Maris Berg

2011 Unsung Hero Maris Berg. Photo: Kristi Foster

By David Baugher, Special to the Light

Sometimes play can be serious business. It is for Maris Berg when she is helping children with problems in the classroom.

“I actually take the child aside and I find out the most about what’s going on in the child’s life by playing with them,” said Berg. “They’ll tell me everything that’s happening in their own way. They may not use words but we participate together.”

An occupational therapist by trade, Berg has long applied her skills to improving the lives of children. Now a consultant with the Ferguson-Florissant School District’s early childhood program, she observes classrooms and works with teachers to identify children who seem to be undergoing tough times. That can often mean dealing with physical or emotional issues or developmental disabilities.

“More often it’s something going on in the family where the child becomes an unwilling part of family issues that are difficult,” she said. “That happens anywhere.”

Before her present role she did similar work in the Ladue School District as the founder of the Parent and Child Together program (PACT). In one respect or another, she’s been working on-and-off with children since the 1960s.

Berg’s concern for youth goes beyond her job, however. Sometimes she finds a problem and simply takes charge to play a role in solving it. Once on a tour of a city school, she saw peeling paint. That was all it took.

“You can get a little kit at Home Depot and check the paint so I took the pieces of paint from the school and it was lead,” she said.

That discovery resulted in a multi-year project with city schools to repaint fences at school playgrounds. That work was done in conjunction with Holy Ground, a Central West End interfaith effort in which Berg has long been involved. She was originally enlisted in anti-lead efforts by a program one of her sons was heading.

Why she enjoys working with Holy Ground is an easy answer.

“I don’t see it being done anywhere else,” she said. “It’s important. It’s the way man gets along with his fellow man.”

Other forms of social action were ignited in Berg’s life by personal tragedy. She lost her husband, Edward, to pancreatic cancer almost three years ago. But she wasn’t one to stand idly by in face of such grief. Today, she remains outreach and education co-director for the St. Louis Chapter of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN). She said the group raises more than $100,000 every year to support the national organization’s research efforts. PanCAN started the first research efforts at the local Siteman Cancer Center, she said.

It’s something she never could have imagined five years ago.

“When my husband was diagnosed I didn’t even know what it was,” she said of the disease that took only two-and-a-half years to claim his life. “I didn’t know what to do with my anger. There was nothing I could do to cure the disease so I got involved in an organization that was earning money to do research.”

Edward Berg, an eye doctor, was also active in helping others. Both Bergs traveled on medical missions to Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala, Nigeria and other nations as part of an effort to fight vision ailments in the developing world.

“That’s probably where I felt that I was doing the most for individuals because I had immediate reward for people who were blind because of cataracts,” she said. “I felt privileged that I was able to be a part of it.”

Another passion is Central Reform Congregation, an organization that she said has a “big heart.” In that sense, it fits Berg well.

“I get much reward out of helping other people,” she said. “I just do. That’s who I am.”

But Berg is quick to point out that much of what she’s done has been possible only through the generosity and cooperation of community efforts. 

“That’s who a lot of people are. I’m not alone in this,” she said. “The fact that I’m getting this award is very nice but there are many others just like me.”

But some still think Berg is one of a kind.

“She’s always doing something for somebody else,” said Julie Plax who worked with Berg at the Ladue Early Childhood Center.

Plax describes her friend as a generous, philanthropic individual whose datebook is always full of activity.

“If you are sick or something and something goes wrong, the first person to arrive at your door is Maris,” said Plax who has known Berg for three-and-a-half decades. “She’s someone in the trenches as opposed to someone telling someone what to do.”

Berg views herself as fortunate, crediting her friends and family as her greatest strengths.

“I’m just so lucky,” she said. “I’ve got good people in my life.”

“I’m honored and grateful for having the life I’ve had,” she added.

Maris Berg

AGE:  69

FAMILY:   Husband Edward is deceased; two children and one grandchild

HOME:  Ladue

FUN FACT:   She has been an avid skier for decades.