Robert Fitzsimmons considers himself a voice for the voiceless, and since money talks, that’s how he’s sticking to his word.
For more than 30 years, Fitzsimmons has been an integral fundraiser for Seamen’s Society for Children and Families, a New York nonprofit that places at least 300 youths with foster families every year and supports them through educational and family services. For all those years, Fitzsimmons has been running Seamen’s annual calendar campaign, a drive to sell calendars featuring one foster family each month.
Fitzsimmons, who has been a REALTOR® for 37 years, began volunteering for Seamen’s in 1981. Since then, he has raised more than $500,000 from calendar sales and another $750,000 from private donations, and he has also contributed nearly $300,000 of his own money. Throughout his 20 years in real estate, he’s asked every business he comes in contact with to donate to Seamen’s, Fitzsimmons says. And he also knows people in high places, having secured generous donations from local politicians and corporate executives.
No matter where he goes or who he’s schmoozing, though, it’s the kids who are on his mind.
“Politically, kids have no voice because they have no vote,” Fitzsimmons says. “I always felt that they needed someone with a strong voice to help them get the funding they need.
“These kids come from troubled families,” he explains of the foster children who come through Seamen’s, who have typically been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect. “Sometimes their mother is a substance abuser, and their father doesn’t exist or doesn’t support them.”
When he has frustrating moments during fundraising, Fitzsimmons recalls the comments of one speaker from 25 years ago at the organization’s annual gala: the foster son of a woman who had raised dozens of foster children. “He said, ‘Every other heartbeat, I think of my [foster] mother,’” Fitzsimmons remembers. “When there are times when it gets difficult to raise money, I think of that and it keeps me going.”
Nancy Vomero, Seamen’s president and CEO, says Fitzsimmons is “the quiet guy behind the scenes,” pulling the strings to make things happen for the organization and the families it benefits.”We work with very difficult cases. He just wants what’s best and knows that our children aren’t as fortunate as other kids are,” says Vomero, who explains that the children can be harder to place in foster homes because many have behavioral issues as a result of their sad past.
Vomero says the biggest testament to Fitzsimmons’ volunteer work is how he got his children to join the cause: His daughter, Laura Volsario, joined the Seamen’s Board of Trustees last year and is developing new fundraising initiatives, such as a rooftop garden where flowers will commemorate Seamen’s foster children.
Fitzsimmons’ generosity is also felt personally by many of the families. Every year at Christmas, he spends $5,000 of his own money to send up to 250 families to The Christmas Show, an annual holiday performance held at St. George Theatre on Staten Island.
Joan Arnold, a foster mother with Seamen’s for 26 years, was able to send the three special-needs foster children currently in her care, ages 10, 15, and 19, to the show. “They came back just as happy as ever,” Arnold says. “[Fitzsimmons] has just been a blessing, that’s all I can say. He always makes you feel like everybody is somebody — none of that looking down his nose at you. That makes foster parents feel very special.”
She says that Seamen’s has been an unparalleled partner as she has raised her foster kids, particularly because it helps her get the specific care her children require. All three were born to drug-addicted parents. Arnold’s oldest child, Selena, was a particularly heart-wrenching case. She had severe health problems because of the effects of her mother’s drug and alcohol use during pregnancy and neglect in her infancy. “Selena came into my life when she was 8 months old, but she looked like she was 2 months old,” Arnold says. “She had never been to the doctor. She was found in her mother’s home, which was just in terrible condition.”
Seamen’s has helped Arnold many times to find medical care for Selena, who has cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. Arnold also has benefited from the organization’s high-quality trainers who guide foster parents through parenting challenges “because some of the kids come with a lot of baggage that we have never encountered in our lives,” she says.
“I always tell people that Seamen’s is my extended family,” Arnold adds. “And I’m so glad to have my kids in my life. You know, families have their good parts and their bad parts, and I feel like mine has more good parts.”
For Fitzsimmons, he hopes more people will get involved in helping children however they can. After all, they need a stable home lifeto have a brighter future, he says. “If there were more people out there [volunteering] like me, that would be great, because these kids need someone to represent them,” he says. “If we’re going to have a chance for this world, we need to give them a chance.”