Photos by Jerry Digby

GO BLUE AND GO VOLUNTEER!

Summer 2017

At an equine-therapy ranch outside Los Angeles, the parents of a disabled daughter unexpectedly discover fellow U-M alumni assisting on Community Service Day.

THE LITTLE GIRL’S BLUE EYES SPARKLED with expectation as adult hands lifted her high onto the horse’s broad back, padded with layers of sponge in lieu of a saddle. June, slight and small for a 6 year old, knelt on her hands and knees as the horse slowly moved around the paddock, led by a handler.

Outside the railing, Heidi Neuroth, ’95, MBA’02, and Andreas Koese, MBA’03, watched their daughter with pride. Two spotters on either side of the horse supported June as she gripped a pair of low handlebars, the helpers having been specially trained for this type of equine therapy.

For the last three years, June’s parents have brought their disabled daughter, who suffers from a rare genetic defect, to this therapeutic riding ranch in Shadow Hills, at the eastern edge of Los Angeles. The foothills ranch is run by AHEAD (Accelerated Habitation Education And Development) With Horses, otherwise known as AWH, a nearly 50-year-old nonprofit that specializes in assisting children with multiple and severe disabilities. For patients like June, who did not walk until she was 3 years old, equine-assisted therapy helps physically. “It enhances her motor skills and core strength,” her father said of their regular visits to the ranch.

A spring ritual since its founding in 2008, MACSD gives alumni a non-monetary way to give back to the University via community service. Projects have included everything from collecting food donations for Detroit-based Focus: HOPE to repairing low-income homes across the country for Habitat for Humanity.

On this day, however, something was different. June’s parents noticed a large group of volunteers on the grounds dressed in Maize and Blue T-shirts. They soon learned they were fellow graduates, hailing from the U of M Club of Los Angeles. The group was assisting at AWH on behalf of Michigan Alumni Community Service Day (MACSD), an annual event where U-M alumni clubs across the country donate their time to a multitude of organizations. Neuroth and Koese were delighted to be absorbed into the LA group’s MACSD and immediately donned shirts issued by the club.

A spring ritual since its founding in 2008, MACSD gives alumni a non-monetary way to give back to the University via community service. Projects have included everything from collecting food donations for Detroit-based Focus: HOPE to repairing low-income homes across the country for Habitat for Humanity. Events occur during a one-month period around U-M’s Spring Commencement.

This spring in Dallas, U-M alumni hosted a carnival for foster children, while in Chicago, alumni planted flowers and created a brick pathway in a school garden. All told, more than 500 members of 41 clubs volunteered more than 1,000 hours, making it one of the most successful years yet for MACSD.

For AWH, the U of M Club of Los Angeles cleaned up brush and engaged with the children, thanks to the outreach of Shokofeh Alavi Naiini, ’05, the club’s community service chairperson. An electrical engineering graduate who moved to California from Ann Arbor to join a startup, Alavi Naiini currently works for Abbott Laboratories in its research and development department. She has been an active alumna since December 2012, when she took part in her first MACSD with the LA club.

Left: Andy Kwok and Sonya Shadraven were just two of several volunteers who pitched in at the AHEAD With Horses therapeutic riding ranch. Top: Shokofeh Alavi Naiini served as a handler. Alavi Naiini has organized many community service projects for the club. Bottom: David Garfield Roland helps till the soil and remove non-native species of plants from the organization’s grounds.

Alavi Naiini’s passion for the job goes far beyond MACSD. On average, she organizes at least 24 alumni events a year. In May, there was one every weekend. “For each event, there is at least one new person. I now have almost 150 people,” she reported.

“Here in LA, we have a lot of alumni who are passionate about helping others, which can be seen not only through their participation, but also their willingness to help each other,” Alavi Naiini said. She also tries to keep it interesting, coming up with an array of service projects, from helping the homeless and abused women to planting trees, cleaning beaches, and organizing donations for foster children. Last year, the U of M clubs in California (nine in all) tallied up the most volunteers, as well as hours, in the country, with 113 alumni working a total of 410 hours of service during MACSD.

David Garfield Roland, JD’87, practices law independently in the Hollywood film and television industry. Through the community service events, he has worked with autistic children and repainted the interior of a sexual assault crisis and support center for women.

“Every May, we go on a walk in Griffith Park for kids genetically disabled by Angelman Syndrome,” he said. “They have difficulty walking and talking, and it is a struggle for them to get up the hill. We stand along the side of the path and cheer them on. You can see in their eyes their excitement and their sense of accomplishment.”


John Stickler has enjoyed a lifelong career in communications. His latest book, “Maya and the Turtle,” is a Korean fairy tale illustrated by his wife, Soma Han.

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