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Susie Spitzer Kinsella: Giving back is common denominator among wide variety of service projects

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Talking to Susie Spitzer Kinsella about her volunteer work is like hopping in a car with a NASCAR driver. You had better buckle your seat belt and hold on for dear life because she operates at maximum speed. Keeping up with her is a challenge.

Whether in her career or her volunteer work, Kinsella is the classic over-achiever. She has two master’s degrees, one in social work and another in business administration. Her impressive professional resumé includes stints as a medical social worker at Jewish Hospital and as executive director of the Cleft Palate and Cranial Facial and Deformities Institute at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. She has worked at Ralston Purina and as a general manager of her mother’s Fantastic Sam’s franchise. She also owned a business, Kirkwood Knittery, for five years.

While her career traversed diverse paths, a constant in Kinsella’s life has been her desire to give back to the community. “Volunteering is part of my nature,” she likes to say. Whether it was as a board member and vice president during her 13 years with the Junior League or volunteering with her two daughters in the mother-daughter organization the National Charity League, Kinsella has always made time to give back to the community. 

When her mother, Barbara Bleiweiss Kline, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2001, Kinsella got involved with the St. Louis Alzheimer’s Association. As time passed and the illness progressed, Kinsella wanted to do something to honor her mother and raise funds for the association. Barbara Kline had been an avid tennis player, so Kinsella thought a tennis tournament would be the perfect fundraiser. The first tournament took place in July 2011, outdoors in oppressive 99-degree weather at Heman Park tennis courts in University City. 

Susie Spitzer Kinsella

Despite the heat the event was successful and Kinsella was off and running. 

Barbara Bleiweiss Kline died following a 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease on April 21, 2012. For its second year, the tournament became the BBK Memorial Tennis Tournament and Auction and was moved indoors to the Forest Lake Tennis Club in Chesterfield. Through its first seven years the event has raised more than $52,000 for the St. Louis Alzheimer’s Association. The eighth annual tournament will take place this summer on July 20-21. “One hundred percent of the money raised from the auction and tournament goes to the Alzheimer’s Association,” Kinsella explains. Forest Lake donates the venue and the event’s sponsors and donors cover all other expenses. As a result, Kinsella says the tournament now brings in more than $10,000 each year.

Friends Darien and Steve Arnstein have witnessed Kinsella’s tenacity in planning the tournament first hand. Steve Arnstein and Kinsella’s husband John play in the same tennis circles. Through Steve Arnstein’s participation in the annual tournament, Darien Arnstein got to know Susie Kinsella. 

 “When we go out to eat, Susie comes armed with donation forms and will usually leave with a gift certificate for the silent auction,” Darien Arnstein explains. “She lives and breathes the tournament.” 

In addition to putting on the tournament, Kinsella has taken on major community service projects through her college sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. For the past five years she has served as membership chair of its St. Louis Alumni Association. The sorority partners with the Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) program to host annual one-day reading parties in schools located in underserved communities. 

About three years ago Kinsella became involved in the program at Central Elementary School in Ferguson. After the unrest that followed the shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014, the school’s principal approached the Kappa volunteers about being a more constant presence at the school to help children recover from the trauma. Central Elementary is located just a few blocks from where the shooting took place. The response was immediate. Kinsella, along with 12 to 15 fellow Kappa volunteers, each started volunteering at the school once a week. Kinsella now spends two-to-three hours a week at the school helping children with reading and other activities. She is currently working with third graders. “It is so rewarding to see their reading levels jump,” she says.

As she worked with the children on reading, Kinsella noticed that the school library was stocked at just 60 percent of its capacity. Many of the books it did have on the shelves were outdated and in disrepair. In typical fashion, Kinsella saw a need and got to work. She started scouring thrift shops and soliciting book donations from friends to stock the school library. She was on a mission. She ultimately collected thousands of books.

Once the library was fully stocked, Kinsella realized she still had about 4,000 books left. Armed with the knowledge that 90 percent of the children attending Central Elementary had few to no books at home to read, she went to work again. Last spring Kinsella set out to organize a school book fair. But this would not be the usual school book fair where families purchase books as a fundraiser. This book fair would be different. All books would be free. Kinsella and her volunteers carefully organized all of the books by reading level and each class at the school came to the book fair and got to choose their own books. In the end, each child at the school was able to take home 11 books.

That first book fair was so popular that Kinsella is doing it again this year. She has already amassed another 4,000 books. It seems fitting that the book fair and the Light’s Unsung Heroes event are taking place on the same day, May 17, making it another non-stop, full-speed day for Kinsella. 

Though it’s likely to be a tiring day, Kinsella is looking forward to the evening Unsung Heroes event. “I am honored to be nominated and honored to be chosen,” she says. “It acknowledges years and years of volunteer work and says I’m doing important things and doing a good job. I didn’t need that, but it’s nice to know that others now know what I do.”