Side Gigs for Good, part two

A second installment of stories about Penn employees with meaningful after-work endeavors.

Person walks a black Labrador retriever puppy along a path from a parking lot
Heather Calvert, executive director of MindCORE, drops off her foster puppy Ugo at the School of Veterinary Medicine's Working Dog Center at Pennovation Works each weekday. She and her family care for the working-dog-in-training during evenings, weekends, and holidays. 

Penn employees make a difference in their jobs every day, furthering the University’s work. But some don’t stop there, spending their time away from their day jobs committed to other efforts that benefit society.

Penn Today shared an initial group of four such stellar community members earlier this month and has since learned of many others. In a second installment, meet four more: A working dog foster, a host for families seeking medical care, the head of a nonprofit supporting education and health projects in India, and a neurosurgeon who keeps bees.

Raising high-drive puppies

Heather Calvert’s side gig, she admits, isn’t purely unselfish. Calvert, executive director of MindCORE, and her husband, Matt Gauntt, a web developer in Human Resources, are on their second round of fostering a dog for the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Working Dog Center (WDC). 

Black lab puppy training to be a working dog stands on on a porch
Ugo, a working-dog-in-training at Penn Vet, at the home of his foster family. (Image: Heather Calvert)

“It’s a great way to have a dog if you’re working full time because the dog is at school every day,” Calvert says. “You get all the pleasures of the dog but don’t have to worry about providing care during the workday.”

Ugo, a cuddly, energetic two-month-old black Labrador retriever, recently joined Calvert, Gauntt, and their 14-year-old son in their West Philadelphia home. The family previously fostered Philip, a yellow Labrador who now works in cadaver detection. 

There’s serious purpose behind all the cuteness. The WDC places puppies with families during their training to get the dogs used to family life. As working dogs, they’ll live with their handlers. WDC graduates have gone on to work in search-and-rescue, policing, medical detection, narcotics and explosives detection, and other jobs.

To qualify as a foster family, Calvert and Gauntt attended initial training sessions and now participate in weekly puppy classes. They must also manage the vicissitudes of puppyhood, which Calvert compares to taking care of a newborn. “But with a human baby you can take them places without thinking they’re going to poop on the floor,” she says. 

Her son even camped out in a sleeping bag next to Ugo’s crate to get him comfortable in his new home. But the trials have been worth it to have a hand in ushering into the world new knowledge about service dogs, says Calvert. “All the scent-based work and research is fascinating. I look forward to seeing Ugo develop his skills and become a good working dog.”

Hosting families 

When Susan Ellenberg and her husband, Jonas, moved to Philadelphia in 2004, they purposefully bought a house that would fit all their grandkids at once. But that also meant for most of the year, parts of their Center City home went unused. Then Ellenberg, a biostatistician at Penn Medicine, read about a program called Hosts for Hospitals and a little boy from the United Kingdom who had Stage 4 neuroblastoma.

Four people—an older couple and two children—standing on a floral run in front of a pictures hanging on the wall and a light sconce.
Penn Medicine biostatistician Susan Ellenberg and her husband Jonas, with members of a family from Singapore they house as part of the Hosts for Hospitals program. (Image: Courtesy Susan Ellenberg) 

“He’d been treated in the U.K. with the standard treatments, and they didn’t work. His parents took him to Germany for treatments, which were also not successful,” she says. “They learned that CHOP was developing a treatment for the particular type of tumor mutation he had, so they made arrangements to come.”

Because the care would take a significant stretch of time, the boy’s two siblings would come too, meaning a family of five needed a temporary home. “We ended up hosting them for about a month,” Ellenberg says, “and we knew we wanted to continue doing this.”

Since then, through the Hosts for Hospitals program, she and her husband have welcomed families from around the world and across the country, like that of a little girl from Singapore with ocular cancer and a child with severe scoliosis whose family comes from North Carolina twice a year. “They’ve become like our family,” she says. “The little boy is 7 or 8, and they’ve been coming since he was an infant.”

Supporting India

In 2005, Michael Atchison and his wife were invited to a family wedding 8,000 miles away.

“My wife is from southern India, from Bangalore, but hadn’t been back in years, and I had never been,” says Atchison, a professor of biomedical science in the School of Veterinary Medicine. “I thought I was ready for India, but I wasn’t. The vast disparities hit me pretty hard.”

Classroom full of people seated and standing, many wearing saris, each raising a hand.
Michael Atchison (center, in navy checked shirt), professor of biomedical sciences at Penn Vet, serves as executive director of nonprofit Helping India Together. (Image: Courtesy of Michael Atchison) 

He returned from the visit with a feeling that he had to act, a feeling that, by 2011, had grown into an official nonprofit, Helping India Together, for which Atchison serves as executive director.

The organization supports a variety of projects focused on health care, education, and training and equipping leaders. For example, for less than $1,000 per person per year, the organization has enabled women who had been working in low-level hospital jobs to train to become nurses. They are now supporting 14 women through the three-year training.

“We’ve gotten to know these students because the first group graduated and were then hired by the referring hospital,” Atchison says. “One of the women we put through the training was very poor, and now she’s making her own money and can send her brothers and sisters to school. For less than $3,000 you’re completely changing that person, and their family, and their community.”

In another effort, Atchison helped connect a Penn Vet alumna, Audrey Barker, to train community health workers to distribute livestock medications that boost the milk production of dairy cows, a vital source of income for many women.

Atchison and other organization members—all volunteers—travel to India at least once and sometimes twice a year to visit with partners, review projects, and inquire about what new efforts could be useful. “There’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t get an email about India,” says Atchison. “We started from zero, and this year our nonprofit will probably spend $100,000 on projects for India. We’ve been amazed at how well this is going.”

Keeping bees

Sean Grady’s day job as a neurosurgeon at Penn Medicine comes with big responsibilities and big impact. And while he only devotes about an hour a week to his hobby, it, too, has positive effects that extend beyond his own enjoyment.

Grady has maintained beehives on his property in Chester County for the last six years. Each of his four hives may contain as many as 60,000 bees at its annual peak. He had been interested in the practice for years, but it wasn’t until his daughter presented him with a copy of “Beekeeping for Dummies” that he decided to give it a try.

Person in a beekeeping suit holds a frame full of honeybees
Sean Grady, a neurosurgeon at Penn Medicine, has been practicing beekeeping for six years. (Image: Graham Perry)

A variety of facets of the hobby appealed: “The biology of the hive is fascinating,” Grady says. “I’m also a kind of ‘green,’ eco-conscious person, so this fits in very well. And, of course, you get honey of out it.”

Grady beefed up his skills by joining communities of fellow beekeepers, including the Chester County Beekeepers Association. “It’s really a good community of people who want the bees to thrive,” he says. While native honeybee populations have taken a nosedive, beekeeping hobbyists and professionals help maintain important pollinators. 

Grady appreciates the seasonality of the work: Preventing swarms in the spring, harvesting honey in midsummer, and ensuring the hive is healthy and well-prepared for the winter in late summer and fall. The concentration that is no doubt needed in his profession also comes in handy when handling the bee frames, each one of which may contain several thousand honeybees.

“If you drop one of those frames, you’re going to know it,” says Grady, whose careful approach results in only about three to four stings a year.

Grady harvests around 100 pounds of honey each year, and his family, friends, and colleagues are the beneficiaries. As chair of the Department of Neurosurgery, he participates in a weekly meeting with the other 17 clinical chairs and health system leadership. In early July, each lucky attendee goes home with a jar of local honey.

This is the second article in a series on Side Gigs for Good. Here is the first. If you have a “side gig” story to share, send a note to Michele Berger.