CHANGE AGENTS

 

by Cathy C. Adams, Alec Harvey, Lee M. Hurley, Carla Jean Whitley and Beth Wilder
photos by Mary Fehr, Laurey Glenn and Brit Huckabay

 

Revolution requires many players. A disease is rarely cured in isolation, and even then many more people must act in order to carry a solution into the world.

So it is with any philanthropic effort. Mountain Brook and its surroundings are filled with change agents whose passions fuel revolutionary efforts. Their stories can inspire others to come alongside or launch other projects that will shape the community for good.

A personal connection

More than 20 years ago, while working on a capital campaign for the YWCA, Caroline Bolvig talked to someone who had called on a young couple, Jon and Sheryl Kimerling.

“He was a big businessman in town, and he didn’t know them,” Bolvig says. “But this super-successful, established businessman was completely blown away and humbled by their youth and how generous and enthusiastic they were.
He said, ‘I feel good about leaving this in the hands of people like the Kimerlings.’”

The past two decades have validated that early impression, as Jon and Sheryl Kimerling have spent their lives supporting causes, both financially and by volunteering their time and expertise, in Birmingham, nationally and internationally.

“They are an amazing couple,” says Bolvig, vice president for major gifts for the United Way of Central Alabama. “They are profoundly generous monetarily, but the amount of time they give is equally as important.” 

Married for 33 years, the Kimerlings, both separately and together, have supported groups including the YWCA, the Boy and Girl Scouts, Alabama Ballet, Heart Guild, Spain Rehabilitation Center, Alys Stephens Center, Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Alabama Symphony Orchestra and the Alabama Association of Nonprofits.

Right now, Sheryl is on the board of the United Way of Central Alabama and is foundation chair and on the executive board of the YWCA. She’s on the advisory boards of Oasis, Hand in Paw and the Birmingham Humane Society. Jon was diagnosed with adult-onset type 1 diabetes a few years ago, and he is a supporter of UAB’s Comprehensive Diabetes Center.

“We have a personal connection to everything we support,” Sheryl says. “We are focused on serving women and children. We support animal rescue, and we have a 5-year-old rescue dog, Tessa.”

That personal connection is most evident in the Mountain Brook couple’s support of the Birmingham and international Jewish communities, and they’re following in a family tradition. Jon Kimerling’s grandparents, Max and Tillie Kimerling, provided funds in the 1970s to build a community center in the then-struggling Israeli town of Rosh Ha’ayin. Now, it’s a thriving artistic community of 40,000 between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, says Joyce T. Spielberger, former director of community relations and overseas programs for the Birmingham Jewish Federation.

The Kimerlings have continued support of Rosh Ha’ayin, and they’ve been involved in numerous other Jewish organizations. Sheryl is on the national boards of 70 Faces Media and the Jewish Federations of North America and serves on the JFNA National Women’s Philanthropy advisory board as well as the Birmingham Jewish Federation and Foundation boards. Jon Kimerling is a member of the Financial Resource Development Committee for JFNA and is on the board of Secure Community Network, a national homeland security initiative that works with the Jewish community.

The Kimerlings are the recipients of numerous awards and recognitions – including the Tocqueville Award from the United Way — and they’ve co-chaired many events, including the 2008 Prime Minister’s Dinner in Jerusalem, the Birmingham Jewish Federation’s annual campaigns in 2008 and 2009 and, most recently, this year’s Collat Jewish Family Services annual
fundraising event.

“The people they’ve brought to the table and the impact they’ve had is enormous,” Spielberger says. “When you’re able to combine philanthropy with civic responsibility, that’s pretty powerful, and they’ve done that, not just in Birmingham, but in Israel.”

Sheryl also points to her husband’s mother, Paula, as a guiding force in the family. Paula was a founder of the Allan Cott School, a special education program that is part of Glenwood, a nonprofit that serves children and adults affected by autism spectrumdisorder and children who have severe emotional and behavioral disorders. Paula encouraged all of the women in the family to join Lions of Judah, a women’s philanthropy effort of the Birmingham Jewish Federation and Jewish Federations of North America.

The Kimerlings have passed on their love for giving back to their own children, son Joel and twin daughters Isabella and
Victoria. Isabella is a speech language pathologist at a school for children with special needs in Washington, D.C. Victoria, who lives in Tel Aviv but is about to move to D.C., works for a travel company that provides free trips to Israel for young adults. Son Joel and his wife, Shelby, who live in Birmingham, are supporters of the United Way and the Autism Society of Alabama. All the Kimerling children support the Birmingham Jewish Foundation and the Jewish Foundation of North America.

“They’ve set such a great example for their children to continue giving back to the community,” Bolvig says. “That, to me, is a
testament, when your children emulate you for the betterment of the community. Because they don’t have to do that.”

And others can do that, too, Sheryl says.

“There is a place for everyone in the volunteer community,” she says. “The most important thing is to find the cause that you’re passionate about. Every minute of your time that you give helps someone and makes a difference.” –AH

 

Changing the odds

William Creagh is a founding member of Restoration Academy’s Outdoor Club. Over the course of three years, the
club hiked segments of the Appalachian Trail in every state, and they concluded with a summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine.

But that’s not all William has gotten from his experience at the K-12 nonprofit Christian school. He also initiated a student-run discipleship group, and he earned a 5—the highest possible score—on the Advanced Placement calculus exam. Today
William is a sophomore at Wheaton College.

He’s not alone in achieving excellence. “Donovan Moore grew up in Wylam and was so good in math that his high school math teacher, Connie Edwards, had to get herself certified to teach him AP Calculus,” Restoration Academy board member Sonny Culp says. Donovan went on to Auburn University and earned a degree in software engineering. He works locally for
Infinity Insurance.

Restoration’s success stories aren’t limited to students in the STEM fields, either. Jessica Smith attended the University of
Alabama after her high-school graduation. She interned in the university president’s office and became a key to the university’s relationship with Restoration. With her marketing degree, she is rising through the ranks of Enterprise Rent-a-Car.

These students are only three examples of the ripple effects that begin at Restoration. The Fairfield school celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2019, and it faces greater demand than it can currently meet.

That’s why Culp is passionate about its place in the community. Culp’s wife, Jenny, is also found weekly volunteering at the school, making it a family affair. Culp deflects attention from his decade-long board chairmanship role to the students and teachers.

“Betsy Colvin is one of the real heroes,” Culp says. “She tutors high school math every Monday through Thursday working her magic and building special relationships.”

Restoration Academy serves economically challenged families who desperately want their children to have a safe, quality education.

And the need is clear: “This winter AL.com published results from the State assigning report card grades for every Alabama public school. There were 52 schools in our area receiving a D or F, all north of Red Mountain from Center Point to Bessemer. I estimate this is at least 20,000 students. Most all of these kids have no choice, no ability to move, unable to pay private tuition. There is a real injustice in this situation,” Culp says.

The academy is set to embark on a $3.5 million capital campaign, which will help meet the school’s tremendous demand. As the fall semester began, 339 students were enrolled in the school. Culp says Restoration’s goal is to grow to meet the demand for 520 students.

“Our existing facilities have no debt and we hope to keep it that way,” he says.

The board has already raised half of the money, and several of its newer members have brought fresh energy to the organization.

“They all wanted to get behind something that was making a difference in the lives of young people, especially through
education,” Culp says.

The board members bring different areas of expertise—Culp’s includes 30-plus years with commercial real estate firm Graham & Co.—and they work to ensure the school is able to see hundreds of young people graduate and become productive members of their communities.

Culp shares an anecdote from Restoration co-founder Anthony Gordon, now a Mobile resident, to illustrate the importance of these efforts. During a recent tour, someone asked Gordon about the changes he’s seen in Restoration’s three-decade history. His answer was apt:

“Restoration Academy has gone from the hope of our kids simply beating the odds to the present day changing the odds.”
–LH and CJW

 

A globe-trotting doctor on a mission

When Christopher Harmon was growing up in Tupelo he did not dream of becoming an award-winning Mohs surgeon and a pioneer in the world of medical mission trips. In fact, he was an average student.

“My father continued to say I could make straight A’s if I just applied myself,” Harmon says with a laugh. After an eighth-grade meeting with his career counselor, he decided to do just that. “I began to take notes, do the homework, and found that if you did those things, making straight A’s was pretty straightforward.”

Heeding his father’s advice paid off with an educational career that included Mississippi College (where he played
tennis on a scholarship and co-founded a water-ski team), medical school at Tulane, a residency at the Mayo Clinic, and a stint in the Air Force as a dermatologist at Keelser Air Force Base in Biloxi. Today, Harmon heads up the medical team of Surgical Dermatology Group, a clinic well known in Birmingham for the treatment of skin cancers using the Mohs surgical procedure. His research includes skin cancer, wound healing, cutaneous laser surgery and dermabrasion.

“The joy of what we do is treating problems that are fixable,” Harmon explains. In Mohs surgery, the oncology component of removing the cancer is paired with the reconstructive and aesthetic component of repairing the defect. “It is gratifying to help patients with a cure for their cancer while at the same time restoring beauty and function with
the reconstructive surgery.”

While Harmon loves to serve his patients in Birmingham, he has found a higher calling serving patients around the world. He relocated here almost two decades ago to open a dermatology practice and put down roots for his wife, Sandy, and their two daughters Haley and Mary Elizabeth. Once here, Harmon became friends with surgeons Frank Page and Mike Drummond, both of whom had life-changing experiences on medical mission trips.

Following much encouragement from them, he and Sandy ventured to El Alto, Bolivia, in 2000 to work among the Aymara Indians. A teacher by training, Sandy’s gifts were the perfect complement to her husband’s medical skills. They both quickly learned that when treating the physical needs of the patients, a door is opened to have other conversations about life and faith.

“We came home from that trip realizing that we could leverage a few weeks of our time each year and make a huge impact not only in the medical condition of the patients in these third world villages but also in the spiritual conditions of their lives as well.”

The Bolivia trip showed Harmon that he had an opportunity to use his influence and connections in the States and could leverage these short-term trips for long-lasting impact in developing countries. Working with an organization called e3 Partners, Harmon has taken more than 20 teams to various countries and communities around the globe. Each trip serves the medical needs of the community while planting the seeds for a church to serve spiritual needs. Most of his trips have been in the Amazon region of Peru, but he has also taken teams to Ecuador, Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, and Israel.

“In going to various locations, we’ve seen God’s unique fingerprint in each of these cultures, and we have come away from those experiences with a broader worldview and understanding of how God works in the lives of every tongue, tribe and nation,” Harmon says.

The globetrotting doctor does not stop at medical mission trips. He and Sandy recently put down literal new roots by founding New Water Farms near Lake Martin, which takes his passion for farming to a new level. The three-acre farm full of blackberries, blueberries, apples and other fruits is an event venue that creates experiences to cultivate spiritual growth. “This is a place where people can gather to renew and refresh their hearts for mission-minded service,” he says. –BW

 

Acting in service

Susan Sellers’ work has touched many lives, and Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center is the pinnacle of a 25-year
career filled with service.

Sellers’s passion for service started young and was inspired by her parents. It’s a thread woven through her life, connecting activities such as teaching aerobics to adults with disabilities to serving post-Katrina New Orleans through the Metropolitan Human Services District. Sellers used her legal education from Baylor University to work as an assistant district attorney in Washington, D.C., where she handled child abuse and neglect cases. She worked to convert the indigent care health system in her native Texas to a federally qualified health center.

“I think that the common denominator in all of these projects and Forge is that each required someone to pull together unlikely partners to make things happen,” Sellers says.

Her role in Forge may have seemed unlikely five years ago, but it has become Sellers’s proudest and most personal accomplishment. In 2011 Sellers moved from New Orleans to Birmingham with her husband Scott, chief division counsel for the Birmingham division of the FBI, and their two sons. In late 2013, she became vice president of philanthropy for St. Vincent’s Foundation, which she now serves as president.

Only a year-and-a-half after moving to town, a routine mammogram revealed breast cancer. Sellers had no family history of the disease—and no roots in Birmingham.

“I didn’t know anyone here, whom to call, what questions to ask,” she recalls.

Two people came into her life at the right moment: Wayne Carmelo-Harper, then-interim president of the St. Vincent’s Foundation, and Madeline Harris, a longtime oncology nurse who worked for the Community Foundation of Greater
Birmingham’s Women’s Breast Health Fund. They dreamed of uniting Birmingham-area health systems to form Forge, a community-based therapeutic program that offers holistic support for breast cancer survivors.

“I was from out of town and didn’t realize how impossible such a collaboration of healthcare systems could seem,”
Sellers says. But the effort brought together Brookwood Baptist Health, Grandview Medical Center, St. Vincent’s Health System, University of Alabama at Birmingham Medicine and UAB School of Nursing with Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. “It takes a village to make initiatives like this possible,” says Sellers.

With the five major health care systems on board, Sellers and her team set out to identify services area breast cancer survivors felt were lacking. The team utilized the internet, but also dropped off questionnaires in libraries, schools and churches in rural areas.

The results were clear: Women wanted to talk to another survivor, even more than they did medical professionals.
Jefferson County offered support groups, but rural areas
didn’t have anything, and no program specifically addressed metastatic survivors.

Sellers and Madeline Harris called on their respective experiences as nonprofit community facilitator and health care professional. But their sense of mission accelerated as Madeline’s then-35-year-old daughter, a mother of three, completed her treatment for breast cancer.

Today Forge employs 4.5 full time staff members who oversee around 45 trained volunteers serving as advocates, peer-to-peer mentors, phone call responders and in a variety of other roles.  Most have some personal or family association with breast cancer.  A Clinical Advisory Committee of 22 is comprised of health care professionals including patient navigators, nutritionists, nurse practitioners and oncologists. The goal is to see Forge end 2019 incorporated as an independent 501(c)3 non-profit. Database collection traces survivor progress, and numerical assessment will allow other cities to use Forge as a model.

Sellers continues to serve other causes in her free time, include faith-based nonprofit M-Power Ministries and Jeremiah’s Hope Academy, an initiative that provides high-school and GED graduated three months of training for certification in healthcare-related fields. She sees these efforts and Forge, alike, as an outpouring of faith and her parents’ example.

She says of Forge, “I am just the humble survivor that God put in the right place at the right time to try to carry
it out.” –CA