With two degrees in art history, Brittany Heinrich ’04 accepted a job as museum educator at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. “I have a passion for art history and the academic world and designing programs for school groups appealed to me,” she says. “But I didn’t enjoy it — I didn’t think I was serving the community to the best of my ability.”
In high school Brittany had worked with foster children, and at Westmont she volunteered at the Braille Institute and Cottage Hospital. These experiences taught her the value of service and contributed to her decision to leave the museum.
Instead she went to work for City Youth Now, which has assisted children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems in San Francisco for nearly 60 years. Playing on a sports team, taking music lessons and going to camp are normal activities for youngsters, but those in foster care can rarely afford them. CYN makes grants to pay for a range of such activities and follows up to make sure recipients participate. Within a few months, Brittany became executive director, responsible for overseeing all programs, managing the budget and raising money. “I love what I do,” she says. “It’s a challenging environment and completely different every day.” With an office at Juvenile Hall, she spends time with the kids there, leading yoga classes and other programs.
Brittany was surprised to learn how few youngsters in the system had ever visited the zoo or the ocean, so CYN brought the zoomobile to them and offers other educational experiences. Through social workers and probation officers, foster children receive tutoring, clothing and skills they need to be successful adults. A laptop program provides computers for those enrolled in college; to date 94 percent have earned a B average or better and all have stayed in college. CYN also runs an internship program for youth who’ve been on probation that gives them experience and the affirmation of being trusted.
“The work is rewarding” says Brittany, “especially when kids thank us for being an adult who cares, something they’ve rarely known. They appreciate us investing in them, holding them accountable and expecting them to succeed.”
A freak accident when she was 16 left Brittany with chronic pain. Her doctors didn’t think she’d be able to attend college, but she enrolled at Westmont anyway and graduated with a degree in art history and a minor in French. “Lisa DeBoer has been my mentor and helped me design my major so I could study abroad and get into graduate school,” she says. Brittany spent a year in Aix en Provence, France, at the Institute for American Universities and completed a master’s degree in art history at McGill University in Montreal.
Yoga allows Brittany to manage her injury. “Pain is part of my life and has taught me a lot,” she says. “It helps me relate to the difficult situations youth in the system face. They may look at me and make assumptions, but knowing that I’ve had challenges helps them open up to me. The pain used to make me angry, but I have learned to embrace it as part of my life.”
Brittany plans a summer 2010 wedding to Jamie Jarabek, a statistician at Google. She’s involved with the arts community and does her own quilting, collage work and watercolors. In addition to her daily advocacy for youngsters, she volunteers for Book Pals, promoting childhood literacy. “Service and community are two things I seek to embody in the work that I do,” she says.