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cover story
Dr. James Kane, D74 Lad Dell, A96
Dr. Roseanna Means, M81 Felicia Nutter, V93, Chris Whittier, V97
Lisa Busch, J88 Vanessa Ortiz , F05
Meredith Portsmore, J98, E98, G99 Diana Henry, BSOT 76
Alan Basam , N88 Vikram Akula, A90
More Bright Ideas
The number of Tufts alumni who have demonstrated resourcefulness around social issues far exceeds the capacity of this space. But we hope that the following “registry” gives a sense of the tremendous vitality and creativity that Tufts alumni bring to just about any challenge. As active citizens, they take the oft-heard phrase “making a difference” and make it real.
A Tribute to
Everyday Heroes

Ten alumni who have taken public service to heart

Many Tufts graduates give freely of their time and talent to help their communities. They can be found in all walks of life, from serving on school boards to volunteering for an animal shelter. So when the University College of Citizenship and Public Service approached us with the idea of celebrating the outstanding achievements of some of these graduates, it was easy to say yes. The only problem: how to narrow the field to fit our limited space. The answer emerged when we thought about what defines an “everyday hero.” These are people who, emboldened with a clear vision, embraced a challenge. Their ideas, combined with a determination to succeed, are addressing some of today’s toughest problems. We selected the following alumni because they are working hard to follow their dreams for a better world. They are dentists, doctors, veterinarians, and teachers. What ties them together is a deep personal belief in obligation to society. Because of that belief, they are redefining heroism. They are examples for us all.

Dr. James "Jess" Kane, D74
Richard Howard

Dr. James Kane, D74

For almost two decades, Dr. James “Jess” Kane and a fellow alumnus of Tufts Dental School, Dr. David Tesini, have helped organize a program of volunteer dentists, hygienists, and assistants to provide care to some of the most neglected places in the world.

Project Stretch, as the organization is known, first traveled to a barrio in Venezuela, where the group set up a clinic in a mission with the help of another alumnus who was from the country.

“We were shocked by the poverty,” he remembers. “There was raw sewage flowing through the streets, one house would have water and the one next door wouldn’t, I could go on and on.” The project helped establish a program to fluoridate the water, fill cavities, and in extreme cases, pull teeth. But the dentists’ biggest challenge was simply to teach the local children how to brush their teeth.

“Our mission is to start the long process of education and prevention,” says Kane. “We have to convince people that the pain of losing their teeth is not an inevitability of life.” Since then, Project Stretch’s dentists have taught brushing and flossing in the jungles of Nicaragua, the streets of Lithuania, and Inuit villages in Alaska. Over the years, they have relied on a network of Tufts connections to help them chart their course. “Because Tufts is such an international school, you get to meet people throughout the world,” says Kane. “Through those contacts you are able to identify areas that need help.”

Kane grew up in Chelsea, Massachu-setts, and never thought that he would be able to go to dental school, first at UMass Amherst, and then at Tufts. His good fortune, he says, makes him feel obligated to give back. “When you receive an education like you get at Tufts, and are able to parlay that into success, you owe a debt to society,” he says. “My definition of success is how many human beings are better off because of you and because of the education you received.”

Since establishing dental practices in Natick and Walpole, he has served as president of alumni associations at both Tufts and UMass. But it is his work through Project Stretch that helps him realize how lucky he is. He is haunted by the memory of watching children in Africa following ants back to their anthill so they could dig up the crumbs the ants had carried there. And he is inspired by the determination of a woman in northern Chile who walked four hours over the mountains to bring her children to his clinic, only to arrive too late—no matter, he says, she walked back and returned the next day. “Then we come home to the first mother who says they’ve got ballet lessons in ten minutes,” he laughs. “It gives you perspective. All of a sudden the problems you thought you had seem trivial.”


Dr. Roseanna Means, M81
Richard Howard

Dr. Roseanna Means, M81

Dr. Roseanna Means’ path to active citizenship started with a daily route to work at Massachusetts General Hospital. “I would walk past homeless people on the street outside one of the world’s greatest hospitals, and they weren’t getting care,” she says. “It really made me start to think.”

Her thinking led her to sign on to work with Boston Health Care for the Homeless, which ran a clinic dedicateD to the special needs of homeless people. Even though she worked on their staff for seven years, eventually becoming its medical director, one thing still troubled her: Women weren’t coming. “Violence in the homeless world can be a huge problem,” says Means. “A woman who is seen walking into the clinic could become a target because she is seen as vulnerable. So a lot of women did what women do well—they made themselves invisible to the system, getting care in ‘regular’ clinics with doctors who didn’t know they were homeless.”

Means eventually decided that if women weren’t coming to the clinic, she would go directly to them to provide the special care they needed. She went through the difficult process of forming her own nonprofit, Women of Means—an allusion both to the last name of the founder and the self-reliance she hoped to instill in her patients—and recruited doctors who would come with her to provide care free of charge at the shelters where women stay. From assisting at one shelter in 1999, the group has grown to serve 12 different shelters, with 16 doctors donating their time.

For Means, the experience of meeting these women has given her inspiration in her own life—which has not been without medical problems. She had a stillborn child and was once diagnosed with malignant melanoma. “These women sustain me because they put up with an unbelievable degree of adversity and betrayal, and yet they have a sense of humor and so much more resiliency than I could ever have,” she says.

And then there has been the unexpected benefit of helping her fellow doctors as well. One intern at New England Medical Center actually emailed to ask if it was all right if she continued volunteering with the program during her vacation. Others, she says, remember why they took up the profession in the first place. “They want to go to medical school to take care of people, then they go through their residency and have it beaten out of them by the managed care system,” says Means. “They come to the shelter to find out what it is like to have a real relationship with a patient.”


Lisa Busch, J88
Photo courtesy of Volvo

Lisa Busch, A88

As a public-radio reporter in the small island town of Sitka, Alaska, Lisa Busch knew all about the controversy surrounding the town’s pulp mill. Over the years she did countless stories about Alaska Pulp Corporation, the main employer of the town, but criticized by environmentalists as a source of pollution and blight. So when the mill closed in 1993, she could foresee the deadly economic impact the closure would have, as well as the finger pointing that would ensue.

It just so happened, however, that she also had the solution to the problem. “I had been working on a proposal to fix up a hiking trail that was in bad shape,” she recounts. When the head of the local job service heard her talking about the plan, he asked if her project might help put people to work. Busch and a friend quickly put together a new proposal to retrain mill workers as a trail crew, thereby preserving jobs and improving the natural environment at the same time. When they then presented the proposal to the town, it captured the imagination of people across the political spectrum.

“This had been a divided town for generations,” says Busch. “But trail building was an issue that brought the whole community together, both people who were pro-industry and like to hike, and people who were conservationists and like to hike.” Over the next three years, Busch helped create a nonprofit organization called Sitka Trail Works, which drew up an ambitious blueprint for more than 20 miles of trails on the island, and trained 30 former mill workers to help build them. The group is funded by a combination of government money and foundation grants, including $1 million in the latest U.S. Transportation Bill earmarked for the organization. The money has eased the economic blow of the mill closure. The trails, meanwhile, have become a draw for tourists, who come to the island on cruise ships and add their own dollars to the economy.

Sitka is both literally and figuratively miles away from Busch’s upbringing in Connecticut. She enrolled at Tufts to study geology. “I wasn’t a great scientist,” she laughs, “but I really like science and being around scientists.” That interest led eventually to her job as a freelance science reporter in Alaska, where she was taught to restrain her personal biases. “This idea of being an advocate for something was new to me,” says Busch, who recently stepped down as president of Sitka Trail Works and is now working on a plan to beautify the town with landscaping and outdoor art. “I fell into this idea that it was virtuous to demonstrate for something I believed in.”


Meredith Portsmore, J98, E98,
Richard Howard

Merredith Portsmore, A98, E98, G99

As an undergraduate at Tufts, Merredith Portsmore enjoyed the engineering program, but she struggled to figure out how she would apply it later in life. Then one class clicked: a hands-on course using LEGO building block components as teaching tools. After junior year, the professor asked her if she wanted to help him for a month educating teachers on how to use the tools. “That was it, I was in,” she says. She liked the experience so much she went back to Tufts to get an M.A. in education, using engineering tools in her projects and courses.

To help her work, she recruited undergraduate engineering students who were also interested in “getting their hands dirty,” and sent them to local elementary schools in Medford, Somerville, and Chinatown armed with a kit of LEGOS, gears, paperclips, and tape. The Student Teacher Outreach Mentorship Program—or STOMP—was born. “We use engineering as a vehicle to teach them the things they need to learn but in a different way,” says Portsmore, now in her fourth year of overseeing the program. “It’s a lot easier to get kids interested in LEGOS than in a worksheet full of math problems.” Math isn’t the only subject the STOMP mentors teach. In first grade, students study the simple tools needed to run an imaginary farm. By fifth grade, they are using robotic animals to study the way living creatures move; or figuring out exactly how the Egyptians employed ramps to construct the pyramids.

In the process, the instructors get a break from the intensive work of an engineering degree. “The K–12 students are so excited to do engineering that the Tufts STOMP students are treated like rock stars when they come to the classroom,” says Portsmore, now working on a Ph.D. in Tufts’ Mathematics, Science, Technology, and Engineering program. While she still oversees STOMP, the day-to-day operations have been taken over by student volunteers. Portsmore’s goal is to see the program become self-sustaining, with a promise from STOMP’S original funders, the LLL Foundation, to match funds if the students and Tufts can raise $200,000. While she says her goal isn’t to turn engineering students into educators like herself, she does hope that they’ll be more sensitive to education issues when they graduate. And in the process, she hopes they pick up people skills and confidence they’ll need later in life. After all, she says, “If you can explain how gears work to a room full of ten-year-olds, then explaining an engineering project to a client is a walk in the park.”


Alan Balsam, N88
Leah Fasten

Alan Balsam, N88

Raising awareness and speaking out on behalf of people with AIDS became increasingly critical by the late 1980s, as the epidemic tested medical solutions and social services. So when the American Jewish Congress wanted to create a “meals on wheels” program to deliver nutritious meals to people with AIDS, they turned to Alan Balsam. Balsam had helped run a similar program as head of elder health for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and was uniquely suited for the job. Community Servings debuted with a distribution of five meals a day. Now it serves more than 600 meals a day to clients all over Boston, and recently expanded from AIDS patients to victims of other debilitating diseases.

“It always troubled me that there are people out there with critical illnesses who weren’t eligible for our program,” says Balsam, who is still on the program’s board. “We saw a need.”

As with much of the community building he has helped foster over the years, where there is a need Balsam usually sees a solution. Now the head of public health for the town of Brookline, Balsam has made his department a model with its array of workshops, exercise classes, health clinics, and nutrition programs. For students, the town recently has overhauled the school lunch program, working with parents, doctors, and a local bakery owner to make the meals healthier. For seniors, it implemented a coupon program to provide discounts at a local farmers’ market—improving elder health and supporting local farmers at the same time.

“Food and nutrition are ways to bring people in a community together,” says Balsam. “You have to ask: What food is available? How do you have access to nutritious food? How do you interact with the people who grow your food? To create opportunities for people to learn about that is very fulfilling to me. It’s community building at its most basic.” Those two strands—food and community building—have woven their way throughout Balsam’s life. Growing up in Miami, he worked as a dishwasher and waiter before attending Brandeis as an undergrad. There he helped organize a union among food service workers dissatisfied with their working conditions. Later, he worked on his Ph.D. at Tufts at the same time he was running an elder care services program for Cambridge and Somerville. “There was nothing at all abstract about my doctoral work,” he says. “It was all about how to make programs better and serve people better.”

When he thinks about the impact he’s helped make with Community Servings, he has only one regret. Of the 12 founders of the program, Balsam sadly notes he is the only man left alive. “The other men all had AIDS,” he says. “If they could have just held on a little longer, they might have been able to take advantage of the new medicines out there.” Having just celebrated its 15th anniversary, however, the program itself is still giving hope and health to a new generation.


Lad Dell, A96, with students involved with his nonprofit, College is For U.
Timothy Fielding

Lad Dell, A96

Just a few years after graduating from Tufts with a degree in political science and peace and justice studies, Lad Dell found himself back at the university—in the admissions office. His own experience in college had been a great one, and he hoped to help other applicants like himself; though Dell had been born in Cambodia and raised by a single mother, Tufts had given him exposure to ideas and opportunities he couldn’t have imagined.

Transferring that experience to others through the admissions process was more difficult than he guessed. “If I had gone in with hopes of making a difference, I quickly became jaded,” he says. “For many students from affluent backgrounds, advanced degrees were the norm and expectation. Then I’d read applications from first-generation college applicants who had amazing stories, but who didn’t have the savvy or sophistication of their peers.” His conclusion: “You have to catch these students sooner in the process so you can effect some changes in their curriculum and way of thinking.”

That’s the goal of the organization he founded last year. Through College Is For U, Dell hopes to give just that message to disadvantaged young people in Los Angeles who may have never even considered the possibility of higher education. “There are a handful of organizations that will go into high schools and try to locate the brightest students to get into competitive colleges,” he says. “But those students are going to go to college anyway—we’re trying to encourage those kids who don’t consider college an option.” Dell’s nonprofit gives presentations to community organizations serving youth, and tries to convince these young people that college truly is for them. “I really think it’s a viable option for all students, regardless of their backgrounds or grades,” he says. “They just need to make a firm and solid commitment.”

Like many people with a passion for social equity, Dell traces his motivation to the model of his own parents. His father fought in the Cambodian army against the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge, while his mother worked multiple jobs to raise Dell and his sister in the Massachusetts suburbs. “When I was struggling with algebra and geometry, she couldn’t help me,” he says. “But she found a friend who could. She was always willing to skip her lunch or leave work early to make it to my soccer and tennis games. And she pushed to make sure I got my degree.” Though he can’t be sure how many students he has helped influence to take that same step, Dell is motivated by the memory of one young woman he found staring at him after he closed a presentation. “She said to me, ‘You’re the reason I’m going to college,’” he says. “That has remained with me to this day.”


Felica Nutter, V93, and Chris Whitter, V97. with a mountain gorilla named Joli Ami.
Photo courtesy of Chris Whittier

Felicia Nutter, V93, and Chris Whittier, V97

Felicia Nutter was only four years old when she decided that she wanted to be a veterinarian with a special purpose. “We grew up in that golden age of National Geographic, when it seemed as if every week there was a new special about Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey,” she says. “I was fascinated by their fieldwork with chimps and gorillas, and I thought someday I too wanted to work in Africa, protecting these magnificent animals and their future.”

Today, she has realized that dream with her husband, Chris Whittier, V97. Together they are bringing much-needed medical care to the endangered gorillas living on the border of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As field veterinarians for the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, they are monitoring the health of the last 700 remaining mountain gorillas in the world, protecting them from the dangers of poaching, traps, respiratory illnesses, and other health problems.

“Chris and I are not the first veterinarians to have this job,” says Nutter. “But our tenure is the first time that there have been two ’expatriate‘ veterinarians here at the same time. We are currently training three country national veterinarians, so there is more than enough work for the two of us. We're busy constantly.”

When existing numbers of a species are so small, as with the mountain gorillas, every individual is important to the population. The mountain gorilla population is divided between the Virunga Volcanoes area (the tri-national park system crossing the borders of Rwanda/ Uganda/DRC) and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (in Uganda). The effective size of each population is estimated to be only 380 in the Virungas and 320 in Bwindi. “That's pretty small,” she says. “It means that each mountain gorilla is genetically important to the subspecies. Losing even one gorilla to unnatural causes such as a snare injury has the potential to negatively impact the survival of the population.”

As field veterinarians, Nutter and Whittier are always on call, and that could mean hiking as much as four hours or more to reach a remote patient. National park trackers and guides are critical to find and treat the gorillas. “We couldn’t do our job without their collaboration,” says Nutter. “They are literally the people who ward off charging silverbacks while we treat an anesthetized gorilla.”

Both agree that it’s a job with immediate and profound rewards. “Some of our patients were just babies when they were treated, and it’s great to watch them grow, and we look forward to seeing their babies in the future,” says Nutter. And Whittier is encouraged to report that mountain gorillas are the only species of great apes whose population is now increasing. “We like to think that the fact that they are also one of the only populations with full-time veterinary care is one important contributor,” he says.

“A lot of conservation measures have impacts over much longer time frames, and so you have to be much more patient,” adds Nutter. “But with our job, we can point out a number of gorillas that we’ve treated and know we had something to do with their survival.”


Vanessa Ortiz, F05
John Rae

Vanessa Ortiz, F05

Vanessa Ortiz, F05, has no regrets about giving up a career in corporate design to dedicate her life to humanitarian work. Her decision has meant a drop in pay, school loans, a smaller apartment. But those changes are outweighed by a deeper sense of purpose as she assists refugees in rebuilding their lives in America.

As project officer for Project SOAR (Project for Strengthening Organizations Assisting Refugees) at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in New York, she works closely with organizations started by resettled refugees from Bosnia, Albania, Somalia, Iraq, Vietnam, and Cambodia—among other countries. “Refugees who want to start a new life have always depended on those who have come before them,” says Ortiz. “Around the United States, refugees are starting their own small not-for-profit organizations to help others adjust to their culture. We help strengthen their organizations by building their capacity in areas such as financial and program management and helping refugee-run community-based organizations thrive. I feel fortunate to be working with people who, whatever their past difficulties and tragedies, are looking to the future with great hope and courage.”

Ortiz discovered what might be best described as her “calling” in 1995. As a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, she was deployed as part of the NATO peacekeeping operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. After six months, she returned in a civilian capacity as the logistics officer for the civilian agency charged with implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement.

“I had one of those ‘aha!’ moments as I discovered, ‘This is such great work, I don’t want to leave,’ ” she recalls. “I had never been exposed to this kind of international work. It was much more important than what I had been doing; I could not go back to corporate design work –I felt like I was suddenly doing something that truly mattered.”

Three years later, she returned to New York, but at first found getting a job in the humanitarian field nearly impossible. The NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) wanted more international experience on her resume. Ortiz, who grew up in the predominantly Puerto Rican community of the South Bronx, sought out volunteer opportunities. She found a good match with IRC’s New York Resettlement Office, providing assistance in the Bronx after-school program for resettled refugee youth.

Seeking more overseas experience, she accepted a job with another NGO, serving as its senior administration and logistics manager in Afghanistan. The work included managing logistics and human resources policies for more than 300 national staff, and Ortiz says her most rewarding moment was hiring the first female national staff member. “It was my small way of helping reintroduce positive attitudes about women in the workplace,” and she adds, “and within a few weeks, I had so many women applying for jobs—it was inspiring!”

Ortiz returned to New York, where she was hired in a full-time position at IRC. Her gifts for bringing people together find fertile ground supporting refugees who have started their own not-for-profit organizations. “It’s inspiring to see refugees search for ways to give back to their own people,” she says. “The least I can do is assist them in such important work.”

In 2004, Ortiz enrolled in the Fletcher School’s innovative GMAP (Global Master of Arts Program), a year-long graduate program in international affairs designed for professionals who are unable to attend a traditional residence-based program. “I rave about it all the time,” says Ortiz, who says Fletcher’s innovative program offered her great practical tools and expanded her appreciation for other mid-career people like herself.

“It’s really difficult to take the risk and make that leap of following the thing you believe you’re meant to do,” says Ortiz, “but it’s so worth the risk and sacrifice. Follow your heart—make those professional sacrifices if that’s what it comes to. Our world holds enormous challenges and opportunities. I just want to find my niche—where I best fit in. Isn’t that why we study at Fletcher?”


Diana Henry, BSOT 76
Rick Ruess

Diana Henry, BSOT 76

Five years ago, Diana Henry and her husband did what many married couples do. They sold their house, bought a mobile home, and set off to tour the country. Unlike some RV enthusiasts, however, they did so with a mission: to help educate teachers and parents to better accommodate special needs children. The sides of the Henrys’ trailer are covered with bright cartoons and the words “Ateachabout” scrawled in big, colorful letters. For most of the year, it stops at schools across the country, where Henry introduces schoolteachers and administrators to her “sensory integration toolkit,” a system of tricks and techniques to help children who have difficulty adjusting to school.

Much of the techniques Henry has developed involve physically altering the classroom—setting up quiet “womb” spaces for children who need help chilling out, and using chair balls, juggling balls, and giant elastic Rep bands to stimulate kids with coordination problems. “It’s helping teachers to realize not to make kids wrong for their behavior, but to become detectives and understand it,” she says of the workshops. The children she aims to help, she says, fall under a broad diagnosis called “sensory processing disorder,” which can include those who are over- or under-sensitive to particular sensations, or have problems coordinating their muscles to play with the other kids. “Sometimes these kids are thought of as lazy,” says Henry. “But as Dr. Jean Ayers, the pioneer of sensory integration theory used to indicate, it’s more like a traffic jam. The signals between the brain and the body get tangled, and sometimes the messages just aren’t there.”

As an undergraduate at Tufts’ Boston School of Occupational Therapy, Henry studied how to use dance and movement to help those with disabilities; later, she started her own OT practice for children in Arizona. When parents asked her to go into schools to help educate their kids’ teachers, however, she realized she could be having more impact. “We work with one or two kids; teachers work with 25 kids with all kinds of needs.” She made a videotape, and began flying around the country to different schools doing workshops. Still, she felt she wasn’t getting the context she needed to really help kids.

She was discussing the issue with her husband at the top of a mountain when the proverbial lightbulb went off. “It was Rick’s idea,” she recalled.“Why not just take it on the road?” Since 2000, Ateachabout has visited hundreds of towns, spending days in each location, and giving Henry the time she needs to turn frustration into understanding. “It’s a passion for me, seeing parents and teachers and therapists come together and change their attitudes,” says Henry. “I’ve had people say, ‘I was ready to quit teaching, but now I can’t wait to go to school on Monday.’”

Vikrum Akula, A90
Vikram Akula, A90

As a young boy, Vikram Akula made a promise to himself: some day, somehow, he would help fight poverty in India. Although he grew up in a wealthy American suburb, Akula’s family periodically took trips to his native India, where he got a closeup view of the ravages of poverty. “It was a very jarring experience for me,” he says. “Many people get jarred and move on. But I made a commitment to go back.” Since then, much of Akula’s life has been spent wrestling with the best way to fulfill his promise. The quest led him to microfinance—the idea that giving very small loans to poor people, particularly women, empowers the individual by enabling her to make the investments she needs for economic self-sustainability. That’s the concept behind Akula’s organization, Swayam Krishi Sangam (SKS)—which, loosely translated from Telugu, means “self-reliance society.”

“There are so few poverty interventions that work,” says Akula. “This is hands-down the most successful way to get people out of poverty.”

Akula’s worldview jelled in his classes as a philosophy and English major at Tufts, where he was introduced to the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi. After college, he went to India on a Fulbright scholarship to try coordinating loans to the poor through the local state-run rural banks there. “Those banks were a bureaucratic nightmare,” he says. “The poor simply did not have the literacy levels or the sophistication, let alone the collateral required, to access finance from banks.” He reasoned that if he couldn’t work with the banks, he’d have to become his own. While working on a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, he developed a business plan to raise the necessary capital. Before he even finished his degree, he found himself heading back to India. “I was feeling the urgency of the issue,” he says, “and I had ideas that were innovative.”

Indeed, two of those ideas have revolutionized the microfinance world. The first, pioneered by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, provides loans not to individuals but to groups of poor women, all of whom are responsible for their neighbor’s debts—thus reducing risk for the investor. SKS also introduced state-of-the-art computer technology to track and deliver loans and drive down costs. In just seven years, SKS has grown to 150,000 borrowers, far more than other microfinance organizations, and with a goal of reaching one million by 2010.

“Microfinance has now become a hot topic,” says Akula (who did eventually finish his Ph.D.). “Now we have commercial banks coming up to us and saying, ‘How much money do you need?’ ” Although he spends much of his time in the office, Akula tries to get out into the field at least once a week to see his long-ago vow come to fruition. “It’s fantastic,” he says. “You see children going to school for the first time, people eating better, women more confident. Everyday I go to bed thinking today has truly made a difference in people’s lives.”