Virginia Braxs (Cultural Enrichment)

Through Virginia Braxs’ leadership, St. Louis has become a more inclusive, richer community, embracing more cultures in its increasingly diverse society.

Originally from Argentina, Braxs moved to St. Louis in 1988 to pursue her own higher education. And she has gone on to help countless others achieve their academic dreams. Braxs is a former faculty member at University of Missouri-St. Louis and Webster University, and a current professor of Spanish, Latin American art history, and medical Spanish and social work at Washington University. But her work extends far beyond the university walls. Through one after-school program, she and her Washington University students travel to South County twice a week to assist dozens of Latino kids with college preparation.

And with her role as president of the Hispanic Arts Council of St. Louis, Braxs is promoting arts and education for the Latino culture even further. The group hosts cultural festivals, Hispanic concerts at The Sheldon Concert Hall and Latino art exhibits at The Sheldon Art Galleries to encourage inclusion and ethnic enrichment. In addition, the council’s higher education initiative, Universidad YA! (College NOW!), focuses on helping students and parents, who may not speak English, with college preparation, including a bilingual college fair each fall. “Education is the key to being able to contribute fully to society, so our goal is to empower Hispanic youth to be able to access higher education,” Braxs notes. “We are like the cultural bridge to empower the parents with the knowledge of the American education system, so they can help their kids.”

Braxs encourages the community to have an open mind to other cultures. “St. Louis has become a very diverse city very quickly, and knowledge is the best way to understand different ethnic groups, races, cultures and languages.” Attend a cultural festival or show, or contribute to a college scholarship fund for underserved Latino students, she says. “There’s always a will, if there is a way. If you elevate someone else, you are really elevating the whole community.”

Ida Early (Volunteer Leadership)

Ida Early is a woman of many hats. Through the years, she has successfully tackled various roles at Washington University and in the community, giving back to students, faculty and the city-at-large.

The current secretary to the university’s board of trustees and its 12 committees, Early also has served the Olin School of Business in various capacities, including as administrative assistant, student relations coordinator and director of special projects. She also coordinates the university’s commencement ceremonies, as well as the Women’s Society of Washington University, a 600-member volunteer organization committed to education and leadership.

Equally committed to volunteerism, Early graciously donates her free time to the health, arts and education communities. In 1996, she became the first African-American elected president of the Junior League of St. Louis. “We were at the height of our ability to help the city through our community projects program, and also at height of diversifying the League,” Early notes.

Through Early’s work with the Junior League, she was chosen in 2004 to help complete the Pierce Report, a regional assessment with a goal of elevating the city. “I interviewed heads of businesses and took field trips throughout the region to identify our resources,” she explains. “You hope that some of the information and insights you were able to gather had some lasting value as they keep working to improve the community.”

Early also credits the Junior League as the gateway to her service work. She went on to contribute to Epworth Children & Family Services, Care and Counseling, Childhaven, Dance St. Louis, Fair Saint Louis, Girls Inc., Forest Park Forever, St. Louis Symphony and the Regional Arts Commission.

Volunteer work of any kind always is a fulfilling experience, Early notes. “The community is only as good as the work people put into it,” she says. “Any place I am, I try to make it the best place it can be, especially when it comes to the impact on families and the health and welfare of children.”

Dr. Eva Frazer (Community Health)

As a young girl, Dr. Eva Frazer was curious about her father’s career, which seemed to be highly regarded, making a difference in people’s lives throughout the community. So curious, that one morning she hid in the backseat of his car until it came to a stop at an East St. Louis clinic.

When Frazer’s father realized she was along for the ride, he wasn’t angry, and instead, allowed her to shadow him during hospital rounds that day. He was a general surgeon and family practitioner. Frazer witnessed her father interacting with patients, and immediately knew what she wanted to do with her future.

Frazer’s passion to serve those in need led her to become an internal medicine physician for St. Mary’s Hospital and Barnes-Jewish Hospital for some 30 years. The physician and mother also was appointed to the St. Louis University Board of Trustees in 2001, where she took on the roles of overseeing the Saint Louis University School of Medicine and the university’s medical group practice. During that time, she was instrumental in moving the Health Resource Center to a larger, more useful facility—the Victor Roberts Building on Kingshighway—where SLU residents now provide even more free medical care to patients in need.

Today, Frazer is working on an exhibit that is close to her heart. To preserve the legacy of African-American physicians who served the community before her, she is recording oral histories and highlighting 15 prominent doctors as part of an exhibit on the history of the Homer G. Phillips Hospital. From 1937 to 1955, the hospital was one of only three in the country to train minority physicians and the sole facility in St. Louis to treat African-American patients.

Frazer says volunteerism is crucial to the community, especially when it comes to helping the underserved gain access to health care and education. “Not only are you helping the community, but doing it brings such a wealth of riches into your own life. It’s so important for women to be role models in the community.”

Teri Griege (Health Awareness)

Teri Griege was in peak physical condition as she swam, cycled and ran her way through the 2009 Ironman competition in Louisville. Two weeks later, she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

“It was absolutely a shock,” Griege recalls. But she didn’t let the disease stop her. In fact, she used it as fuel to work harder—for her own health and the health of others. With marathons including Boston, New York and Chicago under her belt, she challenged herself to complete even more races, including the Tokyo Marathon. And when she finished the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, she became the only person to participate in the competition while undergoing bi-monthly chemotherapy treatments. “It’s inspirational to people,” Griege says. “I get lots of emails and phone calls.”

The mother and former nurse at SSM St. Joseph Hospital also began booking public speaking engagements to spread awareness for colon cancer and the importance of early detection. “It really became a passion to spread awareness, because in 90 percent of cases, colon cancer is preventable. It’s about saving lives—that’s the bottom line,” Griege notes. To that end, she is an ambassador for the Colon Cancer Alliance, and a board member for GO! St. Louis and Pedal the Cause. Through Pedal the Cause and the Links for Life golf tournament, her team—Powered by Hope—has raised $500,000 for Siteman Cancer Center.

Griege has detailed her journey in a book of the same name—Powered By Hope—to be released in April. “It’s my story about hope and triumph in the face of cancer. Everybody has their dream—their end goal, and I believe they should never give up hope.”

Phyllis Langsdorf (Creative Philanthropy)

Phyllis Langsdorf happily spends each day giving back to the city that she says has given so much to her. “In order to sustain a community, everyone should give,” she says. When the Texas native moved to St. Louis more than 40 years ago, she says she was immediately embraced by the community. To reciprocate the warm welcome, she became an avid philanthropist, volunteering for the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis, as well as throughout the arts community.

Langsdorf held multiple chairmanships before becoming VP of fundraising and then president of the Jewish Hospital Auxiliary and sat on the Jewish Hospital Trustees board, where she lobbied for the importance of the neonatal unit, helping to keep the department at the hospital. In addition, she served on the board of the National Council of Jewish Women, chairing the Couturier Sale, its largest annual fundraiser.

As a longtime patron of the arts, Langsdorf has chaired galas and raised funds for Craft Alliance, Sheldon Art Galleries, Contemporary Art Museum, Laumeier Sculpture Garden and Saint Louis Art Museum. “The arts provide so much for the community—so many places to go and so much to see,” she says. “Art instills a feeling of beauty, and it allows you to see what other people are expressing. It expands your horizons and gives you a different perspective. Whatever we can do to keep these establishments going is for the betterment of everyone.”

And Langsdorf instilled the same philanthropic mindset into her children, who are volunteers in their own communities. “Whether people give financially or of their time, everyone should give. And I would hope I could inspire other people to do the same thing.”

Diane Levine (Health and Education)

Diane Levine’s heart broke as she watched each of her friends who developed HIV die during the onset of the AIDS epidemic. It was the ’70s in Washington D.C., and the St. Louis native was moved to change the trajectory of her career as a teacher to help people in need—particularly those who were shunned, homeless and suffering from AIDS.

When Levine returned to St. Louis, she devoted her time to nonprofit work, eventually becoming a hotline counselor and volunteer case manager for St. Louis Effort for AIDS. Levine went on to become a professional counselor and clinical social worker. “A lot of people will probably tell you that becoming a therapist is a calling,” she says. “I love people; I am interested in their stories, and I believe in healing. It’s just who I am.” Levine’s experience and expertise in counseling led to a 12-year relationship with Doorways, where she now serves as board chair. Doorways provides housing and services to those with HIV and AIDS, annually serving 2,300 adults and kids in the St. Louis area. And the process of helping these patients also is healing for Levine, after losing so many close friends to the disease decades ago. With so many advancements in medicine and less of a societal stigma, most of today’s HIV and AIDS patients have access to the help they need, Levine explains. “People used to come to Doorways to die; now they come to Doorways to live.”

In an effort to continue to help the community’s most vulnerable residents—the homeless and the hungry—Levine became a founding member of College Bound. The organization helps underserved youth through an intensive year-round program of academic enrichment, life skills and social support to help them enter and succeed in a four-year college. Now in its eighth year, College Bound serves more than 1,500 students, including 250 who are attending universities. “There’s lots of research documenting that a person who gets a degree changes the direction of poverty for generations thereafter,” Levine notes. “If there’s a cure to poverty, education is it.”

DiAnne Mueller (Family Enrichment)

As a teenager, DiAnne Mueller witnessed cruel social injustices while involved with the Civil Rights movement in a small Mississippi town. Through that work, she developed a strong desire to stand up for people, and for what is right. “It really captured my heart,” she recalls.

So when Mueller came to St. Louis as an adult, she brought a wealth of experience in the counseling and criminal justice fields. After years running a private therapy practice in the area, she became aware of the struggles of women and children in Central America. She and her sister, who also had volunteered with her during the Civil Rights era, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala, where they witnessed deplorable health conditions and poverty. “We brought medical equipment to serve there, and met with the government, as well as rebels fighting the government,” Mueller explains. Back in the United States, the sisters shared the message of those in need with multiple senators in an effort to spark justice. “It was life-changing for me,” Mueller notes. “I decided I wanted to dedicate my life to something meaningful and important, and that was child neglect and abuse prevention.”

With that goal in mind, Mueller began serving on the St. Charles County Family Stress Council and the St. Louis Council of Child Abuse & Neglect. Mueller also is a 'regular' on the homeless front, consistently answering the call for help. For instance, three years ago, she helped find homes for 100 families when an entire apartment complex was evicted. In 1992, she and a group decided to start St. Charles Crisis Nursery, where she volunteered weekly. She was hired as executive director of Saint Louis Crisis Nursery in 1994. Under Mueller’s leadership, the nursery—an award-winning child abuse prevention agency providing a 24-hour safe haven for children whose families are experiencing a crisis—has grown from two locations to five facilities, seven outreach centers and a regional administrative office. “We care for 7,000 kids a year,” she notes. “I see my position here not as a job, but as my passion, and my reason for being.”

JoAnn Shaw (Health Advocacy)

JoAnn Shaw believes she was given cancer diagnoses throughout her life for a bigger reason: to help others in their battles against the disease. “You have two choices,” she says, “you can turn it into a positive, or you can sit around and say, Why me? Well, I was never one to believe in saying, Why me?

When Shaw was 19, she was diagnosed with stage IV uterine cancer; and later in life, with thyroid cancer and eye cancer. But she never let any health hurdle stop her. She moved to St. Louis in 2001 and took on multiple roles in the health care and nonprofit fields to advance cancer treatment and funding. She became the chief of human resources for BJC HealthCare, where she started the Center for Lifelong Learning. An internal university for employees, the center offers online classes and courses in a classroom setting in five learning tracks: clinical, business, professional development, process improvement and leadership development. Annually, almost 33,000 participate in the program, with about 300 of them earning additional college degrees. “It’s so powerful, because we really believe adults, especially in the ever-changing world of health care, need to be armed with tools to continue to give exceptional care to our patients,” Shaw says.

To help others who have been affected by cancer, Shaw serves as the board chair for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, where she was a leader in getting Senate bill No. 668 passed. The bill allows cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment the option of more affordable, insurance-funded oral pills rather than frequent painful injections.

And Shaw is a champion for young cancer patients, in particular. She volunteers for ConKerr Cancer, where the motto is “Cases for Smiles.” Along with other local volunteers, Shaw has sewn and delivered more than 21,000 special pillowcases for child cancer patients at area hospitals, including St. Louis Children’s Hospital, SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and Mercy Hospital. “It’s amazing what a little pillowcase can do to make children smile,” Shaw notes. “If you can make a difference in one person’s life, then that’s a good day.”

Linda Sher (Child Welfare)

Babies in need always tugged at Linda Sher’s heartstrings—so much so that she has answered the call for a mother’s special love and care to some 60 foster kids throughout the past 18 years. “It’s definitely great for the kids you foster to give them that love that they may not have,” Sher says.

Through Lutheran Children and Family Services, Sher took on much more than a part-time volunteer position. “We have these kids 24/7,” she notes. “We treat them like family and take them with us to do everything.” She and her husband have cared for multiple babies a year, fostering each little boy or girl for weeks to months. “There were times when one would leave in the morning and another would come in the afternoon,” she says.

A born mother with a talent for multi-tasking, Sher continues to care for two babies a year. And she just couldn’t let go of her 58th foster child, whom she and her husband adopted. “After having her for four months, then one, two and three years, I didn’t think it would be fair to move her,” Sher explains.

The foster kids, who now range from ages 4 to 32, often stay in contact with Sher through frequent visits and holiday cards. “They are amazing kids,” she says, noting that she hopes others also will take the leap into foster parenthood. “There’s a big need out there. Everyone says they don’t have time; but if once a year they take one child, it will make a difference in that child’s life forever.”

Pat Whitaker (Civic Responsibility)

Pat Whitaker founded her architecture and design company, Arcturis, on the grounds of civic responsibility.

The business began as a one-person firm, with Whitaker at the helm directing interior design for offices throughout the city. In the ’80s, the company began doubling in size annually, with the addition of architects and projects expanding to the exterior design of corporate buildings. “Today, we still have some of the same clients as 20 years ago,” Whitaker notes.

Through the years, Arcturis has been recognized with multiple awards from the American Institute of Architects and has more than a dozen LEED-certified projects. “It’s important for us to demonstrate our dedication to the environment,” Whitaker notes. “We always encourage our clients to get LEED-certified, and we specify environmentally safe products for building and interior materials.”

Beyond the firm, Whitaker gives back to the health care, education and art sectors of the community through serving on the boards of the United Way, St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Webster University, Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) and Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District. Whitaker’s passion for contemporary art and design led her to help CAM, which not only offers local and international exhibits to area residents, but also aids art education for inner-city kids through its New Art in the Neighborhood program, she explains.

In addition, Whitaker has contributed to the Regional Business Council’s Quality of Life committee, co-chaired the annual American Heart Association Go Red for Women luncheon and participated in Pedal the Cause. As a female business owner, she also supports the entrepreneurial spirit of women through multiple initiatives, including the Missouri chapter of the International Women’s Forum. “It’s important to give back to the community that you were able to succeed in,” Whitaker notes. “You have to recognize you wouldn’t have this success, lifestyle and these opportunities in other places.”

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