Reporting by Stuart Winchester & Lisa Di Venuta
Thousands of Viacom employees spread out through communities around the world last Friday, making an emphatic endorsement of the core company value of giving back. In a global arc spanning from Europe down through Africa, from Singapore and Australia to Mexico and throughout the United States, Viacom’s operations took a collective breath to clean parks, prepare meals, offer advice and help out in countless other ways as the organization celebrated the 20th anniversary of Viacommunity.
“We need to be a part of the communities we live in,” said Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, who dropped in on several sites around New York City on Friday. “It’s one of our Viacom values, which is to do good, and I think everybody has a responsibility to do that. I hope that we inspire a lot of people to do more during the course of their lives, and we’ll make them better people and better employees, because living those kinds of values outside of work helps you do a better job at work.”
PARAMOUNT TAKES THE INAUGURAL VIACOMMUNITY DAY CUP WITH GLOBAL EFFORT
Paramount employees spread across 13 countries and six U.S. cities, from San Diego and L.A. on the West Coast to Rogers, Arkansas, Coconut Creek, Florida, and Atlanta in the South to Columbus, Ohio in the Midwest – 1,125 volunteers altogether. It was enough to add the Viacommunity Day Cup to the Paramount’s already bulging trophy case, as that number gave them the highest percentage of any company division to sign up for a project. The trophy is theirs for one year – although another division will have a chance to steal it from them by rallying more employees to participate in Viacommunity Day 2017.
At one site just south of the University of Southern California, approximately 50 Paramount volunteers descended on the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center to paint an enormous high-ceilinged room. The organization, which Myrtle Faye Rumph founded after her son was shot down in gang violence in 1989, runs programs for youth, including after-school and gang-prevention initiatives.
The team dove into the project with hands-in-the-middle cheers and worked all day to blasting music. “We were like a colony of ants,” said site leader Mark Cohen. “There was a community spirit that took over, people who didn’t know each other, but were banding together for a cause greater than themselves. We may have been just painting a wall, but what we were really doing is painting a picture for all the people who use this center that there are people outside of their community that care about them.”
A few other things Paramount volunteers accomplished along the way to seizing the trophy:
· Planted more than 500 nectar flowers at the Los Angeles Zoo for their milkweed garden
· Hosted more than 300 veterans at a BBQ at the Veterans Administration Building
· Took 50 high school students on a field trip to UCLA
· Planted 40 trees with the L.A. Beautification Team
VIACOM SPREADS OUT ACROSS THE NEW YORK CITY REGION
New York City: The Clouds Part to Clear the Way for Giving
After a cloud-darkened week of rain and chilly wind, the sun rose in a spectacular clear sky over New York City on Friday. The temperatures hung comfortably in the low 70s as employees spread out across the five boroughs.
Dozens of volunteers spread out among the tree beds in front of PS 96 on 120th Street in East Harlem, de-weeding, turning the soil, and laying mulch to prepare it for the flowers they would plant.
“I wanted to get outside of Times Square, something that was outside, in the hopes that we would have really good weather,” said Chris Alexis, a director in Content Distribution, who got her wish as she worked alongside Wanda Solis, from the same department.
The event was a partnership between Viacommunity and Trees New York, whose mission is to plant, preserve and protect the street trees of New York City. The two organizations have worked on the same block for the past six years. Between events, the elementary school students assume caretaking responsibilities and learn about the importance of urban trees.
“Viacom employees are great,” said Nelson Villarrubia, executive director of Trees New York. “We get so much done in a short amount of time. Everyone has a great attitude about it and enjoys it, so we always say ‘yes’ every year when you guys ask. We get a lot of work done.”
A little ways uptown, dozens of Viacom employees balanced on a steep wooded hillside in St. Nicolas Park, planting trees and bushes to prevent erosion. The event was a joint initiative between Viacommunity and Partnership for Parks.
“It’s great to give back to the community, especially parks,” said Patrick Kennedy, who was clearing mulch off of a flagstone walkway alongside Joe Evers, Megan Costello, and Alison Wallach. All four work at 345 Hudson on Comedy Central’s research team. “I spend so much time in Propect Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park, it’s cool to just come out and give people a place that looks nice. It makes you feel good.”
Tim Darcy, a vice president in content distribution who has participated in more than 10 Viacommunity Days, explained the importance of these sorts of volunteer events to the overall health of city parks. “Most of the New York City parks are privately funded and get cleaned up mostly by volunteer work, so it’s a great way to give back. It’s important not to clean just Central Park and the most obvious parks, but to get in and help some of the communities that don’t get the attention that some of the bigger, more popular parks may get.”
“Every time Viacom comes out, it’s a great day,” said Alicia Raeburn, corporate program coordinator at City Parks Foundation, who explained that they selected their sites based upon direction from the city’s Parks Department. “As you can see, they’re dedicated to the cause. I’ve worked the last two years up in Harlem with Viacom volunteers. I’ve heard no complaints – we’ve had nothing but positive feedback.”
At the top of the hill, 11-year NFL veteran Chris Canty was rolling a tree down to a waiting group of volunteers, who would help secure it to the hillside. With his Chris Canty Foundation, the native New Yorker had recruited students from Manhattan’s Murray Hill Academy to help out. Canty, who is listed on NFL.com as 6-7 and 320 pounds, was sweating as he came down the hill after moving his fourth tree. “This is a lot of hard work,” Canty said as someone handed him a bottle of water. “But I know the Viacom employees don’t mind putting their hands in the dirt and getting some positive results. I can see you’ve got a lot of hard workers in your organization. I should’ve known that from the reputation, but actually seeing it in person is impressive.”
At around this time, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman showed up to encourage the employees’ efforts. It was his third site visit of the day. He had just come from a Hip Hop for Life event, where 60 Viacommunity volunteers had gathered to watch a song-and-dance production by middle school kids with disabilities.
“I think this is one of the most physically challenging projects I’ve ever seen in the history of Viacommunity,” he said, gazing up in admiration at the dozens of dark blue shirts arrayed across the hill. “It’s great that they want do this, that they show up, that they’re enthusiastic about it. I just saw at the last stop, our people dancing along with the kids as they’re watching them and taking videos, and it’s just very inspiring.”
Of course, the most famous Manhattan park of them all got a nice showing:
On the Upper East Side, a group of employees showed up at the Humane Society:
While another group helped out at the SAGE center, an advocacy group for LGBT elders:
Down in Times Square, many floors at the normally bustling 1515 Broadway building were nearly empty as employees fanned out across the city and suburbs, but there were pockets of activity in The White Box off of the lobby and in the new Sky Square on the 31st Floor.
Nearly 100 employees had turned out to decorate and stuff bags of Tootsie Pops and other treats with Operation Goody Bag for U.S. Navy soldiers stationed overseas. Sarah Feld, a member of the Digital Library team and a first-time Viacommunity Day captain whose grandfather served in the Navy, had a smattering of bags in front of her, some with colorful renditions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Sponge Bob’s Patrick. “I love to draw, I love to write,” she said. “Hopefully someone will get it and it will make their day a little better.”
This was just the latest in a long string of collaborations between Viacom and Operation Goody Bag, but this one came with a special footnote: Viacommunity volunteers helped push the organization – which formed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks – past its 400,000-bag milestone that day.
There are plenty of reasons why Operation Goody Bag keeps returning to Viacom. “Viacom volunteers are very positive people,” said Operation Goody Bag volunteer Johanna Antonacci. “They do their homework before they come here. They look up positive sayings. They’ve got pictures that they bring with them to replicate on their bags. They’re very into it.”
Thirty-one floors up, in the new Sky Square conference center, Liz Fodor, a senior writer and producer for on-air promos at Splat, sat at a phone bank consulting with a manager of Wingspan Arts. The organization, which exposes diverse groups to the performing, visual, media and literary arts, was looking for ways to raise their profile. A fine artist, musician, actor, performer and general artist with a deep video and TV background editing, writing and producing, Fodor was able to draw on her expertise to provide advice on using social media and organizing collaborations with local museums and artists to showcase the children’s work.
“It was amazing to be able to give them ideas and hear the ping in her voice, like ‘maybe I could do that,’ or ‘I didn’t think about that,'” said Fodor.
She wasn’t the only one volunteering from a distance. CEO Philippe Dauman had also started his day with a telephone consultation, giving advice someone who had recently assumed a management position in Seattle. “I told him always look forward, never look back,” Dauman said. “Be optimistic for your team members. He asked me how I choose projects. First of all, it’s the people. You have to make sure they’re committed to it. And ask them questions and try to poke holes at it, not in a negative way, but in a constructive way, to make sure they’ve thought of all the issues. I gave his some tips on how to lead his little group, which he wants to make a bigger group. So that was fun.”
Employees stayed busy elsewhere in New York City as well, with projects in all five boroughs. A sampling:
Long Island: Turtles Take On One of Their Toughest Foes – Autism
Eric Trinagel’s 3-year-old twin boys, Mylo and Izzy, were diagnosed on the autism spectrum at 18 months. With traditional preschools ill-equipped to assist with their severe speech delays, Trinagel and his wife turned to The Opportunity Preschool in Hauppauge, the same Long Island town where Viacom’s NOC facility is located.
After just one month, the boys showed incredible progress, inspiring Trinagel to give back to the school in a unique way: he would bring a couple of Nickelodeon’s iconic characters out to visit with the children, a population that is often photo-averse in less structured settings. The school was thrilled with the idea.
Though Viacommunity Day projects had already been posted, Viacom’s community relations team connected with Nickelodeon to arrange for Leonardo and Donatello to appear. Dewanda Howard in Consumer Products sent boxes of T-shits, jerseys, swimsuits, backpacks and sticker books to divvy among the school’s roughly 130 students. She also connected with Nick’s publishing division to supply books for every child, plus extras for the school.
The Hauppauge community stepped in to transform the day into a true event for the children, with local pizzeria Mama S’barro’s donating 20 pies and Red Jacket Orchards pitching in four cases of juice.
When Trinagel and the volunteers showed up on Friday, the entire school – including every employee and most of the students – were draped in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles décor. The children had prepared a banner displaying their names and hand-drawn turtle shells, while the school had transformed the gymnasium into an obstacle course.
“I couldn’t believe it when I walked in to see how the school welcomed us,” Trinagel said. “You could tell they were just so amazingly grateful to have us there.”
In a poignant reminder of how committed Viacom employees are to Viacommunity Day, the project filled beyond capacity, despite the fact that it was posted several days after the initial call for volunteers had gone out.
“I was thinking to myself, I’ll never get any volunteers, because projects had already been posted and anyone who was going to volunteer likely already had, but we easily went over our allotment,” said Trinagel. “The employee response was just overwhelming. I just couldn’t believe that it all happened. It was an incredible day. I can’t thank Viacom enough.”
As the turtles descended upon Hauppauge, other projects powered ahead around Long Island:
Westchester: Partnerships to Improve the Community
At the Greenburgh Nature Center in Scarsdale, New York, a 300-year-old, 33-acre wildlife refuge 25 miles north of Manhattan, volunteers descended on a stately, nearly century-old manor that now serves as a multifaceted community space. Part animal museum (stuffed hedgehogs are housed in a fireplace), part organic garden, the site plays several important roles.
“This land is preserved in perpetuity for public enjoyment, and for protection of species,” said Anne Jaffe Holmes, the center’s director of conservation education. “We have fantastic species–amphibians, reptiles, turtles, birds. We do our best to protect that, while opening it up to the public and giving everybody lots of room to explore nature.”
Viacom employees tore invasive species out of a native plant meadow and repaired the dilapidated brick floor of a greenhouse, among other projects. Many of the volunteers for this site live in the Westchester area and are devoted to making sure this serene environment can flourish for years to come. “It’s a beautiful site, we’re happy to contribute,” said site captain Kevin Brail.
While Adam Weiner, a volunteer from neighboring Purchase, New York, and Lauren Muir worked on leveling the floor in the greenhouse, Travis Brady, a director of the Greenurgh Center, worked with volunteers, including Liam Twomey of nearby White Plains, to rip the invasive species out of the woods.
“Basically, there’s a couple of trees they want us to remove,” said Twomey, whose children have been to the site on school trips. “This is a mustard plant that’s invasive, as well. We’re pulling that out, and actually the goats will eat it.” The rest of the deviant weeds would be composted.
“We stay busy,” said Brady. “We just had some staff transition out, so having groups like you come in and help us really gives us a leg up on the projects we do.”
Just a 20-minute drive from the Greenburgh Center is the Boys and Girls Club of New Rochelle.
A group of volunteers had gathered in the spacious gymnasium at the Remington Clubhouse to paint the walls a brilliant shade of cobalt blue. “I’ve lived in New Rochelle my whole life,” said site captain Melissa Luzzi. “The Boys and Girls Club means a lot to me. It’s something in my community, a place for the youth to come and have great opportunities and be able to just have an expansion of home.”
The Remington Clubhouse Director, Nate Adams, is passionate about the organization’s impact. He coaches Luzzi’s son on his football team. She told him about Viacommunity Day back in October, and Adams wanted to join forces.
“It’s very important for us as a community and the corporate world to come together,” said Adams. “It’s especially important for programs like the Boys and Girls Club to give back and show that there are a lot of people in the corporate world who care about the kids that are coming up behind them.”
The partnership isn’t limited to Viacommunity Day. Michael Armstrong, a BET executive, came to the clubhouse and spoke on a career panel in February.
New Jersey: Harvesting Memories on a Working Urban Farm
Ten miles west of Manhattan, in Clifton, New Jersey, roughly 50 Viacom employees descended on City Green Farm. Sandwiched between the throttling traffic of US 46 and the concrete tunnel of the Garden State Parkway, the five-acre farm is an anachronism, an L-shaped farm house- and barn-ornamented plot of land that somehow survived the widespread 1970s-era razing of the nearby countryside for mass conversion into housing developments. As one of the few remaining working agricultural outposts in the area, City Green has a special responsibility to host educational events for inner-city school children.
But as with any farm, the work is never finished. A perpetually soggy slope separates two flats where spinach, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and other crops grow. To suck up excess water and keep the lower slope from getting drowned, Viacom volunteers dug holes with shovels and pick-axes, then hauled nearly 100 plants up the hill. Aside from the drainage-control benefits, the plants, including ten 12-foot-plus maples that will eventually yield sap and more than 40 berry bushes, will one day contribute to the farm’s operating costs.
“It was very hard work,” said project captain Kevin Lyon, who lives in nearby Lodi and sometimes visits the farm with his family, including a 3-year-old daughter who loves running around to see the chickens and the goats. “You’re taking people who aren’t farmers. I’m a systems security person. I do application security at my day-to-day job. I don’t farm the land, but Viacom employees are adaptable and they have a go-to-it spirit.”
ACROSS THE UNITED STATES, SPREADING THE VIACOMMUNITY SPIRIT
Other groups spread out across Arkansas, Florida, Chicago, Michigan, Tennessee, California, and Washington, D.C. A few highlights are below.
Tennessee – An Array of Projects Unites Offices
In Tennessee, 112 employees from CMT’s Nashville office and the nearby Cool Springs facility descended upon eight sites.
“We had not only record participation, but we had incredible collaboration between the Nashville employees and their Cool Springs colleagues, who they probably never would have had reason to cross paths with,” said Sarah Gaffney, a public affairs manager who spent the day shuttling between sites. “To build that relationship between the two offices was really cool. I love that Viacommunity Day gets people out of the office and that it transcends departments and titles and positions. You’re just working alongside people and seeing these two offices blended for the day, getting to see that we’re all part of this bigger Viacom family.”
One crew returned to an elderly assisted living facility where they had volunteered for Valentine’s Day, giving manicures, playing poker and playing Pictionary with residents. Other employees volunteered at a facility to help homeless and marginalized inner-city youth, sorting and organizing a closet of donated clothing and assembling 1,200 snack bags. Employees also turned up at Room In The Inn, an organization that looks after homeless adults, NashvilleFood Project, which serves seniors and preschoolers, and the Humane Society.
With torrential rain and lighting in the area, the employees who had volunteered for outdoor activities improvised, with one group who had been slated for fence painting moving indoors to help with cleaning and other needs.
VIMN: VIACOMMUNITY GOES GLOBAL
Most of the world sits in time zones that bring the sunrise a bit earlier, so our international colleagues were already out in their communities before most of Viacom’s North American employees were even out of (or had gone to) bed. The #ViacommunityDay hashtag lit up social media around the world.