When the Monument Fire roared through Sierra Vista, Ariz., in June 2011, the destruction was huge. The small city of 50,000 — located about 70 miles southeast of Tucson — saw 30,000 acres ravaged, lost 62 homes and six businesses, had 10,000 residents displaced, incurred millions of dollars of damage, and needed millions more to rebuild.
And just a month later, when everyone thought life was returning to normal, a flash flood hit one of the area’s many canyons, dumping buckets of rain fast and furiously and causing more damage.
But, as often happens during a crisis, everyone banded together. Taking the lead was REALTOR® Patti Miller, who coordinated relief efforts calmly and efficiently. Miller set up the Monument Fire Relief Fund to collect money, clothing, food, furnishings, medicine — even sunblock for firefighters. She solicited donations via TV and radio, found a warehouse for stockpiling donated goods, rallied hundreds of volunteers, and found places for those left homeless to stay. In all, more than $1 million worth of supplies and $130,000 was distributed to people who needed it.
“I don’t think Patti slept or worked at all during that period,” says Lynn Butler, association executive with the Southeast Arizona Association of REALTORS®, who’s known her since Miller became a real estate salesperson in 2005.
Others who’ve known Miller longer weren’t surprised by her nonstop action. Joanne Werstlein, executive assistant for the association and a foundation volunteer, says, “She’s got a heart that doesn’t stop and is the heart of the Real Wishes Foundation. She is always looking for ways to better the foundation or to branch out to help other community nonprofits, and is always there, no matter what.”
For Miller, it was just a matter of doing what was necessary. “I love this town and I was determined that the disaster would cause as little damage as possible,” she says.
A youth minister for five years, she switched to real estate after her children were grown. When the president of the association called a year after she began selling homes and asked her to set up a task force to help area professionals “pay it forward,” she jumped at the chance. “This is a tight-knit community that has provided well for me in my business, as well as given my husband Bill his job as fire chief,” she says.
Inspired by singer Amy Grant’s “Three Wishes” TV series, Miller developed her own version. “I thought, ‘Why not grant real wishes to people with basic, everyday needs they couldn’t afford, and which in many cases didn’t interest bigger organizations?’” she says. Recent wishes include a new desk and ceiling fan for an elderly woman’s blind son, a plumbing leak repaired for a woman on a low fixed income, and an $800 monthly mortgage payment for a 28-year-old woman diagnosed with terminal colon cancer who was waiting to go on disability. To attract requests, she placed a letter in the local newspaper, asking people to submit wishes.
In the first year, the organization she named Real Wishes received 22 requests. Miller passed them along to area companies for help with sweat equity or donations of materials and funds. “Everybody jumped in,” she says, and she and her five-member volunteer board granted 12 wishes in 2006, the first year.
By 2008, she obtained 501c (3) nonprofit status, which permitted tax deductions for companies that donate. She renamed it the Real Wishes Foundation and granted 22 wishes that year.
The 10-member board — along with 110 volunteers — undertake as much work as possible. “We’re not a group that sits in an office and passes signed papers or votes. We’re out working, every bloody one of us,” says Nancy Dwiggins, ABR, GRI, real estate practitioner with Preference Properties LLC, who joined the board three years ago.
When a wish is beyond the expertise of the volunteers — replacing old leakywindows or conducting a funeral, for example — they reach out to area businesses for help, or dip into the foundation’s savings, as they did when they spent $14,000 for chemotherapy treatments for a woman diagnosed with breast cancer who lacked health insurance.
And when the foundation can’t grant a wish — like when liability issues prevented them from removing mold from a home or when they were asked to remove 10 rattlesnakes from another — it provides a list of resources to tap.
Miller keeps searching for new ways to raise funds. This year, she combined the foundation’s annual live auction, “Evening for Wishes,” with a “Dancing Like the Stars” gala for greater impact; 220 people attended and $13,000 was raised. The combination tripled the prior year's results. “To have that many people attend a first-time event and raise so much money usually doesn't happen; it was truly amazing,” she says.
Since she started giving back via the foundation and Monument Fire fund, 300 to 400 people have been helped, Miller says.
And because Miller knows people never stop wishing, and attracting volunteers and collecting funds keep getting harder, this “wish fairy” has no plans to put down her wand. “It would be nice if this foundation gained so much fame that it went national with more real-estate associations copying it in their communities. They all have what we do — resources and connections, as well as tragedies,” she says.
Contact Patti M. Miller at Tierra Antigua Realty in Sierra Vista, AZ via e-mail at email@example.com. Learn more about the Real Wishes Foundation at www.seazrealtor.com or on their Facebook page.