REALTORS® Building Great Communities: It's a ''We'' Thing

How REALTORS® and community leaders are helping teenagers improve their chances of personal success and future homeownership with a dynamic new approach to teaching financial literacy.


 Jim Wood  |    March 08, 2017
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This article is the second in the “REALTORS® Building Great Communities” series dedicated to showcasing the role many REALTORS® play in helping their communities sustain the prosperity and quality of life we all want for our families, friends, neighbors and clients. If you have a story, share it with us, and please share this story with friends and family to help them understand how REALTORS® help build great communities.

Flashback

It was a sad day in 2006. Well-known and revered Milwaukee business, community and philanthropic leader Marty Stein has passed away; and the thousands of men, women and children in the Milwaukee area who have benefited from his vision and generosity are mourning his passing. One of those people is Marty’s longtime friend, Lloyd Levin, who is grieving Marty’s passing but is also thinking about how to honor his legacy. As Lloyd ponders that question, he remembers that shortly before his passing, Marty authored a letter to the editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in which he highlighted issues he saw putting the communities he cared about so much at risk. Rereading the letter, Lloyd is struck by his friend’s passion and his parting words: “I implore you, not for me, but for all of our great grandchildren — get involved in a child’s life. Help them to see the opportunities, help them to be all they can. May God bless you as all of you help to change the world.”

Fast forward

It’s 2016. Staff, volunteers, donors and supporters of the 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization Make A Difference–Wisconsin gather on the organization’s 10th anniversary to reflect on what they’ve accomplished in their efforts to help high school students gain the financial literacy skills they need to survive and thrive in the modern world. 

Make A Difference–Wisconsin is based on a vision of stronger communities built by an investment in “money smart” teens and pursues this vision by empowering teens with financial literacy educational resources and real-world lessons. The organization offers two programs. The Money Sense program provides a foundation of personal finance for high school juniors and seniors through interactive presentations on budgeting/banking, checking and credit. The Money Coach program, which builds on the core concepts of the Money Sense program, focuses on direct volunteer-to-student interaction and provides an in-depth understanding of financial concepts and hands-on goal-setting. 

During the first 10 years of this passionate, far-reaching effort to “get involved in a child’s life,” the results have been outstanding. Looking back, it’s impossible not to be impressed: 800 active volunteers have personally taught and mentored more than 57,000 students through Money Sense, the organization’s primary program on financial literacy basics. Eighty-one percent of Money Sense “graduates” say they feel prepared to make financial decisions. The outcomes of the Money Coach program are even more impressive: 78 percent of Money Coach “graduates” report they now have a budget, 95 percent track their expenses, and 99 percent have a bank account. Internally, Make A Difference also learned early on that, as an organization, it is not in the business of education but rather exists principally to change the behaviors of the students its volunteers reach.

Making it happen

The importance of willing “enablers”

The Make A Difference initiative exists today because Lloyd Levin is a visionary with a mission. Things got done quickly — sometimes referred to as “the speed of Lloyd” — and well because he is first and foremost an experienced, practical doer. A longtime commercial real estate professional and mortgage banker, Lloyd knew that reaching large numbers of young people would require a community-wide fabric of individuals and organizations. He went to the schools and found administrators willing to open their schools. He talked with teachers willing to open their classrooms. He worked with education experts willing to help develop curricula. He met with business leaders willing to go into those classrooms. And, he found businesses and philanthropists willing to help fund the effort.

“Make A Difference is successful because lots of people work together,” Lloyd paused. “This is a ‘we’ thing — it’s the students and the schools and the volunteers and the funders working together to change lives.”

These early enablers — the administrators, teachers, curriculum experts, volunteer mentors and funders — were the first responders to Marty Stein’s call to action. They operationalized Lloyd Levin’s vision and began to change the world by getting involved in the lives of children. 

Tammy Maddente: an enabler’s story

Tammy Maddente, vice president and regional manager of First Weber REALTORS®, was one of those critical enablers. She has known Lloyd Levin for a long time, and when he asked for a meeting in 2006, she assumed he wanted to discuss business with her. “When he started talking, I remember being struck by his passion and thinking this must be a really important business proposition or product he’s promoting,” Tammy recalled. 

Tammy will tell you now that she was right about Lloyd’s meeting being a business proposition. “Make A Difference is focused on the critical community business of helping our young people succeed, and that makes it our business as citizens,” she said with conviction. “And as every REALTOR® will tell you, our business can only thrive when our communities and our neighbors are doing well.” 

Tammy will also now tell you that she was right about Lloyd’s meeting being important. After talking with Lloyd, Tammy invited him to speak to her agents about Make a Difference and volunteer opportunities available. 

A number of First Weber REALTORS® agents became early volunteers and mentors, and the passion that seems to be a pervasive side effect of working with Make A Difference energizes their memories. 

“I was struck by how welcome the students made the volunteers feel and by the fact that they were really interested in the subject matter,” she said thoughtfully. The passion then swept in, “These kids want to succeed, and when you talk with them about practical, manageable things they can do that will help them succeed, they pay attention. They pay attention and then they change what they’re doing, and that’s when you know you’re making a difference.”

Tammy continues to serve as a link between Make A Difference and her agent volunteers. Most recently, she played a key role in obtaining funding from the First Weber REALTORS® Foundation to fund Make A Difference. In addition, she is working as a trusted senior adviser on plans to take Make A Difference statewide.

The importance of passion and getting the job done

As of late 2015, the average score for American teenagers on the National Financial Educators Council Literacy Test was only 60 percent — a low D, for example — and was probably worse in 2006, which is why Make A Difference–Wisconsin’s first responders knew that enhancing teenage financial literacy would be a heavy lift. With that in mind, they started by working with academic experts to get the curriculum right. They focused on delivering their program in classes where 100 percent of the school’s 11th graders were required to attend, such as American History; at a grade level where the information was becoming much more relevant — for example, juniors; and, most importantly, recruiting and training the volunteer instructors and mentors on whom the ultimate success of the program would depend. 

“We were overwhelmed by the positive response. People listened to what we wanted to do, looked at the plans and the curriculum and said, ‘when can I start?’” Lloyd remembered. “One of the most consistent and critical elements in the success of this effort has been the passion of the volunteers and mentors. I will never forget talking with a number of them after their first classroom experiences. I had gone to thank them, but before I could, they beat me to it, thanking us for giving them the opportunity to be engaged.” 

Make A Difference–Wisconsin volunteers and mentors will tell you that the other critical element is the students. Three Make A Difference volunteers — Frank Berger, Bob Haglund and Kel Svoboda — talked about why they volunteer and their experiences with the program. All are REALTORS® who believe in giving back to their communities and their past, present and future clients. That sense of responsibility led them to Make A Difference, but it is their interaction with the students that hallmarks their experience with the program, and one is struck by their willingness to talk about how working with, being with and caring about the students has enriched their lives.

When asked what others should know about being a volunteer, Bob Haglund responded instantly, “You get so much more back than you put in.” Bob has been with Make A Difference since 2006 and now spends most of his time with at-risk students and dropouts in the belief that financial literacy will help them navigate the pathways to a better future. “This program changes lives!” Bob said with absolute conviction, and his fellow volunteers nodded vigorously in agreement.

Frank, a REALTOR® and former school teacher, was looking for a way to give back to his community when Tammy Maddente introduced him to Make A Difference. “I walked out of my first classroom experience feeling like a million bucks!” Frank said. “There are so many things we take for granted, and these young people have never heard any of it. It’s an opportunity to show them how to take charge of their own lives.”

Kel Svoboda started as a volunteer in 2007 when he was 21. “I wanted to touch the hearts — not just the minds — of the students to help them see themselves in a better place,” he remembered. “It was an emotional roller coaster sometimes because that was hard for some of them, but the teachers were great too, and in the end, as Bob Haglund said, Make A Difference changes lives. It certainly changed mine, and I know it made a difference for lots of the students.”

Helping teens and building stronger communities and neighborhood opportunities across Wisconsin

The founders, staff, volunteers, mentors, donors, supporters and beneficiaries of the Make A Difference decade of effort believe — passionately, of course — that they have found a way to give teens a shot at a better future. Their track record is impressive and persuasive, generating interest in the approach in a number of communities across the state.

Brenda Campbell, Make A Difference–Wisconsin president and CEO, has been there almost from day one. Her enthusiasm for the organization’s mission is palpable and pervasive as she flips through countless photos on her phone of students, pointing first to this one and then to that one to punctuate stories of Make A Difference individual successes and youthful wisdom. As proud as Brenda is of the organization’s track record and the students and volunteers who built it, she is also fiercely focused on the work yet to be done and sees the growing statewide interest as a necessary response to a demonstrable need. 

Lloyd Levin is not surprised by the increased interest either. “We’re still struggling with the economic devastation and dislocation of the Great Recession,” he said. “In the midst of that turmoil, 60 percent of U.S. adults don’t have a budget, fewer than one in three adults have a savings account, and two-thirds have little or no experience with managing a credit card. Impaired financial literacy is a drag on the economy. It directly and adversely affects consumer saving and spending, which is why the business community is paying close attention to what we’re doing. And because it limits economic opportunity, it also adversely affects families and the quality of life in neighborhoods, which is why community leaders and elected officials are interested in our work.” 

Tammy Maddente agreed. “Make A Difference has found a way to move the needle on an issue that has to be addressed if we’re going to rebuild the middle class in this economy. We knew going into the initial effort that improving teenage financial literacy would enrich the opportunities and lives of young adults tomorrow. The question was whether or not we could effectively reach the teenagers and change their behavior. We now have the answer to that question. It’s a resounding ‘yes!’ from 800 volunteers and mentors and 57,000 teenagers.”

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From left to right: Bob Haglund, REALTOR®, First Weber REALTORS®; Frank Berger, REALTOR®, First Weber REALTORS®; Tammy Maddente, vice president and regional manager, First Weber REALTORS®; Lloyd Levin, founder and board director, Make a Difference–Wisconsin; Brenda Campbell, president and CEO, Make a Difference–Wisconsin; and Kel Svoboda, REALTOR® First Weber REALTORS® .

Make A Difference offers financial literacy training and education in 105 public, charter and private schools in Wisconsin and Illinois. While Make A Difference has a focus in Milwaukee and Milwaukee County, there are programs in schools in the Fox Fiver Valley in Denmark, Fond du Lac, Green Bay and Kaukauna; South Central Wisconsin in Beaver Dam, Madison, Sun Prairie and Tomah; and in Northern Illinois, including Chicago. Learn more about Make A Difference at www.makeadifferencewisconsin.org or by contacting Brenda Campbell, Make A Difference president and CEO, at brenda@makeadifferencewisconsin.org.

James B. Wood is Chairman of Wood Communications Group based in Madison. He also serves as Strategic Counsel to Competitive Wisconsin Inc., The BE BOLD Council, the Wisconsin Education Business Roundtable and the Wisconsin REALTORS® Foundation and is a longtime consultant and strategic planning facilitator for the WRA.

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