Graham Wood is senior editor for REALTOR® Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.
A Promise to ‘Relieve the Pains of Poverty’
After growing up poor, 2017 Good Neighbor Award Winner Sal Dimiceli’s mission is to help others who are disadvantaged regain a sense of dignity and pride.
August 30, 2017
Sal Dimiceli’s mother used to cry when she looked at the light switch. As a child, Dimiceli was too young to understand the connection. He didn’t know their electricity had been cut off because his mom, struggling to make ends meet on a beautician’s salary, frequently couldn’t afford to pay the bills. With little support from Dimiceli’s father, who would abandon the family for months at a time to go on gambling sprees, they often lacked basic necessities.
Their desperate straits grew even more dire as Dimiceli neared his teenage years. At 12, he weighed 76 pounds—more than 20 pounds below what he should have weighed at that age—often missing meals when his mom couldn’t put food on the table. She was too ashamed to ask for help from neighbors or relatives. It was then that Dimiceli made a serious vow. “I promised God that I would never forget the hard times we went through and that I would help other people avoid it at all costs,” he says.
Dimiceli has kept his word ever since.
Now more than 50 years later, the former real estate developer, Dimiceli has contributed a major chunk of his lifetime earnings to help people in Wisconsin and Illinois climb out of poverty. A REALTOR® who made a comfortable living as a real estate developer before becoming broker-owner of Lake Geneva Realty in Lake Geneva, Wis., he’s given a total of $5 million of his own funds to support his charity, The Time Is Now to Help. The organization, which he founded in 1989, provides emergency assistance for those with critical needs and works with them to establish a sustainable budget. He’s provided motel rooms for the homeless, paid overdue utility bills for people who can’t afford heat or electricity, bought and repaired cars to help the underemployed get to work, and purchased wheelchairs for those with mobility issues.
“He sees that in life, it doesn’t matter how much money you have. Everyone deserves to be loved and appreciated.” —Gregg Kunes
Dimiceli personally investigates most cases to ensure the need is legitimate, from visiting people’s homes to see how much food they need in their pantries to talking to utility companies and landlords to confirm and rectify outstanding bills. “I work and then give [my money] away,” he says. “I can’t sit on a nest egg knowing there are people out there who need help.”
Dimiceli’s wife, Corinne, who handles the charity’s bookkeeping, admits that her husband’s philanthropy has left them with no personal savings. But she says the payoff of improving lives is much richer. “He’s hard to rein in,” she laughs. “It’s hard for me to tell him, ‘No, you can’t,’ when someone out there has a need. As long as we’re able to work, we don’t lack for anything. So I see us doing this for as long as we can. I don’t see Sal ever retiring from this.”
Dimiceli houses his nonprofit’s operations in his real estate office, eliminating overhead costs for his charity and making it easier to manage his business and philanthropy at the same time. Many of his seven agents and support staff also volunteer for The Time Is Now to Help. Dimiceli says he works 60 to 70 hours a week, splitting his time evenly between his professional and charitable endeavors.
Creating a Groundswell of Support
Though Dimiceli launched his nonprofit on his own dime, he has attracted thousands of donors and volunteers over the years to help deliver goods to the needy. Collectively, they have given an additional $12 million to The Time Is Now to Help over the course of its existence. The $300,000 raised annually enables the organization to serve 500 people a year. Dimiceli’s strong donor recruitment is due in part to a weekly column he has been writing since 2003 for local newspapers. He writes under the pen name W.C.—meaning “With Christ”—telling the stories of people he’s helped and inviting those who need assistance to contact him. In the first two weeks after the column debuted 14 years ago, Dimiceli says he received 750 letters from people either seeking help or offering to volunteer, including teachers, police officers, fire officials, and other community service organizations. Dimiceli’s column continues to be the primary source of inquiries today.
He remembers two letters in particular: “One was from parents who had to carry their disabled children on a piece of plywood because they didn’t have supportive chairs,” he says. “Another was from a family that had nothing but a basket of shriveled potatoes—that’s what they were eating for dinner.”
Such moving stories have prompted donors like Gregg Kunes, who owns a dozen car dealerships across Wisconsin and Illinois, to join Dimiceli’s mission. Kunes has donated hundreds of vehicles to The Time Is Now to Help and provides more than $50,000 in annual funding. “Sometimes, God just puts people together,” he says of how he connected with Dimiceli. “He doesn’t just fix problems. He figures out how to sustain the help he gives and change people’s lives. He truly sees the humanity in people. He takes care of those who others deem as unlovable.”
More Than a Good Neighbor
Carol Remington, 59, is one such person. Her husband died from a stroke and her only daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Then, three years ago, she lost her condo in Lake Geneva when she couldn’t keep up with the escalating costs. “All I had left was my dog,” Remington says.
A volunteer at a food pantry gave her Dimiceli’s contact information after seeing his newspaper column. Remington wrote to him, and after meeting her, Dimiceli put her up in a motel for almost a year. He said he would pay for the room until she saved enough money from her lumberjack job to move into her own apartment. And even when she did, he covered her deposit, pet fee, and first month’s rent.
“If it wasn’t for Sal, I would be on the streets or six feet under,” Remington says. Now she’s able to give back to The Time Is Now to Help, conducting wellness checks, delivering furniture, and taking on other tasks as a volunteer for the organization. “I volunteer now more than I have in my life. I stop and help people all the time. I come home and feel gratified—and I’ve never felt like that before.
“‘Good Neighbor’ isn’t enough to describe Sal,” she adds.
But Dimiceli thinks he’s undeserving of such high praise. “I’m no hero just for doing what God wants us to do, which is love each other,” he says. “I’m just keeping the promise my 12-year-old self made.”
Contact Dimiceli at firstname.lastname@example.org and timeisnowtohelp.org.