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A VITAL, VIBRANT VOLUNTEER 4 Carole Sibel's career: working for good causes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Carole Sibel breezes into the room on a rainy morning, full of apologies. She knows she's late. But what a time she's had. Her car sputtered down Park Heights Avenue and nearly ran out of gas. Then, she had to schlep around looking for a full-service station. (With all the hassles -- the cap, the nozzle, the hose -- who wants to pump their own?)

But everything's fine now. The day -- gas or no gas, rain or shine, late or on time -- is going to be fabulous.

Clutching a stack of folders, a legal pad and her date book, she --es into her first meeting, a planning session for a Baltimore convention of the Council of Jewish Federations. A scheduled bus trip is on everyone's mind. She rails about the way a San Francisco group handled its tour. The confusion. The rudeness. The bad timing.

"I'm going into a sweat from this whole thing!" says Ms. Sibel.

Even sitting down, there's something about Carole Sibel that reminds you of an exclamation point. A long, loping, happy punctuation mark that shouts PAY ATTENTION. Perhaps it's her height (she's 5 feet 8 1/2 ) or maybe it's her boundless energy (in six hours, you only see her yawn twice), but nearly everything about this 55-year-old woman -- the eyes and smile that pop out of her face, the belt buckle the size of a cantaloupe, the wide hoop earrings that resemble a mini-solar system -- causes people to take notice.

Yet, to many, what's most noticeable about Ms. Sibel is her philanthropy. She's involved with so many organizations she's like her own mini United Way.

Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital. The Baltimore Opera Company. Pets on Wheels. The Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Lifesongs. Healthcare for the Homeless. The Zoo. Sexual Assault Recovery Center.

The list continues.

"I don't know how you don't think you're drowning," friend and fellow volunteer Barbara Kaplow tells her.

The simple truth is, Ms. Sibel is just too busy to drown. She has three other meetings, a manicure and a pedicure today. Tomorrow, she's brainstorming with first-time fund-raisers, practicing her tap-dancing, playing tennis and stopping by the Jewish Community Center. Then on Friday, she has an Alvin Ailey board meeting, another tennis game, a facial, rehearsal for a show for the National Council of Jewish Women and tickets to the symphony. Glance at her calendar, which is booked through June, and it will seem a wonder that she ever sees her Pikesville home.

Next to volunteering, talking (about volunteering) is perhaps what Ms. Sibel enjoys most.

"I do feel I'm making a difference," she says. "I feel like it's a business. I feel I have my own PR firm. I get paid in other ways, by people who acknowledge that I'm doing a good job. That's very rewarding for a volunteer."

There's a story she loves to tell, one that's become legendary among her friends. As it goes, her mother came to visit her kindergarten class and the teacher was just finishing a book. Seconds after closing it, young Carole jumped from her desk and, with arms flailing, yelled, "Now what are we going to do? Now what are we going to do?"

Ms. Sibel laughs. "My mother used to call me a whirling dervish. I guess that's how I am. I can't stand to sit at a meeting where everything's a process. 'Let's list the agenda and list the goals and have an ad hoc committee . . .' I start screaming, 'I want to walk out of this room. Tell me what to do. Let me make a phone call. Let's get it done now.' "

Others have come to appreciate that style. "She just doesn't quit," says Ann McIntosh, executive director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Foundation of Maryland. "It's a combination of persistence and enthusiasm. It's wonderful and it's rare."

Ms. Sibel knows, however, that not everyone would agree.

"People either like me or they don't," she says matter-of-factly. "But I'm the same wherever I am. . . . I have people who question me: 'Why do you do this? It must be because of the publicity you get.' How can I change their mind? If that's what they want to think, what can I do?"

Heading downtown in her black Jaguar, she bubbles over with enthusiasm about the Ailey company's plans to enhance the self-image of local youngsters through a summer camp.

Where did Carole Sibel's own self-image come from?

Her parents, Carolyn and Percy Chaimson, a homemaker and founder of a food brokerage company, gave her the confidence to succeed, she says.

"I went through this very awkward stage. I was tall and wore braces and had this kind of hair," she says, grabbing a clump of blond curls. "But they always made me feel beautiful, even when I didn't have a lot of dates."

Although English was her best subject in school, she yearned to sing and dance. (In fact, she still performs in amateur shows for various Jewish organizations.)

In junior high, she became friends with a schoolmate, Rhea Feikin, who today is the host of the local cerebral palsy telethon. The two attended the University of Maryland, College Park, together, and Ms. Sibel says her friend helped turn her into an extrovert.

"I never would have pictured that I'd be this outgoing," Ms. Sibel says. "It was a turnaround for me and it just kept getting worse."

After working as a buyer for Hochschild Kohn, she and several friends opened Newbury Place, a preteen clothing store in Mount Washington in 1967. Ten years later, the business -- which had moved to Pikesville and become a sportswear boutique -- folded.

"You go into these things thinking, 'It's going to be so glamorous,' " Ms. Sibel says. "Ever try to wait on a mother and her preteen daughter?"

Her second career, running a bus tour business with friends, proved even more grueling. Two years later, she left the venture and began devoting herself full-time to volunteering.

Twirling tendrils of hair around her finger, she recalls her first effort 28 years ago. It was for the Brandeis Women's Committee book drive. The event was in a slump until Ms. Sibel stepped in, organized a phone squad and collected a record number of donations.

The one institution that has grown very dear to her is the Baltimore School for the Arts. Seven years ago, she founded and became president of a support group, FANS (Friends Assisting New Stars).

"I can have a whole day where . . . you see sick children and things are not going well for a lot of people," she says. "Then you go to the School for the Arts and in one second you're surrounded by kids who are grateful." What could be more fabulous, she asks.

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The mood at the Alvin Ailey meeting is initially subdued. Women wearing bifocals, gray blazers and double strands of pearls look up as Ms. Sibel enters, her diamond bangle bracelets clanging against her Rolex.

More planning. More list-making. The names of Baltimore's movers and shakers are bandied about. The Nick Browns . . . the Meyerhoffs . . . Bob Bergman.

One final note: The board meeting is Friday morning.

Ms. Sibel's mouth drops. She's already scheduled a facial at Lola's and a vet's appointment for her 12-year-old Labrador retriever, Olive. As she writes herself a note to reschedule, she says, "I'm shriveling up. You know how your skin gets when you come back from skiing? I can feel the cream coming off my face as I cross this off."

As she speaks, a few women around the table stare at her the way you might look at a strange, exotic bird.

"I do take time for myself," she later explains. Time that includes shopping at Ruth Shaw, exercising and general pampering.

She recently spent 10 days skiing in Utah, where she and her family have a vacation home. Her nails have paid the price, says her manicurist, Barbara Mittleman, as she begins a repair treatment that will take nearly two hours.

Ms. Mittleman is getting married in April but makes a point to ask Ms. Sibel to the wedding today. "She's the busiest person I've ever met," she says.

Carole Sibel's own wedding took place 34 years ago. She met Hanan "Bean" Sibel at a swimming pool when she was 16. "He was very skinny but very funny," she recalls.

After the two married, he worked his way up through her father's business, Chaimson Brokerage Co. Today, he runs the firm with the help of their 28-year-old son, Todd. (The Sibels also own Love's Restaurant.) They have two other children -- Steven, 31, who's in real estate development, and Cara, 24, who teaches preschool and works part-time in real estate.

At first, Ms. Sibel jokes about the secret to their marriage. "We never see each other. That's why our marriage has lasted so long," she says as her nails are painted Ravishing Red.

Seriously, she says, "We never had an adjustment to make. And it's not like I hold anything back. I scream and holler. But he never puts demands on me."

Today, there's nothing she would even want to change about her life. In fact, she just hopes her good fortune continues.

"I'm happy and content with the way things are now," Ms. Sibel says.

Or, to put it another way, life is simply fabulous.

THE SIBEL FILE

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Born: Jan. 12, 1936; Chicago.

Homes: Pikesville, Ocean City and Utah.

Occupation: Professional volunteer.

Family: Married since 1957 to Hanan "Bean" Sibel; children: Steven, 31; Todd, 28; Cara, 24.

Education: Graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Maryland, College Park, 1956.

Where I shop: Ruth Shaw, Sally Wolf and the Red Garter.

Where I go for haircuts and facials: Lola's.

Where I go for manicures: Jacquie's Place.

Where I go for pedicures: All That Glitters.

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