Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Family values: Give a little lagniappe

E-mail this article \ Print this article

Johnny Simon⁄Special to The Gazette
Community spirits: Suzanne Mintz and her husband Jon Elkind, of Silver Spring, have led their family and their community in working to benefit others.
For his 17th birthday, Suzanne Mintz gave her son a gift: the chance to help others. He took it.

Last August, Mintz, her son and his friend flew to New Orleans to spend summer vacation gutting homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. For five days, all three pounded sledgehammers against mildewed drywall in 90-plus degree temperatures and humidity so high the air felt like damp velvet. After two hours of work, their shirts were dripping with sweat and covered with dust. Dirt was everywhere: in their hair, their eyes, their noses and their clothes. But they continued pounding away until all that remained on the site were the frames of what used to be homes and a burning desire to return this year.

The work in New Orleans is just the latest expression of the value this Silver Spring family places on altruism. For three generations, they have pounded away at helping their community — whether it’s razing homes in New Orleans, installing eco-friendly bamboo floors and energy-efficient appliances in their recently remodeled home, or handing over 10 percent of the take from Mintz’s jewelry business to local nonprofits.

It is just ‘‘what you are supposed to do,” Mintz says.

Others may find extraordinary what Mintz, 48, sees as normal family activity. Jeffrey Michaels, 17, who accompanied Mintz’s son, Ben Elkind, 17, on the New Orleans trip last year, says he is amazed at the family’s energy. (Mintz is married to Jon Elkind, but keeps her maiden name.)

‘‘My parents find it a hassle just to go to PTA meetings,” Michaels says. ‘‘But Ben’s parents work and still find time to be politically involved, do fundraisers, campaigns, soccer — you name it. They do everything, and they really keep me involved, too.”

Ellen O’Neill, who worked with Mintz for many years as a member of a mentor team for the Silver Spring Interfaith Housing Coalition, a nonprofit organization that provides housing and support to homeless families, says Mintz amazes her.

‘‘A working mother of three very active boys, Suzanne quite remarkably found time to run errands for the family, attend support meetings, and provide friendship and concern,” O’Neill says.

Doing for others is in Mintz’s marrow, a gift inherited from her own parents and one she wants to pass on to her children.

‘‘It comes from having grown up in a family that was very committed to social issues,” she says.

Growing up during the ’60s in New Orleans, Mintz remembers the rising racial tensions and nascent anti-Semitism of the time, but also her father’s commitment to resolving those problems equitably. He was her role model, she says.

Mintz says her father, the late Barney Mintz, ran a furniture store in New Orleans and was involved in community activities such as the NAACP and the civil rights movement. He also served as a board member of the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish community organizations.

Barney Mintz was a key player when George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party, wanted to lead a hate ride to New Orleans in 1961 to protest the movie ‘‘Exodus” and grab some publicity to recruit new members.

The community feared Rockwell’s trip to New Orleans would ignite the violence seen during his visits to other large cities, and fan smoldering anti-Semitism in their community. They had good reason to worry. From 1954 to 1959, a number of Southern synagogues were bombed.

‘‘Rockwell aroused the community pretty damn good,” Barney Mintz told author Lawrence N. Powell in a 1997 interview for American Jewish History in an article titled ‘‘When Hate Came to Town.”

Powell called Barney Mintz ‘‘an uncompromising defender of civil liberties” who fought to balance Rockwell’s right to free speech with the needs of New Orleans and its Jewish residents — some of whom were Holocaust survivors.

‘‘We’ve got to be purer than Caesar’s wife on free speech because as a minority, Jews are the first people to feel a backlash,” he told Powell.

Mintz supported ‘‘the quarantine strategy” to use against Rockwell. This tactic would confine the Rockwell’s hate ride to a specific geographic area of New Orleans where he would be given the cold shoulder and denied the media attention he craved. It worked, but in March of 1965, someone tossed a grenade into the vestibule of the family’s furniture store, blowing out all the windows, according the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Although no note was ever found, and the culprit never caught, Mintz said her family believes it was the work of the Klan.

Born well after that turbulent time, Barney Mintz’s grandson Ben says his grandfather’s fight against social injustice has deeply influenced him. Today, Ben carries on the fight. He is in the last week of a three-week trip with Operation Understanding DC, which includes a Freedom Ride from Greensboro, N.C., as part of the group’s effort to eliminate prejudice by fostering understanding between Jewish and African American youth.

Like his grandfather, Ben has a list of community credentials: founder of the Coalition of High School Democrats, Montgomery County Student Government President and member of Board of Education’s committee working on the county’s new sex education curriculum, to name a few.

It was his mother’s involvement in social and political issues that most influenced his social activism, Ben says. One of his earliest memories was at age 7, marching with a picket sign to protest a gun shop in downtown Silver Spring.

‘‘My family background is such as strong part of it,” he said. ‘‘Going to marches and just growing up with that kind of value system dictates that I be involved in these sorts of things.”

Suzanne Mintz says that was the lesson her parents had taught her, too.

‘‘It’s just what we did. I grew up thinking that is just the way you are supposed do things,” she says. ‘‘I grew up tutoring kids, working at the hospital, and doing whatever I could to help.”

Her community service has ranged from teaching and running a large nonprofit agency, to handing out funds from her own business, M.E. Jewelry, to local nonprofits.

At least once though, she, like her father, has paid a high price for her good deeds.

In the spring of 2001, Mintz volunteered to help with the 3 Day Walk for Breast Cancer in D.C. Her crew, dubbed ‘‘the trash fairies,” picked up all the garbage at the campsites each day.

‘‘We would load up these bags and they would have peoples’ — ...ahh, you know — everything in them,” she recalls. ‘‘They had these huge dumpsters for us to throw the trash in and we would have to swing these bags up and into the dumpsters. Sometimes they would break when we swung them and stuff would fall on you and in your face. Well, I got an acute case of hepatitis. I was in the hospital and was sick the entire summer of 2001.”

While Mintz recuperated, her sister came to visit and brought along a beautiful sterling bracelet.

‘‘I looked at the bracelet and said, ‘I could do that,’” she says.

She had been beading for years to reduce the stress from work, but now she saw another possibility for her talent: running a business based on designing and making jewelry. She named the business, M.E. Jewelry: a combination of her maiden name, Mintz, and her married name, Elkind.

The idea of making jewelry came at the right time, she says. Mintz was quickly burning out from trying to run a nonprofit literacy program based in Maryland, with offices in New York, Philadelphia, and D.C., on a shoestring budget.

‘‘I don’t think anybody wanted to be around me. I was like constantly asking ‘Would you like to support my program?’ You couldn’t be around me and not know that I was always looking for money for my nonprofit. It was so anxiety producing,” she says.

She was ready for a change, but turn capitalist? Never!

‘‘I knew from the get-go, if I started this jewelry thing, I was going to give away. It would be a venue for me to be more philanthropic financially,” she says.

Mintz has found two venues for spreading the largess. First, she takes 5 percent of her sales from M.E. Jewelry and gives it to local nonprofits. Her second venue is the Lagniappe Program. Lagniappe (pronounced lanyap) is a Cajun term for ‘‘a little extra.” Through this arm of her business, nonprofit groups can raise money by hosting jewelry shows in Mintz’s home and keeping 10 percent of the total sales. During the program’s six-year existence, Mintz estimates she has handed out well over $20,000 — and she wants to give more.

‘‘That’s what drives me. It’s the twisted capitalist in me. When I’m thinking about sales, I’m thinking ‘OK, I need to sell this so that I can give this away’ I want to be able to say every year I give more and more away,” she explains.

This year, her donations will go to help ACORN’s Adopt-A-Home Program to help rebuild three families’ homes.

‘‘When Katrina happened, it ripped my heart out! I was ready to rededicate and rename my business to be all about rebuilding New Orleans,” she says. Her friends persuaded her not to make such a drastic change but to incorporate the rebuilding efforts into her business. So she has.

Her latest fundraising venture is helping Ben and 20 high school students from Wheaton, Northwood, Churchill and Rockville raise $12,500 for an Aug. 4 through 11 trip to New Orleans to work along with ACORN, Habitat for Humanity, to rebuild homes. The group is $5,000 away from its goal. The trip is important for the students because it is about more than building homes, she says.

‘‘It is about changing the future. OK, so we go build these homes. We, as a group of 20 students, won’t change the course of what is going on in New Orleans, but these are kids who are going to go on into fields where they will take this experience with them. Some of them will become public policy makers, and these experiences will inform what they do,” she says.

Improving the community, planting seeds of change, giving the disadvantaged an advantage and learning something through the process is what it is all about, she says. That’s what her parents taught her and that’s what she is teaching her children: Give a little lagniappe.