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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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.”
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 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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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