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Three Humanitarians Worth Celebrating

Christmas is that time of year that normally provides most of us the opportunity to show those we love how much we care by giving them carefully chosen items in exquisitely wrapped packages, but for a select few, giving is not relegated to a single holiday. These remarkable individuals see every day as a chance to give back to the people of New Orleans, some of whom they might know or may never even get a chance to meet. Nevertheless, their thoughtful endeavors will have a powerful impact; lives will be shaped, minds and bodies enriched and for some, life-threatening diseases conquered. Amazingly, these philanthropists are very humble but this holiday season, we would like to extend the gift of recognition and celebrate the incredible efforts of Drew Brees, Joseph Canizaro and Lieselotte Tansey.

Drew Brees
New Orleans Saints Quarterback
Philanthropy Focus: To use the power of sports to benefit children and young adults.

Leading the valiant team effort to secure a long-awaited spot for the New Orleans Saints at the Super Bowl XLIV in 2010 would have been enough of a gesture for Drew Brees to perform for this city. Winning that very same game would almost be asking for too much, but the MVP of Super Bowl XLIV gifted New Orleans with that sweet, dream-come-true victory as well. And for Brees, the giving is seemingly constant. Even away from his comfortable territory on the gridiron, the diehard champion continues to give back to his community. Brees is certainly one of the busiest men in town, especially during the progression of the Saints’ current winning season, yet that doesn’t stop him from being actively involved through The Brees Dream Foundation. Founded by Brees and his wife Brittany in 2003, the organization takes a strong interest in this city’s most valuable resource: its children.

Brees recently teamed up with actor Matthew McConaughey’s J.K. Livin’ Foundation, which is dedicated to helping teenage kids in inner-city schools become great men and women by implementing fitness and wellness programs to improve their physical and mental health through exercise, teamwork, gratitude and positive life choices. They introduced students at Lusher Charter School to the innovative TRX Suspension Training System, a performance-training tool preferred by Brees that leverages gravity and the user’s body weight to enable hundreds of functional exercises for every fitness goal.

TRX generously donated a 30-foot TRX S-Frame along with 20 TRX Suspension Trainers to the school’s physical fitness afterschool program, in addition to monthly programming created by the TRX team for the students to follow.

Upon his arrival to Lusher one particularly sunny afternoon in early November to give the school’s new TRX system a whirl, Brees politely invited himself to join in with the students in their gratitude circle, a close-knit gathering where students share with their peers what they’re grateful for in their lives. Brees was the first to share, stating, “I’m thankful for my family, and for my team, and I’m thankful for the city of New Orleans, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to be here with you.” The children acknowledged their thanks for everything from “people like Drew Brees who take the time to do stuff for us” to “being able to wake up today.”

Afterwards, the elite athlete got down to working up a total sweat, leading students from both the football team and those belonging to the J.K. Livin’ program through a personal hands-on suspension training session, where he demonstrated on the TRX equipment the same exercises he uses to build core strength, balance and mobility simultaneously to prepare himself for hardcore NFL action. He also covered the programming specifically developed by TRX for the students to use themselves, calling on them to show off their own exercise skills and lending them a hand when needed. Brees was all smiles the entire afternoon with the students, remaining interested, patient and connected with them, and maintaining a fabulous rapport with the students as they soaked up Brees’ passion and commitment to fitness.

The Super Bowl Champion gave the students invaluable advice, support and motivation as he spoke with them not only about the TRX workouts, but also about how blessed he feels to play in the NFL as a quarterback and the tremendous amount of responsibility that comes with the job, not only to his team but to the community. “You’re given a platform to do other great things outside of football, so I try to use that platform to influence you guys and people in the community to want to strive to be better people and accomplish whatever they want to accomplish,” said Brees, adding that adversity exists to make people stronger and better, and wishing his young, captive audience the best of luck doing whatever it is in life that they want to do. He finally said that when he comes back to visit the students, he wants to see some progress on the TRX equipment, to a thunderous round of applause.

And come back he will. Brees’ connection to Lusher runs deep; after Hurricane Katrina, The Brees Dream Foundation provided powerful moral support for the school by helping to raise the money to refurbish the athletic field. Appropriately named The Brees Family Field, it is used for football, soccer, baseball and other athletic and non-athletic events. He also provided for the school’s weight room and he and Brittany frequently visit the school, giving credence and compliments not only to the football team, but to all athletic groups and to the school’s strong art program. As a result, the kids feel like they have a friend in both the adored leader of the black and gold and his adorable wife.

New Orleans Living Magazine was there to observe the incredibly special gathering of Lusher’s students and their idol, Drew Brees, an absolute model citizen who always uses his status to do amazingly good things for the city and the people of New Orleans. And after speaking with Brees about giving back, it’s clear that he truly understands the special gift he’s been given through the power of his exemplary role, taking it seriously and honoring it graciously. In a time where kids idolize athletes, New Orleans is extremely fortunate to have such a super hero to call their own because they just don’t come any better than Brees.

Hello Drew! How did you wind up partnering with Matthew McConaughey’s J.K. Livin’ foundation and TRX to bring this versatile fitness tool to Lusher’s students?

I actually met Matthew McConaughey at a golf tournament a few years back, and had a chance to talk to him there, and we kind of became friends and kept in touch since then, and I started to become more familiar with his foundation, the J.K. Livin’ Foundation, and he with our foundation, The Brees Dream Foundation. He was down here in New Orleans quite a bit shooting films and that sort of thing, and we thought, man, wouldn’t it be great to get together and do something, because I think we both had the same passion for kids and their well-being and wanted to try to give them opportunities to live a healthy lifestyle and to learn those important lessons.

So we decided to partner up and do something here at Lusher. Matthew was aware of our relationship with Lusher and our strong connection with the school, and just the thought that he wanted to incorporate his J.K. Livin’ program in the schools of New Orleans was a great starting point. I think the program has been phenomenal thus far; I think the kids have gotten a lot out of it. You know, the first thing we did today was the circle of gratitude, where every kid has the opportunity to go around the circle and talk about what they are thankful for. I think in a lot of ways, not only does that just kind of give you an attitude of gratitude, it also helps you to develop socially, helps you learn how to interact with your peers, and really just kind of let your guard down and not be judged and just let out your emotions. I think all the kids are accepting of one another and they have the chance to be around each other when honestly, maybe they wouldn’t have been around each other in any other way than to be part of this program together. So you get to meet people and be around people and interact with people that are maybe kind of outside your circle of friends or whatever, and yet, at the end of the day, you become part of the team together.

How have you personally seen the students of Lusher benefit thus far through the efforts of The Brees Dream Foundation since you’ve been in New Orleans?

When we, my wife Brittany and I, first got to New Orleans, Lusher was an abandoned building, and then (principal) Kathy Reidlinger and others did a wonderful job of getting the school established, and really, the charter school system kind of took off after the storm. But we noticed Lusher immediately as being a place of diversity, with both the students and also the programs that were provided for these kids, such as the arts program, theatre, music, and the orchestra. And with sports, they were trying to get things going, and we felt like that’s an easy connection obviously with what I do as a professional football player.

So we wanted to get these kids the type of facilities they needed. The biggest thing I noticed was their self esteem and their attitude, and their pride of ownership of this school. I think each one of them feels a strong connection to Lusher, feeling like, ‘I represent my school and everything that I do,’ and I think they take a lot of pride in that. And that’s great to see, because every time my wife and I come here, the kids are so friendly and so well-spoken and so respectful, and it’s kind of like we’re just one of them as we’re walking around here. We’re just part of the family.

There weren’t many players from Lusher’s football team who were previously using the TRX equipment before you got here today. You think that’s going to change after those cool exercise demonstrations you gave the students on the TRX equipment?

(Laughs). Yeah, we were having fun with it. I’m very familiar with TRX because I’ve been using it since 2004, and it was something that really helped to get me through my shoulder injury. So it’s easy for me to talk about TRX and obviously talk about the benefits of it, especially to young athletes because I think the misconception is hey, you go in the weight room and you just throw around as much weight as you can and get stronger and that’s that. Well, I think there’s such a smarter way to train, and I’ve learned that as I’ve gotten older, through my career as a professional athlete, so I try to impart that wisdom on younger athletes. And you know, hey, I’ll be the first one to tell you that there are benefits to working out with weights in the weight room. In fact, we provided the weight room here at Lusher, but I think you also incorporate the TRX into that and a lot of other exercises and there’s a balance. And I know that the J.K. Livin’ program has been using the TRX with the students here and they love it, so why not continue to expand that through to the athletic program as well.

You’re really sweating! You got a workout just now doing those exercise demos on the TRX …

(Laughs). I definitely worked out! I worked out this morning with the QB’s and now I’m sweating again! Yeah, that was a good workout. What I love is just watching the kids demonstrate to me what they’ve learned, because I think they take pride in that and they have been working at it for a few weeks now, so I’m sure a lot of them have seen progress compared to when they first started. They’re proud to show you, ‘This is the technique, this is what we’ve been doing,’ and I talked through more of the specifics with them which a lot of them haven’t heard before and they say ‘wow, that’s really cool; that’s something I can do,’ because maybe a lot of them have never stepped into a weight room or never planned too, but they think ‘Hey man, I want to stay in shape and I want to be able to exercise.’ And, maybe, they were self-conscious about stepping into a weight room but once they look at the TRX and get through the exercises they might think, ‘This totally fits me and my personality and what I want to do to stay in shape.’

Tell us about your message to encourage physical fitness, even for the non-athletes.

I’ve been involved in organized sports my whole life; my brother and I, that’s just what we did. But I understand that not every kid either wants to be involved with sports or, let’s just say it’s somebody that didn’t make the team. They still love athletics; they still want to stay in shape and work out and that kind of thing. Well, the TRX is a great avenue to do that. And the fact that you can do it through a program like J.K. Livin’ too, you know, you’re doing it with your friends, with your peers, you can encourage one another, I mean, you’re a team! So even though it may not be the football team or the track team, you’re still a team.

You are as comfortable out here with these students as you are with your team. You enjoy being out here with these kids, don’t you?

Yeah, I love being around these kids. Really, everywhere in New Orleans, what I find is that these kids are so talented and I’m not saying athletically talented, I’m just saying talented as human beings. You just watch their development and how respectful they are and you just get the feeling that they have a lot of confidence and they really feel like they can accomplish anything. They’re ready to just go out there and take the world by storm and I think a lot of that is because of the environment that they have here at Lusher Charter School and many of the schools around New Orleans. They’re just surrounded by great people, great teachers, great principals, great staff, great coaches – people that want to see them succeed – and that’s why, more than anything, through our foundation, we’ve supported programs like Teach for America and others where you’re trying to attract talent to come down to New Orleans to help cultivate these kids, ‘cause hey these are our future leaders. Especially when you talk about the future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, you want to have these kids brought up feeling, ‘I have this attitude of gratitude, I want to go out and be successful but I want to give back. I want to stay in this community and I want to do my part.’

-CHRISTINE FONTANA

Lieselotte Tansey
Health-Care Heroine and Art Enthusiast
Philanthropy Focus: Nurturing people with the gift of modern medicine and nourishment

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that we gain strength, courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face. I think that we’d all agree on the validity of that statement, however few people have faced the challenge of breast cancer and turned that experience into an incredibly generous gift to other women suffering the same here in the Gulf Coast. Lieselotte Tansey is one of those people.

At first glance, you’d never guess this slight but spry woman who prefers Ochsner to German hospitals, survived Nazi Germany, a bout with breast cancer, and, most recently, a full recovery from a fall that left her unable to walk and caused various other complications. Despite everything she’s endured, Ms. Tansey is vibrant, vivacious and tenacious, leaving people to doubt she’s actually telling the truth about her age —she’s 91 but has a glow and energy of someone much younger.When asked about what kept her motivated to conquer her health issues, a broad smile comes over her face. “If you don’t have the will, you can’t. You know what my name was? Tough cookie! Everytime I think I can’t do it, I don’t want to lose that name. I came here to the U.S. [from Germany] and I was paralyzed. I couldn’t walk and they taught me how.”

Thirty-five years ago, Ms. Tansey was successfully treated for breast cancer, taking only four and half days to complete a treatment that took weeks for others. In 2001,she decided to give back to the doctors and staff who saved her life in order to do the same for other women in the area. As a result of a multi-million donation, the Lieselotte Tansey Breast Center at Ochsner was created, providing comprehensive care in order to detect breast cancer early. The center is staffed with an expert, compassionate staff and contains state-of-the-art equipment to ensure fast and accurate diagnoses, proper treatment and to ultimately increase the number of cancer- free survivors with their breasts still in tact due to reconstructive surgery.

When asked about the center, Ms. Tansey tries to downplay her contributions.  “Several people have come to me and said ‘thank you very much’ and I say, well I didn’t heal your mother who was dying; it was the wonderful job of the people here that saved her. But then they say to me, if you wouldn’t have given them the building, there wouldn’t have been any [doctors].” She also has some strong advice for women regarding breast exams. “Go in time. I don’t know how many people I have told to go in time because it’s easier…they take out what’s possible and then reconstruct it, but you can’t help people who don’t want to help themselves.”

Not only are the patients and their families grateful to Tansey, but so is Ochsner and to show their gratitude, plans are in the works for the Tansey Healing Garden to be located outside of the Gayle and Tom Benson Cancer Center to which Ms. Tansey also made substantial contributions. This vast outdoor space will be completed in phases, providing patients a much-needed respite from treatment and a peaceful place to visit with family and friends. It will contain an herb garden, plants that attract butterflies, as well as a labyrinth and a prototype fountain fashioned from the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. Tansey was caught off guard when this gift was presented to her. “I was flabbergasted. Can you imagine something like this? It’s wonderful…I was speechless.”

Ms. Tansey’s generosity also spans back over the Atlantic to her hometown of Celle, Germany where she provided a new facility to an organization called The Table. “They feed 3,100 people a month. These are people without food or clothing. We give them food that we get from the markets and what’s nice is that we also go to the flower markets too, so that when the women come, they can get some flowers. It’s really wonderful.”

Not only does she nurture people with the gift of modern medicine and nourishment, but Ms. Tansey, along with her husband of over fifty years, Ernest Tansey, also enrich people’s lives with their passion for beautiful art. They have donated an extensive silver collection to the museum in their hometown of Celle and continue to exhibit their internationally acclaimed selection of 150 painted miniatures. Averaging two inches in size, thesecolor portraitswere painted of European aristocracy before the invention of photography. Ms. Tansey takes special delight in their detailed craftsmanship, explaining that with close inspection, you can actually see veins in the subject’s skin as well as their individual strands of hair.

With all of her and her husband’s current generous contributions and plans for future efforts,Lieselotte Tansey still will not accept full credit. “I thank my mother. When I was a teenager, she already had a foundation for workers and she taught me that you have to give. Without her, I might not be the way I am now.” Given Lieselotte’s altruistic nature and indomitable will to survive, odds have it that her mother was one tough cookie too.

-JEANNE SOUDERS

Joseph C. Canizaro
Chairman of the Board – First Trust Corporation
Philanthropy Focus: Positively impact our community through education, opportunity and empowerment

As a young man in 1964, Joseph C. Canizaro came to New Orleans from Biloxi to make his fortune. Canizaro excelled in his chosen field of real estate development, and his fortune was indeed made. In the meantime, Canizaro imprinted his mark on the skyline of New Orleans and became one of the best-known businessmen in the city. Although still involved in real estate through his company Columbus Properties, these days Canizaro focuses more on a holding company named Corporate Capital which encompasses Columbus Properties as well as investments in a number of different areas. “My company is what I do,” he says. “But my goal for it is to generate money that I can give away and help the community.”

A devout Catholic, Canizaro uses his faith to guide his life, business, and philanthropy. “Catholicism is my major passion,” he says. “To me, it means living as God asks us to live. I give back, because everything I have came from Him.”

Not surprisingly, Canizaro donates money to a number of Catholic causes. He has a particular affinity for the Eucharist, the Catholic ritual in which the devout look to commune with the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine. Canizaro has financially supported the construction of chapels for Eucharist adoration. Like many other Catholics, Canizaro has also been taken with the story of the six children from Medjugorje, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, who are said to have seen the Virgin Mary one day in 1981. Canizaro has made a pilgrimage to the town and is a patron of one of these children (now an adult) who purportedly continues to have visions.

But Canizaro’s philanthropy extends beyond the world of his Catholic religion. One interest of his is education. “It relates to my faith, but it relates to everybody,” he says. “I give to hundreds of schools, from grammar schools to universities to seminaries. Wherever there’s a need to advance education, I want to help out. I give in the city and the state, but also nationally and internationally.”

Along with education, he also looks to support healthcare, believing that “healthy, educated people will help a community grow and become better.” As such, he has financially supported many hospitals and clinics. Again, this includes institutions that may be local, regional, national, or international.

For his philanthropy, Canizaro has set up the Donum Dei Foundation, inspired by and formed after his trip to Medjugorje. The foundation, whose name means “gift from God,” includes one full-time staff member and a board that reviews requests. Canizaro is also a member of Legatus, an association of Catholic CEOs started by Tom Monaghan of Domino’s Pizza.

“Tom was a member of YPO [Young Presidents’ Organization] and wanted to do something especially for Catholics,” he says. “Legatus’ goal is to bring Catholic faith and belief into business life.”

The organization has chapters all over the country, and at the request of Monaghan, Canizaro started one in New Orleans. The group conducts meetings once a month, which entails confession, saying the rosary, and a mass followed by a social get-together with a speaker. Legatus is not a philanthropic organization per se, but as it is faith-based, it naturally leads members to issues of charity and community. “Business is not just about how much money you can make,” says Canizaro. “For me, it’s not just about building the buildings. What I do should have a positive impact on the community.”

To be sure, Canizaro’s business dealings are rooted in Catholicism; he believes his religion and success are intertwined. “My mind comes from God, and so does my persistence and ambition,” he says. “I also attribute my integrity to God and my faith, and I think people want to do business with people they can trust and who they have confidence in.”

Canizaro remembers when he first arrived in New Orleans as a young man and saw the unfinished World Trade Center at the foot of Canal St. and was fascinated by it coming together. Beyond that, he was also intrigued by the general downtown area, the coming together of Canal St. and Poydras right on the river. He knew that’s where the city would grow, so most of his projects have been around the river. Once he became established as a developer, he had a hand in many landmark buildings downtown including Canal Place, the Crowne Plaza (now the W), the Loews Hotel building, and the Texaco Center (now the 400 Poydras Tower).

Canizaro has contributed to civic life in other ways, sitting on the board of several New Orleans organizations throughout his lifetime and contributing to creation of public spaces like the Piazza d’Italia. Post-Katrina, he helped take part in the city’s rebuilding, mostly through his board membership on Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

“When the program was put out there for the public, it wasn’t fully embraced by everyone, and as a result, it wasn’t executed as it could have been,” he says. “But if you go back, a lot of what we proposed has been done, and some will yet be done. I was glad to be been able to contribute to the project. It’s important to me to help New Orleans and my community.”

-HENRY ALPERT