Wednesday November 14, 2007

Businesses that Give Back

Following a national trend, local small business owners help causes that hit closer to home

they seem like simple items: a pink pony design livening up a white T-shirt; a rich shea butter lotion; a creamy Caesar dressing. But they stand for much more. Behind them are not only powerful names—Ralph Lauren, The Body Shop and Newman’s Own—but also powerful messages. These large corporations have chosen to work towards the common good, delving deep into their profitable pockets and making charitable contributions to amazing causes. This trend is catching on across the country, as businesses big and small find new ways to help those in need.

It is with this same altruism and commitment to community, that four local women find their ways beyond business sense and into no-nonsense giving.

A Bright Idea

After melanoma took her sister Melanie’s life in 1999 at the young age of 40, Cheryl Clarkson decided it was time to make a change. She traded in the keys to her executive office at a large medical device company for a bottle of sunscreen, but she wasn’t headed for the beach. She had her sights set on something more important.

“I founded SkinHealth with charitable donations in mind,” she says. “I decided to start a company to make money to fund melanoma research. This was my motivation…to dedicate my life to this cause.” As one of the fastest growing cancers in the world, a cure for melanoma is long overdue.

Clarkson began her philanthropic journey with the development of her SkinHealth line of sunscreens, which has drawn national attention in Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Town & Country. Surpassing all expectations, it was even selected by Health magazine as the best sunscreen in the country in 2001.

Not only is her life’s work protecting against skin cancer, it’s helping those already suffering with each sale of a bottle. SkinHealth currently donates $10 per tube to Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center melanoma research projects.

SkinHealth has grown through the years to a full product line of professional skin care products, with locations in Wellesley Hills and on Newbury Street. The company has added physician services such as cosmetic surgery and injectibles, and also provides advanced skin care like laser services.

The treatments, too, are assisting the cause, as SkinHealth has initiated a number of ongoing promotions to meet a goal of raising $150,000 for Mass General’s melanoma research. Each purchase of the discounted anti-oxidant facials and light chemical peels means a donation to the fund.

Melanoma research is her main interest, but that doesn’t stop Clarkson from helping wherever she can. Every November, SkinHealth Centers donates at least $10,000 in products for the Children’s Hospital’s gala. The Esplanade Organization has also benefited from her generosity, with their acceptance of $25,000 worth of product.

“I think people love the products, but they also feel good using them because they’re helping a good cause,” says Clarkson.

A Beautiful Cause
It’s over her heart that Ruth Treitman wears a dangling necklace of her own making, and it’s from her heart that generosity pours with each twist of gold and silver woven by her hands. Each link she creates is on behalf of her 18-year-old granddaughter Jo, a young woman living with juvenile diabetes.

Treitman sells her handcrafted fine jewelry at The Clever Hand Gallery, a Wellesley-based co-op of local artists, but not a dime goes to Treitman. Every penny goes toward the search for a cure for this all too common disease.

“All of the proceeds for my sales go to juvenile diabetes research,” she explains. “I not only donate my time, but I donate the materials.”

The materials are silver and gold, sometimes precious stones. The time is what it takes to weave them into stunning necklaces and bracelets, as well as metal working for pendants and earrings. Borrowing a technique from the ancient Middle East, Treitman loops the wires together to create intricate pieces.

With its New England Chapter/Bay State office in Wellesley Hills, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International has done a lot for furthering the cause, and Treitman believes that with each one of her contributions comes a bit of hope.

“I think they are getting close to finding a solution,” she says. “They’re going to find something much better than injections for these children for the rest of their lives. There are a lot of places in this area working on juvenile diabetes.”

What she began 15 years ago, making gifts for friends or maybe something to complement one of her own outfits, is now a business that has her fetching prices up to $3,000 for commissioned work. There remain plenty of pieces, however, to draw the attention of every budget, with some priced as low as $30.

It’s attention to the disease that Treitman hopes to achieve, as much as the contributions themselves.

“When a company donates to a charity, not only is it the help they give, but it’s the attention they draw to it,” she explains. “Then others might say ‘maybe I can do something too.’ ”

Preserving What’s Important
Combine the desire to keep history from vanishing with an entrepreneurial spirit and childhood memories of pickling and canning, and you have the beginning of Wellesley-based Root Cellar Preserves, what Susan Jones calls “an interesting venture.” This flavorful label, created by Jones and her husband Lorne, offers a variety of delicious pickled products once commonplace, but now hard to find. “People want homemade taste, but no one has time to make it,” she says. “We’re offering something that reminds people of their childhood.”

From their first jar of sweet and spicy pickle mix, the line has grown to include relish, ratatouille, and maple syrup, and is available in 23 specialty shops and online. There’s a recently launched corn and black bean salsa to enjoy, and new tasty treats on the horizon.

On this horizon also stand homes saved through the generosity of Root Cellar, as the company strives to keep the historical foundation of our country intact.

“We grew up in upstate New York and saw around us these old American homesteads falling into disrepair,” Jones remembers. “The feeling is that it would take too many funds to restore it, so it’s cheaper to tear it down.

“We wanted to do something to raise community awareness because these are really our heritage,” she continues. “We should try to preserve at least some of these homesteads.”

Root Cellar Preserves is clearly committed to this quest, contributing half of all profits to restoration projects. Their first Massachusetts project is in Dover, where the oldest home in town is trying to move to a new location. Another local home that needs some TLC is the Dadmun-McNamara House of the Wellesley Historical Society. With its quarterly contributions, Root Cellar is assisting with getting it back into shape.

After quickly learning the downside to making the products in their own kitchen, the Joneses moved their pickling needs to smaller farms and family-run businesses, thus even further assisting the growth of communities.

“I think people want to help their community stay viable,” says Jones. “We all need to take care of one another and help each other out. We get warm feelings from giving back.”

Dress for Success
That warmth might also come from a wool sweater or a pair of comfy casual pants, especially when the garment is purchased from Lola Tortola, a women’s apparel, accessories, and gift boutique with Needham and Edgartown locations.

Owned by Weston resident Deb Fanton, this store bridges the gap between looking beautiful and doing something equally beautiful. The stores fund educational grants for girls at the Bridge Home for Single Parents in Brighton, part of Bridge Over Troubled Waters. “It’s the reason we opened,” she explains. After working extensively with First Parish Church in Weston, Fanton began her long-standing involvement with Bridge. It was through this relationship that she realized there was a need for grants to pick up where the government left off. To help fund these programs, in early 2005 she began doing trunk shows. From this came the realization that she might also be onto a great business idea for herself. Soon thereafter, she had two thriving stores and a successful grant program in place for these women in transition.

“The grants come out of the operating capital of the store,” says Fanton. “These are women who are single moms, often teenagers who are in transitional living; either going through counseling or work programs to get their lives on the right track.

“We provide a vehicle for these kids to go to a four-year program,” she continues. “They apply to Lola Tortola for various things that would fall through the gaps in funding elsewhere.” In the past, Lola Tortola has paid for day care for a college-bound woman, purchased a computer for another student, and paid for a woman to go through a nursing program. The grant program is always open and can even be renewed once a woman leaves Bridge. The only thing that Fanton asks in return is to keep up the good work and maintain a particular GPA.

Her giving spirit isn’t limited to Bridge. Just days before speaking with Wellesley-Weston Magazine, Fanton found herself in Dorchester building a house for Habitat for Humanity. She also tells of often throwing a “charity day” in the store, where a portion of the day’s proceeds is donated to a particular charity.

“My personal beliefs are that both home and business should have a very large portion of time and resources devoted to giving back,” she says.

The store’s namesake is even a tribute to a charitable cause. A Caribbean island and family vacation destination for the past 20 years, Tortola has a place in Fanton’s heart, and she in theirs. Every spring, Fanton holds a large fundraising event at her home for the island’s Ivan Dawson elementary school. Under a big outdoor tent, the night is spent dancing away to music by a Tortola band. The price? Your donation, to be used towards whatever the school needs.

From her own backyard (literally) to across an ocean, Fanton’s generosity has no limits.

“Some people believe it should be done in your own community, but I disagree,” says Fanton. “Whatever it is, whether it’s Tortola or Weston or wherever, it’s the act of giving that’s important. The broader you can throw your net the better.”

Having a successful business can lead to a sense of accomplishment. Having a cause that is your passion can lead to a sense of personal fulfillment. Combining both of these things…well, that’s just magical.



© 2006 Elm Bank Media