The Colgate Scene
July 2006

People on the go

Rachael Hersh-Burdick '03 helped 21 needy families in El Salvador build safe cooking stoves in their homes. [Photo courtesy Rachael Hersh-Burdick]

Rachael Hersh-Burdick '03 [Photo courtesy Rachael Hersh-Burdick]
A woman in Miramar, a small rural community in western El Salvador, talked to her neighbors. Her family had built a new cooking stove, she said. It took the smoke out of the house, up through a chimney. It used much less wood. She didn't burn herself anymore as she leaned in to cook tortillas. It was "la cocina mejorada" -- the improved kitchen.

"Once we finished that first one . . . once that family started using their stove, then people really started to get motivated," said Rachael Hersh-Burdick '03.

For three months, Hersh-Burdick lived in Miramar facilitating a project to build new stoves for needy families. Working with the organization Agape, and buying materials with a $500 award given to her by Colgate at graduation to honor her exemplary community leadership, she helped construct 21 las cocinas mejoradas.

Many of the homes in Miramar are small and only one room, Hersh-Burdick said, and the houses are made from adobe, which is essentially mud. "In some cases there is just one room, the family has six kids, and they're all breathing in the carbon monoxide that comes from having a fire in the middle of your house," she said. "The walls near the cooking areas are black, so you can imagine what that is doing to their lungs. And because you're cooking over an open fire, you're using a lot more firewood than you would normally if you had an enclosed fire."

In El Salvador, respiratory problems are the second-most common cause of death. "So the project was to get the fire enclosed, with a chimney," she said.

Hersh-Burdick visited 70 families in Miramar when she arrived, identified 21 who could benefit from a new stove, and worked with them to build the ovens, which were crafted from mud, brick, and cement. To make sure the project was a collaborative effort, "every family had to share the labor," Hersh-Burdick said. "And once we had built a stove at someone else's house, you could count on them being there to help you build yours."

Along with building stoves, Hersh-Burdick brought other Agape-sponsored resources to the village including bread-making classes, AIDS talks, and English classes. And when she found that she had $41 left from her Colgate award after finishing the ovens, she fulfilled one more need. "A lot of the families don't have money for toothbrushes and toothpaste," she said. The local kindergarten and preschool received toothbrushes so the teacher could help students learn to brush their teeth and encourage good habits.

"I was so happy to be able to help pull this project together," Hersh-Burdick said. "I was a little nervous because the community is counting on you and a number of variables could have kept us from finishing. But with the support of the community, Agape, and Colgate, anything is possible." — Vicki L. Wilson

John Rathgeber '72, new president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association

John Rathgeber's world view was forged in mid-20th century industrial New Britain, Conn., and burnished at Colgate. Recently named president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA), he was just 2 years old in 1952 when his family moved to the city that was once the nation's hardware manufacturing capital.

His father, Adam Rathgeber, had been hired to help resuscitate the struggling American Hardware Company, one of the industrial giants on which the city's economy was founded. He would eventually help to found Emhart Corp. and would spend the balance of his career as Emhart's chief financial officer.

Growing up around both his father's industrial associates and New Britain's large population of immigrant workers was an experience, Rathgeber said, that taught him how "to successfully interact with people from all backgrounds." But in 1968, he was not yet sure what sort of career he wanted to pursue. He enrolled at Colgate because "I wanted a good liberal arts education."

He got that and more. A political science major, he came under the influence of Harry Behler, now professor of political science emeritus. "Professor Behler taught a class about how to work with government," said Rathgeber. "He brought a lot of real-world experience to the class, and it really influenced my thinking." In Behler's class, he discovered a methodology that formalized successful collaboration and negotiation techniques he'd observed in New Britain as a boy.

After graduation in 1972, Rathgeber spent a year in financial management with General Electric in Schenectady. In 1976, following graduation with honors from Suffolk University Law School, he was admitted to the Connecticut Bar. And in 1977 he joined CBIA, Connecticut's largest business organization, as a staff attorney.

The 175-year-old organization serves as a government advocate and provides a wide range of programs and services designed to help Connecticut companies become more productive. As its new president, Rathgeber said, "I love what I do. Connecticut is blessed with a diversity of industry. We've made significant investments in our state university system. Some very exciting things are going on here."

Rathgeber also serves as a trustee of the New Britain Museum of American Art and played a key role in that institution's recent 43,000-square-foot expansion, which more than doubled its size. He uses it as an example of the kind of revitalization that is possible when business and civic leaders work together. But, he is quick to add that CBIA grapples daily with issues such as the cost of doing business; the need to ensure infrastructure allowing Connecticut businesses to stay productively connected to regional economies; and the challenges of guaranteeing first-rate education and training initiatives for the state's workforce.

"There's an old economic model about various groups competing for a slice of a limited pie," said Rathgeber. "I want to focus, instead, on growing the pie." Changing that paradigm, he said, is his principal role. And it requires skills he acquired at Colgate and in the rough-and-tumble business environment of the industrial town where he still goes home every night. — Jim H. Smith

Smith is a freelance writer based in East Berlin, Conn.

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