Robert Freedman is the former director of multimedia communications at NAR.
Serving Those Who Served
Veterans who fall on hard times are often embarrassed to ask for help. REALTOR® Jack Persin makes the needed connections so their dire home repairs get done.
August 30, 2018
Alex Durbin and his family lived for years without heat and with limited running water in their home in Westmont, Ill. That changed in 2017, when a small nonprofit called Naperville Responds for Veterans learned of their plight and stepped in.
Durbin was a Korean War veteran, a paratrooper with the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division who had made more than 100 jumps during his years of service. But by the time the nonprofit sent a group of volunteers to assess the condition of his house, he had been on disability for years, his wife was disabled, and his adult daughter struggled to care for the two of them. “They were living in a way that no one should have to live,” says Mike Gurgone, a longtime family friend who alerted the group to the condition of the Durbins’ home. “The house was in disarray. This is Chicago; you have to have heat. He didn’t have running water in most of the sinks.”
Naperville Responds for Veterans brought in a contractor to oversee the replacement of the HVAC system, plumbing, roof, and appliances—all at no cost to the family. “Our verbal thanks is just not enough,” says Durbin’s daughter, Gail.
Durbin, who passed away shortly after the work was completed, told his family before he died at age 83 that he was at peace knowing his wife and daughter would be taken care of in their renovated home. “I thought maybe just friends helped other people,” says Gurgone, “but Naperville Responds has completely proven me wrong. It’s changed my belief system. It went way, way above the call of duty.”
Ready to Help
Naperville Responds for Veterans was launched in 2009 by REALTOR® Jack Persin, a broker-associate with Baird & Warner in Naperville, Ill., and Navy veteran who helped recover the Apollo 13 spacecraft after it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean in 1970. Sharon Gorrell, then-government affairs director at the Illinois Association of REALTORS®, also helped launch the organization. Gorrell and Persin met with the mayor of Naperville, several other real estate professionals, a builder, and a lender. Shortly after that, the tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization was founded to improve housing conditions for veterans who need help. “When someone signs up to serve our country, they are saying they will defend us and, if they have to, give their life to protect our freedom. Serving veterans in need is the least I can do to thank them,” says Persin.
From the beginning, Gorrell says, Persin was the heartbeat of the organization. He tirelessly raised money, recruited board members, and served as the unofficial chief advocate for the men and women who put their lives on the line for their country and often found themselves—and their family members—suffering in silence. “Because he’s a veteran himself, he knows how to break through their natural reluctance to ask for help when they need it,” says Gorrell.
Persin says he finds inspiration in the military’s code of honor and its focus on self-reliance and accountability. “I try to live these values every day,” he says. “It’s given me the discipline to do the things I have to, whether it’s helping my clients or helping people in need.”
It was his military discipline that pushed him to get up at 2 a.m. once a week, years before the veterans group was created, to make breakfast for residents of a local homeless shelter through his church, St. Raphael Catholic Church. “Their situation affected me greatly,” he says.
“When someone signs up to serve our country, they are saying they will defend us and, if they have to, give their life to protect our freedom. Serving veterans in need is the least I can do to thank them.”–Jack Persin
Persin says his dad showed him the importance of helping others. “When I was 7 or 8 years old [in the 1950s], I first saw a homeless man sleeping in an alleyway in Cleveland,” he says. “I didn’t know if he was dead or alive. My dad told me he didn’t have a home. Dad stopped to talk with him and gave him five dollars. When we got back to the car, he told me the man did not have any money to buy something to eat. Back in those days, five dollars was a lot of money, and my parents worked hard for their money. Dad always helped others, whether it was a neighbor, family member, or someone he didn’t know. I felt good when dad was doing good things and told myself that I wanted to be like my dad.”
REALTORS® Step Up
Since its founding, Naperville Responds for Veterans has helped more than 200 veterans and their families, and the organization is growing. Meg Landek, the nonprofit’s treasurer, says that in 2016, the group spent almost $170,000 repairing or replacing roofs, installing wheelchair ramps, paving new driveways, and putting in appliances for some 40 veterans. It did about the same in 2017. This year, they are on track to double the number of people served thanks to record fundraising activities. “This will be our biggest year by far,” says Persin.
One of the more ambitious projects was replacing and furnishing a disabled veteran’s mobile home that was beyond repair. The nonprofit also built him a deck with a wheelchair ramp so he could enter and exit his home independently.
Landek credits Persin for recruiting nearly 40 REALTORS® over the years to serve on the nonprofit’s board and for getting builders and others in residential real estate to support the effort. The group holds one major fundraiser a year, Cheers for Veterans, a splashy banquet with a live and silent auction. Last year, the fundraiser brought in about $100,000. Naperville Responds for Veterans also holds several smaller events that typically raise between $15,000 and $30,000 a year, including a spring lunch to honor veterans, an annual golf tournament, a boat race, and a local builders’ parade of homes.
“Jack Persin is the definition of the servant leader,” says Gorrell. “He brings a can-do attitude to whatever hurdles we face. He’s always cool and collected. I can’t tell you how many ledges he’s talked me off of. Whenever I worry we can’t get something done, he just does it. He’s a wonderful, inclusive leader, who cares about his country, veterans, his industry, and the human soul.”
Persin acknowledges the sacrifice veterans have made and says he wants to make his own sacrifice for them. “Veterans with courage fought for us on the front lines, yet many won’t ask for help when they are in dire need,” he says. “We try to find the ones who need us.”