Harris Rosen confesses that for most of his life, he didn’t think that much about philanthropy. “It just wasn’t something I was in a position to participate in,” says the 76-year-old hotelier, who grew up the child of poor Ukrainian immigrants in an impoverished neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “It occurred to me when I was sitting at my desk contemplating a sixth hotel and dreaming about a resort I would build one day that I had to not forget my roots and that I had to say ‘Thank you, God’ for the success I had achieved.”
For Rosen, founder of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, that meant getting serious about giving back. When a grassroots effort by the residents of a Florida community threatened by socioeconomic demographic problems came to his attention, he was ready to step in.
From the late ’80s to the early ’90s, the community of Tangelo Park, located near Orlando’s bustling International Drive tourist area, was plagued by drug problems, poor school attendance, declining test scores and high school dropout rates. In 1993, Rosen met with community leaders driving an effort to reclaim their neighborhood and began the Tangelo Park Program, which awarded scholarship assistance to local teens.
“But we decided that a college scholarship was not really enough,” he recounts. “If it was going to be a meaningful and beneficial program for youngsters in under-served communities, it needed to begin when they were still very young.”
EDUCATION AFFECTS EVERYTHING
The Tangelo Park Program began offering free early intervention pre-school for two-, three- and four-year-olds. That soon expanded to a feeder-school program, where Tangelo Park children
receive help transitioning to the local public schools as well as college placement assistance. Finally, all children from the program are offered free tuition, room and board to a vocational school, community college or public university in the state of Florida. For local parents, the knowledge that their children will be able to not only attend college, but graduate with zero debt has changed the collective mindset from one of near-despair to one of possibility. “You have to infuse the neighborhood with hope,” says Rosen.
Even Rosen has been amazed by the results. According to a study by the University of Central Florida, the crime rate in Tangelo Park has plummeted roughly 65% since the program was established. The high school graduation rate has increased from 50 percent to 100% and among those who enroll in four-year colleges, the graduation rate is 77%.
Rosen, whose company today operates seven hotels, resorts and retreats in the Orlando metropolitan area, says he owes his success to his parents’ encouragement. The first in his family to attend college, he earned a degree from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration.
“Not every child has that,” he says. “Those of us who grew up in those kinds of communities understand the challenges and how hard it is to move from a community like that to a different life.”
SPREADING THE GIVING GOSPEL
Rosen has traveled around the country pitching the idea to foundations and individual donors in the hopes that others would be inspired to replicate it. So far he’s had no takers. But he believes fervently in private sector participation in boosting under-served communities.
“We tell people, do it for selfish reasons. If you’re in the retail business, if you’re selling cars, groceries, clothes, imagine the hundreds of thousands of youngsters who heretofore did not have an opportunity to go to college; now they’re going, their earnings are improving exponentially and they’ll be able to buy your product or service. That’s hundreds of thousands more potential customers for your business,” says Rosen.
He acknowledges that he has an advantage many public companies do not. “I don’t have a board of directors or shareholders, so I don’t have anybody who tells me what to do. I can do the right thing if I want to.” It was for that reason that Rosen commissioned a return-on-investment study from economics professor Lance Lochner of Western University, who specializes in nonprofit ROI. The result? Every dollar invested in the program returned $7 to society in the form of reduced crime and incarcerations, increased home values and increased lifetime salaries for graduates, among other factors. “[Lochner] said it was the best return he’d ever seen.”
Rosen is still holding out hope that that ROI evidence will convince other business leaders and foundations to take on underserved communities with similar programs. In the meantime, he
is replicating his own work in the nearby community of Parramore, where a $41.3 million community school is currently being built—with a preschool funded by Rosen. Attending preschool
graduation in Tangelo Park is one of the happiest moments each year for Rosen, whose job it is to move the children’s tassels from right to left.
“The moms and dads are there, there’s a lot of emotion, and I tell them, ‘Get ready, moms and dads, because this is just the beginning of many graduation ceremonies that you’ll be attending,’” he says. “It’s such a wonderful way for a child to start a life.”