Good Neighbor Award winners from left: Ed Liebzeit, Cindy Barrett, Susan Gruen Helsinger, Wyn Ray, and Sarah Sorenson.
As I took my seat shortly before the start of Saturday night’s ceremony honoring REALTOR® Magazine’s 2016 Good Neighbors, I grabbed my phone and got on Facebook for only the second time all day. “For once, I’ve been too busy to post about the election,” I wrote in my status update. (Covering the REALTORS® Conference & Expo, which is now being held in Orlando, Fla., will keep you from thinking about almost anything else.)
I scrolled through my feed, looking at articles and comments disparaging this or that candidate, which is pretty much what I see all day, every day on Facebook anymore. (I’m way too guilty of contributing to this myself.) The more I read, the more I became angry and impatient. And then I felt angry for allowing these emotions to take over at a time when I should have been celebrating the extraordinary measures the five REALTOR® winners (and five honorable mentions) have taken to make life better for disadvantaged members of their communities.
I resolved to power down and turn my full attention to these heroes’ amazing stories. What I heard was nothing short of miraculous. If you’re overwhelmed, as I am, by events in our country and world at this moment, I’d like you to hear what I heard Saturday from these awe-inspiring Good Neighbors. Maybe it will give you a much-needed emotional reboot.
“Imagine a house with no indoor plumbing less than a mile from where you live,” said Cindy Barrett as she accepted her Good Neighbor award. For her, it’s not just in her imagination. Her organization, Christmas In Action-Spartanburg, has repaired more than 800 homes for low-income owners who in Spartanburg, S.C., who were living in unsafe conditions because they couldn’t afford to keep up with home maintenance.”
“They cannot believe that someone they don’t know wants to help them,” Barrett said. “I’d like to believe we also restore their hope.”
CIA has helped veterans with disabilities, elderly widows who couldn’t afford to keep up their home, and many others who have to rely on help from their neighbors. “We need to be neighbors helping neighbors,” Barrett said. “The way it makes me feel to love my neighbor is something I never bargained for. It’s an awesome privilege.”
Susan Gruen Helsinger talked about her son, Jason, with the pride every mother feels. “He loved building model rockets, he was a black diamond skier, he loved computers. He wanted to go to Princeton.” But then, at age 15 in 1985, Jason died from a sudden cardiac event.
In his memory, Helsinger established the Jason F. Gruen Research Foundation, dedicated to funding advancements in cardiac research and screenings for children. The foundation has brought screenings to 2,000 kids – 72 of whom have been diagnosed with cardiac abnormalities.
“I always felt that if there had been a test for Jason, maybe we would have understood and been able to do something more,” Helsinger said. She travels widely, to such places as the West Point Military Academy in New York, to spread her message. “I asked cadets for a favor. Somewhere along their journey, I asked them to do something for a child somewhere in the world and to say it’s their contribution to Jason’s memory. His life had meaning.”
Men have a particular responsibility to stand up to domestic violence, said Ed Liebzeit, whose Community Safety Network offers a safe haven for women escaping violence, harassment, and sexual assault. “Men need to stand and say loudly, ‘That’s enough and we’re not going to accept it anymore.’”
Domestic violence affects every demographic group, Liebzeit said, but too often, people look the other way. He noted that high-profile people such as celebrities and athletes often add to an environment in which domestic violence is excused or swept under the rug. “Every one of us can help by being a friend, recognizing the signs of abuse, and reaching out and being that voice that victims need.
“My wish is that others are inspired by my story,” he continued. “Giving back is really what it’s all about. It’s the best feeling you could ever have. Success is defined by what we have done to make our community a better place.”
“Our story is filled with faith, miracles, and answered prayers,” said Wyn Ray, who, along with his wife, Sunny, regularly travels to the impoverished African nation of Ethiopia to help build projects that improve conditions for the people of the village of Wekin. There used to be elementary and high schools where students would sit on dirt floors and couldn’t drink from fountains or use bathrooms because there was no access to clean water.
“When I’m at home, pouring a glass of water, I think about the 8,000 people [in Wekin] who are forced to drink dirty water,” Ray said. Over the years, he has raised tens of thousands of dollars to help build latrines and a security fence around schools and soon will ship 20,000 books for students.
Ray spoke of the people he’s met who have inspired him to work harder every day for the people of Wekin. “I think about a paralyzed woman who walks on her hands. She lives in her mud hut without electricity, a bathroom, or running water,” he said. “I hope to bring a wheelchair for her.”
Ray also remembers a young, sick boy he met. Ray raised enough money to pay for the boy’s medication for two years. But the boy took the money and instead bought a cow, who then gave birth to two calves. The boy sold their milk to pay for his medication. “What an entrepreneur,” Ray said.
Sarah Sorenson, who founded Wishing Well…For Maui Students in Hawaii, recalled her first career as a public school teacher. It was then that she learned how inadequate school funding was for ensuring a quality education. “The first frustration was convincing people that our public schools needed anything at all,” she said. “Most people don’t realize that in Hawaii, our schools don’t get any funds from property taxes. There is never going to be enough money to fund our schools.”
But her organization and its volunteers have raised $1.5 million in goods to give to Hawaii’s public schools. They gather wish lists from teachers and try to fulfill their requests. “Schools are the backbone of most neighborhoods,” Sorenson said. “If schools improve, our communities improve, too.”
Sorenson closed the evening with a quote from her favorite author, Dr. Seuss. “‘Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened,’” she said. “We’re all glad for what has happened in Maui.”