Men & Women of Heart

Heart. It’s on all our minds these days, but how many of us actually spend time sharing our hearts with the wider world? Lucky for us, there are many men and women on the North Shore who lead with their hearts and their passion transforms lives on a daily basis.

Here are a few extraordinary examples of the big-hearted role models in our midst: A life-long learner and world-class philanthropist who has turned her attention to keeping young families healthy, a surgeon who gives people new hearts and more, the young director of a camp for kids with disabilities and a company president who leads with an emphasis on giving back and continues the tradition of his historically civic-minded family.


Barbara McMichael Flanagin
Age: 48

Barb Flanagin believes in the power of fun. The mother of two could always find a field trip and even belongs to an adult club called “The Fun-sters” that meets quarterly to do joyous, out-of-the-ordinary activities such as Segway tours and square dancing.

So when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the images of destruction that flashed on the TV, she decided to try to heal Katrina victims the only way she knew how: with a little fun.

“When you’re going through a tragedy, you don’t give yourself permission to have fun because it seems self-indulgent,” Flanagin explains. But, “if you don’t give yourself permission, you’re never going to get out of your rut.”

A few months after the hurricane hit, Flanagin traveled to Waveland, Miss., 60 miles east of New Orleans and the epicenter of the hurricane’s havoc, to live in a tent city for 5 days. She found the town thanks to the Interfaith Clergy of Northbrook. It was the first of 22 trips.

She started out helping families piecemeal: getting a fence built and importing a St. Bernard from out-of-state for a woman who was living with cancer in a FEMA trailer. Then came a scrapbooking workshop for families that had lost all their photos and albums. Next was an Easter carnival and a haircutting fair.

Back on the North Shore, people were more than willing to help by giving money and by traveling down to Louisiana themselves. Flanagin’s passion became a nonprofit, KARING (Katrina Relief in Northbrook and Glenview), and raised more than $3 million worth of funds and goods.

The jewel of the organization is Camp KARING, a summer camp for 120 of the neediest children that “lets kid be kids again,” Flanagin says. Camp KARING, run by 20 North Shore volunteers, has been going for 4 years now.

Activities such as canoeing, movies, bowling and the water park give kids a break from the destruction that has infiltrated every part of their lives, from their schools to their families.

And sure enough, her giving has ended up enriching her life as well. Having recently been through a divorce, Flanagin says KARING gave her the confidence to start her own business, PROforma North Shore Marketing in Northbrook.

“It changed my life,” she says of KARING. “It enabled me to become somebody I always wanted to be.”

To get involved with or learn more about KARING, contact Barb at

— Liz Logan

Shirley Welsh Ryan
Age: 70

“How do you measure your life?” Shirley Ryan asks. “You measure your life by how many people you’ve helped.”

This articulate, nationally recognized civic leader and award-winning philanthropic giant typically doesn’t do interviews. But it’s not because she’s shy. It’s because believes her quietly done work, such as the Pathways Awareness Foundation that she started, speaks for her.

“It’s not about ‘I’ or ‘me,’” she says. “If you take the ‘I’ out of team, it’s incredible how much you can get done. We’re here as a community to share knowledge.”

To that end, she has served on boards, founded programs or sponsored the construction of new buildings for numerous organizations and cultural institutions throughout Chicagoland, including the Lyric Opera, the Art Institute, Northwestern (her alma mater), WTTW and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

The touchstone you hear over and over from Ryan, whose husband, Patrick G. Ryan, represented Chicago on a world stage in the Olympic bid competition, is that knowledge empowers.

“Every child can learn and has the right to develop to their highest potential,” she says.

At the Art Institute, she’s empowers children to learn about art. At the Lyric Opera, where she’s served as president of the Women’s Board, she empowers new generations of up-and-coming singers with world-class training. At Northwestern, she empowers students with knowledge that will allow them to make a better world.

And she empowers young parents to raise healthy children with the Pathways Awareness Foundation. More than 400,000 babies in the United States are at risk of developing motor delay each year, so the foundation teaches parents how to recognize early signs and address them.

Founded in the mid-’80s, the foundation recently launched a comprehensive website with videos to engage parents. It provides content to the American Academy of Pediatrics for its continuing medical education programs and the foundation’s activities are guided by a medical roundtable composed of the best pediatric practitioners in Chicago.

It all started because Ryan’s son, Corbett, overcame disabilities to graduate magnum cum laude from the University of Notre Dame. But, “to emphasize my son, it’s not the perspective of the parents who are walking this walk, the children who have a right to learn,” Ryan says.

In the end, the greatest gift, for Ryan, is having the opportunity to give. “Giving is receiving and vice versa,” Ryan says. “It’s a privilege.”

To learn more about the Pathways Awareness Foundation, visit

—Liz Logan


Dr. Bob Higgins
Age: 51

Dr. Bob Higgins has the best job in the world. And he knows it.

As a surgeon specializing in heart transplants and a professor and chair of Cardiovascular-Thoracic Surgery at Rush University Medical Center, Higgins is one of the few people in the world who literally have the opportunity to make life out of death.

“I get chills when I think about it: After you take the clamps off and let the blood rush back into the heart, it starts beating all by itself—whoosh, whoosh. You realize, there is a God,” Higgins says.

He’s performed more than 200 heart transplants in his 16-year career and gets loads of letters every year from the people he’s helped and their relatives.

Unfortunately, in order for a sick person to get a new heart, a young person has to die and that person’s family has to have the insight to donate his or her organs. For this reason, the father of three urges everyone to have a family conversation about organ donation.

“It’s the most extraordinary gift of life. We always say a prayer for those who have donated,” Higgins says, explaining that as many as nine or 10 people can benefit from one person’s organ donation.

His many national leadership appointments include serving as president of the United Network for Organ Sharing, the national organization that facilitates organ placement.

“If that person goes on to live and love other people and do things they want to do, wow—just think of how your legacy has been extended,” Higgins says.

And Higgins himself is all about legacies. After losing his father, who was also a doctor, at age 5, he was inspired to go into medicine himself. He credits his success to the rich family life provided by his mother, who worked two jobs to support the family. His other great support is his wife, Molly, a former nurse and transplant coordinator.

Because of his own history, he also carves out time to speak about his work at schools throughout Chicago and the suburbs to get kids excited about medicine and to be a role model for young African Americans.

“If somebody didn’t reach back and help me and extend themselves in ways they might not have had to, I might not be here,” he says.

To become an organ donor or learn more about donation, visit

—Liz Logan

romeiserLillie Romeiser
Age: 24
Lake Forest

“Camp Hope brings out the best in everyone in ways you’d never imagine,” says Lillie Romeiser, youth minister and camp director.

Which is a large part of the reason why she decided to return to the camp after graduating from Princeton University in 2007.

Camp Hope, which is sponsored by St. Mary’s Church in Lake Forest, is an overnight summer camp that offers two 1-week summer sessions for severely disabled children. The camp allows these children to experience camp with their peers, while providing a break to their families from the demanding care many of these children require.

Because the camp offers one-on-one specialized attention through the buddy system, each session is limited to 20 campers. Local teens and college students are trained by Romeiser to provide any care the camper needs.

Romeiser first experienced an organization like Camp Hope when she was 16 through her youth minister, Andy Duran. After several trips to a similar camp, Duran founded Camp Hope in Illinois in 2005.

“I was drawn to the work because it forced me to step out of my comfort zone and challenged me to place the needs of others before my own,” Romeiser says.

In 2007, Romeiser was awarded the Reach Out 56 Award from Princeton to spend the year working with a not-for-profit organization. Having volunteered at Camp Hope as a buddy, group leader and a board member since age 16, Romeiser chose to spend her year there.

When Romeiser’s grant expired, she returned to New Jersey to fulfill the student teaching requirement for her elementary education degree. And when her teaching was complete, St. Mary’s called and asked if she’d be their Youth Minister and Camp Hope Director.

“Taking the job and coming back to Chicago just felt right,” she says.

And Camp Hope is happy to have her.

“There’s nothing that Lillie won’t do for these campers—what a lesson in genuine humility,” explains Margaret Hartman, one of the founding board members for Camp Hope. “She feeds, toilets, entertains—whatever the child needs, Lillie is there. When the week is over, these children—and their buddies—are so filled with joy. It’s Lillie and her leadership. We’re so lucky to have her.”

Camp Hope 2010 sessions will be July 25-30 and August 1-6. To learn more about Camp Hope and how you or your teen can become involved, visit

—Ann Marie Scheidler

chriskennedyChris Kennedy 

Age: 46

Chris Kennedy sits across a conference table in his Merchandise Mart office. His blue eyes and direct gaze compel attention.

He starts the interview with a belief statement: “The trick to life is to figure out the gifts that you’ve been given and use them. Volunteering is the best way to learn what those gifts are.”

Kennedy then declares: “In fact, using those gifts is the only route to happiness, besides public service.”

Kennedy presents a circular route to happiness and success. His life story helps prove it.

As the eighth of Ethel and Bobby Kennedy’s 11 children, he grew up with public service as the family mantra.

“Externally … Kennedys are associated with elections and public office,” he explains. “But internally that is not the case. What is important [in my family] is any type of public service.”

Kennedy proudly cites the example of his aunt, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

“When she started Special Olympics, disabled kids were hidden away, seen as liabilities,” he says. “Now they are leading fuller lives.”

Doing good has helped Kennedy do well as an adult in Chicago, too. He moved here in 1986 to be with his college sweetheart, Sheila. They married in 1987 and have four children.

Since then, Kennedy has spent many years volunteering in the food distribution and convention sectors. He discovered his aptitude for improving nonprofit organization and fundraising when he applied the Kennedy election model to that work: Go deep into individual sectors, like real estate or finance, for support.

He now uses those skills as president of the Merchandise Mart, where he fosters a culture of giving back that has endeared him to employees, brought new life to the landmark building and grown support for several nonprofits. For example, the Mart regularly hosts events like the One of a Kind Show that support nonprofits.

Employees are also encouraged to nurture their own skills through volunteer efforts.

“This helps them learn more about themselves and grow confidence that they can lead new initiatives in their workplace,” he says.

It also spreads the Mart’s influence beyond the confines of its own substantial walls and into additional public service venues.

The Kennedy circle, using public service to foster self-knowledge and happiness, widens. It also proves that one can to do well by first doing good.

–Susan B. Noyes

The Merchandise Mart strives to have a positive impact on the community, helping all kinds of organizations from Breast Cancer Network of Strength to Children’s Memorial Hospital. To learn more, visit

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