Helping People

Building a better South Florida

Miami Herald staff

On a rainy October Friday, volunteers from LNR Property served chicken nuggets, painted faces and manned an obstacle course for the children who attend ARC Project Thrive. The Harvest Festival was part of a three-year-long relationship between the real estate investment firm and the Kendall early intervention program for young children with intellectual and developmental delays.

A day later, on a sunny Saturday, workers from Swire Properties’ Brickell City Centre, along with other volunteers from Wells Fargo, helped construct a home for a Liberty City family. The Habitat for Humanity house will be completed by the end of the year, after volunteers have done everything from roofing to framing to landscaping. It is the third home sponsored by Brickell City Centre in the past two years. Parent company Swire has done eight, bringing the total to 11.

Next weekend Baptist Health workers and their families will help color in the lines of a mural at the South Miami Aquatic Center and prepare an area for landscaping at a youth center in west Homestead, while in years past accountants at MBAF have landscaped a home and distributed food to the needy in Liberty City. Lawyers and staff from Greenberg Traurig also have bowled with kids from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Miami and painted a wood fence at the McLamore Children’s Center, an emergency shelter for children who have been abused.

Today, corporations are doing more than writing checks for needy organizations. They’re turning to their employees, asking them to get involved in their community with a little elbow grease. Feeding the homeless. Building houses for the needy. Mentoring at-risk youth. Cleaning dirty beaches. Some projects are completed during work hours, others on weekends, when employee’s families are also included. Across South Florida, efforts to be a good corporate citizen have been steadily increasing.

“You can plot a straight upward line of interest in the six years I’ve been involved,” says Darrill Gaschler, chief operating officer of HandsOn Miami, a group that matches volunteers to nonprofits. “And not only are we seeing more interest but we’re also seeing companies bringing more employees, asking for longer projects and doing it more frequently.”

For those who volunteer through an employer, the reason is obvious.

“People want to see the impact of their contribution,” says Cory Olson, president of LNR, “and it cuts across all the demographics and levels. The work may be more time-consuming than writing a check, but you see the results right there.”

LNR has been working with ARC Project Thrive since 2012, when the investment company asked United Way if it could do more. Since then LNR has created an herb garden, painted playground equipment, added murals to a tricycle trail and landscaped the front of the ARC property. Company volunteers have also worked at Habitat for Humanity house-building Saturdays.

The company’s 300 employees receive an email detailing an upcoming project and can sign up through the human resources department. Olson says there is usually a waiting list.

“Every time we have a program we have to turn people away,” he adds. “Then when we finish a project, they’re asking, ‘When are we going to do it again? Why don’t we do this more often?’ They truly enjoy it.”

Chris Gandolfo, senior vice president of development for Swire Properties, recounts a similar experience. He feels his employees are particularly suited to help Habitat for Humanity, providing both construction and design expertise along with actual labor. “They do it it once and they’re hooked,” he says. “It turns out to be a lot of fun.”

Many volunteer projects chosen by corporations often align with a company’s industry profile — Baptist Health employees, for example, plant new gardens or add to existing ones at West Kendall schools to teach children about proper nutrition. In some partnerships, executives sit on a nonprofit’s board — Swire’s Gandolfo is on Habitat for Humanity’s. Some are arranged marriages that live happily ever after, like LNR and ARC Project Thrive, brokered by United Way. And still others come to fruition from the ground up, suggested by a committed employee.

At the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, Chief Integration Officer Sandy Grossman has organized Christmas Eve parties for Chapman Partnership families. Matt Gorson, the law firm’s co-chairman, launched a drive to sign up employees to serve as mentors for kids through Big Brothers Big Sisters. Every month, 27 young people spend the morning in the office learning about the legal system and the world of work.

“It takes less time to write a check,” Gorson says, “but there’s not the same commitment. When you’re serving on boards, serving on committees, working on projects for an organization, it’s so much more powerful.”

For some companies, volunteering is part of the corporate culture. “Part of our mission is to give back to the community we service,” says Juan C. Gutierrez, director of human resources for MBAF, one of the nation’s Top 40 certified public accounting firms. “It starts from the top and it trickles down. It’s a commitment we feel strongly about.”

Gutierrez notes that younger employees are interested in volunteerism: “They grew up with it going to school and they expect it.”

For the nonprofits, volunteering not only sends needed crews: It produces a valuable byproduct.

“It’s a great way of getting our message and our mission across,” says Alex Rosen, marketing manager for Miami-Dade’s Chapman Partnership, which provides comprehensive services to the homeless. “When volunteers come here, they learn about homelessness and many return to do more. They become donors.”

It’s the old-fashioned way of going viral. Rosen calls the more than 20,000 volunteers who come through the centers “the backbone” of the organization.

Mario Artecona, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Miami, admits his organization wouldn’t be able to help as many families if not for the companies that work through the Team Build program. “Simply we would have to build less,” he adds. “Team Build is the lifeblood of our ability to help families.”

But businesses also profit from their good deeds beyond the obvious goodwill. Working side by side with colleagues and higher-ups for a charity can build camaraderie. Friendships often form across departments. “When you see the CEO holding the ladder for the receptionist, all titles disappear,” Artecona says. “It’s really a win-win situation.”

Stefanie Lenahan, director of engagement for United Way, which often brokers partnerships between businesses and agencies, says the team-building effort required to work on a volunteer project often carries back over into the office. “It’s a great morale booster,” she says. “And it gives employees networking opportunities and exposure.”

Agency directors say the work provided by the corporate-sponsored volunteers is priceless. At ARC Project Thrive, both money and labor have provided the extra perks that the center would not be able to afford otherwise, from a playground mural to computers.

“They’re a blessing,” says Irma Alvarez Project Thrive’s school director, of the LNR volunteers. “They make such a big difference in our lives.”