Frederik Heller is director of member support at the National Association of REALTORS® in Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-329-8361.
Food for Thought
Pam Harrison awakens the competitive spirit in her fellow REALTORS® to fight hunger in her community.
August 30, 2016
One night every November, the Cheeseburger in Paradise Bar & Grill in Pasadena, Md., fills up with more than 100 real estate professionals. As one might expect at any gathering of practitioners, they’re driven by a strong sense of competition. But this particular evening isn’t about real estate transactions or sales prices.
It’s the culmination of a month of community service, when local agents and brokers collect and buy nonperishable food items for the Anne Arundel County Food Bank. Volunteers come together for three hours to unload food from cars, trailers, and trucks, then weigh it all and transfer everything to the food bank trucks. In 2015, the event, known as Harvest for the Hungry, brought in nearly 23,000 pounds of donated food.
Much of the credit for unifying the real estate community behind this cause goes to Pam Harrison, an agent with RE/MAX Executive, who founded the event. “Pam’s dedication has made her indispensable,” says Susan Thomas, chief operating officer of the AACFB. “In fact, the Food Bank calls upon her for many impromptu tasks throughout the year, like finding volunteers to set up and work our annual share/shop/yard sale and acquiring donations of furniture, appliances, and medical equipment.”
Fighting Hunger in Maryland
Nestled along the Chesapeake Bay a short distance from both Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Maryland’s Anne Arundel County is one of the wealthiest in the United States, ranking 18th in the Census Bureau’s 2012 list of highest-income counties. So you wouldn’t expect that a sizeable percentage of its half-million residents struggle to afford basic necessities.
The area’s high cost of living makes it difficult for many families to make ends meet. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reports that 43 percent of the county’s residents can’t afford fair market rent, and some 44,000 are considered food insecure, unsure where they will get their next meal, according to hunger relief agency Feeding America.
“Find something you’re passionate about. Make the phone call. Take that first step and they’ll gladly reach out. Don’t be afraid to step out of the box.” — Pam Harrison
The AACFB’s mission is to fight hunger by ensuring that those in need have access to food and other resources. Now in its 30th year, the organization collects and distributes food, furniture, medical supplies, and other necessities via a network of food pantries, after-school programs, soup kitchens, shelters, and other agencies throughout the area.
“Pam’s contributions are essential for us to meet the growing needs of Anne Arundel County,” says Thomas. “We assist approximately 40,000 unique households and serve 1.25 million meals annually. Pam donated enough food to feed 10,500 families of four for a month in 2015, and every year her contributions increase.”
The Spirit of Competition
Her involvement in the Anne Arundel County Association of REALTORS® Community Service Committee enables Harrison to leverage the generous spirit and competitive nature of her fellow REALTORS®, reaping enormous benefits for the food bank and the people it serves.
About 10 years ago, when Harrison accepted the committee chairmanship, the AACFB approached her for help in encouraging more participation from the real estate community. Pam readily took on the task and nurtured it to become something more. “We started small at first,” recalls Harrison. “We tried fundraising happy hours and other little events here and there. At the very beginning, we were looking for every agent to volunteer.”
Through Harrison’s hands-on efforts to increase awareness of the food bank and its mission, the committee’s fundraising initiative eventually became so popular that entire real estate offices were competing to donate the most food and monetary resources to the cause.
“The fundraisers and food drives are tremendously successful. But Pam rallies volunteers and gets them excited. It is such a big help to have someone with that kind of pull when you need it.”— Susan Thomas
The local association now hosts the Harvest for the Hungry event, and in 2015, nine real estate offices and 120 REALTORS® participated. Modest prizes are awarded to the biggest donors, such as $500 worth of ad space from the Capital Gazette newspaper. “Honestly, I don’t think anyone even uses it,” says Harrison. “Everyone is in it for the cause and the friendly competition.”
Friendly, yes, but also intense. “Every year Pam goes out to get more offices involved,” Thomas says. “Everyone wants to be number one.”
The results are astounding. “Over the past 10 years, Pam increased donations to the food bank by 775 percent and increased monetary donations 1,500 percent,” reports Bruce Michalec, the AACFB’s executive director.
The combination of food and monetary donations raised by the Harvest for the Hungry event allows the Food Bank to purchase healthier items such as cheese, lunch meat, eggs, and fresh fruit—foods that are not donated as often because they are more expensive and susceptible to spoilage.
Sharing the Fun
The sense of fulfillment Harrison gains from her volunteer efforts drives her to encourage others around her to do the same. “Pam is constantly recruiting. That’s one of the reasons both the committee and Harvest for the Hungry are so successful,” says Tom Quattlebaum, chief executive officer of the AACAR. “She leads by example. She goes office to office and calls individual REALTORS® to get them involved. She’s not sitting back giving directions. She shows them what to do and then does twice as much as everyone else.”
“I try to make it fun, and I’m not afraid to ask,” explains Harrison. “I tell them what it’s about. When they see that it has such a positive impact on people and it’s fun, they won’t hesitate to take part and volunteer their time.”
Besides coordinating the Harvest for the Hungry event, Harrison and the Community Service Committee are regularly involved in a number of other charity efforts, including an annual golf tournament, Habitat for Humanity, and Bras for the Cause, an event for local breast cancer survivors.
When asked how she manages a full-time real estate career and volunteering at least 10 hours per week, Harrison chalks it up to “very good” time management skills. “I set aside several hours each week to do community service and volunteering,” she says. “I block time out in my calendar, just like I do for clients. I tell my clients what I’m doing, so they’ll know when I’m available.”
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She finds, too, that volunteering has had positive effects on her real estate business.
“Volunteering has helped me make contacts and get known in the community,” she explains. “It’s important to let the community know that we’re working for them and that we’re involved. People remember that.”
For Harrison, giving time and effort to those in need has always been a vital part of how she defines herself. As a teen, she would assist at nursing homes and the local VA hospital. Today, her sense of dedication is just as strong. “My life is so busy,” she explains. “Volunteering makes me feel fulfilled. It takes me outside myself and puts me in touch with others who need the help I can give.”