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Early Risers

Safe Spaces in Tough Places


A Bronx Native Helps Teens from Similar Circumstance

When dena simmons became director of Implementation at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, she asked to work with schools in the Bronx. Growing up there in a building where dealers sold drugs and guns, “I was obsessed with safety,” says Simmons. “News of the violence in my neighborhood made me physically sick.”

She attended St. Simon Stock, a Catholic school, and then Westover, a Connecticut boarding school, where she excelled but assimilated in order to survive. “You had to be like the white girls,” she says. “I didn’t read writers of color. Who I was and how I identified were never celebrated.”

After attending Middlebury College and studying on a Fulbright Scholarship in the Dominican Republic, Simmons taught middle school under an assistant principal she’d known at St. Simon Stock. “He’d seen me as a child; I felt destined to teach there. My goal was for my students to feel safe, loved and part of our community.”

Greenlighted to advance with her class for a third year, Simmons told the stu­dents they’d need to petition to make it happen. “I’d talked about social justice,” she explains. “I wanted them to feel the power of their orga­nizing, so I asked them to present their reasons to the principal.”

At TC, Simmons wrote her dissertation on teachers’ preparedness to confront classroom bullying, which she believes results from bullying in society: “Students model what we show them is okay.” Accordingly, at Yale, Simmons helps teachers become more attuned to students’ emotions and their own in an effort to make schools safer. She’s giving a TED talk this fall in New York City.

“I want to do good work in the world,” she says. “Our good work cannot leave out marginalized communities.”


Out of the Frying Pan  and into the Kitchen

Leaving the News Biz for More Life-Sustaining Pursuits


Emmy-winning news videographer Gioacchino “Jack” Taliercio was fleeing the World Trade Center on 9/11 when he decided it was time to switch ca­reers.

Taliercio’s father had run La Stella, a popular restaurant in Queens, and grown his own food — first in the United States and then in Italy where the family lived until Taliercio was ten. In October 2001, Taliercio and two of his brothers successfully revived La Stella. When they sold it two years later, Taliercio returned to video production with clients that included the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, Bloomberg News and the Italian television network RAI.

“Still, I kept reading about the relationship of food and nutrition to the environment,” he says. “I wanted to formalize my education.”

At TC, where he earned his master’s of science in nutrition education and studied to become a registered dietitian, Taliercio took classes with Professor Emerita Joan Gussow, mother of the sustainable food movement.

He hopes to provide nutrition informa­tion that “people can use.” His first effort: a documentary on Gussow. “The opportunity to learn from Joan directly was just such a bonus.” n Watch Taliercio’s film-in-progress on Gussow at https://vimeo.com/121589927. Contribute to the Joan Gussow Scholarship Fund at http://bit.ly/1NMfcvE.


Band on the Run

Using Rock & Roll to Sell Nutrition and Fitness


Jill Jayne had completed her tc master’s degree in nutrition when her career reached a seeming cross­roads. A talent scout said that if her rock band could write a hit, he’d sign them to a contract.

Nothing drew a thumbs up, though, until Jayne shared songs from Jump with Jill, her one-woman street show about nu­trition that was the subject of her master’s thesis

“He said, ‘Where have you been keeping these?’” Jayne remembers. “So I wrote an album in a crazy short amount of time. That’s how you know you’ve cracked the code — when you find the songs you’re good at writing and everything else aligns.”

The band reconstituted as Jump with Jill and is now a 12-person company with four regional casts that puts on “rock & roll nutrition concerts” for audiences worldwide. Jayne’s initial incarnation of the character, Jill, remains its driving force.

Nutrition became Jayne’s area of interest when she was distance running com­petitively in high school, and she realized she could post faster times if she snacked smarter. In college, she did the same to take on acting, singing and dancing roles in musicals. She landed at TC as “the singing nutrition major.”

Today, as a registered dietitian, she makes “healthy” her business.

“Advertising for unhealthy food is extremely effective,” she says. “We say in the show, ‘Healthy food is so exciting that I’m going to sing and dance about it.’” And while that approach appeals to schools who want their students to eat nutri­tious meals, Jayne says her TC degree also provides a critical entrée: “I make it fun to learn about this topic, but also have the credentials to back it up.”


Strengthening the Workforce


Creating a Win-Win for Companies and Their Employees

Debra Wein has fashioned a career out of her passion for wellness. While studying nutrition and applied physiology at TC, she moonlighted as a health and fitness consultant and soon began organiz­ing lunch-and-learns to show corporate executives how nutrition and physical activity could boost productivity for them and their workforce.

Eventually Wein created Wellness Workdays, which studies companies’ health care claims and costs to best identify areas of opportunity which will help to im­prove employee health issues. The first step is to garner senior-level support for programs in physical activity, smoking cessation, stress reduction and nutrition. The second is to design an appropriate strategy and then regularly evaluate progress against goals.

Wellness Workdays now boasts 40 employees and a client list that includes Putnam Investments, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Brown Uni­versity, MIT and Harvard Business School. Recently Wein joined forces with the Harvard School of Public Health to pull together approximately $1.5 million ingrants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and others to measure the impact of workplace wellness on em-ployee health and productivity and employer return on investment. The study will be administered at 40 BJ’s Wholesale Club sites across the country.

“Our partners at Harvard have authored a meta-analysis which concludes that for every dollar spent on wellness, there’s a $3.27 return on investment,” she says. “Senior executives need to hear the message."


Setting the Pace on Setting a Pace


A Scientist Explores Individual Response to Exercise

One challenge exercise researchers face, says Kevin Heffernan, is crafting one-size-fits-all messages. “Some people do ultra-marathons and run down their bodies,” says Heffernan, Assis­tant Professor at Syracuse University School of Education. “Yet most do nothing, so we still want to communicate that exercise is good for you.”

Heffernan played ice hockey and volleyball in college. He got interested in exercise science “so I could apply what I was learning to my own training.” Soon he decided that “helping people lower their blood pressure was more interesting and rewarding than helping them run faster or jump higher.”

At TC, Heffernan was challenged by Professor Ronald De Meersman (since retired) to more deeply explore the science underlying applied physiology and nutrition. He worked with De Meersman studying cardiovascular response to resistance exercise and has since published nearly 100 papers on cardiovascular autonomic and vascular function. At Syracuse, he runs his own Human Performance Laboratory, where he and his students conduct studies on incrementally increasing exercise for maximum benefit. “We’re interested in the idea that all exercise may not be created equal,” Heffernan says. “For instance, maybe high-intensity resistance exercise isn’t best for cardiovascular health.”

Dr. D. provided the foundation,” Heffernan says of his TC mentor. “He taught me to be precise and meticulous; to scrutinize my work and that of others; and above all, to pay attention to the details.”


Mom To the Max


Mobilizing Her Talents to Help Children with Cancer

To the uninitiate, Audra Wilford’s title — Chief Hope Officer of the MaxLove Project — can be a head scratcher. But then Wilford’s career path has always been a bit mysterious. Before her son, Max, was born, she earned a certificate in culinary arts (she worked for celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck), a political science degree and a TC master’s in Philosophy and Education. Her day job was in student life adminis­tration.

“My husband, Justin, said, ‘Someday this will all make sense,’” Wilford recalls ruefully.

With Max’s arrival, that prediction came true — but not as the Wilfords could have imagined. At age 4, Max started having falls, headaches, vomiting and incontinence; one day his preschool said he appeared drunk. After he fell from his bunk bed ladder and couldn’t stand, an MRI confirmed his parents’ worst fears: He had brain cancer.

The Wilfords resolved to bolster Max’s health while fighting his illness. Audra hit the kitchen with a book on ketogenic (low-carb) nutrition. When Max left the hospital with a new fear of the dark, she bought a turtle nightlight that projected col­ored stars. “We’d developed a healing narra­tive about the ‘green energy’ in good foods and fighting the tiny bad guys who’d built a fort in Max’s brain,” she says. “He found the green setting on the lamp and said, ‘Look Mommy, I’m healing!”

When the manu­facturer agreed to provide lamps for other hospitalized children, the MaxLove Project was born. It has since served more than 9,000 children in five countries, offering regular lifestyle medicine support to over 400 families who participate in cooking classes and share recipes and treatment updates. Its website offers a “fierce foods” guide, medical information and a therapeutic coloring book. Justin Wilford, now a Ph.D. candidate in public health, is the project’s Director of Educational Resources.

When the manu­facturer agreed to provide lamps for other hospitalized children, the MaxLove Project was born. It has since served more than 9,000 children in five countries, offering regular lifestyle medicine support to over 400 families who participate in cooking classes and share recipes and treatment updates. Its website offers a “fierce foods” guide, medical information and a therapeutic coloring book. Justin Wilford, now a Ph.D. candidate in public health, is the project’s Director of Educational Resources.

Despite five brain surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, Max, now 8, is thriving. His mother, named a L’Oreal Paris “Woman of Worth” in 2014, often reflects on the disaster that brought her talents together. “It’s this weird gift,” she says. “Formative experiences come with walking right into challenges. Because of Max’s diagnosis, we’ve met amazing people and gained a sense of purpose in the limited space and time we have on this earth.”

Published Wednesday, Nov 4, 2015

Dena Simmons
Dena Simmons
Gioacchino “Jack” Taliercio
Gioacchino “Jack” Taliercio
Audra Wilford
Audra Wilford
Debra Wein
Debra Wein
Kevin Heffernan
Kevin Heffernan
Jill Jayne
Jill Jayne