A Legacy of Giving

REALTORS® Relief Foundation marks 10 years of 'bringing help home.'

September 1, 2011

“What can we do to help?”

That’s the question that was racing through Martin Edwards’ mind on Sept. 11, 2001, as he drove a rental car nearly 400 miles to his home in Memphis.

Edwards, then president-elect of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, had been in Fairhope, Ala., to speak at the Mississippi Association of REALTORS®’ annual meeting. As he was about to take the stage, he was ushered aside and told about the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

The meeting was scuttled. With all flights grounded, Edwards was able to procure a car, and after ensuring the safety of his adult daughter—who was in New York on business—he phoned 2001 NAR President Richard Mendenhall. The two men mulled over the question. “This was our Pearl Harbor,” Edwards says. “We agreed that REALTORS® were going to want to do something to help this country.”

The two leaders coordinated with NAR executives Dale Stinton, then chief financial officer, and Frank Sibley, senior vice president of communications and convention, who “got us focused on what we could do,” Edwards says. Within 24 hours, they had reached out to REALTOR® associations in the states most affected by the attacks. They had a plan and a mission: No family would lose its home as a result of the attacks. The association would collect funds to help surviving family members pay their mortgage or rent for a defined period, generally three months, as they tried to get their lives in order.

‘Our Finest Hour’

The REALTORS® Housing Relief Fund was launched on Sept. 12, 2001, with this commitment: 100 percent of the money it collected would go to surviving family members. “I’m sure you were shocked, angered, and saddened at the terrorist tragedies …,” Mendenhall said in an e-mail to members soliciting donations. “Let us resolve that no family suffering from yesterday’s tragedies will be forced to lose their home.”

NAR kicked off the fund with a $1 million donation, and money began pouring in almost immediately from local and state associations and from individuals. Working with REALTOR® volunteers and association staff in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., NAR collected and paid out nearly $8.5 million—helping 1,333 families—within a period of just three months.

“I’ve often said, and I believe, it was our finest hour,” Edwards says.

“The enormous generosity of REALTORS®, the public, and even small children giving to our fund will forever be etched in my mind,” says Mendenhall. “But the value of the fund can’t be measured in just money. NAR donated the letters we received from the victims’ families to the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Each letter tells an individual story of tragedy, survival, and appreciation.”

One of the integral players was New York State Association of REALTORS® Communications Director Sal Prividera, who coordinated the application process in his state.

“REALTORS® should be very proud of the way they banded together nationally to help, in some cases, their neighbors and, in some cases, people they didn’t know, their fellow countrymen,” Prividera says. “Frankly, while others were struggling to deal with what happened to us as a country, we were able to step up.”

Carol Kope, principal broker and CEO of Westchester Homes in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., delivered checks to about a half-dozen survivors. “One was the wife of a police officer in Rockland with two children. I spent a couple of hours with her. It was a minuscule thing, but I felt I was doing something to help.”

After the relief effort, Mendenhall says, such sentiments were common. “Many, and I mean many, REALTORS® across the country found their own individual solace in working to help raise money to give at least some comfort,” he says.

‘An Extension of Who REALTORS® Are’

That remarkable effort marked the start of the REALTORS® Relief Foundation, which, over a 10-year span, has provided more than $22 million in funding to help citizens recover from hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, wildfires, and other major disasters. The sum includes more than $9 million for victims of the 2005 hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.

Throughout its history, the foundation has maintained its commitment to spend no money on administrative costs, a pledge that has encouraged REALTORS® to think of the foundation when they see a major disaster unfolding and ask themselves, “What can I do to help?” Most recently, REALTORS® have donated money that has gone to help victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan; tornadoes in Alabama, Massachusetts, and Missouri; and flooding in North Dakota.

 “We have been challenged by Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina, the Gulf oil gusher, and now this year’s tornadoes,” says J. Danny Cooper, CEO of the Alabama Association of REALTORS®. “All of these events had a major impact on the state’s economy, on individual REALTORS®, and on our local associations. Yet, without missing a beat, we’ve continued to help families with what we could. If we had not had disaster assistance from NAR and from around the country, we could not have helped.”

News of the April 27 Alabama tornadoes was overshadowed by the deadly tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., May 22. But many REALTORS® recognized the daunting rebuilding effort that lay ahead for the state. “There have been so many REALTORS® wanting to give, including people willing to drive across the country to help, that we had to set up a task force to coordinate the labor,” says Robert Scott, CRB, CRS, 2011 president of the Alabama Association of REALTORS®. “This is my 35th year in the business, and it reaffirmed for me how good people are—how good REALTORS® are —nationwide.”

For Mendenhall, a practitioner in Columbia, Mo., the emotion that drove him to help start the REALTORS® Relief Foundation came full circle this year. Ten days before the Joplin tornado, he had volunteered to serve as interim CEO of the Missouri Association of REALTORS®.

“The day after the storm, we went into immediate action to try to raise money, but honestly I did not know where the funds would come from,” he says. Then he got a call from his good friend, Martin Edwards, now president of the REALTORS® Relief Foundation. “When he told me the fund would be sending us considerable money, I shed tears. I could hardly talk,” he says.

“Many people think we just sell property,” Mendenhall says. “In actuality, we help people find the place they will call home, the place they will call their business. We help people find quality of life. And when we see others lose their quality of life though tragedy, we take action. The work of the foundation is an extension of who REALTORS® are. It cannot be measured except by the heart.”   

Stacey Moncrieff

Stacey is executive editor of publications for the National Association of REALTORS® and editor in chief of REALTOR® Magazine.