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Alumni Profiles

Audrey Hendler ’79 & Rifino Valentine ’93


New Tricks

Audrey Hendler ’79

Photo: provided

As a child, dog-lover Audrey Hendler had to forgo owning a puppy due to a brother with allergies. But in her newest occupation, she’s making up for lost canine time. In 2010, the former economics major founded A Fair Shake for Youth, a nonprofit that uses therapy dogs to help at-risk residents of New York City build selfesteem, empathy, and other life skills.

The idea grew out of her previous volunteer work with a program in which prison inmates work with dogs. “I was amazed by the impact the dogs have on them,” says Hendler, a former marketing professional who holds an MBA from the University of Michigan. “We saw unconditional love, the inmates being responsible for someone other than themselves, being good at something, being a leader. So I wondered, Why are we waiting until somebody’s grown up and serving ten or twenty years in prison to bring this power to them?”

A Fair Shake works with schools and other organizations in low-income neighborhoods to target youth aged ten to twenty. Several teams, consisting of an animal and one of the organization’s thirty volunteers, regularly visit groups of a dozen kids over the course of about three months. The children learn about relationship building, positive reinforcement, patience, and communication as they practice teaching the dogs to obey basic commands; they also discuss related issues, such as shelters and animal rescue. “A lot of our curriculum resonates with the kids,” says Hendler, who has two dogs of her own, a Lab and a border collie mix. “Many of our dogs are rescues, and the kids can relate to the challenges they’ve had.”

Having brought A Fair Shake to more than 350 children since its inception, Hendler hopes to expand the program to more schools in New York and beyond. Among her favorite success stories: one boy who confronted a friend about a case of animal cruelty, and another who was inspired to find an internship with a vet’s office. “Dogs are non-judgmental,” Hendler says. “They don’t care what you’re wearing or what your grades are. They’re honest and have no hidden agenda, and that makes it safe for kids to be who they are.”

— Olivia Hall, PhD ’12

High Spirits

Rifino Valentine ’93

Photo: provided

When Rifino Valentine brewed his first batch of beer in industrial-sized trashcans in his Collegetown apartment, he never suspected he’d someday make beverages for a living. Like many economics majors, he followed the well-worn path to Wall Street, leaving his hobby behind.

Today, you can often find Valentine in a T-shirt and shorts, cleaning equipment in his 5,000-square-foot distillery outside Detroit. Since its founding in 2009, Valentine Distilling Co. has grown from a local, boutique operation to one that distributes Michigan-made spirits across six states and Washington, D.C. The company has doubled its production annually, branching out from a single type of vodka to several spirits including gin, whiskey, and an elderflower-flavored vodka dubbed White Blossom. Though the operation now comprises half a dozen employees and two stills, Valentine remains involved in all aspects of production including distilling, distribution, and branding.

After a decade-long stint in New York—which included a self-described “dirty martini kick”—he returned home to Detroit with a mission to build a micro-distillery from the ground up. Expanding on his collegiate hobby, Valentine took a weekend distilling course at Cornell’s Geneva Ag Station that inspired years of work in the lab testing vodka recipes. “It was hundreds, maybe thousands of test batches,” he says. “I’m competitive and a perfectionist, so we kept working until we got it right.” Using a combination of red Michigan wheat, corn, and barley, Valentine crafts his vodka in single batches. He notes that his method has been around for centuries—”but it’s revolutionary nowadays, because no one is doing it anymore. It’s too time-intensive, too costly.” The vodka has won several top honors, including a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The Tasting Panel magazine awarded it ninety-four points, putting it ahead of international brands Belvedere and Ketel One.

With a nod to Detroit’s glory days as a manufacturing capital, Valentine’s spirits bear vintage-style labels; the company’s logo features a classic pin-up girl in fishnets and garters. As he prepares to expand overseas, he hopes his firm’s success will help spur industry in the city and beyond. Says Valentine: “I really want this company to be a symbol of bringing manufacturing back to the United States.”

— Brooke LaPorte ’14