Ever since a drunken driver cut short the life of his toddler son, Glynn Birch has been a man on a mission.
For more than 17 years, the Bright House Networks account executive divided his time between his work, most recently in the cable industry, and his volunteer efforts with Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
The Florida native worked his way through the advocacy group’s ranks, toiling in local fund-raisers and prompting his co-workers to support the charity through donations and participation in the Central Florida chapter’s benefit golf tourney.
Birch is one of many in the cable industry to have turned his or her challenge into a personal cause. Those living with health issues or coping with the loss of a loved one have been inspired to create charities or support existing ones, with the help and financial support of their co-workers and employers.
BIRCH: A MADD DAD
Birch’s devotion to his cause is such that he recently had to make a choice: In April, he resigned from Bright House’s special-markets sales division in Central Florida. This month he became the first African-American, and the first dad, to head MADD. He will lead the national group through 2008.
His is a passion gained through pain. In May, 1988, Courtney Birch, then just 21 months old, was playing with two cousins in their grandmother’s yard when he heard the irresistible chimes of an ice cream truck. As children flooded the street, a car sped toward them at 70 miles per hour. The boy was killed instantly, but the car dragged his body 150 feet.
Police determined the driver had a blood alcohol level of 0.26 at the time of the fatal accident. They also discovered his license had been revoked and he’d been convicted three other times of driving while under the influence.
A grieving Birch turned to the local MADD chapter for help, and they assisted him with a victim’s impact statement that helped incarcerate the driver for the maximum penalty at the time: 15 years in prison.
The tragedy galvanized Birch into action. He became a speaker for the organization and worked his way through the organizational structure. Before he was elected national president, he was serving as the national vice president of victim issues.
The advocacy had become generational. According to Yolanda Larson, executive director of the MADD central Florida chapter, Birch’s adult sons, Adrian and Rahmlee, now speak at high schools on the danger of underage drinking.
For another Florida couple, Eddie and Jenny Jacobs, the creation of a foundation to support the parents of babies who die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome “isn’t therapy, its survival,” said Jenny Jacobs.
Eddie, a senior field technician for Cox Communications Inc. in Gainesville, Fla., and his wife found their 6-month-old son, Lazarus Addison Jacobs, dead in his crib of SIDS in 2002.
In her shock, she realized the first people to reach her house after the emergency personnel were her husband’s supervisor and some of his co-workers.
“Even before our parents could get here,” she said.
JACOBSES BATTLE SIDS
The couple felt they needed an activity to divert their minds from the grief, so just four weeks after his death, they went to Cox and asked for help organizing a team for a March of Dimes walk in Alachua County. More than 100 people joined the couple — from a system that was staffed by 190 employees.
“There were people who didn’t even know us, just that we were part of the company. We felt like people out there really did give a [damn], that they were family there and back,” Jenny Jacobs said. “And we opened their eyes that there are others out there like us.”
The Jacobses went on to form the Little Bits of Honey Memorial Fund, a federal 501(c)3 corporation, to raise money both for research into the cause of SIDS and to aid bereaved families in providing a proper burial to their children.
Local mortuaries discount children’s funerals by 50%, but still some families face a “potter’s field” county burial if they can’t come up with immediate cash, Jacobs said. The charity has buried nine SIDS victims.
The primary fund-raiser is an annual golf tournament, supported in part by Cox and its employees.
“You couldn’t ask for a more fun-loving, supportive group. [They] will go after that make-or-break celebrity participant without demanding that their name be used or that the company get a bigger logo,” she said. Cox’s support “really lifted us from a pit.”
The tourney has garnered the support of local celebrities as University of Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan and football coach Urban Meyer, who helped to draw sports fans to the fund-raiser.
DELGADILLOS AND WISHES
As with the Jacobses, the love of a lost child is the inspiration of the partnership between Cox San Diego employees Henry and Carmen Delgadillo, their co-workers and the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
When the parents, both of whom work in the regional call center, received their son Scott’s leukemia diagnosis, they learned that the charity could help Scott achieve at least part of a lifelong dream. The West Coast kid was a Notre Dame fan and had hoped to go to the university.
Make-A-Wish took the boy for a football weekend at the South Bend, Ind., campus.
According to Shelita Weinfield, government and community relations director for the San Diego system, the boy was allowed to give an impromptu speech to 12,000 people at a pep rally before the scheduled contest between the Fighting Irish and Purdue University.
The boy saw a great game, with Notre Dame snatching a 23-21 victory on a last-second field goal. The team gave Scott the game ball.
Scott lost his battle with leukemia at age 14.
In his honor, the Cox Kids Foundation donates $40,000 in cash annually to the local Make-A-Wish chapter.
Not all of the Make-A-Wish recipients are terminal, Weinfield said. Many are in the fight of their lives and fear losing touch with friends or falling behind in school. Therefore, the second most popular wish is an Internet connection and computer during their hospital stay, which Cox enables.
Cable veterans who enter the charity circuit say there are two major personal hurdles to launching a campaign: the fear of annoying co-workers by approaching them for money or their time; and the prospect of “outing” oneself.
CANTORES VS. PARKINSON’S
The latter was a challenge for Tamra Cantore, who was the vice president of sales strategy and affiliate operations for The Weather Channel. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a chronic, degenerative disease of the nervous system, in 1997. Initially, medication worked so well that Cantore was in denial, she said. She carried on as a busy executive, a mother of two toddlers and wife of Weather Channel on-air meteorologist Jim Cantore.
“I kept my head in the sand, kept active, until I couldn’t go a day without noticing my disease,” she said.
She allied herself with the Parkinson’s Action Network and sought advice on effective lobbying for her cause from an expert: longtime National Cable & Telecommunications Association chief Decker Anstrom, now president and COO of TWC parent Landmark Communications Inc.
“He spent an hour with me,” Tamra Cantore said. Anstrom compared lobbying to her sales job and taught her how to research her legislative targets and focus the conversation on key issues.
She and her husband also formed “Team Cantore,” an ever-swelling crew of supporters who fly to New York annually to participate in a walk benefiting all the Parkinson’s charities. Due to the commercial underwriting of companies like The Weather Channel, the entire walk’s proceeds go to research, she said.
TWC has approved a crew to cover the march and to interview such celebrities as Michael J. Fox. The segments discuss the possible link between environmental factors and the disease.
In five years, Team Cantore has raised $153,000 for research, both from the walk and fund-raising concerts in Georgia.
Unfortunately, Tamra Cantore has had to pass the torch to her friend, Ann Hart, vice president of affiliate sales at TWC. She is now on long-term disability.
Hart noted that because of Tamra Cantore’s efforts, Parkinson’s support is now a line item in the TWC’s annual budget. Hart is now on the board of directors for the Unity Walk and will work toward the event’s goal of $1.5 million in donations.
As for Cantore’s fear of approaching co-workers for help, she said she found that people only got mad at her if she didn’t include them in the fund-raising solicitation.
At Adelphia Communications Corp.’s corporate office in Denver, Zelda Martens’ inspiration is the memory of her brother and a great friend, both of whom were felled by AIDS.
AIDS LOSSES SPUR MARTENS
The director of marketing communications lost her sibling, Leonard, in March and her friend, Mark, in May of 1995.
“We got the call that [Leonard in California] wasn’t going to make it, and Mom, Dad and I rushed out there. Cable Positive paid for one of the tickets. But we just missed him,” she said.
She threw her emotional energy into Positively Cable, the musical benefit staged annually by the local Cable Positive chapter.
“I thought that show was going to die. A lot of people were burned out, and I thought, 'Of all years for this to die!’ ” she said. Martens approached Debbie Barackman, vice president of affiliate sales at In Demand, and sought her help in running the show.
“If you’re this passionate, I’ll do it with you,” Martens recalls Barackman saying, and the two ran the show for five years.
The chapter donates the money to the Denver Rainbow House, a shelter for kids with the disease or parents who are hospitalized.
“It’s been an amazing ride. We raised $143,000 last year,” she said, adding that the Denver chapter has raised $600,000 for Cable Positive.
She and Barackman have turned over the reins to others, but Martens said she’s happy the show will go on “for the kids.”
McCOLLUM HELPING KIDS
Gary McCollum, vice president and region manager for Cox in Northern Virginia, also has kids in mind. He has committed his system to funding construction for six Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs in his region by the end of 2006. Cox will contribute $1 million to the cause and $2 million in in-kind services to raise awareness among other businesses and agencies of the clubs’ importance in staving off gang activity.
A Boys’ Club in Richmond, Va. was McCollum’s haven after school when he was growing up in a single-parent home. His mother died when he was 10 and his father was at work when McCollum came home after school.
In those circumstances, “you yearn for a safe, learning, fun environment,” he said. The first college graduate he ever met was someone from the Boys’ Club, he notes, and McCollum went on to become the first college graduate in his family.
Though his system is in affluent Fairfax County, there are poorer segments of the community. Kids there need structured after-school options in their neighborhoods, he said, so they don’t come home to an empty house.
“That’s the most dangerous time of the day for a kid,” McCollum said.
He added: “We work in a great industry, but in the end, it’s all about making a difference.”