Ross has spent the past several years combining his business travel with his desire to give to those in need. The more miles he logs, the more people he helps.
Each year, he promotes the month of October as “Socktober,” taking to Twitter to encourage and challenge his social media followers to donate socks to the homeless. He has conducted the Socktober campaign for several years now and said he lost count of how many pairs of socks he has given away.
Socktober is one example of how members of the financial services community are giving back to their communities in big ways — and bringing others along for the philanthropic ride.
Ross’ mother inspired him in his giving journey when he was growing up in Trenton, N.J.
“My mother always told me, ‘You have one responsibility. And that is, when you see people in need, you must help them,’” he said. “That’s really what I focus on — just making sure that I help people and get them the help that they need if they are in my view. It’s a passion of mine to use my voice and the platform that I have to be the voice for the voiceless and for people who can’t advocate for themselves.”
Ross said he always was interested in donating to shelters, as he recognized widespread homelessness in his home city as well as in every city he visits.
“Every time I would go to a shelter, I would ask, ‘What is the No. 1 thing you need?’ And they would say, ‘Undergarments and socks, especially socks,’” he recounted. “So a couple of years ago, I started Socktober on Twitter.”
The social media campaign did more than provide socks to homeless shelters, Ross said. It raised awareness of needs that often go unnoticed.
“One of the things I noticed is that people really didn’t understand how much homeless shelters need socks,” he said. “And they also didn’t understand that a lot of homeless folks use socks as gloves to cover their hands if they are outside.”
Having access to socks also helps the homeless maintain personal cleanliness, Ross said. “Being able to change their socks is important to them, just as it’s important to everyone else.”
Visiting homeless shelters and learning about their residents’ needs inspired Ross to tell others about the need for socks and other essentials.
“When you look at the demographics of those who are on Twitter, especially those who are in finance, they do well, they make good money,” he said. “So I thought, what better way to bring awareness to this issue than by bringing it to Twitter?”
Ross’ Twitter feed is filled with posts of him delivering socks to homeless shelters and veterans’ homes. He encourages his followers to tweet about their own sock donations, and he has partnered with advisors to donate socks to shelters in cities where he travels for business.
“It’s an awesome thing to see,” he said, “and now it’s a tradition we do every year.”
Ross buys the socks at Target and Walmart, and he packs socks with him on all his business travels. He has “probably thousands of pairs of socks in my house that I haven’t yet given out.” Ross estimated that he has delivered socks to at least 25 shelters, and he always keeps some socks with him when he goes out in public “because you never know when you might come across someone who needs help.
“I don’t go to any city without touching the people,” he said. “It’s important to me to reach out to and serve the people who are underserved and disenfranchised, and who don’t get the opportunity to be on stage or eat an expensive lunch or any of that.”
Ross doesn’t only give out socks. He promotes what he calls “Nolayawayvember” in the month of November, when he anonymously pays off store layaway accounts for people he doesn’t even know.
For those who want to help others in need in their communities, Ross advises “find something close to you that you are passionate about.
“It doesn’t have to be socks. It doesn’t have to be homelessness,” he said. “It could be helping veterans, those who are disabled, victims of domestic abuse, a school where folks are in need.
Just look locally and offer your help and your time. What I’ve noticed is they never say no when you offer to help. And it’s important to realize that you don’t need to do much, you just need to start right where your feet are. There are so many people right in your backyard who need help.”
More Than Writing A Check
Sometimes the road to philanthropy begins with a simple phone call. For Angie Rehkop, founder of Financial Care Providers in Atlanta, the giving journey began when a friend asked her to go horseback riding.
The request was for adult volunteers to accompany children who were patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Atlanta. The children were having a “horse day” at a local stable. Rehkop joined in the fun and became hooked on helping kids who are dealing with life-threatening illness.
What she learned on horse day was that, at the time, St. Jude did not have money allocated for recreational activities such as horseback riding, nor did they have funds to provide recreational activities to their patients’ siblings.
“Some of the volunteers started writing big checks to pay for these things, and then an attorney who was involved set up a foundation and we started raising money,” she said.
A beginner golfer, Rehkop was asked to organize a golf tournament to raise funds for the foundation.
“But I said, ‘I can barely play golf. I don’t know anything about tournaments. I’ll look for other things I can do to raise money,’” she said. “But you know there are times when you say no and you feel bad about it for a little bit and then the bad feeling goes away. This was not one of those times; the bad feeling didn’t go away. I wanted to do something.”
She soon became more active in golf and met some like-minded people who promised to help her if she would organize a charity tournament.
In 2007, Rehkop held her first golf tournament. Six foursomes participated and the event raised $8,000. More people stepped forward and volunteered to help the following year. The event took a big step forward when Rehkop made a presentation on the golf tournament at her business networking group. One of the group members told her she was crazy for putting on the tournament alone and volunteered to be her co-chairman. The two of them recruited an advisory board and set up a single-person limited liability corporation called Golf for the Kids.
Golf for the Kids raises money for the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, which is located within Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Rehkop estimates that the golf event has raised about $500,000 over the years. Some of the funds are given to the cancer center to be used wherever there is a need, while other funds are earmarked for the therapy dog program at the hospital.
“Who can say no to a therapy dog? When the dogs show up, everything in the room changes,” she said. “Service animals make a huge difference in general. Specifically, when you’re working with kids, service animals are a complete game changer.”
Rehkop called her work with Golf for the Kids “an investment in the community.”
“When you’re dealing with insurance, this is not an easy industry for anyone, and we see a lot of the hardships of life,” she said. “When you take on something like this, you get to see a lot of good people, and it helps bring out the very best in everyone involved.”
The Four P’s Of Giving
Giving doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it’s not an afterthought for those who make philanthropy part of their business. The Kelly family in the Baltimore area is an example.
Reedbird Park is a community recreational hub in South Baltimore. One of the newer features in the park is BGE Field, presented by Kelly Benefits. The park is the 100th Youth Development Park built by the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, which builds youth sports facilities in underserved areas. Reedbird opened to the public in November 2021.
The fact that Kelly Benefits partnered with the foundation on this project is no surprise to those in the Baltimore area. Kelly Benefits and the family that operates Maryland’s largest employee benefits administrator have been pillars of the local philanthropic community for decades.
Francis X. Kelly III, company CEO, said he and three brothers who operate the company with him are inspired by their faith and by the generosity of their parents, Frank X. Kelly Jr. and Janet Kelly, who started the company in the basement of their home in 1976.
“We come from a faith tradition that believes in tithing — giving 10% of your income to those in need,” he said. “We have a four-pillar giving program. We recognize that giving involves more than treasure. Giving involves time, talent, treasure and what we call a testimony or story. So we look to give time, talent, treasure and testimony in different ways — locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. It’s the principle of sowing and reaping. We try to leverage the business we feel we’ve been blessed with to help others in need as well.”
Helping those who are homeless or have addiction problems and helping lift those in poverty are among the focus areas of the Kelly family’s philanthropy.
Kelly and his wife, Gayle, have been long-time supporters of Helping Up Mission’s men’s recovery center in Baltimore. While volunteering to serve food there, Gayle discovered a woman who dressed like a man in order to receive a meal. It was then that Gayle learned the mission was unable to serve women — and an idea took root.
Frank and Gayle spent the past three years co-chairing a $61 million Inspiring Hope campaign to build the new 145,000-square-foot Center for Women & Children to help women in Baltimore dealing with addiction and homelessness. The project helps the women’s children as well.
“Many women don’t get treatment because they’re not going to leave their young children,” he said. “They’ll do what they have to do to maintain their addiction and keep their children with them. This facility will house up to 200 women and up to 50 of their children. We raised more than $62 million, so we beat our original fundraising goal.”
The facility will open its doors to women in early 2022. In addition to spearheading the fundraising campaign, the Kellys and various family members donated money to the project and served in various volunteer roles.
Members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Kellys are involved in the organization’s Park Heights Saints football and cheerleading program, which serves young people in an impoverished area of Baltimore. A friend started the program 20 years ago, and it has grown to include nine football teams and a cheerleading squad. About 250 kids participate in the program each year.
As part of their involvement in the FCA, the Kellys helped raise $250,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to renovate an abandoned home into the Park Heights Saints Community Center. The 2,000-square-foot center is a gathering place for teams in between games and throughout the year. The kids in the program have a safe environment to watch a game on TV, do schoolwork in the computer lab or share a meal together.
Over the past 30 years, Kelly Benefits has opened its doors to employees who have Down syndrome. The Kellys have been involved in Pen-Mar Human Services, which provides services to adults with intellectual disabilities. The family was presented with Pen-Mar’s Distinguished Humanitarian Award in 2020.
The Kelly family philanthropy extends overseas as well. They have sponsored 250 children around the world through World Vision.
Kelly advised anyone who wants to start their own giving program to “start with areas that are connected to you or the people close to you.”
“Let’s say you know a kid who is battling cancer, and the next thing you know, you might go out and raise money for childhood cancer,” he said. “Or maybe someone you know is dealing with addiction, so you might help raise funds for an organization that helps people with addictions.”
Giving, he said, should include what he calls “the four P’s.”
“Make it a priority, have a plan and give a percentage. And then make it progressive over time.”
A Son’s Memory Spreads Hope
Pratik Shah used to drive past the Methodist Children’s Home in Redford, Mich., on his way to and from his office in nearby Farmington.
“It’s a very beautiful facility. From the front, it looks like a castle,” he said.
But Shah didn’t understand exactly who the home served or what its residents needed until a family tragedy inspired and led him and his wife to philanthropy. The Methodist Children’s Home and the young people it shelters have benefited from the Shahs’ financial contributions as well as their contributions of time and attention.
Shah has been a Prudential advisor for 30 years. He received the 2021 Prudential Advisors Award of Merit for his work done through the Abhi Shah Foundation, which is named after his son.
Abhi Shah was a 20-year-old University of Michigan student when he died unexpectedly on the day before Thanksgiving 2016. He had been his parents’ only child.
“It was tragic when he left us, [but] he paved the path for us to make sure that we walk on a journey to give love, hope and happiness to many kids,” Shah said. He and his wife established the Abhi Shah Foundation as a way of continuing their son’s legacy.
“Abhi was a loving and caring individual,” Shah said. “My wife and I decided the best way to keep Abhi alive is to make sure we spread that love to other kids. So we started the foundation.”
Shah turned his attention to the Methodist Children’s Home Society, which provides foster care to children whose parents or other family members are unable to take care of them. He learned that the increasing numbers of children in the community who needed care meant that the home needed more space. “So we provided funds to make improvements and make more room for the kids,” he said.
As he became more involved with the home, he realized that although the home provided the children with life’s necessities, the children needed more.
“The children there, they get a place to stay and food to eat, but they don’t get love. They don’t get the hope they need to live,” Shah said. “So we decided to have activities for the kids and show them someone cares.”
Shah holds an annual Thanksgiving lunch for the children, has taken them on field trips to places like the Ford Motor Co. plant and holds a picnic for them each summer. He also treats the children to new sneakers each year and provides them with other gifts.
The next project for the Abhi Shah Foundation is funding an additional facility for the Methodist Children’s Home Society.
“What often happens is that a court gives an order at night that a child needs to be rescued and the regular foster home may not be able to take the child,” he said. “The Methodist Children’s Home Society was able to buy some abandoned buildings at a very low cost, but they needed funds to make them livable. So we are paying for a new heating system, new air conditioning system, new hot water heater, new beds — everything.”
The new facility will be called My Friend’s Place. The name came about because of an anecdote Shah was told.
“This particular child had no family. When the holidays were coming up and the other kids in his school asked him where he was going for Christmas, he said, ‘I’ll go to my friend’s place’ because he didn’t want the other kids to know he was going to stay in his foster home. The CEO of the society told me he wants to call this new facility My Friend’s Place so that kids don’t have to say they’re staying in a foster home; they can say, ‘I’m staying at my friend’s place.’”
Despite the Shahs’ efforts to find meaning in philanthropy, Abhi’s death still left a big hole in their home. But they eventually went on to have two more children through surrogacy.
“So we have our children,” he said. “We have our foundation. We are incredibly blessed.”
The Insurance Industry Charitable Fund Gives Back In 2021
Insurance carriers, in partnership with IICF and through their foundations, supported families, frontline workers, veterans and teachers during the pandemic in many ways, including:
Hosting virtual and in-person fundraising, networking and leadership events in each of IICF’s 5 divisions
An industrywide commitment to address food insecurity
Facilitating the collection of more than 75,000 meals for local food banks throughout the U.S.
Providing support and thanks for the dedication, service and sacrifice of military families by writing and delivering more than 3,000 thank you cards and notes
Providing additional time off to volunteer in the community
Increased matching of employee donations to local charities.
Additionally, in terms of monetary donations, IICF has seen increased giving and involvement throughout 2021. For instance, IICF’s five division annual benefit events raised $2.2 million in 2020, which has grown to more than $2.5 million in 2021, including what’s been raised to date already through the IICF Northeast Annual Benefit Event, the organization's final division event for the year, on December 7.