A newsmaker you should know: Reality TV participant honored for his work to help Haiti
July 11, 2013 4:00 AM
By Kathleen Ganster
No one can say Ian Rosenberger isn't a nice guy.
He first came to the public's attention when he was 23 years old and one of three finalists on the reality TV show, "Survivor." But he stepped aside on the show to prove to others that he had not betrayed them.
It is that same caring attitude that led Mr. Rosenberger, now 31, to visit Haiti five weeks after the devastating earthquake in 2010. The visit eventually led him to start a nonprofit organization called Team Tassy to help Haitians and a for-profit company, Thread, to fund its efforts. Both organizations are in East Liberty.
For his work, Mr. Rosenber-ger, of Shadyside, has been named a Dignity & Respect Champion of Greater Pittsburgh.
When he traveled to Haiti, Mr. Rosenberger did not think it would change his life, but as he arrived in Port-au-Prince, the devastation was overwhelming.
"I thought I was prepared. Of course, you see the photos on TV and think you will be ready, but to see it in person is much different," he said. "My life was completely changed by what I saw."
What he saw was unimaginable poverty and disaster.
"Over 300,000 were killed and 1.5 million were left homeless. That is bigger than Pittsburgh," he said, "... it was the craziest, most incredible, terrifying story that you have ever seen."
After his appearance on "Survivor," he worked in TV production and created videos for nonprofits before getting into advertising.
"It was 2008 and when the economy had just tanked, so I came back to Pittsburgh and went into advertising," said Mr. Rosenberger, who grew up in Ambridge.
He made his first trip to Haiti on his own to document the aftereffects of the earthquake.
"Once I saw it, I had to go back," he said.
He returned eight weeks later with a photographer friend in hopes of creating a photo documentary to bring attention to Haiti.
It was on his first trip that he met Tassy Filsaime, a young man who had a tumor on his face. Even though the tumor was operable, Mr. Filsaime couldn't afford medical help and he was going to die because of the tumor. On the second trip, Mr. Filsaime asked Mr. Rosenberger to help him.
"The moment he asked me for help, it was one of those crossroads in your life," Mr. Rosenberger said. "You may have three or four in your whole life that if you had done things differently, your life would be different. I was in the right place at the right time."
Although he promised to help, finding a way wasn't easy.
"I am by no means a rich man, and I had no idea how to find the money or help to do this," he said.
When he returned to Pittsburgh, Mr. Rosenberger gave a presentation about what he saw in Haiti. It wasn't the only mission in Haiti that Pittsburghers were hearing about. Sisters Jamie and Ali McMutrie, who grew up in Ben Avon and are Mr. Rosenberger's friends, made international news with their work with orphans in Haiti.
"There has been a terrific effort in Pittsburgh for the Haitian people. I was lucky that Jamie and Ali had brought so much attention to Haiti," Mr. Rosenberger said.
After the presentation, Jeb Blaugrund, a doctor, told Mr. Rosenberger he would treat Mr. Filsaime for free.
Mr. Rosenberger enlisted the aid of friends. Calling themselves "Team Tassy," they raised $50,000, and Mr. Filsaime came to the U.S., lived with Mr. Rosenberger and was successfully treated by Dr. Blaugrund, assisted by Michael White, another physician.
Two years after Team Tassy was created as a nonprofit to assist Haitians, Mr. Rosenberger started Thread, a for-profit company to help fund the efforts of Team Tassy.
"We wanted to help the people of Haiti lift themselves out of poverty, but that was hard to do without any jobs. We thought if we started a company and created jobs, that would work," he said.
Mr. Rosenberger said two things are in great abundance in Haiti: poverty and trash. His team came up with the idea of collecting recyclable plastic and turning it into fabric.
Mr. Rosenberger recently found a company in the U.S. that he is contracting with to create the fabric. He is now looking for companies to purchase the material.
Dividing his time between Pittsburgh and Haiti, Mr. Rosenberger hopes Thread and Team Tassy will serve as models for other nonprofits.
"We want to prove this can work and other nonprofits will be able to use it to fund their projects," he said.
Mr. Rosenberger, who was nominated for the Dignity & Respect Champion award by a co-worker, described receiving the honor as "humbling."
"When you look at the other names who have been honored, people like Elsie Hillman, I am really honored," he said.
The Dignity & Respect Campaign is an initiative to promote the treatment of others with dignity and respect. Champions are "someone who embraces diversity, embodies compassion and demonstrates mutual respect," according to the organization's website.