More than 1,000 volunteers, local leaders and community members rose early for a cause Thursday morning, gathering for the annual InnVision Shelter Network benefit breakfast, capped by a keynote speech from personal finance guru Suze Orman.
Burlingame-based Shelter Network, which merged with Silicon Valley’s InnVision this year, hosted the breakfast for the first time as the newly-minted InnVision Shelter Network (IVSN), with the theme Investing in Our Future.
“I’m extremely honored to lead this innovative and more effective organization,” said Executive Director Karae Lisle. “Everyone here this morning is thinking about how to invest in our community…we are very committed to long-term solutions.”
The breakfast is the organization’s largest fundraiser and an opportunity for volunteer recognition. Outstanding corporate, individual and youth volunteers received accolades.
While the big draw of the event for some may have been two-time Emmy winner and New York Times bestseller Orman, the first speaker taking the stage was IVSN client Command Srgt. Major Tracey Wells.
After growing up in a middle class family in Philadelphia, Wells served in the armed forces for 33 years, rising in the ranks to Command Srgt. Major. She left the army in 2011 and found herself both physically and mentally injured from her years of service.
“There is a stigma in the military against mental illness,” said Wells, who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. “I struggled to keep the chaos on the inside.”
A single mother (her husband died some years before), Wells put her finances under the care of a relative and moved with her daughter to California, where her son was in school. One day, she found the person she trusted with her finances had whittled them away, decimating her entire life savings.
Unsure of where to turn, she ended up in the emergency room and from there Shelter Network. She has been there 60 days and hopes to move out by the holidays.
“My struggle with illness and homelessness was hard, but it reinvigorated my passion for service,” she said. “This experience, this organization and all of you here today remind me why this is the America I love…it’s held together by our compassion.”
Shortly after Wells told her story, Orman took the stage, expressing the need to support those in poverty or on the brink of poverty and how organizations like IVSN allow these people to envision a way home. She spoke about her upbringing on the South Side of Chicago, walking through metal detectors each day before high school and struggling with reading and a speech impediment.
“I knew when I was growing up that I would never be anything,” she said. “I knew I was dumb. I knew I was never going to amount to anything because I was told that over and over again.”
Orman left Chicago for Berkeley, CA, living in her van until she became a waitress. One day, after watching her dream of opening a restaurant crumble without any funding, a regular customer, Fred, asked what was wrong. Soon a group of customers provided Orman with $50,000, which she lost through an irresponsible broker. She took a job at Merrill Lynch (told she was simply filling the woman quota) to make it back.
This began Orman’s financial advising journey, which has blossomed into a financial television, book-writing and speaking career.
Orman explained how her story exemplifies the power of people pulling each other up and giving to organizations—like IVSN—they believe in.
“I am who I am because of one man,” she said. “One man who reached into his heart. Because of that one man, look at the millions of lives now I have changed. Do you think Fred ever could have believed what his small donation [did]?”
IVSN operates 18 major sites, serving 150 families each night. The organization focus on not only providing shelter, but teaching skills necessary for self-sufficiency. IVSN clients average 120 days in transitional housing—nearly half the national average. Ninety percent move on to their own apartments while holding a job and managing their finances independently, without returning to homelessness.