Barbara Greenspan Shaiman still remembers the way her late mother, Carola Greenspan, would compulsively brush her teeth.
“And we used to yell at her. It’s like, Come on, Mom! Why are you brushing your teeth? You’ve already done it three times today,” Shaiman recalls.
For years, her mother’s habit seemed like a quirk to her daughter. Then, in 1990, she and her mother toured Auschwitz, the notorious German concentration camp where Greenspan, then a child, and her parents were imprisoned. During the tour, Greenspan described how she looked after other children in the camp, and shared a detail that took her daughter by surprise. While in Auschwitz, Greenspan regarded her contraband toothbrush as the sole reminder that she was human.
That moment, Shaiman realized her mother’s tooth-brushing habit was a trauma response. Shaiman walked outside to process this information and came across a group of German teenagers who, she says, “laughed and clowned around” the somber site where over 1 million people were killed. She then realized how easy it can be for young people to disregard the lessons of history.
“We can’t solve world peace, but we can certainly mobilize groups of people to address important issues for them. So whatever you contribute makes it better.” — Barbara Greenspan Shaiman
A few years later, Shaiman founded Champions of Caring, a youth development organization that mentored 10,000 young Philadelphians over 25 years in how to make social change. Shaiman, who is 76, has now taken her work multigenerational, and she’s filming a documentary, out later this year, about her Champions, several who have turned what they learned from Shaiman into lives of service.
Her purpose in all of it is to pass on the fundamental lesson: It is never too early or too late to change the world. And all of it is in tribute to her mom.
“Before my mother died of dementia. One of the last thing she said to me was, ‘Oh, my God, if I die, who’s going to take care of the children?’” Shaiman recalls, as her mother’s mind reverted to the distant past. “I looked at her and said, ‘Don’t worry, mom, I will always take care of those children.’”
From Germany to Philadelphia
Shaiman was born in Regensburg, Germany. Her family — her dad had worked for Oskar Schindler — immigrated to America when she was three years old, settling in Washington Heights in New York City. She earned a bachelor’s in education and psychology at CUNY Hunter College, got married, then moved cities and changed jobs frequently. She taught Hebrew, ran an ice cream business — until her family settled outside of Philadelphia, where she recruited doctors for overseas aid work.
She was good at her job, and her job was doing good. But after that trip to Germany, Shaiman was determined also to honor her mother’s calling of looking after vulnerable children. In 1995, she founded Champions of Caring, which she led for 25 years until it suspended programming in 2020.
Champions of Caring worked with the School District of Philadelphia to implement a service learning curriculum in Philadelphia schools, so that in-school and after-school-time, students could learn the start-to-finish of service projects, beginning with writing mission statements and establishing goals, to pitching their ideas to potential collaborators.
The organization’s year-long Ambassadors of Caring Leadership program paired thousands of students with local community leaders. Students and mentors met monthly to hone skills like grant writing and public speaking; they attended conferences, seminars, workshops and retreats that were relevant to their growth and goals. One year, the students from Philadelphia met with students in Cape Town, South Africa, to broaden their understanding of civic engagement on an international level. More locally, Champions connected Philly students with those on the Main Line, offering a glimpse of different cultures and mindsets even within the same region.
“We have to make sure we leave a better legacy for our children, for our communities, because we deserve that.” — Terrell McCray
Shaiman made sure the participants had the opportunity to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where they learned about the consequences of hate — and the importance of remembering. Once in the capital, the youth met with Senators and members of Congress, telling government leaders about their projects and concerns.
A longitudinal research study conducted by Dr. Kimberly Goyette, the chair of the sociology department at Temple University, found that the former Champions of Caring participants continued advocating for social change into their 30s and 40s. The study found that the program served “as a launch pad into other leadership and service roles” by incorporating “the universal lessons of the Holocaust to connect modern history and leadership skill development.”
Stephanie Oliver was a student at University City High School when she was introduced to Champions of Caring. The experience, she says, gave her the chance to learn from community leaders, share her story with former President George W. Bush (among others), and serve as a volunteer docent at the Holocaust Museum. Oliver, who now works at TD Bank as a AML Audit Manager, went on to found Project C.A.R.E. — Children Achieving Reading Enlightenment — that she says partnered with schools in North Philadelphia to help elementary-aged students with math, reading and other supports.
“To this day, I continue to serve those around me,” says Oliver, who is one of the Champions who is part of the documentary. “Whether I’m teaching financial literacy to women in homeless shelters, mentoring young children, or serving at community kitchens, my understanding of adversity and compassion continues to be my guiding star.”
Beyond young changemakers
Six years ago, Shaiman’s son, Daniel, died while working as a journalist for the Jerusalem Post. His last few stories were about Sudanese refugees in Israel who were facing deportation — something he tried to fight through his work. In her grief, Shaiman decided to take up his cause, in a local way.
For several years, Shaiman directed Dan’s Champions, which worked with refugee and immigrant children at Kensington High School. In addition to training teachers in the Champions of Caring program so they could incorporate it into their classrooms, the new program also brought refugee organization HIASS to do training; Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for free medical services; Puerta Abierta for mental health counseling in Spanish; Vetri Community Kitchen, and several other cultural and civic organizations to the school.
When Covid hit, the program shut down. But Shaiman kept thinking about how she could continue to have an impact. Several of her Champions threw her a 73rd birthday party on Zoom and came up with the idea of filming a documentary about Shaiman’s legacy as a way to inspire future generations. That documentary — produced and directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Henry Nevison — will feature several Champions talking about how Shaiman’s program led them to lives of service, either in their professional or personal lives.
After Granger Simmons joined Champions of Caring, for example, he says he learned to overcome the low expectations he faced as a young African American man, and to determine his own future — one that now includes fighting for social change as a City Councilmember in Finland. Nate Dorfman, now Transportation Grants Coordinator with the City’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability, credits skills he learned through Champions of Caring with securing a full-tuition scholarship to George Mason University — and to a career spent in service.
“We have to make sure we leave a better legacy for our children, for our communities, because we deserve that,” says Terrell McCray, a CAPA alum who turned his Champions training into becoming a clergyman and mentor, in the trailer for the documentary. Shaiman, who is raising funds now to finish the film, hopes to release it by the end of 2024.
Meanwhile, Shaiman launched the Philadelphia chapter of the Life Planning Network, an education organization for older Americans, that is co-teaching a class on Positive Aging with Temple University Psychology Professor, Tania Giovanetti. The class includes psychology students, members of Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and LPN, and taps into what Shaiman considers her specialty: “Living a life with purpose.” As an extension of that class, she hosts an Intergenerational Cafe, in which seniors and students pair up and engage in directed dialogue around a series of prompts like “What have you done to be kind lately?”
“My goal is bringing generations together to make social change,” she says. “You would be blown away by the connections formed.”
The through line in all of this, for Shaiman, hearkens back to her mother and the experiences of her family — and so many families experiencing oppression today. “We can’t solve world peace,” she says. “[But] we can certainly mobilize groups of people to address important issues for them. So whatever you contribute makes it better.”
MORE GREAT PHILADELPHIA CITIZENSHIPBarbara Greenspan Shaiman in a 2022 Champions of Caring meeting, from the upcoming documentary footage