebody else,” he said.

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Netflix Employees Volunteer for Children’s Hospital Group

In a time of giving, Netflix employees in November raised money for Extra Life, a nonprofit that empowers video game enthusiasts to support Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

The group raises funds and awareness for 170 member hospitals that provide 32 million treatments each year to kids across the U.S. and Canada. Donations stay local to fund critical treatments and healthcare services, pediatric medical equipment and charitable care.

Brian Moyles, who has worked for eight years as a software engineer at Netflix in Los Gatos, Calif., organized the first Netflix Extra Life event in 2016. Moyles was inspired by his family’s own health scare in 2015 when his then 7-month-old daughter was unexpectedly diagnosed with a heart rhythm disorder and had to be sedated and placed on a heart bypass machine.

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The girl remained hospitalized in the ICU at Stanford Children’s Hospital for the next two months, during which time her vocal chords were inadvertently paralyzed and she had to be fed via a gastric feeding tube. It took several months for her to recover fully.

“We’re now four years down the road and everything has been clear since,” Moyles said in a company blog post.

Moyles said the ordeal changed him and his family’s outlook on the impact medical emergencies can have on children and their families.

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“Netflix, more so than any organization I’ve worked for, provides an incredible amount of freedom and autonomy in exchange for trust and responsibility,” he said.

Extra Life has become an annual event at Netflix. Last year, it raised more than $25,000. It reached $32,000 in 2019, involving about 100 employees, friends and family members across multiple office locations.

“This is real important work that’s going on here — the kind that changes people’s lives forever,” research analyst Austin Smith said. “It’s our hope that in some way, our event and our contribution will be used to ease someone’s pain on the most difficult day of their life.”

Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City reportedly used its Extra Life donations to purchase an Xbox One X for every patient room.

“Having a company like Netflix contribute to CMN Hospitals is absolutely invaluable to our mission’s success,” said Julia Saxton, Children’s Miracle Network Program Director at Primary Children’s Hospital.

Saxton said that in addition to funding, Netflix sent a message of support to the children and families.

Moyles says the Extra Life has helped him connect with employees in other departments and offices.

“It’s a lot of work but it ends up being a lot of fun,” he said. “I’ve gotten to meet and work with amazing people throughout the company I likely would not have otherwise, and it feels good to be able to help those in need and affect change.”

This report is based on a post from Kate Stanhope with the Netflix communications team.