Unsung Heroes: Harris Rosen

Unsung Heroes: Harris Rosen

Recently Lebron James made headlines by opening a state of the art school in his hometown of Akron, it is my hope that this kind of generosity would become contagious. I was scrolling down my timeline on facebook and someone shared a photo of a gentleman who made a similar gesture to improve the quality of life in a community close to where he lived. This story is actually 3 years old and comes out of the NY Times, written by Lissette Alvarez. Today’s unsung hero is Mr. Harris Rosen. Made is riches in the hospitality industry(hotels) rather than invest his money in jails and prisons. Mr. Rosen chooses to put money into a at-risk community creating pipelines to success and giving people hope. Salute to Mr. Rosen. Please read and enjoy the article, if you had the opportunity would you do the same thing?

ORLANDO, Fla. — Two decades ago, Harris Rosen, who grew up poor on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and became wealthy in the Florida hotel business, decided to shepherd part of his fortune into a troubled community with the melodious sounding name of Tangelo Park.

A quick snap from the city’s tourist engine, this neighborhood of small, once-charming houses seemed a world away from theme park pleasures as its leaders tried to beat back drugs, crime, and too many shuttered homes. Nearly half its students had dropped out of school.

Twenty-one years later, with an infusion of $11 million of Mr. Rosen’s money so far, Tangelo Park is a striking success story. Nearly all its seniors graduate from high school, and most go on to college on full scholarships Mr. Rosen has financed.

Young children head for kindergarten primed for learning, or already reading, because of the free daycare centers and a prekindergarten program Mr. Rosen provides. Property values have climbed. Houses and lawns, with few exceptions, are welcoming. Crime has plummeted.

“We are sitting on gold here now,” said Jeroline G. Adkinson, president of the Tangelo Park Civic Association and a longtime resident of the mostly black community. “It has helped change the community.”

Still, Tangelo Park’s progress raises as many questions as it answers. While heartwarming, can it be replicated? Or is it the singular story of a singular figure willing to donate not only his money but also his time?

Some elements of Tangelo Park’s success, like its focus on both early childhood education and college, are being used in other programs. And other individuals have played prominent roles in changing students’ lives elsewhere.

George Weiss created Say Yes to Education, which offers scholarships and helps high school students succeed, and Geoff Canada spearheaded the comprehensive Harlem Children’s Zone, which has enhanced the futures of thousands of children in Harlem who attend charter schools.

But Tangelo Park is perhaps hard to mimic in other ways.

The community is small — with only 3,000 people — and filled with homeowners, making it unusual for an urban area. Tangelo has determined leaders who were fighting the drug trade even before Mr. Rosen’s arrival. And it has had Mr. Rosen’s focus and financing over 21 years.

“It’s not inexpensive,” Mr. Rosen said. “You stay until the neighborhood no longer needs you.”

But, he added, there are a lot of wealthy people with the resources to do the same thing if they choose.

Sitting with his feet propped up on his old, weathered wooden desk, Mr. Rosen, 75, fit, trim and not given to formalities (his shelter dogs are known to wander about the room), said the program was rooted in an element absent in many American neighborhoods.

“Hope,” Mr. Rosen said.

Why devote countless hours to school if college, with its high cost, is out of reach?

“If you don’t have any hope,” he added, “then what’s the point?”

The Tangelo Park Program succeeds in large part because of its simplicity. There is no charter school for its children — about 900 under the age of 18 — no large bureaucracy, no hunt for money, no staff to speak of. It is run almost entirely by volunteers, mostly community leaders.

In all, Mr. Rosen now spends about $500,000 a year, less than when he began the program, he said.

Mr. Rosen’s plan gives no money directly to the schools, directing it instead to help preschool children and provide scholarships for high school graduates. A details man, he prefers to show up: to every monthly board meeting but two for 21 years and to many scholarship and graduation ceremonies, including those for day cares, all while running seven hotels and carving out time for his four children.

“This program is drastically different from others because it wraps both arms around the community and says we are here to serve you and help you become the best person that you can be,” said Bernice King, the daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the director of the King Center in Atlanta, which gave Mr. Rosen an award in January. “A lot of these programs, they have only one piece here and one piece there.”

Mr. Rosen, who heads Rosen Hotels and Resorts, provides college scholarships each year to all Tangelo Park seniors headed for Florida public colleges and trade schools. The scholarships pay tuition, room and board, books and travel costs.

For the youngest children, he created a system of free daycare centers in Tangelo Park homes, ensuring that the certified providers, who are also the homeowners, instruct children as young as 2. He also started and finances a prekindergarten program in the local elementary school and offers parents training through the University of Central Florida on how to support their children.

“This has been so good for the children of Tangelo Park,” said Diondra Newton, the principal at Tangelo Park Elementary, speaking about the daycare centers. “You see a huge difference between kids who did the program and those who come from elsewhere.”

Last week, 20 of Tangelo Park’s 25 seniors graduated from high school with Rosen scholarships in hand. Since 1994, Mr. Rosen has distributed nearly 450 scholarships.

“It’s half the battle — to visualize they can go to college,” said Sam Butler, a longtime resident.

Jerry L. Demings, the sheriff of Orange County, which includes Tangelo Park, said it was a changed neighborhood. Violent crime is way down, in part because of the program, and his officers no longer make frequent stops there. “The quality of life there has improved significantly,” he said.

Mr. Rosen’s approach to life and business is grounded in his upbringing as a grandchild of Ukrainian immigrants. Every day as a boy in the 1940s and 1950s, he would walk past homeless alcoholics in the Bowery.

“I understand how difficult it is to extract yourself from underserved communities,” he said.

His style is unorthodox. After helping Disney World roll out its first hotels, the Contemporary and the Polynesian, he was fired. Not enough of a company man, he said he had been told.

With $20,000 in savings for a deposit, he bought a roadside Quality Inn in Orlando in 1974 and became its gardener, security guard, and buffet server. He offered cheap prices to New England tour bus operators, who funneled tourists into his rooms. The hotel is now the Rosen Inn International, and his office is there still, in the same small unassuming room where he lived for 16 years.

Next year, Mr. Rosen is starting his education program in Parramore, a neighborhood in downtown Orlando, with housing projects and a more transient population. It will pose greater challenges than Tangelo Park, with its church, Y.M.C.A., and civic association.

Success in Parramore, he said, might persuade other wealthy people to embrace the program.

For the time being, Mr. Rosen delights in Tangelo Park. He recalls his first visit to the elementary school in 1993. When he asked the children how many wanted to go to college, “two or three hands went up, and I said, ‘That has to change,’ ” he said. A year later, “every hand went up.”

In August, Ariana Plaza, who graduated from Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando last week, will enroll in the University of Central Florida as a pre-med psychology student, a goal that once seemed unattainable.

Sitting in her small, gray house, mango trees in the yard, she said her path there had been filled with sleepless nights as she juggled a job, Advanced Placement and honors classes, soccer, and help for her autistic brother.

But, she added, the scholarship was the payoff, one her mother and father never had.

“He has taken the burden off me and my entire family,” Ms. Plaza said of Mr. Rosen. “He opened up a lot of doors.”

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