Rebecca Christiansen ’95 long thought that her mission was helping people through nursing, but found another calling that has proved even more satisfying.
Christiansen is the founder of Celebrate Differences, a nonprofit organization based in Oswego, Illinois, that helps families of children with disabilities.
Dan Zarlenga ’10 had his sights set on a lucrative Wall Street career when he arrived at Elmhurst, but now he helps raise money for economic development in poor countries.
Ruth (Nickelson) Dalenberg ’61 enjoyed school from the time she started first grade, but it took a nudge from an Elmhurst dean for her to realize she was destined to be a teacher.
Although each has taken a different path, the three share a common goal of serving society, an Elmhurst tradition that dates to the College’s beginnings in 1871 as a seminary. Over the years, an extraordinary number of Elmhurst graduates have pursued service-oriented careers such as teaching, ministry, nursing and social work.
“I want to make a difference,” Christiansen says. “My husband tells me I can’t change the world. But I say, ‘I’m going to try.’”
Christiansen has a 7-year-old son with Down syndrome, a condition that put her in contact with parents of other children with disabilities. In 2007, she launched Celebrate Differences to provide a strong support network for that community.
“Society has come a long way in accepting those with disabilities, but there still are people out there who aren’t really accepting,” Christiansen says.
Celebrate Differences provides free programs for families, including monthly workshops for parents on how to ensure their children receive the services they need in the public school system, such as physical therapy, counseling and special equipment.
The organization raises money through donations, grants and fundraising events, such as a 5K run/walk.
Christiansen, who has worked as a nurse for 15 years, has continued her day job to help support her family. But she devotes an increasing amount of time and energy to her volunteer role at Celebrate Differences. Her reward, she says, is seeing how the organization impacts the lives of children with disabilities and their families.
“Just to see the smile on a kid’s face is a huge reward for me,” Christiansen says. “I can see that we’re making a difference.”
Unlike Christiansen, Zarlenga didn’t start college with a service career in mind. He transferred to Elmhurst as a finance major after completing his first two years at Oakton Community College.
“My aspiration was to go into the financial world, be a stock broker or portfolio manager and makes lots of money,” he says.
But that started to change in the middle of his junior year. “I started to realize I didn’t go to college just to make more money. I was looking for a career that would make me happy,” he says.
What he terms “a pivotal moment” occurred in fall 2008, when after attending a speech on economic development and poverty, Zarlenga heard another student say that she wished she could do something but didn’t think she could have much impact as a college student.
That, Zarlenga recalls, inspired him to start the Global Poverty Club at Elmhurst, first by recruiting friends and then spreading the word around campus to attract more than 20 members. The group, which is still active, focuses on finding solutions to poverty at the local level and beyond.
For example, the group raised money to make small loans of as little as $25 through the micro-lending web site Kiva.org, which connects individual lenders to low-income entrepreneurs around the world. The group raised nearly $15,000 for various causes during Zarlenga’s last year and a half at Elmhurst.
Since graduation, Zarlenga has worked as a researcher identifying potential donors for Opportunity International, an Oak Brook nonprofit that provides funding and financial services for entrepreneurs in under-developed countries.
Zarlenga says he doesn’t know his ultimate destination, but he believes wherever he goes he will continue to serve others. “Many people eventually realize that they get the most fulfillment out of doing things that they are passionate about and enable them to give back,” he says. “I feel fortunate and blessed that I came to that realization early in my life.”
Like Zarlenga, Dalenberg didn’t plan a service career when she started at Elmhurst. In fact, she didn’t give much thought to careers at all until her sophomore year when a dean, Genevieve Staudt, asked her about her career path. That gentle probe got her thinking about how much she enjoyed English courses and being in the classroom as a student. A career in teaching seemed a natural fit.
“I always found joy in thinking, reasoning and questioning. I loved language, and that pushed me toward teaching,” she said. “Once I was in it, I knew it was where I wanted to be. I had no desire to be an administrator. There’s too much distance from the students, and I wanted to be in the classroom.”
Dalenberg taught high school English and Advanced Placement literature and composition classes at Maine West High School in Des Plaines and Antioch Community High School in Antioch, Illinois. She also evaluated essays from Advanced Placement tests for the College Board for more than 20 years. In 1987 she won a Golden Apple Award, a prestigious honor given annually to 10 outstanding teachers in the Chicago area by what is now the Golden Apple Foundation. She also won an Outstanding Teacher Award from the Jaycees and two similar awards from the University of Chicago after being nominated by former students.
Though she appreciated such recognition, Dalenberg said her highest reward came from the growth and development she saw in her students, a number of whom went on to become doctors, teachers and engineers. “You’re always dealing with an unfinished product when students move on, but sometimes you get to see what they become,” she said. “It is a true profession, and it is going to grab your whole mind, heart and soul. The rewards are going to be with the people who sit in front of you every day.”
She retired from teaching high school English in 1994, but Dalenberg couldn’t stay away from the classroom. She taught as an adjunct professor at Elmhurst and at Concordia College in River Forest for seven years. “I loved it, and I still miss it,” she said. “It’s the highest calling. Doctors, policemen and firemen save lives. Teachers change them.