The Good Neighbor Awards recognize REALTORSŪ who've made an extraordinary commitment to improving the quality of life in their communities through volunteer work. Five winners will receive $10,000 grants for their cause. The 2009 deadline will be May 22.
2008 Good Neighbor Finalists Announced
James H. Bess Sr. Victor Valley Toys for Tots Inc.
Bringing joy to children
BY HALEY M. HWANG
“I heard about the Toys for Tots program, and a vision of it kept coming to me. It was like God was trying to tell me something. That was in 1988. Within 21 days, we organized the corporation and started collecting toys. We took care of 771 kids that year.”
It’s the simple things that can have a profound effect on a child’s life. Jim Bess knows this because he grew up poor during the height of the Depression.
Bess, 73, was born in Silver Creek, N.Y., to a blind single mother. Money he made doing odd jobs on nearby farms, starting at age 6, sometimes determined whether there would be food on the table. During those early years, Christmas was just another day, and toys were anything he could scavenge.
Today, Bess is a real estate practitioner in Victor Valley, located in Southern California’s San Bernardino County. And he’s on a mission to ensure underprivileged kids in his area don’t go through what he did. He brings joy to thousands of children every Christmas through the Victor Valley Toys for Tots Inc., a local charity he founded with one goal in mind: to make certain that no child wakes up on Christmas morning without a toy waiting to be opened.
“There’s nothing more cruel than teachers asking their students what they got for Christmas and a child having to get up and say, ‘Nothing,’” Bess says in a voice tinged with emotion. “That hurt me then, and that still hurts me now.”
Since founding the charity in 1988, Bess has distributed more than 100,000 toys to 53,410 children. The local program isn’t affiliated with the national Toys for Tots organization operated by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, because Bess wanted the donations to be used locally rather than going to a central Los Angeles facility.
Indeed, the local need is pressing. According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau, 18.7 percent of the population in Victor Valley—located just 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles—lives below the poverty line. That’s substantially higher than the 12.4 percent of the national population living in poverty.
Bess retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1975, having served 24 years and having completed tours in Korea and Vietnam. He, his wife, and their three children moved to the Victor Valley area, where he bought his first home and decided real estate sales would be his next career. His first commission check was $250.
Bess’s success grew; at one point he owned three realty offices. He eventually sold the brokerages and has scaled back to being a broker-associate at Blue Chip Real Estate in the Victor Valley town of Apple Valley.
But there are two areas of his life that still get Bess’s full attention: the choir of the Burning Bush Baptist Church and Toys for Tots. He and a league of dedicated volunteers hold fund-raisers all year long to raise the roughly $70,000 they need to help 3,500 to 4,000 children each year. They hold benefit square dances, telethons, and wine auctions.
“He has made it a personal cause for so many years now that his name is synonymous with the Toys for Tots program,” says Kathie Martin, public information officer for the town of Apple Valley, who has known Bess for eight years. “He’s just a very community-minded, giving man.”
“He’s so dedicated to it,” says Miriam W. Lancaster, who has volunteered with the Toys for Tots program since its inception and now serves as the charity’s director. “I don’t know how he finds time. I think it’s just his love of family and children.”
A spiritual man, Bess says that he experienced a calling to start up this program 16 years ago. “Some of the parents will be crying and hug you and kiss you on the toy pickup days,” says Bess. “If they didn’t have these toys, they wouldn’t have anything.
“Having been very poor, I know exactly what this means to them,” he says. “It gives me such tremendous satisfaction to know that we’re making a difference.”
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