Love Your Neighbor

October 6, 2011

Good Neighbor Award finalist Wayne J. Shaffer brings dignity to strangers, one person at a time.

By Wilma Gonzalez, REALTOR® Magazine

Wayne J. Shaffer has touched their hearts and souls. They are the men, women, and children struggling on the fringes of society, living a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets of Santa Cruz, Calif.

For more than three decades, Shaffer, broker-owner of Shaffer and Associates in Santa Cruz, has devoted himself to nourishing the souls of the homeless and struggling. No matter what they’ve been through, he says, “It’s our duty to find resources for people in crisis.” The wellspring of his compassion is in the Bible's Book of Leviticus (19:18): “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Resources and love are two things Shaffer has been giving in abundance since at least 1982, when he cofounded the St. Francis Catholic Kitchen. The kitchen serves hot lunch to 190 clients per day, Monday through Friday. Shaffer is president of the board of directors and still a frequent visitor, but at one time, he was a regular greeter, welcoming clients as they walked in the door. One day, in 1999, he struck up a conversation with a pregnant client and learned that she was living in her car.

Shaffer was deeply troubled and knew he could do something to help. He began calling friends and supporters and within a year had opened the Siena House Maternity Home. The former convent accommodates up to 10 women during their pregnancies and for up to three months after delivery. As cofounder and president, Shaffer has helped provide more than 350 women with pre- and post-natal care, individual and group counseling, baby care, and lessons in nutrition, parenting, and life skills. “Women need a safe place to deal with their pregnancies,” says Shaffer, “a place that encourages a lifestyle that will be an improvement for their babies and themselves.”

Providing Safe Harbor

For its temporary residents, Siena House is a refuge in a storm.

Asmara Gebre, 22, is just beginning the University of San Francisco’s nursing program in the fall of 2011. But just a few years ago, her life wasn’t looking so good. She was pregnant, homeless, and coping with an abusive boyfriend. Siena House put her on a better path — first toward earning a high school diploma and then to Cabrillo College, where she has earned three associate’s degrees.

“The discipline I developed at Siena House, combined with the family atmosphere, helped me learn what it meant to love and respect myself,” says Gebre, whose daughter, Daijanae, is now nearly five years old. “It was the first time I was in an environment where people believed in me and encouraged me to pursue an education. [Wayne] is the father figure I never had. He didn’t know me but was willing to help.”

Siena House has an annual budget of $200,000. Women pay a house fee of $150 per month, and all other funding comes from donations and an annual dinner auction. Shaffer personally donates $10,000 per year.

Once admitted to the home, the women must follow a strict set of rules. They must remain sober and have no addictions. They must do household chores and take turns preparing meals for up to 15 people. In addition to attending counseling sessions and house meetings, they learn computer skills and are referred to other agencies for educational and vocational training.

Like Gebre, many residents go on to school, find jobs, and form the kinds of mother-child relationships they see modeled at the Siena House. Shaffer works hands-on with residents to assess their needs and even helps when the toilets back up or when there’s a leak in the roof.

“There are no strings attached to Wayne’s giving. He is a man who means what he says and does what he means,” says Siena House Director Sharron Rudell.

The Life of St. Francis

Shaffer’s inspiration is his former colleague and mentor, Peter Carota, with whom he founded the soup kitchen. After years of serving the needy from the back of a van, Shaffer and Carota, also a real estate salesperson at the time, decided they could affect lives more profoundly if they found a permanent location. In 1982, Carota sold his home and real estate investments, and used the proceeds to start St. Francis Catholic Kitchen. Carota later became a Catholic priest. “Peter lived the life of St. Francis. He saw a need and gave everything,” says Shaffer. “I figured if he could do that, I could at least hang on and keep [the soup kitchen] going.”

Shaffer did more than hang on. In 1989 he and Carota went on to cofound the Jesus, Mary and Joseph Home, a shelter for women and children. The shelter, still in operation, houses five women and seven children for up to six months. It has been a useful transition home for women coming out of Siena House.

Meanwhile, the soup kitchen keeps going strong, serving 45,000 nutritious, free meals per year — and spreading the word that positive change is possible. “When you help people get off the streets and into a safe place with a meal, this is where it all begins,” Shaffer says. “People will listen if they have a full belly.”

Former client Damon Bruder, 43, was unemployed, addicted to drugs and alcohol, on probation, and living on the streets when he first visited the soup kitchen. “I was barely keeping my head above water and I couldn’t go on. I needed help,” says Bruder. He received a daily midday meal and other services put in place by Shaffer: haircuts, showers, clothing, and referrals to shelters and a drug treatment centers.

“Life is amazing now, and it’s all because of Wayne Shaffer and the volunteers who cared about me and gave me hope when I was at the lowest of the low,” Bruder says. He has been sober for more than four years, has a house and a job, and is married to a woman who volunteers at the St. Francis soup kitchen.

In 1997, Shaffer founded a private 24-acre park, Shaffer Park, as a memorial for his brother Ron, who died from melanoma at age 43. The park incorporates spiritual and athletic themes (Shaffer is an avid weightlifter), and is there for the use of family, friends, clients, and organizations. People often ask Shaffer, who is married with two stepsons, how he can devote so much time to others. The answer is, how could he not? “Someone will come up to you and thank you for something you did 10 years before,” he says, “and it makes you feel good to know you made a difference in that person’s life.”

 



Contact Wayne J. Shaffer at Shaffer and Associates, wayne@wshaffer.com, Siena House Maternity Home at www.sienahouse.org, and St. Francis Catholic Kitchen and Jesus Mary Joseph Home at www.stfrancissoupkitchen.org.


 

Wayne J. Shaffer is one of 10 finalists for REALTOR® Magazine's Good Neighbor Awards, a grant program that recognizes REALTORS® who make exceptional volunteer contributions to their communities. We’ll bring you the story of one of the finalists each day until October 20. On October 21 online voting will open for a Web Choice Award. The top vote getter will receive a $500 gift card from Lowe's. Votes will be accepted through October 28. 

Of the 10 Good Neighbor finalists, the five winners will be named on November 2. (Web Choice voting does not play a role in the selection of the winners.) The winners will receive $10,000 grants for their community projects, $2,500 Lowe's gift cards, and will be honored at the REALTORS® Conference & Expo in Anaheim on November 12. The remaining five finalists will receive $2,500 grants for their cause and $1,000 Lowe's gift cards.

The Good Neighbor Awards is supported by Lowe’s and HouseLogic.