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This article was published on: 11/01/2005

Where are they now?
Good Neighbors Reunion

Past winners of REALTORŪ Magazine’s annual Good Neighbors Awards program are still making a big impact in their local—and global—communities.


Their hearts are made of gold; their energy is boundless. They put in long days listing and selling houses, balancing work and family lives, and performing good deeds.

Winners of the REALTORŪ Magazine’s Good Neighbor Awards are among NAR’s most passionate volunteers. Since 2000 when NAR initiated the Good Neighbor Awards, which recognizes REALTORSŪ who make extraordinary contributions to their communities through volunteerism, 30 have won and 32 have received honorable mention, out of a total of 1,538 who were nominated.

The awards do more than pay tribute. They raise the winners’ visibility in their communities and sometimes far beyond, which, in turn, enables them to raise more funds, do more good, and inspire others to become more involved in their own communities.

Like our best neighbors, these winners never stop caring. We asked six past Good Neighbor Awards winners to update us on their efforts and how winning the Award made a difference in their lives and the charity work they do.

In this article, we caught up with:

Oral Lee Brown
Gil Gillenwater
Jill Rich
Hal Ehretsman
Claudia Deprez
Linda W. Norton

Oral Lee Brown
Oral Lee Brown Foundation

Oral Lee Brown was a Good Neighbor Awards winner in 2000 for showing young children in her poverty-stricken, blighted inner-city neighborhood in Oakland, Calif., that someone cared. In 1987, Brown, a broker with Nationwide Realty and a mother of three daughters, adopted one class of 23 first graders and promised: Stay in school and I’ll send you to college.

Where They Are Now

The Oral Lee Brown Foundation that she established in 1989 now has a staff of three, 21 board members, and labs and counseling to help students and other children with math, science, and college-prep tests. Brown continues to raise money and hosts an annual banquet that raises between $50,000 and $70,000.

Eighteen of Brown’s first class of first graders graduated from college. Three have gone on to graduate school. All are working, she says proudly. But Brown didn’t stop. She kept adopting a new group every four years and made the same promise to pay for college. This year, 21 more students started college, 20 are in ninth grade, 20 in fifth grade, and 20 in first grade, she says.

What She Learned

Parents need to be more accountable, Brown says. She now requires parents to meet with her and school officials monthly. “If they don’t come, we follow up,” she says. “If parents don’t care, kids don’t care.”

Where She Is Now

From the start, the Award brought Brown national attention. She continues to be interviewed on TV two to three times a year. She published her autobiography last spring titled The Promise: How One Woman Made Good on Her Extraordinary Pact to Send a Classroom of 1st Graders to College (Doubleday and Co., $22.95). She continues to attract funds. The Oakland Association of REALTORSŪ has contributed close to $125,000 to her foundation, and she has received donations from REALTORSŪ across the country. Brown’s mission remains the same: “to get kids out of high school and into college by any means,” she says.

Gil Gillenwater
Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundation

Since broker Gil Gillenwater was selected as a Good Neighbor Awards winner in 2000, his Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundation has made substantial capital improvements in the “Vecinos” housing program in Agua Prieta, Mexico, 200 miles across the border from his Scottsdale, Ariz., home and office at SDI Group.

Designed to house families, abandoned children, and the elderly, Vecinos, which means “neighbor” in Spanish, is nearing completion, with 36 of its 42 homes finished and 180 people in residence. An on-site computer learning center offers computer training and English tutoring classes. A $500,000 child care facility under construction will accommodate 165 preschool-age children.

With buildings almost completed, Gillenwater is focusing on the soft infrastructure:
  • Jobs = education. Having a decent job and being able to afford child care for preschool-age children is critical so parents don’t have to pull older children out of school to watch them, Gillenwater says. Once children leave school, another generation loses out on an education and must make do with low-paying jobs. The cycle gets repeated, he says.
  • Home and responsibilities. Gillenwater and colleagues offer families a chance to live in dignity in their own homes. Rather than hand out welfare checks, he requires residents to make a principal-only payment on their home, perform community service, take classes, and keep children in school. “If they don’t, they default on their home loans,” he says. “I haven’t done that, but my point is to emphasize the absolute importance of educating their children.”

How the Award Helped
  • Fundraising. The award has made it easier to attract donors. “A letter to an executive carries more oomph because of this award,” he says.
  • Volunteers. Gillenwater says 1,000 young volunteers have stayed in a dormitory and helped with a smorgasbord of service projects. He also rallies bike riders in an annual fund-raiser. Gillenwater and a group of his “Guardian Warriors” recently finished a seven-day, 519-mile ride from Santa Fe, N.M., to Telluride, Colo. They raised $425,000 in donations. “I call what I do enlightened self-interest,” Gillenwater says. “The more you give, the more you get back.”

Jill Rich, ABRŪ, GRI
American Red Cross

Volunteerism has long been Jill Rich’s middle name, even before she won the Good Neighbor Awards in 2000 for her American Red Cross disaster relief efforts. She still helps when the need arises. She recently pitched in to aid Hurricane Katrina evacuees who landed in Tucson, Ariz., where she lives and works as a salesperson at Realty Executives.

From Red Cross to ‘Mom Jill’

In 2001, Rich was pulled in another direction when a group of young men arrived in the United States. The media dubbed them “The Lost Boys of Sudan” because of their long trek on foot from Sudan to refugee camps in Kenya to escape the civil war in their country where many of their families were killed in front of their eyes. Many Lost Boys did not survive the long journey across Eastern Africa, but more than 3,600 were resettled in the United States. When a few arrived in Tucson, Rich offered “some” help.

More came—54 in all, aged 13 to 21— and Rich became their surrogate mom, helping them gain an education. “An education is something they all value to get ahead,” she says. To raise funds, Rich started the nonprofit The Sudanese Promise Fund in 2003.

Navigating Their New Land
  • Living. Many of the Lost Boys reside in rental properties Rich and her husband, Jim, own, paying greatly reduced rents. Some live in a home the couple bought and others in Rich’s four-bedroom house. She takes them to buy clothes and shoes.
  • Studying/working. Some attend high school. Twenty-two matriculated at the University of Arizona, others at Pima Community College, one is in law school, and some work.

How Rich Juggles

Rich shows her maternal side in countless ways. All 54 young men call her, as any son might, to ask for help or advice. She may help replace a flat tire on a car or a dead battery on a computer. She may help solve a calculus problem or provide old-fashioned tender loving care when someone has the flu. Many of the boys arrived in the United States with long-neglected medical and dental issues. She’s stayed nights in the hospital when one of her “sons” broke his jaw and another underwent heart surgery. Rich’s current goal is to secure more laptops by giving presentations wherever people will let her share the boys’ story. “They’re the passion of my life,” she says.

The feeling is mutual. “Many of us were orphaned as young boys and survived dangerous animal attacks and militia gunfire. After all that, we are orphans no more—not as long as Mom Jill is here,” says one.

How does she do it? “You can always find time for what’s important,” she says.

Hal Ehretsman
Amateur Athletic Union Ohio Stars Basketball Team

In 2003, the year after winning the Good Neighbor Awards for coaching the Ohio Stars, an Amateur Athletic Union basketball team composed of outstanding inner-city high-school players, Hal Ehretsman watched them play for the national championship.

Even though the Stars lost by 1 point on a last-second shot, getting to the championship game solidified Ehretsman’s national reputation, which will help raise more scholarship funds to send more players to college.

To make raising funds easier, Ehretsman started the nonprofit Ohio Stars Foundation in 2004. As executive director, he also seeks funds for the players’ families. “Some have returned from college or games to find their families evicted,” he says. He attributes many problems to Cleveland’s economy, ranked poorest among the country’s large cities in 2004.

How the Award Helped
  • Professional opportunities. Ehretsman was recruited by real estate companies and switched to RE/MAX Premiere Properties Commercial Division because of its culture of giving back to the community. RE/MAX also featured Ehretsman in its RE/MAX Times. This year he won Cleveland Magazine’s Gold Medal for being one of its “REALTORSŪ You Can Trust.”
  • Scholarships. Ehretsman has raised $10.5 million over 20 years, which has helped 200 players attend college. Ninety percent have graduated; some have gone on to NBA and NFL teams.
  • Caring and reciprocity of trust. Ehretsman doesn’t just help players play better or get into college. He teaches them that someone cares deeply for them and views the young men as his sons. He’s taught them to care in return, a concept he terms reciprocity of trust. When one former player hosted a fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina victims, he proved he had learned well, Ehretsman says. “He told me, ‘Coach, you raised me to give back to people in need.’”

Claudia Deprez, CIPS, CRB
Northend Coalition of Neighborhoods

When Claudia Deprez won a Good Neighbor Award in 2003 for her work with the Northend Coalition of Neighborhoods (NCON), a grassroots, inner-city group in West Palm Beach, Fla., fighting to reclaim its community from crime, drugs, and prostitution, everyone cheered. They also worried.

Deprez, a broker with Illustrated Properties Real Estate Inc. in West Palm Beach, was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer within a week of learning about the award. She was told she might have three to six months to live.

Fast forward two years, and Deprez is doing “very, very, very well,” she says. “I’m in remission.” She knows she’s not home free. “One oncologist said I might be cured, but I know you don’t use the word ‘cure’ in the same sentence as stage 4 cancer,” she says.

How the Award Helped
  • For the neighborhood. Deprez remains president-emeritus of NCON but isn’t as active because of her health. NCON’s leaders regularly meet with city officials and progress continues, which she attributes to the Award empowering residents.
      • The value of properties has gone up 70 percent over the last 18 months.
      • More than 12 buildings with a total of 3,000 units have been built.
      • 65 abandoned properties have been demolished and hundreds rehabbed.
      • The number of repeat offenders of drug crimes and prostitution has decreased.
      • The Butterfly Garden opened on land the city donated in memory of a 4-year-old girl killed in a drive-by shooting.
  • For Deprez. The Award provided “the single greatest honor other than my children,” and another reason to survive, Deprez says. She often speaks professionally with business partner Joanne Leone. They will address the 2005 REALTORSŪ Conference & Expo in a talk titled, “Falling Back in Love With Your Real Estate Career.”

Linda W. Norton, CRSŪ, GRI
Funding Partners for Housing Solutions

Providing affordable housing has long been Linda Norton’s mantra. Norton, a salesperson with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Fort Collins, Colo., won the Good Neighbor Awards in 2002 for her work as a founding member and president of Funding Partners for Housing Solutions, a nonprofit organization that helps developers and homeowners access loans. In the last decade, the group has helped 600 families.

A visible sign of success is the remodeled Northern Hotel, which houses seniors in 47 apartments. “Ft. Collins was written up by the AARP as one of the best places to retire, but that didn’t help low- and middle-income seniors here who had few choices,” she says.

Where others saw a derelict, condemned hotel to be razed, Norton saw an historic landmark to be saved and transformed. All units are occupied and ground-floor commercial tenants like Starbucks help defray operating costs.

Current Work

Currently, Norton is working with for-profit developers, helping them secure loans for affordable-income projects. “We’ll work to get loans for nonprofit and for-profit groups as long as it’s for affordable housing since it’s still less than a bank loan,” she explains.

How the Award Helped
  • For Norton. After winning the Award, Norton became better known in her area and nationally. She was featured in national TV and radio ads as part of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORSŪ’ Public Awareness Campaign and was put on NAR’s Housing Opportunity Advisory Board.
  • For Funding Partners. The organization has stepped more into the limelight and keeps winning grants from the U.S. Treasury Department. This year, it received $600,000.

What She Dreams About

If Norton could be granted another big wish, she says it would be “millions and millions of dollars to create more affordable housing throughout Colorado.” Others have a big wish for her: that she win her battle against lung cancer. Norton was diagnosed with the cancer last year. Her office orchestrated a fund-raiser for her last year at a local bar with a pool and poker tournament, plus a large silent auction. “I felt very humble,” Norton says. Norton feels she’s on her way to winning. She finished chemotherapy and radiation treatments and is back at work.

Learn More About the Good Neighbor Awards

To learn more about the Good Neighbor Awards Program, how you can nominate someone for the award, and read about the new 2005 winners, go to the Good Neighbors home page.

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