A Boca Raton man’s dream: To help the homeless

www.palmbeachpost.com/news/a-boca-raton-mans-dream-to-help-the-2352080.html

Page 1 Accent section May 14, 2012

photo by: Bill Ingram

Mark Wasserman and his wife, Sue Gurland, with several of the collections boxes decorated by area children at home in Boca Raton.

A Boca Raton man’s dream: To help the homeless

By Carlos Frias

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Posted: 6:10 p.m. Friday, May 11, 2012

His dream was so real, so powerful that Mark Wasserman couldn’t go back to sleep.

For days, he had been trying to think of a new way to raise money to help homeless families in Palm Beach County, the focus of his volunteer efforts since retiring. Then, a bolt of inspiration woke him at 4 a.m. in his Boca Raton home.

“You want to hear my brilliant idea?” he whispered to his sleeping wife, Sue Gurland.

“I knew my husband well enough that if I didn’t listen then, he was going to be up all night tossing and turning – and not letting me sleep,” she said, laughing. “So I figured I’d better listen.”

In the twilight, Wasserman explained that he had imagined a plain house-shaped cardboard piggy bank – something like a Happy Meal – that children could decorate and place in their homes and around the community to collect loose change.

It could be a fun arts-and-crafts project that could teach children a much bigger lesson about the issue of homelessness.

Gurland hopped out of bed and flipped on her computer where she found not only that no one else had thought of this concept, but that they could order such boxes cheaply online. A simple but impactful idea was born.

Wasserman’s idea those 18 months ago – Houses for Charity – has now become a national campaign for the nonprofit group Family Promise in more than 150 cities. More than 20,000 houses decorated by little hands have raised more than $300,000 in loose change.

That initiative won Wasserman $5,000 for his charity, Family Promise of South Palm Beach County, from AARP, and he is now in the running to win up to $4,000 more for his organization in their Win and Do Good online contest that runs through May 21.

AARP will donate $5 for each vote Wasserman receives up to the first 800. (www.createthegood.org/sweeps)

“My subconscious works better than my conscious mind, at times,” Wasserman jokes of his inspiration.

In reality, Wasserman’s was one of the most trusted minds in the federal government. He was a senior economist for the White House’s Office of Management and Budget in Washington for more than 23 years before retiring to Palm Beach County in 2005.

The issue of homelessness was one that was close to his family. A niece who had nowhere to turn after losing her job nearly ended up on the streets until Wasserman, 68, and Gurland, 67, took her into their home until she got back on her feet and found a new job.

That’s what motivated Wasserman to co-found the local chapter of Family Promise in southern Palm Beach County, which has just three employees but more than 1,100 volunteers, thanks largely to the success of the Houses for Change program.

The local program started at Wasserman’s synagogue, B’nai Torah, where the children of the religious school raised more than $1,300.

It soon spread across faiths, to Catholic and other Christian churches, local YMCAs and food banks, until the national organization for Family Promise signed on as a national sponsor.

The money doesn’t have to go to Family Promise.

It can go to any charity that addresses the issue of homelessness, and that helps widen its reach.

“It’s a better mousetrap, a better version of the collection box, and people recognize this,” Wasserman said. “The project has universal appeal.”

Palm Beach County estimates between 1,700 and 1,900 of its children are homeless, said Mike Diamant, the president of the board of Family Promise of South Palm Beach County, and more than 200,000 children are homeless at any given moment nationally. And that’s why he has been so impressed watching Wasserman work tirelessly, from customizing the box banks to overseeing the organization’s website.

“He eats, sleeps and breathes the Houses for Change project,” Diamant said.

Recently, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings found out about Wasserman’s work and read his congratulations into the Congressional Record on Jan. 31. “People like Mark Wasserman are a shining example of those selfless individuals who have committed their life to helping their communities become a better place,” Hastings, D-Miramar, said in session.

Recently, a local rabbi attending a dinner at the White House delivered undecorated boxes for each of President Obama’s daughters and another designed to look like the White House. Wasserman is hoping the administration will use the boxes as part of homelessness awareness month in November.

Wasserman said his reward has been seeing children learn the lessons of compassion, charity and savings, especially when helping other children who are homeless.

He loves the example of the Chevy Chase, Md., school whose 175 children raised thousands of dollars, then used the money to buy food and delivered it to a homeless shelter in downtown Washington.

And he hopes it will inspire others.

“They see how the little bit adds up,” Wasserman said. “The kids could grasp how it really makes a difference.”