Meg White is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.
Though 1985 was a busy year for Susan Stearns, she doesn’t complain. It was her first year in real estate, but it was also the year her daughter Cindy graduated from a special needs program in the school district, which had been a lifeline for the family for more than two decades.
“You don’t know you’re going to have a disabled child when you have one, and you just do what you need to do,” she says. Stearns took Cindy, who was born with cerebral palsy, to visit day programs for disabled adults in the area. But Stearns says her daughter deliberately failed admission tests because she wanted to go to a bustling industrial workshop nestled in North Hills, Calif., called New Horizons, which she’d visited through school. So, Stearns figured the campus was worth a visit.
Susan Stearns, GRI
Berkshire Hathaway, California Properties
“I had never heard of it and I walked in and I was just amazed,” Stearns recalls. New Horizons’ social, active environment won them both over. Not only did Cindy find her new home and workplace, but also Stearns started a journey as a dedicated volunteer leader that’s spanned three decades.
New Horizons, with hundreds of staff members serving more than 1,000 adults with special needs, is the most comprehensive organization of its kind in the area. The onsite workshop, a busy warehouse located on the tree-lined campus, employs around 200 clients in assembly projects, and others develop food-service skills at Sam’s Café, an 11,000-square-foot event space and cafeteria. Job coaches work with more than 100 clients employed in grocery stores, law firms, and other local businesses. Clients also access training on money management, public transit, and other life skills. For recreation, they offer bowling teams, art classes, dances, and museum visits.
New Horizons President and CEO Cynthia Sewell says there’s a positive impact for clients who don’t have to rely on a patchwork of smaller organizations: “Because we are able to provide a one-stop shop, the continuity of services that is so important in training persons with special needs has led to their greater productivity and independence.”
Paul Elkins says the organization offers a rich social environment for his daughter Amy, who suffers from a range of physical and cognitive disabilities, and is among the 72 adults living in one of New Horizons’ 12 group homes. Elkins, who is also a long-time New Horizons volunteer, says without the varied services the nonprofit provides, disabled adults in the area would end up isolated at home, unable to contribute to society. “Raising a developmentally disabled child is quite a challenge,” Elkins says. Amy’s worked in Sam’s Café and the workshop and on the gardening crew. He adds that in-home access to a professional dietitian and treadmill helped Amy shed 100 pounds of extra weight. “I just can’t imagine my daughter’s life without New Horizons.”
When Stearns initially got involved in 1985, New Horizons lacked organization. “They didn’t have committees; they didn’t have agendas,” she remembers. “I said, ‘We’ve got to evolve higher than this if we’re going to grow and stay afloat.’”
“Susan’s work has helped us continue to provide needed services. The groundwork that she’s laid in helping the agency become more sophisticated in conveying our mission to others has helped our organization keep its doors open.”
Stearns brought organizing and fundraising skills from earlier charitable work she’d done. But she was also inspired by the committee structures and government outreach of the REALTOR® organization. As a result of Stearns’ leadership, including founding the development committee, eight years as fundraising chair and two years as the President and chair of the board of directors, New Horizons engages in nearly every fundraiser you could think of: electronics recycling drives, walkathons, and benefit concerts, among others. Sewell estimates Stearns has personally donated or raised around $250,000. But the contributions from the recurring fundraisers she initiated, from the golf classic to the annual gala, add up to much more.
Stearns also founded Friends, an outreach and fundraising effort to raise awareness, and is always looking to raise the profile of the organization and educate people about the value of inclusiveness. “She knows a lot of people, of course, from her business,” says Elkins. “With her outreach programs, [Stearns] was able to help the organization become better known.”
California’s fiscal problems still loom large for the organization. For Stearns, this means the pressure to raise funds and bring attention to the needs of disabled adults increases: “You build. That’s the only way you are going to forge a future.”
Despite budget challenges, the organization hasn’t stopped expanding. It expects to open a group home for clients with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia later this fiscal year. According to the National Down Syndrome Society, about 30 percent of people with Down syndrome develop Alzheimer’s in their 50s. By their 60s, the rate jumps to nearly 50 percent.
“It’s good for the community to know what a REALTOR® is, that they’re not just there trying to sell their house—they’re there to make the community a better place.”
Stearns worked with the Los Angeles City Council and helped find a large plot of land for the new home where there will be plenty of open space. She says the heartbreak of sending clients away to live with unfamiliar staff faces at such a vulnerable moment was the catalyst for the expansion: “We’ve had too many of them have to leave,” she says. “It’s terrible.”
In her late seventies, Stearns enjoys an active real estate career. Her trick to balancing work and charity is to combine them. She contributes a portion of her commission to and helps distribute funds from the charitable foundation at her real estate office. She also makes frequent mention of Cindy’s participation in walkathons and other fundraisers in her marketing newsletters and brings real estate colleagues in for tours of the New Horizon campus. In addition, she’s used her real estate skills and connections to help procure additional land for group homes and find real estate professionals to work with the organization.
“Find a charity that you have compassion for,” Stearns suggests. “It’s good for the community to know what a REALTOR® is, that they’re not just there trying to sell houses. They’re there to make the community a better place.”