Thursday, April 10, 2014

Marblehead resident wins Civic Engagement Award

Margo W.R. Steiner was recognized on April 3 when Salem State University inducted her into its Civic Engagement Hall of Fame as this year’s honoree.

At a dinner at the Hawthorne Hotel, Steiner received her award along with a congressional citation from Congressman John F. Tierney and a $500 check to the charity of her choice. Steiner chose Rotary International and its PolioPlus campaign, which has as its mission the eradication of the last vestiges of polio worldwide. Connie Paullis, Foundation chairman of the Rotary Club of Marblehead Harbor, to which both belong, accepted the check.

Steiner’s belief in “service above self” — the basic tenet of Rotary International — makes the award a fitting recognition for the Marblehead resident, who practices compassionate service both at home and abroad. Locally, she has served meals at My Brother’s Table in Lynn, corresponded with two young penpals through Girls Inc. and replaced light bulbs in hard-to-reach places — while doing home safety checks — for the elderly through her Rotary club.

As a former board member of Comforts & Joys and a co-founder of the charity Community of Friends, she has helped organize the annual gifting of over 600 backpacks filled with school supplies and large, gift-filled, homemade holiday stockings in late August and December, respectively.

Steiner has made civic engagement an integral part of her life, and credits both the Girl Scouts and her family — all of whom gave of their time in service, including her grandmother until she lost her sight at age 100 — for making volunteerism an important part of her growing up.

Steiner, who currently serves as assistant director of marketing and communications at Salem State University, knows that concern and compassion for others has no boundaries, and practiced community service even while living and working in Heidelberg, Germany for eight years.

Because of its open, green space, Heidelberg’s Bismarckplatz is a perfect gathering place for the city’s down-on-their-luck, disconnected, homeless and alcoholic men and women, Steiner explained.
“It was a perpetual mystery to my German friends, therefore, that every time we walked by, one of the men or women would cheerily call out, ‘Hallo, Frau Steiner!’”

“How do you know them?” her friends would want to know.
For Steiner, it all went back to a Christmas holiday she spent housesitting for friends nearby. An American concert promoter friend with access to the army’s PX surprised her that year with a 25-pound turkey, pumpkin pie filling, cranberry sauce and stuffing. Unable to eat it all herself, she bought additional ingredients, cooked the turkey and spent the two days before Christmas making 75 “fully loaded” turkey sandwiches and mini-pumpkin pie tartlets. Packing them individually in brown bags with a piece of fruit, she spent “one of the most fulfilling Christmas Eves of my life” handing them out to those that Christmas had passed by in Bismarckplatz.

“They were incredulous at first,” Steiner said. “But they never forgot.”
Neither did many of her fellow expatriates in Heidelberg, who began similarly distributing bags of sweets and fruits on the Christmas Eves they found themselves celebrating in Paris or Amsterdam or other large European cities.

Said Steiner, “It reminded each of us that if we were capable of making a difference, we should do so — but in a personal way. Each of us got every bit as much as we gave.”

Steiner is also a Holocaust Legacy Partner for the Holocaust Center North in Peabody. Partners are assigned a Holocaust survivor whom they get to know, learning his or her story. They combine their survivors’ personal stories with what was going on in their country over the course of World War II to put it all into context, then take their partner’s story out to schools, civic groups and churches to educate people about the Holocaust in a very personal way.

Steiner’s survivor is a native of Poland and the only member of her family who survived both Treblinka and Auschwitz. To understand her story more fully, Steiner traveled to Poland with a graduate history class on the Holocaust last April.

Overseas, her passion is Habitat for Humanity. In addition to participating in local builds in and around Salem, she has recruited and led teams of 15 to 25 to both Mongolia and the Kyrgyz Republic, where they have built free-standing homes and renovated aging Soviet-era apartments. She finds special value in the overseas builds because of the opportunities they provide to cross cultural boundaries and bring people of differing ethnicities, religions, customs and national origins together in common understanding.

“Habitat for Humanity requires that those selected to receive homes put in a certain amount of sweat equity,” she said. “So my teams and I work right alongside the family and their friends and neighbors. At the lunch break, our hosts prepare simple but heartfelt lunches for us, and we share photos of our families.”

It can be difficult doing service projects in Third World countries, she admitted; the inevitable feelings of guilt over the disparities between her lifestyle and those of her Mongolian or Kyrgyzstani hosts are never far from her mind. Not surprisingly, though, this — and the chance to work together with the world’s people to make positive changes — is the driving force that motivates her to continue.

When asked at her induction into Salem State’s 2014 Civic Engagement Hall of Fame to describe her philosophy on civic engagement and community service, Steiner said simply, “It matters not where you live or whether you are rich or poor; there exists everywhere an opportunity for service. The question I ask myself almost daily is, ‘If not me, then who?’ I truly believe that we pull for the world when we pull together.”

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