Opening Young People's Eyes, Hearts, and Minds
Opening Young People's Eyes, Hearts, and Minds
Beth Fernandez encourages teenagers in her upper middle class community to confront poverty and make a difference—locally and around the world.
By Barbara Ballinger
Web Choice Award
You'll have the opportunity to vote for your favorite of this year's 10 Good Neighbor Award finalists to receive the Web Choice Award. Visit Realtor.org/GNA between Oct. 21 and Oct. 28 to cast your vote.
The consequences of extreme poverty can be tough to grasp, particularly when you’re young and have always had a roof over your head, food on your table, medical care to keep you healthy, teachers to help you read and write, and parents to love and nurture you. New Jersey real estate practitioner Beth Fernandez was determined to awaken the affluent children in her suburban Glen Rock, N.J., community to the opposite—and all it means to do without.
Through her Glen Rock Poverty Awareness Project, she has done so in highly tangible, imaginative ways that children quickly understand: setting up cardboard boxes to mimic homeless housing, erecting tents with mosquito netting to prevent insect-borne illness, and preparing rice dinners to show students what minimal meals some consume.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that, in 2010, 15.1 percent of the U.S. population lived below the poverty line. That’s 46.2 million people, the largest number of poor in the 52 years for which the numbers have been published. Worldwide poverty is difficult to measure. According to the World Bank, however, in many developing nations, it’s not uncommon for 30 to 60 percent of the population to be living below the national poverty line.
"I want everyone, especially children, to stop taking their nice homes and lives for granted,” says Fernandez, a fast-talking, hardworking sales associate in nearby Ridgewood’s Marron Gildea, REALTORS®, office. “It’s amazing how children can organize a bake sale or a lemonade stand to help children less fortunate than themselves and at the same time discover how powerful they are to help change the world.”
“I’m obsessed with the idea that there’s extreme poverty, and I am going to keep inspiring kids to make a difference because none of us can do this alone.” —Beth Fernandez, Glen Rock Poverty Awareness Project
Over the last five years, Fernandez’s GRPAP has enlisted the help of 500 volunteers—mostly children from local schools—to raise more than $140,000 to help stop poverty in all the ways it manifests itself, including a hopeless future. In the process of educating fellow residents, Fernandez has brought together her community of 11,500, says Glen Rock Mayor John van Keuren.
“She’s diligent about what she does, and our different segments [of the community] are bound together by the poverty issue,” he says. Speech therapist Naomi Gamorra, who has become one of Fernandez’s two right hands, concurs and adds, “If you want something done, get a busy person. Beth is it. She’s done an amazing job.”
Although extreme poverty long concerned Fernandez, she didn’t formalize her efforts to help eradicate it until after her family moved to Glen Rock from a more urban New Jersey city. “Our son Jordan, then 11, had been assaulted multiple times by a 16-year-old who [eventually] went to prison. In a way we were running away and I felt terrible, but we couldn’t ignore what had happened. Crime is a by-product of poverty,” she says.
After they moved to a safer, more affluent area, she felt a need to help neighbors, especially children, understand how blessed they were, she says.
She modeled her efforts after the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, which seek to end poverty worldwide. She set up GRPAP in January 2007 to sponsor an annual Poverty Awareness Week, planning to educate people about a different poverty-related problem each year through speeches, demonstrations, and fund-raising events. Rather than reinvent the wheel, she decided to raise money for existing organizations focused on poverty. As a counter to poverty’s grimness, she used her event-planning background to organize an array of fun-filled food, music, and art activities.
From Homes to Water Pumps and Mosquito Netting
Fernandez boldly started by calling together community leaders. She suggested they solicit funds to help build a Habitat for Humanity home in nearby Paterson. With $40,000 collected, volunteers raised walls at Glen Rock’s train station on Mother’s Day for a home for single-parent Nikiha Stacker, 32, and her three young sons.
The next year Fernandez held the Water for Africa Music and Art Festival to call attention to the need for clean, drinkable water. The $35,000 collected paid for nonprofit PlayPumps International to provide drinking water for about 5,300 people in Africa. “Village girls no longer have to walk four-and-a-half miles a day to draw stream water and miss school—or die from water-related diseases,” Fernandez says.
In 2009, she focused on Haitiafter several hurricanes hammered the island nation and led to an increase in mosquitoes. Glen Rock students set up sleep stations with netting throughout the community, and sold holiday cards, held an art auction, and showed films they had made to raise funds. The money they raised purchased 3,500 mosquito nets.
Last year, Fernandez and several volunteers traveled to Guatemala to help build four homes through the nonprofit From Houses to Homes. “This was hard work, not a fun beach vacation,” Fernandez says. Funds raised Nov. 5 of this year at a Day of the Dead costume party will help build a green school in Guatemala.
Besides helping those less fortunate, Fernandez is proud of another lesson she imparts. “Children learn they can develop their own mission statement and work toward that goal,” she says. Some start by altering daily activities. “I no longer take water for granted or waste it when I shower or brush my teeth,” says Fernandez’s son Jordan, now 20, who helped his mom build houses in Guatemala.
Duke University senior Amy Plasencia, who met Fernandez through her high school Rotary club, is applying to medical school so that she can help those less fortunate over the long term. “Beth has taught me that you can give back through community service throughout your lifetime, even if you’re busy with work and a family,” she says. “And she’s also opened my eyes on a global scale. Her enthusiasm is contagious.”
Others agree. Fernandez was cited as Bergen County Volunteer of the Year in 2008, the same year Mayor van Keuren named the day before Thanksgiving “Beth Fernandez Day.” Add modesty to Fernandez’s many stellar attributes: “My organization empowers others to change the world,” she says.
Beth Fernandez is one of 10 finalists for REALTOR® Magazine's Good Neighbor Awards, a grant program that recognizes REALTORS® who make exceptional volunteer contributions to their communities. We’ll bring you the story of one of the finalists each day until October 20. On October 21, online voting will open for a Web Choice Award. The top vote getter will receive a $500 gift card from Lowe's. Votes will be accepted through October 28.
Of the 10 Good Neighbor finalists, the five winners will be named on November 2. (Web Choice voting does not play a role in the selection of the winners.) The winners will receive $10,000 grants for their community projects and $2,500 Lowe's gift cards and will be honored at the REALTORS® Conference & Expo in Anaheim on November 12. The remaining five finalists will receive $2,500 grants for their cause and $1,000 Lowe's gift cards.
Read Other Published Profiles of the 2011 Finalists:
- Love Your Neighbor: Wayne J. Shaffer, Santa Cruz, Calif.
- Connecting Communities One Trail at a Time: Lynn Reecer, Fort Wayne, Ind.
- Water is Life: Judy Pitt, Boulder, Colo.
- Healing Their Wounds: Vito Anthony Pampalona, Rochester, Mich.
- Becoming Better, Not Bitter: Mark Meinhardt, Cincinnati
- Building a Safe Haven for Teenagers: Christian Klueg, Northville, N.Y.
- Change from the Ground Up: Marta Karpiel, Carmel, Calif.