Wilma Gonzalez is an editorial assistant at REALTOR® Magazine. In addition to taking on the occasional writing project, she helps manage the magazine's Good Neighbor Awards.
Building Tomorrow’s Leaders
Mony Nop overcame a traumatic past and finds joy in teaching the next generation to dream big.
August 30, 2017
Mony Nop’s memories as a child in the 1970s include walking for days from his home in Cambodia to Thailand to escape the brutality of the Khmer Rouge movement and its military leader Pol Pot. The radical Communist regime was responsible for nearly 2 million deaths.
Nop was 6 years old when he and his parents and three siblings fled their homeland. He remembers seeing people shot and maimed, stepping over dead bodies, running through tall grass in the jungles, and eating whatever he could find. “The biggest fear I had was landmines,” Nop said. “I just followed everyone else to stay safe.”
Though the family survived, the trauma of spending nearly five years in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines remains vivid. “I can still remember sitting on the floor in a big tent,” says Nop. ‘We were given rice porridge and I poured extra in my bowl and a kid jumped up and bit me. I still have a three-inch scar on my chest.”
In 1983 Nop’s family immigrated to San Francisco. His painful past has served as a lifelong motivator, driving him to establish a personal path focused on helping others in his community overcome a host of obstacles.
A New Chapter Begins
Gang life was prominent in Stockton, Calif., where Nop’s eventually family settled, but the studious young man avoided trouble, quickly learned English, and adapted to American culture. “I skipped fifth grade, completed sixth, seventh and eighth grades in the same year, and received first place in math, spelling, and handwriting contests,” says Nop. His desire to help people was sparked in a 10th grade civics class that was taught by a police captain. Nop remembers thinking: “I will do something with my life,” says Nop.
“Without Mony’s movement and action, I don’t think we would be so strong—he brings children, teachers, and a whole region together.” —Genevieve Getman-Sowa
Passionate about community involvement, and specifically, helping young people stay out of trouble, he chose pursue an associate’s degree in criminal justice and become a police officer. “The challenges with my vocabulary were enormous for me,” says Nop. “It took me four years to pass the written exam before finally being accepted into the police academy.” The Livermore, Calif., police department hired him in 1995. For 17 years, he worked in various roles, including patrol officer, undercover agent, and manager of the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, where he would ultimately make classroom presentations to thousands of students at 20 area schools.
But Nop couldn’t give up on helping young people, especially the children whose families struggled. “I feel a connection because I grew up poor and did not know English,” says Nop. “I believe that every child’s dreams and aspirations deserve to be nurtured and fed.” He met with Principal Pat Avilla of Christensen Middle School as well as city officials to share his vision of empowering teens to identify and pursue their dreams.
Since 2012, the Mony Nop Foundation has mentored the next generation of young adults by providing middle and high school students with leadership development opportunities. Several times a year, he and a professional trainer give five-hour seminars to middle school students who were chosen by teachers and principals for their leadership potential. Nop’s personal story of overcoming obstacles is central to teaching children to persevere, no matter what their challenges, and to value giving back.
“He inspires students to tackle problems, mentor others, and provide hours of community service where previously they had never considered themselves as leaders,” says Avilla. “Mony inspires kids to dream, to reach, to make goals. Kids who might not have thought that they had the ability to do something great.”
Wanting kids to picture themselves as leaders, Nop provides up to six scholarships a year to students to participate in arts, athletics, and leadership camps. In order to teach those students to give back, scholarship recipients are required to participate in community service.
Alejandra Arroyo, 17, of Livermore, Calif., plays the violin and dreams of getting a degree in sound engineering and starting her own studio. Her 13-year-old sister, Evelyn, plays the cello and aspires to become a neurosurgeon. “Our mom was overwhelmed with happiness to know that Mony made a difference in our lives by funding $500 each for our music lessons at a time that was so hard for her to pay for our classes,” says Alejandra. “I never thought I was capable of receiving a scholarship before.”
In addition to the scholarships, the Mony Nop Foundation donates money to school programs that enable hundreds of students and teachers to attend sporting events and live theater, supports the school’s leadership programs, and funds a program that connects local students with students in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.
“Mony has connected more people than anyone I have ever met in my entire life. He has a phenomenal talent for understanding what people need and connecting them,” says Genevieve Getman-Sowa, Mony Nop Foundation development director. “He saw a lot of anguish when he was a cop; now he lives every day with joy of being able to serve people.”
Building bridges and obtaining resources are two roles that Nop does best. So he found a way to help area nonprofit leaders join forces to form a local alliance. “My goal is to grow and empower the [nonprofit] leaders, one at a time, and in a unique way that will make our region a better place to live,” says Nop.
Vote for Mony to win up to $2,500 in bonus grant money for his charity at realtor.com/goodneighbor.
In 2014, Nop cofounded the Tri-Valley Nonprofit Alliance to provide education and networking experiences to staff, volunteers, and board members from charitable organizations throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. In just over three years, he has built a membership base of more than 100 members.
“Mony is a doer who has a heart four times too big. He’s on the front lines all the time connecting people, building relationships, and has no qualms in reaching out to say ‘help,’” says TVNPA cofounder Kathy Young, chief operating officer of the nonprofit Fannie & John Hertz Foundation.
With everything on his plate, people often ask him how he juggles his roles as a real estate professional and a busy volunteer. ”It’s very difficult to balance work and volunteering at the same time. Money has always been a tool for me, but it has never been my number one goal in life. My goal is to sell enough homes so I can pay my bills. My passion has always been about serving the less fortunate first and making a difference in their lives too.”
Nop’s childhood has made him stretch beyond what he may have thought he could endure. After all he’s been through, no goal he envisions looks difficult to him. “As one of the most blessed people on Earth, I believe it’s my duty to give back and serve others so they too can enjoy this slice of heaven on Earth,” says Nop. “I just want to make a difference in the lives of others, particularly children.”
Contact Nop at firstname.lastname@example.org and the Mony Nop Foundation at www.monynopfoundation.org.