By DeWayne Wickham
blogs.usatoday.com (March 20, 2007) ORLANDO — Harris Rosen is not the kind of guy whose name usually makes it into the space I inhabit on the pages of this newspaper.
He is neither a presidential wannabe nor a political thug. Rosen is not a bigot or a high-profile fool. And as best I can tell, he isn’t a heartless robber baron. What he is, however, is a very wealthy man who likes his charitable giving to be up close and personal.
Rosen, who owns seven Orlando-area hotels, has put to good use Booker T. Washington’s admonition to “cast down your buckets where you are.” Since 1993, Rosen has used his wealth to help revitalize Tangelo Park, a once drug-infested, trouble-plagued unincorporated community near his International Drive hotel properties.
“This kind of program, if replicated, will change our society so we don’t even recognize it,” Rosen says of the Tangelo Park Program he funds. The twin cornerstones of this effort is Rosen’s pledge to provide free preschool education for all 2-, 3- and 4-year-old children, and a college education for all high school graduates in Tangelo Park.
Rosen’s largess has helped turn things around in this community, which has a little more than 2,400 people and is nearly 90% black.
“This is an amazing story,” says Charles Dziuban, a University of Central Florida professor and member of the Tangelo Park Program’s advisory board. From the program’s inception, crime in Tangelo Park dropped by 67%, and the area’s high school dropout rate fell from 25% to 6%, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2004.
Rosen, who is white and grew up in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City, thinks this success can be replicated in other cities. He wants other wealthy people to follow his lead. “If they’d come to Tangelo Park, if they spoke to the kids, they would go home and find a neighborhood in their community and do what I’m doing here.” The wealthiest Americans are wealthier than ever before. This year, everyone on the Forbes.com list of the nation’s 400 richest people is a billionaire. And giving in this country rose to an all-time high last year with 21 Americans forking out gifts of at least $100 million to charities.
More help needed
But Rosen, who says he has given more than $7 million to the Tangelo Park Program since its creation, wants his wealthy brethren to do more to help problem-plagued, impoverished neighborhoods.
“Government is just too dense, too stupid, too inept to do this,” he says. “If Oprah came down here and saw what we’re doing, she would do it somewhere. If I could get (NBA Commissioner David) Stern to come here, I think he would get every NBA team involved in a project like ours” in their cities.
It might take just that to get a lot of this nation’s wealthy to follow Rosen’s lead.
Most of last year’s record-breaking gift-giving by the rich went to colleges and universities, foundations, arts groups, hospitals and museums, The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported. Though these are all good causes, they will be of questionable value if we don’t salvage the neighborhoods where crime and ignorance fester.
Rosen says charitable giving is much more rewarding when the donor gets personally involved. Two years ago, the U.S. Dream Academy — a Washington, D.C.-area group that helps at-risk children realize their dreams — seemed to agree. It gave Rosen its President’s Award for his work in Tangelo Park.
But what Rosen wants more than recognition is for others to emulate him. He wants more of this nation’s rich to use their money to tackle the stubborn problems that cause poor children to begin school with an educational deficit, underachieve in the classroom and drop out before graduation.
He understands these problems give rise to the kind of pathological behavior that threatens to reduce our society to an archaeological dig. He thinks the rich of this country ought to do something about it.
And I think he’s right.
DeWayne Wickham writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY
For more information, visit www.rosenhotels.com.