By Abby Hart and Katie Wilkes
What goes around comes around. You reap what you sow. You get what you give. There are countless adages related to the experience of karma—putting energy and effort out into the world and feeling the effects of that action, good or bad. In the spirit of elevating and educating the community, illumine takes a look at four people who prove that a little action and inspiration can plant the seeds of tremendous positive impact.
Jenna Benn Shersher
Founder and Executive Director, Twist Out Cancer, and civil rights activist
Jenna Benn Shersher is a creator, a writer and a fighter. As the associate regional director at the Anti-Defamation League Chicago, she fights for civil rights, and as a cancer survivor and founder and executive director of the nonprofit Twist Out Cancer (TOC), she uses weapons of creativity and community to help those touched by cancer fight back.
In 2010, Shersher was diagnosed with Grey Zone Lymphoma, a rare blood disorder which, at the time, affected about 300 people in the United States. During her four months of intensive chemotherapy, she started a blog to update her friends and family on her health and document her experience.
“About a month in, it transitioned from a place to update people, to more of a place to cope,” says Shersher. “It became a way for me to process the severity of the situation.”
Her blog views increased from 50 readers to several thousand, from people all over the world experiencing varied life struggles reading her reflections on fighting cancer.
One day, feeling a bit disconnected from her readers, Shersher issued a challenge. She posted a video of her doing “The Twist” on her blog and asked “Who’s twisting with me? Join me on the dance floor.” Hundreds of response videos rolled in over email and YouTube of people twisting and dancing along with her on her journey. Word spread about her twisting, and she began sharing her story at cancer institutions and leading groups of survivors in the twist, a symbolic act of creativity and community.
The movement became too big to deny, and Shersher founded Twist Out Cancer (TOC) in 2011. TOC began as a platform where users could create profiles and upload videos with their “twists” on cancer, from fighting strategies and new perspectives on the cancer journey, to creative challenges that helped build community and connection. Challengers posted videos, written reflections or photos of them completing challenges, which then become a tangible tribute to the survivor’s story.
Twist Out Cancer also provides educational workshops, with facilitators leading meaningful discussions stressing the importance of psychosocial support. Brushes with Cancer is another growing program which pairs survivors with artists to create original works of art documenting the survivor’s struggle with cancer. The artwork is then auctioned off or exhibited. Brushes with Cancer auctions and events have been held in Chicago, Toronto, Ann Arbor, Mich., and in 2016, Tel Aviv, Israel.
Shersher recognizes that the simple act of dancing is what created a wave of energy that led to the TOC that exists today. “We have to hone in on the isolation that cancer survivors feel and the pain they are going through. When you share, the world opens up.”
Learn more about Twist Out Cancer and its programs at twistoutcancer.org.
—by Abby Hart
Founder, Imerman Angels and public speaker
Armed with a constant smile and an infectiously upbeat presence, Jonny Imerman is the ultimate connector. It’s no surprise, then, that he connects people daily as the founder of Imerman Angels, the world’s largest cancer patient-to-survivor mentorship network.
Imerman was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2001, at the age of 26, while at home in Michigan. He fought the disease surrounded by family and friends, but he felt that a key support system was missing, because none of his loved ones understood exactly what he was going through. Shortly after he was declared cancer-free, Imerman vowed to give back to other cancer patients, and began visiting people in the cancer ward of his hospital.
He was able to connect with young patients with relative ease, which got him thinking about older cancer fighters—wouldn’t it be better for them to meet a survivor they could closely relate to?
With this thought in mind, he built a growing network of mentors and survivors, receiving mentor referrals from medical professionals and meeting every mentor and survivor in person. “The trauma of my experience led to this clarity and this vision,” Imerman notes. “Who better to fix the cancer world than the people who have been through the system and can see the cracks in it?”
Imerman moved to Chicago and in 2006, he founded Imerman Angels with John May, now the organization’s chairman of the board. Mentor “angels” are cancer survivors and caregivers who are carefully matched with cancer patients of the same gender, age and type of cancer, giving survivors the opportunity to have the support of someone who has experienced their struggle.
In the nine years since its creation, Imerman Angels has grown from a few names to the largest cancer survivor network of its kind, with more than 6,000 cancer survivors in 60 countries. And the program is complimentary.
Though the concept behind Imerman Angels is simple—connecting one person to another— Imerman isn’t afraid to think big when it comes to the mark the organization could make in the future. “We help thousands of people every year,” he explains. “If we’re able to match millions of people every year, then we know we’re changing the world.”
Learn more about Imerman Angels at imermanangels.org.
—by Abby Hart
Plant-based chef and public speaker
Healthy eating is about karma and dharma,” says Chef Dave Choi as he prepares a food demonstration at Madame Zuzu’s Tea House in Highland Park, Ill. “It’s a cycle. Karma means that whatever you’ve done comes back to you. Dharma is something you engage in with grace and love—and it comes back to you, blessings by the ton.”
Choi presents two blenders and proceeds to mix a gourmet salad and a Diet Coke in one and organic brown rice with sauteed vegetables and a glass of water in the other. He then pours each slurry into separate latex gloves, ties them shut and passes these curious items around the table. With horrified and slightly amused expressions, each person surveys the opaque, sickly pink slime of the salad and soda and the grainy, mostly watery liquid of the vegan meal.
“Which would you rather have in your body?” Choi asks.
It’s a jarring illustration of the differences between consuming a diet of animal proteins and a plantbased diet, and the consequences of our choices and actions. Choi refers to plant-based eating as a dharmic, purposeful process and “an act of self-love.” His Korean Buddhist beliefs influence his approach to nourishing himself and others, and led him to open Amitabul restaurant in Lakeview in 1995 with his family. The beloved restaurant later moved from Lakeview to Norwood Park and specialized in Korean and Buddhist vegan fare.
In 2009, Choi left the restaurant with the intention of sharing his outlook on mindful eating and cooking. He found himself busier than ever, taking on speaking engagements, interviews and cooking demonstrations, educating the public on the benefits of a plant-based diet. His work has translated to major lifestyle changes, weight loss and vastly improved health for his clients.
After working with Choi and experiencing a dramatic weight loss, filmmaker Michal Siewerski was inspired to create Food Choices, a documentary exploring the impact of plant-based diets on the health of the human body and the world at large, which will be released in the spring of 2016.
Choi carries the dharma of educating the public all over the city of Chicago, working with families in food deserts on the South Side and giving them the tools and skills to cook healthfully.
—by Abby Hart
Sarah Elizabeth Ippel
Founder and Executive Chairman, Academy for Global Citizenship
Locally sourced meals made from scratch in a zero-waste cafeteria. Daily yoga practice. This is what a typical day looks like at the Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC), home to 450 elementary students on Chicago’s southwest side.
After studying education systems around the world, founder Sarah Elizabeth Ippel committed herself to creating mindful leaders one student at a time. But when she moved to Chicago after completing her master’s degree, a brutal truth struck her. How could the school system of one of the nation’s leading cities fall to the same challenges she had seen in Guinea-Bissau’s schools?
In a pitch to Chicago’s Board of Education for a new elementary school, she tossed traditional ideas of what public school “should be” out the window. Now, nearly a decade after that conversation, and after visiting 90 countries, she is brightening the futures of more than 750,000 children by developing and sharing ACG’s sustainable education practices.
Ippel’s concept is simple: Plant the mindfulness seed early and let students learn the importance of their own choices. “Developing our students’ ability to control their energy and emotional response has meant that they spend more time collaborating in the classroom and less time fighting or acting out,” she explains.
For these students, paying it forward becomes more than a textbook lesson. At the end of every unit, they put their ideas into action. Some create recycling programs, others lead peaceful protests against fastfood marketing. “Sometimes it seems so instinctive; I’ve wondered if they really grasp the extent of their impact,” Ippel admits.
This spring, Ippel will see her first class graduate 8th grade. It’s a milestone she holds close to her heart and inspires her to keep dreaming big. Her latest vision includes building the Midwest’s first net-positive energy campus on three acres of farmland as part of her plan to impact 20 million students worldwide.
Schedule a tour and learn more about the Academy for Global Citizenship at acgchicago.org.
—by Katie Wilkes
Abby Hart is a freelance writer, editor and marketing consultant living in Chicago’s West Loop with her husband and dog.
Katie Wilkes works for the American Red Cross, and is a yogi, foodie and devoted rescue pup mom.