We Take Care of Our Own

Last week I had the privilege of witnessing generosity on a scale that truly astounded me.
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Last week I had the privilege of witnessing generosity on a scale that truly astounded me.

Earlier, I'd received a phone call from my college roommate, Jeff Bash, who is a renowned orthopedic spine surgeon in Connecticut. I don't speak to Jeff as often as I'd like, as our lives seem to be moving at a pace that prevents regular conversations. But when Jeff calls, I'm always happy to talk with him -- he never fails to provide me with at least one memorable quote or story that reminds me of what makes him such a unique character.

When he called last week, though, he was more serious than usual. "Willa's not doing so well," he told me. "Willa" is Willa Kenner, our fraternity's former cook who, along with her late husband, Ben, took care of us in college. Willa, now in her seventies and in failing health, apparently had not paid her property and sewage taxes in several years. Fulton County, Georgia, where Willa resides, had sold her $7,000 debt to a company called Vesta Holdings; if Willa couldn't come up with at least $2,500 immediately, Vesta would be putting her house up for auction in June.

Jeff and his wife, Hope, had always had a soft spot for Willa, as did many of us from our fraternity. Even though it's been over 20 years since we've graduated from college, our memories of Ben and Willa have remained fond. Time, if anything, only enhanced them in our eyes. Picture them: an African-American couple in their fifties, cooking and cleaning for a bunch of over-privileged northern white kids. I think they got a kick out of us and I can't remember a single instance of anyone being disrespectful to either of them. To call Ben and Willa surrogate parents would certainly be misstating their roles -- no one enjoyed the parties we had at the fraternity house more than Ben, and Willa spent many afternoons watching TV in the kitchen.

At the time of her call, Willa must have been out of options, as turning to Jeff and Hope for help was probably not her first consideration. But her children can't or won't help and she seemingly had nowhere else to turn. Luckily for her, she made the right decision and turned to the right people. Jeff and Hope immediately decided that our former fraternity brothers would raise the money to help Willa. When Jeff called me, I offered to help without hesitation. I suggested that instead of calling or emailing everyone, as we would have done a couple of years ago, we should leverage technology to streamline the process. One of the great innovations to emerge out of the digital revolution in the past decade is crowdsourcing -- websites can now be set up to raise money from anything from independent films to new products to charities. Within five minutes, we set up a page on www.donationto.com and we asked a couple of other alumni to send an email appeal with a link to our page to our fraternity brothers.

It was only a matter of minutes before the donations started coming in. Guys who graduated before I had even started college, whose names I only knew from the composite pictures that hung in the fraternity house's living room, began sending in large amounts of money. I watched as the donation meter grew. The generosity people showed for a woman who most of us hadn't seen in 20-25 years was truly overwhelming. I was touched to hear about the brother who called Hope and told her that if there were any shortfall whatsoever, he would personally make it up. More donations quickly began streaming in from the people who were in school with me and within 48 hours, we had raised over $10,000. Once Willa's debt is paid off, we plan to set up an account using the balance to pay her taxes going forward. When Hope called Willa to tell her the news, Willa was overcome with emotion.

This story has a happy ending for all involved, right? We donors can feel good about doing a very good thing for a friend in need, and Willa can stay in her home without the threat of eviction hanging over her head. This is all true. However, it occurred to me that Willa had the good fortune of having worked for people who cared for her enough to provide a safety net when times got tough. But what about those who aren't as lucky? It's possible that Willa didn't make wise financial decisions and of course, she's solely responsible for her own actions, but she's an elderly widow with little formal education and she is most certainly not the only one in her neighborhood who has found herself facing foreclosure and homelessness.

It turns out that Fulton County routinely sells off its uncollected taxes to Vesta Holdings. Vesta, according to its website, "is a major purchaser, servicer and owner of delinquent county and municipal real estate tax liens. Lien sales help maintain equity in the property tax system by assuring that conscientious and timely taxpayers are not unfairly burdened and forced to pay for individuals who disregard their tax obligations." Seems fair enough. After all, people who do pay their taxes shouldn't be burdened by those who can't be bothered to do the same. But what about instances when property taxes have been assessed at too high of a rate and people on fixed incomes like the elderly and the infirm can't afford to pay the increases? Unfortunately, this happens with regularity in poor neighborhoods around the country. In most cases, homeowners are simply out of luck and have no real recourse if they can't afford to pay their back taxes. In the United States of 2012, the safety net that once existed to help keep people afloat has frayed badly and a fix doesn't seem to be on the horizon.

We take care of our own, as Bruce Springsteen sings. I'm so moved by what we've done for Willa but incredibly sad that we had to.