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The Business of Non-Profits

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Meet three young Jews in the business of making Chicago a better place.
06/17/2008

One-on-One Cancer Support

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The angelic Jonny Imerman

Jonny Imerman was your typical college graduate. By day he worked in commercial real estate and at night attended classes for his M.B.A. In his free time, Jonny played basketball, went to the gym and hung out with friends.

And then his life changed. At 26, Jonny was diagnosed with testicular cancer requiring surgery and 5 months of chemotherapy treatments. But, Jonny says, he was lucky, because he had his family and friends to support him through the treatments.

“Many people fighting cancer are by themselves, disconnected from anything, from family, from loved ones, from positive energy around them that could motivate them to get through the cancer,” he says. 

While receiving treatments in the hospital, Jonny made rounds chatting with the other cancer patients, finding inspiration and guidance from his peers. “Talking to someone my own age that has beaten my cancer who was a survivor who could look me in the eyes and say ‘hey I was in the same shoes a year ago, this is what it feels like, this is what's coming and answer all the little questions you have,” made the biggest impression, he said.

In 2003 Jonny, cancer free, left the business world behind and began Imerman Angels, a not-for-profit organization that connects a person fighting with cancer with someone who has survived and beaten the same type of cancer.

“The beautiful thing about cancer is that it helps you throw inhibitions out the window. It got rid of my fear; I never would have had the courage to start a not-for-profit before.”

In just five years, Imerman Angels has spread nationwide. The not-for-profit has a network of 1,000 cancer survivors and matches people from all over the country. And Jonny has a five-year mission: by 2012, every single American diagnosed with cancer will have free access to a cancer survivor within 24 hours of their diagnosis.

Now 32, Jonny has been cancer free for four years.

“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else in the world. This is why I got sick at the age of 26. It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me because it’s helped me to make the cancer world a better place.”

Fighting Illiteracy

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Stacy Ratner, spreading the joy of reading throughout Chicago

Stacy Ratner’s love affair with books began at the age of three. In college, she majored in comparative literature preparing for a career as a copyeditor. But a lack of publishing jobs led Stacy down a different route-- she became a lawyer and, as she puts it, a “serial entrepreneur.” At 35, Stacy has successfully launched six businesses.

Two years ago, Stacy realized she wanted books back in her professional life. She began researching literacy rates in Chicago and what she discovered was alarming: Almost 53% of adults living in Chicago have reading difficulties.

“I’ve been a reader all my life; it never occurred to me that so many people in Chicago can’t read a bus schedule, pay their bills or read to their children. I never imagined how limited these people’s lives must be.”

Stacy decided to use her business acumen to create Open Books, a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness and combating illiteracy throughout Chicago.

“Literacy is fundamentally linked to poverty. It is a self-perpetuated cycle where people are dependent on others to function. The fact that so many in Chicago can’t read was a real wake-up call for me. It was a smack in the face. But, at the same time, illiteracy is not like the war in Iraq or world hunger—it is not an unsolvable problem.”

Stacy, with a staff of five full-time employees, more than 600 volunteers and the support of 20 literacy organizations in the city, is working to solve the problem. Open Books tutors and mentors underserved youth and provides adult education as well as ESL classes. 

In the spring of 2009 the not-for-profit will open a bookstore.  The first floor will house 50,000 books, a café and reading nooks, the second floor will be classrooms and a computer center. 

“Open Books has allowed me to share my love of reading with others—from the parent that can read a nighttime story to their child for the first time, to the elderly American who can read the label on his prescription drug bottle; we want to spread the joy of reading to everybody.”

Be Bright Pink

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Lindsay Avner is the ultimate Bright Pink Girl

Lindsay Avner was 22 years-old when she underwent a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy.

With a family history of cancer (her mother is a breast and ovarian cancer survivor and her grandmother and great grandmother both succumbed to breast cancer) Lindsay knew she was at risk. Genetic testing after college confirmed that she had inherited the breast/ovarian cancer gene, so she made the difficult decision to undergo surgery ensuring that she would not be another cancer victim.

“When I decided to come out and talk about my own unique experience, what was amazing was not the amount of press, [including The Today ShowCNNVogue and The Chicago Tribune] but how many young women reached out to the writers and the TV producers to say ‘oh-my-gosh, she is telling my story.’” 

To keep people talking about this important topic, Lindsay began Be Bright Pink, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to providing support to young women who are at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer.  

In less than two years, Be Bright Pink has grown exponentially with chapters in Chicago, New York and Miami and members throughout the country. Be Bright Pink partners with genetic counselors and OBGYN’s to identify girls who are at high risk for breast cancer and offers them, “companionship and empathy during their journey.” 

Lindsay shies away from the traditional support group model; instead Be Bright Pink is designed to support her generation. The organization hosts events that encourage girls to get out and attend yoga classes, to grab cocktails with girlfriends and to gab over cheese and crackers. Lindsay describes a Bright Pink Girl “as a dynamic, amazing person who is going to spend a Saturday socializing at a bar with her girlfriends.”

“This is a non-profit organization that I run as a business. I’m just in the business of reaching people with this amazing message that help change their lives.”

On June 29th Be Bright Pink will host a high tea at the Drake “for the women we love.”

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