His Neighbors’ Keeper

 
 
 

THE SPECIAL STRENGTH TO PLACE

AN ENTIRE COMMUNITY ON YOUR SHOULDERS

Ken Taub

How do we measure a healthy heart?  By how generously it pumps.

People are known to help out individual strangers now and again.  Whatever the frequency, it is always significant.  So how significant is it when a person lifts up an entire community?

First, it might seem impossible, but as Harris Rosen knows, it’s not.  And while so much of the news coming at us is about gross income disparity, crumbling neighborhoods next to gated communities, and the increasing lack of opportunity facing our young, there is also good news out there.  Let me amend that – great news.

Charitable giving and great philanthropy are not new in America; we largely remain a generous people.  But what’s possible when the well-off take from themselves and, so doing, become their own Robin Hoods?  The answer:  All things are possible.

A virtual stone’s throw away from Disneyworld and Orlando’s International Drive tourist area, Tangelo Park was for years a low socioeconomic urban community with a high dropout rate.  Throughout the 1980s and 90s there was also rampant drug use, crime, and the kind of dysfunction that tends to ignite despair.

Fortunately, a former Disney executive with an entrepreneurial flair and a creative sense of What’s Possible took a keen interest in this neighborhood of about 2,400 people and chose, effectively, to adopt it.  Harris Rosen, the owner of several Florida-based hotels, decided that with the right kind of sustained investment, single parents, or both parents, could work, test scores could come up and the dropout rate could come down.  But some other hugely positive things wound up happening as well–things  few people could have foreseen.

In 1993, committed community leaders sat down with Rosen and the local school board superintendent to talk about a possible scholarship program.  Rosen provided the funds for this pilot project, working closely with the local elementary school, and a newly established advisory board, and the ball got rolling, slowly at first, and then with increasing velocity.

Fast-forward 21 years, and one can see that the statistics – and the tenor – of this once all-but-ignored community have changed, and dramatically so.  The Tangelo Park Elementary School has been an A-rated Florida Comprehensive Assessment school for six of the past seven years.  Grade Point Averages are up significantly.  Incredibly, the high school graduation rate, once about 25%, is now 100%.

As for higher education, nearly 200 students have received a full Harris Rosen Foundation scholarship.  Best of all, 77 percent of those who pursued higher education on Rosen’s dime graduated from college–the highest rate in the nation among communities of this socioeconomic level.

The upside of this dramatic rise in educational achievement is far more than a pervasive sense of pride. Life is better for the entire community.  Crime, for example, is down 63% and has continued to decline in recent years.

And how does this abundance of opportunity work?  Through widespread community involvement, and the enormous generosity of one man.  What’s the catch?  There is none.  You live in Tangelo Park, you get free daycare if you work, and your college tuition, courtesy of Harris Rosen, is paid in full if you graduate high school.  Two daycare centers have grown to ten, so many more parents can now work full time.  Parents also get access to parenting classes, vocational courses and technical training, if they choose to take advantage of it.

Harris Rosen has said, “The more successful I am, the more I can give… But we just don’t write a check, we are intimately involved.”

It’s a tangible, and extraordinary, example of the difference one person can make.  It’s also a master class in how great affluence can be leveraged for the greater good.

Clearly, it’s not just a giant helping hand to so many people today; the scope of this giving will span generations. Each of these Tangelo Park kids who graduate from vocational schools, community colleges or 4 year universities will go on to earn more money for the bulk of their working lives, and they are far more likely to inculcate the values of education and aspirational living to their own children.

It is the most beneficent, and far-reaching, of virtuous circles.

As for the tangible value of this large investment?  So far, Harris Rosen has invested about $10 million in the children and families of Tangelo Park, a large sum by any measure.  But one economist who has done a comprehensive study of Rosen’s program estimates the return of his investment to society and the tax base–in terms of reduced crime, reduced welfare and social service spending, and increased lifetime earnings–to be 7 to 1.  In other words, not only an enlightened offering but a smart investment, too.

Asked why he has personally done so much for so many years, Harris Rosen, who grew up poor near New York City’s Bowery, said he came to a glaringly simple realization.  “One day I realized that the Good Lord has given me more than I ever dreamed.  It’s time to give back.”  And while other successful people have had this thought, Rosen decided to turn a fleeting sentiment into a lifetime of active generosity.

As for duplicating or expanding the Tangelo Park Program into other towns and cities across the nation, he’s stated, “What we’d like to do now is nationalize the program–no public sector involvement whatsoever, all private sector–to get professional sports franchises, Fortune 500 companies and foundations to adopt neighborhoods near their arenas or headquarters.”

Harris Rosen summed it up this way: “There’s about 2,500 disadvantaged communities in America and if every single one of them had a Tangelo Park-type program we would not recognize America.  So that is my dream.  My dream is to see this kind of program in every disadvantaged neighborhood in the United States.”

And a dream turned into a plan is a powerful thing.  Tangelo Park is proof positive of that.

Ken Taub
Ken Taub, Associate Editor of RoelResources.com, is a New York-based independent advertising and marketing consultant, copywriter and freelance writer, and co-owner of a yoga studio, with a background in philosophy and a degree in Chinese Studies.  Contact: kenja@optonline.net or go to www.kentaub.com.