Category Archives: Guest blogger

Penn Serves LA Spruces Up a New Charter School

By Leanne Pyott Huebner, W’90

Valiente College Preparatory Charter School

Five Large Classrooms, Five Hours, and Twenty Volunteers.  That’s what the Penn Serves team had to work with this past weekend to prepare the classrooms of Valiente College Prep Charter School, in South Gate, California.  This newly-chartered early-start middle school will open its doors in two months time to approximately 140 4th and 5th graders.  Every dollar counts for new schools prompting Board Chair Leanne Huebner, W’90, to call in the Penn Serves LA volunteers to lend some much-needed manpower on this June morning.

“We are absolutely thrilled to have the help prepping Valiente, as our teachers are so eager to prep classrooms for opening day,” shares Huebner.  “This work saved our school thousands of dollars we can now use towards other critical school needs!”


A great team of Penn alumni were out in force to paint the new charter school


Valiente College Prep Charter School is the culmination of nearly two years of prep work which started with school founder Jacob Wertz’s vision to create a high-performing charter middle school for Southeast Los Angeles.  After completing a yearlong fellowship with non-profit Building Excellent Schools, Jacob and his founding team embarked on the task of launching Valiente, utilizing best practices from dozens of successful charter schools across the U.S.

“We are creating a high-expectations community of leaders and learners preparing our students for great universities like Penn,” shares Wertz.  Valiente serves one of the most overpopulated zip codes in the U.S. where today only 7% of its residents hold college degrees.  The team is on a mission to move that needle higher as it serves approximately 95% students with free- and reduced-lunch eligibility status, often used as high poverty indicator.

“It was great to come out today and help this school get ready for day one,” shared Jennifer Bunn, W’06, C’06, now an attorney in Newport Beach. “After Penn, I taught for four years, two through Teach for America so I know how important for charter schools to access great volunteer talent whenever possible.”

Interested in getting involved at Valiente College Prep?  Please contact Jacob at to learn more.

Penn Serves LA’s next event will be on Saturday, July 18th, when the volunteers will be harvesting, weeding, pruning, and planting a Heroes’ Garden at the Veteran’s Administration in West LA.  Click here to RSVP.


Dunn Edwards, headquartered nearby the school, generously donated paint and some supplies – it came in handy.


Great teamwork with Penn alumni working alongside school parents.


Paul and Nicole tackle the two-tone windows.


Penn Serves LA has many terrific projects for all ages on the calendar for the coming months. Join us, meet new Penn people, demonstrate what service means to your kids and friends, help us Quakers make a little bit of difference in our complex city!

Upcoming Penn Serves LA events:

  • Saturday, July 18, 2015 – Harvesting a Garden for Veterans – RSVP
  • Saturday, September 12, 2015 – Reading to Kids – Details coming soon
  • Sunday, December 6, 2015 – Midnight Mission: Serving Meals to the Homeless – Details coming soon

If you have an established nonprofit that you would like us to consider for future events or announcements, please let us know. We are looking for new nonprofits to serve in meaningful ways.

Questions? Reach us at

Find us on the web, follow us on Twitter and like our Facebook page!

Read about our previous events:

June, 2015 – Penn Serves LA Has the Giving Spirit

August, 2014 – Penn Serves LA Strikes Again: This Time with Paint!

December, 2013 – Holidays are a Time for Giving

November, 2013 – Sending Holiday Warmth to our Troops

August and September, 2013 – Serving the Environment and LA Leadership Academy

May, 2013 – One on One Outreach

March, 2013 – Habitat for Humanity

January, 2013 – Inner City Arts

September, 2012 – The Midnight Mission

June, 2012 – Turning Point Shelter

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Filed under Alumni Programming, Guest blogger, Penn Serves LA, Volunteering

Penn Serves LA Strikes Again; This Time With Paint

By Leanne Huebner, W’90

Photos by Kiera Reilly, C’93

Over thirty Penn Alumni and their children joined together for a fun beautification project for El Nido Family Centers in Mission Hills.  We were thrilled that Elizabeth Fields, Julie Gutowski and Kiera Reilly from the Penn Western Regional Office joined us. And we welcomed special guests in town from campus Penn Professor David Grossman, Ph.D., Director, Civic House and Civic Scholars Program, and Katie McCarthy from the Penn Development Office, both lending their painting skills for good.

All in all, the team completed the center’s foyer, a key event room, as well as a hallway in bright white.  The highlight for many participants was contributing to a full wall-sized canvas mural alongside the Pacoima mural artist.  Volunteers brought together her vision for a grand-scale masterpiece to add cheer and interest in the center’s main lobby area.

Stuart Berton, El Nido Board President and Wharton ’61 graduate, thanked the team and provided a great overview of the important work of El Nido, a nonprofit that has served Los Angeles for 89 years.  Each year, the centers reach over 11,000 Los Angelenos  through its community outreach, early education and teen pregnancy initiatives, and gang-prevention programming.  While many individuals come to the center, El Nido social workers are also in the field meeting individuals and assessing families in their homes and schools.

Penn Serves LA's Jane Gutman with El Nido's Stuart Berton

Penn Serves LA’s Jane Gutman with El Nido’s Stuart Berton

A few highlights of their work were shared.  For instance, their GRYD program for gang-prevention has experienced success rates of up to 98% working with at-risk youth.  Their teen pregnancy recidivism rate is 80% lower than the national average, with only 4% of teenage mothers they serve having a second child before they turn twenty years old.

Penn Serves LA's Leanne Huebner is thrilled with the event.

Penn Serves LA’s Leanne Huebner is thrilled with the event.

“We are excited to help El Nido with such a great, enthusiastic group of volunteers,” shares Jane Gutman, CW’73, PAR’14, PAR’16, one of the Penn Serves LA Directors and coordinator of this event.  “And to have David and Katie here from Penn lending a hand makes our day of brightening the facility with fresh paint all the better.”

View all the photos from the day here.

The entire group poses to celebrate a job well done!

The entire group poses to celebrate a job well done!

The next Penn Serves’ event will be Saturday, August 9th from 9 a.m. to noon and you can reserve your spot here.  Penn will be serving LA Waterkeepers in an effort to help identify the impact of debris on our area’s water supply.  “It’s a great opportunity for your science-minded side as we will be surveying and collecting valuable data,” shares Christine Belgrad, W’87, PAR’15, PAR’17, event coordinator.
Many of the past Penn Serves sell out, so please reserve your spot quickly.

Read about our past events:

December, 2013 – Holidays are a Time for Giving

November, 2013 – Sending Holiday Warmth to our Troops

August and September, 2013 – Serving the Environment and LA Leadership Academy

May, 2013 – One on One Outreach

March, 2013 – Habitat for Humanity

January, 2013 – Inner City Arts

September, 2012 – The Midnight Mission

June, 2012 – Turning Point Shelter

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Filed under Alumni Perspective, Family Programming, Guest blogger, Kiera R., Penn Serves LA, Photos, Volunteering, West Coast Regional Office

Penn Club of San Diego Goes South of the Border for Street Eats

By B. Bea Rajsombath, C’99, club president

There are a lot of great things about living in sunny San Diego, including over 70 miles of beautiful coastline, the nice Mediterranean climate, pockets of diverse neighborhoods with their own vibe, mountains or beaches within miles of each other, great restaurants and bars, its proximity to Tijuana, and so much more.

The Penn Club of San Diego works on creating events and activities that feature the neighborhood gems and life in San Diego; events any of our alumni can appreciate, whether they recently moved here or are returning natives.

In November 2013, the Club joined Turista Libre for a wine tour in Valle de Guadalupe. Based on that successful and fun adventure, we had requests to organize another event south of the border. As Turista Libre (TL) focuses on organizing tours highlighting the local aspects of Tijuana and surrounding areas, we worked with them to deliver another event for our alumni. Passports in hand on March 22, Penn alumni and friends met up with TL at San Ysidro, the last US stop before reaching Mexico, about 15 miles south of San Diego. We were joined by a few other TL guests to walk across the border to board a small school bus operated by TL to start our adventure tour: TJ Street Eats.

Penn Alumni and friends

Penn Alumni and friends

We started our day with a birria taco from a busy food truck stationed on a non-descript street by a Staples. It was simple, yet bursting with flavor. A cheese quesadilla was offered to our vegetarian guests. The tacos were so delicious most of us wanted more, but we were advised by TL to limit ourselves to the one because we had a number of stops to make. A few of us couldn’t hold out though and had to try a second taco.

A birria taco

A birria taco

Our second stop was at Kokopelli’s food truck, for black Harder ceviche de lenguado tostada. Our vegetarian guests feasted on grilled Portobello mushroom tacos. At this point, more guests were losing their willpower to hold off on just one item and explored some other offerings from Kokopelli’s. A few also ventured to try a seemingly, innocent pink-colored salsa…and suffered through the burning from a habanero-beet mixture. TL also offered up some Tecate beer for refreshments before we headed to our third stop.

A tostada

A tostada

Before we reached Tio Pepe, a wonderful bottle of tequila was shared. Some of us are still searching for the bottle on this side of the border. Tio Pepe is a neighborhood gem with plastic tables and chairs, friendly staff and a bustling lunch crowd. I would love to go back…if I can find my way there! Here, we sat down to enjoy Guadalajara-style torta ahogadas, a few rounds of Corona and some ventured off to order additional tacos. I don’t know where they found room.

Torta Ahogada

Torta Ahogada

After indulging ourselves, we still had two more stops! The next was at Tepoznieves, an artisan ice cream parlor with more than 100 flavors. Unfortunately, I was too busy sampling the flavors and enjoying my selection of three small scoops to capture any photos to share. On the way to our last stop, another bottle of tequila was brought you to be shared. Finally, we made it to Baja Craft Beers for a sampling of house brews. We essentially had the place to ourselves so early in the afternoon. The brewery had great space and a long list of local and international beers available.

Baja Craft Brewery

Baja Craft Brewery

Alas, our great little adventure came to an end by 5pm and TL returned us to the border to make our way back across to the US. We definitely enjoyed our TJ Street Eats tour and working with Turista Libre again. We already have requests to repeat both the wine tour and the TJ Street eats.

The Penn Club of San Diego and Turista Libre

The Penn Club of San Diego and Turista Libre

These are just a few of the activities and events the Penn Club of San Diego organizes for local alumni in the greater San Diego area. If you are interested in learning about these and other events, please contact us via email, join our email listserv, like our Facebook page, or follow us on Twitter.

Our next event is a yPenn Happy Hour on July 10th. We hope to see you there!


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Filed under Alumni Perspective, Clubs, Food Fiends, GAN, Guest blogger, Penn Clubs, Photos

Seattle Alumni Put on Aprons for an Evening to Help Alleviate Poverty

By: Haley Shapley, C’06

Thanks to a little help from the Penn Club of Seattle, at least one person will be able to transition from the streets to a job in the hospitality industry.

It was all part of Guest Chef Night at FareStart, a culinary job training and placement program for homeless individuals in Seattle. Since 1992, FareStart has provided opportunities for nearly 7,000 people to transform their lives, while also serving more than 6 million meals to disadvantaged men, women, and children.

The tables are set for FareStart's Guest Chef Night, with Penn Alumni Club of Seattle members as guest servers.

The tables are set for FareStart’s Guest Chef Night, with Penn Alumni Club of Seattle members as guest servers.

Each Thursday evening, prominent guest chefs come to work with the students as part of their 16-week food-service program. The three-course meal is served by volunteers, which is where Penn alumni came in.

Chef Sam Hassan explains the evening's menu.

Chef Sam Hassan explains the evening’s menu.

Although none in the group had any restaurant experience to speak of, on April 24 we got a crash course in the art of serving, learning the importance of checking back within two bites, refilling waters regularly (and not touching the rim of the glass!), and how to properly carry a tray. Chef Sam Hassan of Maple Falls Cafe provided a tasting of the Mandioca Frita, NW by SE Pasta, and Mango Raspberry Cobbler beforehand so that we’d be able to answer questions about the ingredients when guests inquired (Just what is yuca? Ask us; we know!).

The featured servers tonight - the Penn Club of Seattle!

The featured servers tonight – the Penn Club of Seattle!

Penn Alumni getting trained

Penn Alumni getting trained

Six hours, countless pitchers of water, and a few cramped fingers later, we’d served 169 diners, raising a total of $7,116 for FareStart’s training programs, including donations of $181 and tips of $1,327. All in all, it’s more than enough to give one student safe housing, the full 16-week culinary program, and comprehensive wrap-around services.

It's a full house.

It’s a full house.

The program has a 90 percent job placement rate within three months for students after graduation, and each Guest Chef Night includes a graduation ceremony with those who’ve completed the 16-week program successfully. On our night, we watched two grads get ready to move on to the next stage of their lives, including Tina, who didn’t miss a single day. “It’s made me stay focused instead of every day wondering what’s going to happen,” she said.

Rupi Sureshkumar, Maria Seredina, and David Blum watch the graduation festivities.

Rupi Sureshkumar, Maria Seredina, and David Blum watch the graduation festivities.

Bob, who moved to Seattle in July with a big plan that fell apart, was equally grateful. “I thank this program; it really rescued me,” he said. “I learned a lot and I appreciate it. This program is ingenious to solve the problem of homelessness and poverty.”

Bellies full of delectable ingredients like shaved Parmigiano, smoked fish, and Chantilly cream, we scattered into the night back to our respective homes — energized by the experience and humbled by the fact that we made a contribution, however small, to the students being able to have homes to return to as well.

Penn alumni enjoy a hard-earned meal at the end of the evening.

Penn alumni enjoy a hard-earned meal at the end of the evening.

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Filed under Alumni Perspective, Clubs, GAN, Guest blogger, Penn Clubs, Photos, Volunteering

How Penn’s Research Inspires

By Robin Tauber Plonsker, C’86

On April 21, I will be running the Boston Marathon as a member of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training (TNT). This will be my first time running the Boston Marathon (something I’ve always aspired to do), but not my first time running for TNT. I have been a supporter of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society ever since my husband Ted’s lymphoma diagnosis. Ted has been cancer-free eight years now, but my involvement with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society has only grown. I started as a volunteer, have run several marathons for TNT, and am now an employee, thrilled to be working to support a mission so personally meaningful to me. It also gives me a chance to see firsthand the amazing breakthroughs being made right now in blood cancer research–research that The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is funding.

In fact, one of the most exciting research breakthroughs is happening right here at Penn. A team led by Carl June, MD, has developed a new treatment for leukemia that involves genetically engineering patients’ own immune cells to seek out, target and kill cancer cells. This new therapy has been tested in leukemia patients for whom all other treatments had failed. The results of the study have been nothing short of astounding, with the majority of patients–including children with the most common form of childhood cancer–achieving complete remission. This is research that The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society recognized as promising and worthy of support as far back as 1992, long before it achieved the success it is having today. In fact, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society has committed $20 million to this research over these past 12 years, including a current $6 million grant.


This remarkable new treatment developed at Penn is now being tested in other types of blood cancers and is a bright ray of hope for those battling these diseases. But there is more work to be done. There are more than a million Americans living with leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma. Many are still desperately in need of cures. I am running the Boston Marathon to help raise the funds needed to find those cures. If you would like to help by making a donation to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, please click on this link to my fundraising page:

Every donation helps accelerate finding cures for blood cancer patients. On their behalf and mine, thank you.

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Penn Alumni Club Joins Alumni Band for a Memorable Ben’s Birthday Bash

By Robin Tauber Plonsker, C’86

On January 25th, the Penn Alumni Club of Westchester & Rockland Counties teamed up with The Velcrows band, which counts 3 Penn alumni among its members, for food, drinks and rock ‘n roll in celebration of Ben Franklin’s 308th birthday.

The Velcrows

The Velcrows, featuring Randi Nielsen, W’84, (vocals), Mike Rosenman, C’76, (drums), and Rob Birkenholz, ME’82, (guitar)

I met Randi Neilsen, W’84, at Homecoming this past fall and learned that she and her husband, Robert Birkenholz, ME’82, as well as alum Mike Rosenman, C’76, have a band and perform at venues in Westchester. Randi and Rob met and formed a band while they were students at Penn. Happily, the couple and the band are still together. We thought it would be fun to tie a Club event into one of their gigs. It turned out the timing was perfect for Ben’s Birthday Bash, our annual event celebrating Ben Franklin’s birthday.

Combining our event with The Velcrows’ performance was a hit. We started the evening with food, drinks, and conversation, sang happy birthday to Ben, and then rocked to great tunes sung by Randi and Rob backed up by their awesome band. A great time was had by all!

A Happy Penn Crowd

An excited Penn crowd, celebrating Ben with the Velcrows

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Filed under Alumni Perspective, Ben Franklin, Ben's Birthday Bash, Guest blogger

“We will find a way or we will make one!”

Author: Lisa Niver Rajna, C’89

Do you ever wonder how you will make your dreams come true? I find inspiration from the gate at the University: We will find a way or we will make one. In December 2012 on the beach in India, I said I think we should have a contest on our website, We Said Go Travel. George said, “Great! Let’s start in January and end on February 14.” Immediately I had several objections. I could not possibly be ready so fast to run a writing contest.
We were in Konark, India at the Sand Art Festival near the UNESCO Sun Temple. I was musing that 30 years ago when the festival began, someone probably said: “Sand Art Festival! You must be nuts!” But here we were, thirty years later and it was a large festival with many international sand artists!

In January 2014, we began our fourth travel-writing contest. (Travel Writing Contest:

Over the course of 2013, over five hundred writers from over fifty countries entered our contest. It was truly fantastic! I love all the stories and getting to email with people from all over our planet. We hope you will choose to join us by sharing a story or reading one from someone else! We did our first live announcement of the winners for our contest on google hangout on air.

WSGT gratitude 2013 google hangout (2)

Watch the hangout:

See the winners:

We had some technical issues and had to link one judge in by skype but it worked. We found a way to make it work! I learned many life lessons at the University of Pennsylvania but the message from the gate always rings in my head: “We will find a way or we will make one!”

I remember the contest really took off when I wrote to our friend, Richard Bangs from the PBS Travel Show, “Adventure with Purpose,” who offered to be a judge.  Sometimes all you need to do is offer to participate: by joining in a contest, being the judge or simply showing up. I was honored in October 2013 to share our travel knowledge in a webinar for the University of Pennsylvania Alumni Travel. George and I talked about our journey for 27 days in Myanmar (Burma). We were invited to participate and we said YES!

I hope that you make your resolutions for 2014 come true by taking a first step! I would love to hear about your progress.



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Filed under Alumni Perspective, Alumni Profile, Guest blogger, Lisa N.R., Penn Alumni Travel, Travel