Patti VanVoorhis
  Madison Grant ’16

Get to know: Patti VanVoorhis

photo by Andrew Daddio

Every morning, I head to Hieber Cafe for an energy boost. However, instead of relying on coffee, I look to the other side of the counter in the hopes that Patti, the lead cashier, is working that day. I'll know she's there when I see my medium coffee waiting with the vanilla soymilk close by (I tend to be a creature of habit). To be honest, I don't even like coffee that much; instead, I relish my conversations with Patti, which meander from interesting anecdotes, to daily musings, to her proffers of advice for the future. To many students, Patti is much more than an employee at the cafe. She is a friend – with an unbelievable ability to remember names and coffee preferences – who has inspired me with her incredible life story. Laura D'Angelo '14

Unlike many 22-year-olds today, Patti VanVoorhis seemed to have all of her big life decisions worked out by her early 20s. Engaged to marry her high school sweetheart and working full time as a secretary in a bank in Kingston, N.Y., she was excited to embark on the process of adopting a child. But everything changed when VanVoorhis underwent routine medial tests that were required for the adoption process. The doctors discovered that she had Stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma in her lung. "They gave me less than six weeks to live, with treatment," VanVoorhis recalled. "Fortunately, they were wrong." After defying all odds – and eight adopted children later – VanVoorhis now credits the adoption process with saving her life.
    Their first child, Gary Rebecca, was born premature, deaf, and had cerebral palsy in all of her extremities. While most people would consider caring for a child like Gary Rebecca to be enough of a commitment, VanVoorhis and her husband decided that they would keep adopting children of varying needs.
    "We started our own multi-racial, multi-ability family," she said. "We have four African-American children, two Asian Americans, one Syrian, and one European mix." The children's complications range from fetal alcohol syndrome to partial blindness to TAR syndrome, a rare genetic disorder characterized by the absence of the radius bone in the forearm.
    Caring for her children became a full-time job, so VanVoorhis has had to change her work schedule accordingly. With a typical day involving trips to speech therapy, occupational therapy, and platelet transfusions, there's never been a dull (or sedentary) moment in the VanVoorhis household.
    In addition to providing her kids with the necessary treatments, she's balanced unconditional love with teaching them important life lessons, like becoming as self-sufficient as possible. For example, their son Colby, who has no arms or legs, used to call his older brothers to help him up and down the stairs. "I eventually said, 'They won't do that for you forever,'" VanVoorhis recalled. "Then, one day, he just bounded up and down the stairs. Now he's one of the most confident guys you'll meet."
    With half of her children now either married, in college, or living on their own, VanVoorhis has "adopted" hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new Colgate students, taking care to memorize each one's name and coffee order. If you're lucky enough to catch her in between coffee rushes, you may even be able to see the photo album from her son's recent wedding or engage in pleasant small talk, sprinkled with insightful guidance.
    Her most important advice? "When you're young, you think you'll live forever," she said. "At 22, when I thought I might only have six weeks to live, it put things in perspective. Life is valuable. It's about the people's lives you touch along the way. I hope, if anything, that's what my kids learn – to make a difference somehow and know that all we have is each other."

Madison Grant ’16

Madison Grant ’16 (front) in Israel

Where in the world is Madison Grant? From Newport Beach, Calif., to Hamilton, N.Y., to Cairo, Egypt, to Brooklyn, N.Y., there’s no telling where Grant will end up next. One thing is for certain, though — she’ll always feel at home in the Middle Eastern Studies and Islamic Civilizations department. While at Colgate and this past summer, she has taken her interest in the Middle East to new heights by fully immersing herself in the region’s language and culture.
    It was her Jewish roots and interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that initially attracted Grant to the Middle East, she explained. So, as a first-year, she jumped into the intermediate level of Arabic in preparation for the extended study course called Living Egypt. She got her first taste of Egyptian life over winter break in 2012 when she traveled to Cairo and Alexandria with professors Noor Khan and Nady Abdal-Ghaffar.
    Then, this summer, Grant sought out a position that would help her practice her Arabic language skills. When she landed an internship at the Arab American Association of New York in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Grant felt like she was back in downtown Cairo.
    “Everything is written in Arabic and you don’t see anyone who’s not Arab. Every woman is covered. It’s a whole different world that you would never know existed,” Grant said.
    Located in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, the organization offers free social and economic services to the densely packed Arab population. While working alongside Medicaid representatives, pro bono lawyers, and volunteer English teachers, Grant witnessed the varied needs of the local community. From helping visitors with immigration and asylum paperwork to translating from Spanish to Arabic for the in-house lawyer, she took on an active role in the organization and was exposed to many Arabic dialects.  
    “I never knew how each day would go because different issues always came up. I went from helping people who can’t speak any English find apartments to helping a mother get her youngest child out of Syria to come here. Even though I experienced sadness about their situations, I felt very fulfilled at the end of the day,” she explained.
    After spending the end of her summer traveling to Israel for the Birthright program, Grant is happy to be back at what she calls her second home for the semester. And it helps to have her mentors, Khan and Abdal-Ghaffar, at her side.
    “They make school feel like home and even opened up their house to me. It’s nice to have professors whom you can really rely on,” she said.
    And, if you can’t find Grant in an upper-level Arabic class, at Khan’s home for a barbecue, or playing a round of golf at Seven Oaks, just look up. After begging her parents for flight lessons at the age of 10 and earning her pilot’s license at 17, she is a seasoned veteran in the sky. Leaving from the Hamilton Municipal Airport after class, she will sometimes take a 10-minute solo jaunt over the Finger Lakes, or maybe venture to Cornell if she has 20 minutes to spare. Despite flying over famously beautiful destinations like Hawaii and San Francisco, she insists that upstate New York offers the best views.
    Grant’s not sure what’s in store next, but she’d better buckle up because it’s bound to be an exciting ride.
— Laura D’Angelo ’14