Gifts from the Heart: Robert Morris University Gifts from the Heart | Robert Morris University

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WRITTEN BY DAVID BROWN

All three RMU alumni share a passion for work that inspires volunteerism and philanthropy. And they each find value in becoming directly involved in projects they promote.

“Robert Morris made a big difference in my life,” says Wilhem, who studied banking and finance and was the first person in her family to receive a higher education. She always had a craving for knowledge. “As soon as I was old enough for a library card, that was my first real adventure,” she says. “I come from a poor family. I recognized our financial circumstances but everyone else in the neighborhood was in the same boat, so it was OK. What my parents did give me was the belief that I could do anything. “She attended night classes in order to work during the day and parlayed her education into a 38-year career as an executive with several top banks.

Until recently, she was managing director of Bank of America’s wealth management philanthropic group, where she helped people make smart financial decisions while giving away about $300 million a year. But in January, when the bank acquired Merrill Lynch, the resultant shuffle and reorganization eliminated Wilhem’s job. Rather than retire on her 28-acre ranch in Pinnacle, N.C., where she and her husband, Joe, raise show  horses, Wilhem put her financial expertise to work as a consultant for local and international charities, helping developing marketing campaigns and strategies.

Less than two weeks after Wilhem got the news about her bank job, Geneva Global, a philanthropic consulting group based in suburban Philadelphia, called to see if she would be willing to travel to Bangladesh as a consultant. The organization is a partner of the Norwaybased Stromme Foundation in a project to support several schools for girls in Asia. Venturing to one of the poorest nations on Earth seemed daunting, and when her husband of 41 years expressed concerns about her safety, Eileen asked for a week to consider it.

At the time, she was reading Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, a chronicle of his work to build schools in remote, impoverished lands. A passage describing Mortenson’s experiences in Bangladesh convinced Wilhem that much can come of the work of “one individual with a lot of passion.” She called back the next day to accept the assignment, and in March she got on a plane. (Mortenson will be at Heinz Hall on April 28 for the Pittsburgh Speakers Series, sponsored by Robert Morris University.)

Education is about the only escape from poverty in Bangladesh, where 84 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day. For cultural and financial reasons, girls have limited access to schools, and fewer than half of Bangladeshi girls complete primary school. Wilhem met with villagers in homes made of sticks and grass, and toured several schools of similarly modest construction. The Stromme Foundation’s model is to provide some money, while requiring the villagers themselves to supply some of the funds and materials. The foundation-supported schools teach adolescent girls basic education, hygiene, and job skills.

One teenager became the talk of her village after swimming a floodswollen river. “She had to go to class in wet clothes, but she couldn’t miss this program and the difference it made in her life,” Wilhem says. “It just moved me. I will never, ever forget these girls,” she says. “I owe it to those girls to tell their story as much as I can.” Denny, director of community relations at the Hillman Company, has a kaleidoscopic range of stories relating to his activities. Some, like the memorial under the bridge, are sad. Others have brighter endings — Pittsburgh Social Venture Partners, for example.

“I was really intrigued with the idea of venture philanthropy,” says Denny, explaining how he came to organize PSVP in 2000 after hearing about a model of it in Seattle. It’s also called engaged philanthropy and has spread to several cities in the U.S., Canada, and Japan. Engaged philanthropy invests in building up nonprofits and making them better able to carry out their mission. Denny rounded up several program officers of local foundations and a handful of venture capitalists, corralled them in a room, placed the concept on the table, and the result was a new brand of philanthropy in the region.

“We are a dual-mission organization, applying the venture capital model to strengthen nonprofits that are working to prevent child abuse and neglect in Allegheny County,” Denny says. “The second part of our mission is to build a whole new generation of engaged philanthropists.” Denny is chairman of the group, which currently consists of 45 partners. Each partner makes a commitment to donate $5,000 a year over two years, and also their own time and expertise as consultants for the nonprofits.

The impact PSVP has had on curbing child abuse and neglect is difficult to measure. But the effort is impressive. PSVP has invested in 11 nonprofit organizations serving at-risk kids since 2001, including $763,000 in grants and more than 4,000 hours of professional, hands-on consulting work to strengthen business operations within the nonprofits. Denny accompanied his son Patrick, 13, on a church mission to Haiti in June. The weeklong trip, coordinated by the Pittsburgh-based Haiti H2O organization, introduced members of the Fox Chapel Presbyterian Youth Group to a country plagued with intense poverty. Most of the visit was in rural areas of Haiti, whose nine million residents live in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. “The people are very friendly and welcoming, always willing to talk and receive any help offered. Although most find happiness in small ways, it was apparent to me that they know just how miserable things are for them in Haiti,” Denny says.

Horgan, who graduated summa cum laude with a degree in corporate communication, is executive director of Pittsburgh Cares, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging volunteerism and maximizing the impact of regional nonprofit organizations. He appreciates the value of partnering. Horgan teamed with Denny recently to help start PSVP-Kids, an offshoot of PSVP that engages elementary and middle school children in projects raising money to improve their schools and neighborhoods.

While he was a freshman, Horgan started an outreach program for students wanting to do volunteer service. That campus calling soon expanded significantly, when Horgan created the Allegheny County chapter of America’s Promise, a national youth development and advocacy group formed by retired Gen. Colin Powell. The organization supports programs to ensure all children have caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, effective education, and service opportunities. Horgan was recognized by Powell and George W. Bush for his commitment to youth and civic leadership, and was selected for the organization’s national board when he was only 19.

That zeal for volunteer work makes Horgan a natural fit at Pittsburgh Cares. “So many people are willing to give back, but so many times they just don’t know where to start,” Horgan says. “That’s why I full-heartedly believe in The Pittsburgh Cares mission, because if you can make it easy for people, they will do it.”

Karen Zimmerman, community relations coordinator for the regional behavioral health care and child welfare agency, praises Horgan for his willingness to get involved at the ground level of worthwhile projects.

“The Bradley Center has been the beneficiary of a wonderful volunteer leader in Daniel Horgan,”  Zimmerman says. “His insight into the needs of our organization are phenomenal. Not only does he see the paint and weeds that require attention, he gets through to the hearts of our young residents through arts and crafts therapy. Making the right connection, bringing volunteers into our facility who yearn to make a difference in the lives of the young boys and girls, and providing the materials and guidance to complete vital projects has endowed The Bradley Center with much – needed support over the years.

"There are touches of Daniel throughout our center,” she says.