Dealers and Their Other Passions
Passionate—it’s not exactly the first adjective that springs to mind when someone is asked to describe a car dealer. However, for some it is an apt description, and not just when it comes to selling cars. The dealers profiled on these pages are passionate about three very different issues, but they have one thing in common: their success in business has afforded them the opportunity to significantly contribute to the causes most dear to them. While it’s not unusual for dealers to donate to good causes, these three men are giving much more than money, and their efforts are impacting the lives of others in very real and very positive ways.
A Turning Pointe for Autism
Randy Wolf, Co-owner, Dan Wolf Automotive Group, Naperville, IL
According to the organization Autism Speaks (AutismSpeaks.org), autism affects one in 110 children today, “making it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined.” Autism is a developmental brain disorder characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication and social skills, often accompanied by behavioral challenges. The cause remains unknown, and the ways in which the condition manifests itself can be as unique and varied as the individuals living with it.
At that time, much less was known about the condition and there were fewer resources readily available to parents of an autistic child. “When you get the diagnosis of autism – ours was 12 years ago – you have a feeling of helplessness. You can’t help your child,” said Wolf. “There’s a diagnosis, but there’s no prognosis.” After the diagnosis, he and his wife, Kim, “were knee-deep in research and trying to figure things out.” One of the best doctors for autism at that time told them that treating the condition was like “trying to fix an IBM computer with duct tape.”
Fortunately, more is known today about the disorder. Parents facing that same diagnosis for their children have more places to turn for knowledge and assistance, and in the Naperville area, that is thanks in part to the efforts of Wolf and his family. What started out as an effort to raise money while increasing awareness of autism has evolved into something truly extraordinary.
Over a decade ago, while Wolf and his wife were consumed with trying to find ways to help their son and consulting various doctors, Wolf’s brother, Dan Wolf, Jr. (who shares co-owner responsibilities for the auto group and serves as general manager for Toyota of Naperville & Chevrolet of Naperville), wanted to help and came up with the idea of donating money for every car sold in the month of April, which is National Autism Awareness Month, to a national organization for autism awareness and advocacy (now known as the aforementioned Autism Speaks). That idea eventually became Test Drives to Fight Autism, an annual fundraiser in which the dealerships donate money for every test drive in the month of April. This year Dan Wolf Automotive Group along with 15 other dealers in the Naperville area raised over $65,000.
While the dealership’s fundraising efforts are significant – the amount of money raised by the Dan Wolf Automotive Group in little over a decade is into the millions – Randy Wolf and his family pushed well beyond fundraising. In 2005, they got the idea to start their own foundation to serve those in their community dealing with the challenges of autism. “As good as the public schools are in Naperville for dealing with kids with autism, it just wasn’t getting it done,” he said. His son currently attends a private school more than an hour’s commute from home. “We said, ‘Why can’t we have a program with their academics here in Naperville?’” he recalled.
In 2007, they took the first step toward making that idea a reality and established the Turning Pointe Autism Foundation. While there are organizations like Autism Speaks that are working on autism research, awareness and advocacy on a national level, Wolf and his family wanted to do something to address the immediate needs they saw in their own community. Turning Pointe Autism Foundation provides a support system to individuals in Naperville with autism spectrum disorders and their families, offering services like parent training classes, specialized communication training and support, respite care, and social and recreational opportunities.
Several members of the family are currently active in the foundation in some capacity. Wolf himself serves as chairman of the Executive Board of Directors; his wife, Kim, serves on both the executive board and the 2011 Board at Large; and his brother, Dan, Jr., and father, Dan Wolf, Sr. (president of the auto group), both serve on the 2011 Board at Large.
In addition to the many services for families and individuals impacted by autism, the foundation recently held a ribbon-cutting for the CN Turning Pointe Demonstration School (so named for the Canadian National Railway Corporation, one of the school’s biggest contributors), which opened in January 2011 and currently provides academic and life skills programs for five students.
Wolf said that providing access to communication is the highest priority when it comes to working with children impacted by autism. Many of them are non-verbal or otherwise severely limited in their ability to communicate, and the behavior difficulties they exhibit, such as physical aggression toward others or self-injury, often stem from frustration over their inability to communicate their needs. “When they can communicate, their behaviors drop dramatically … You give these kids a voice and after [years] of … not being able to talk to anybody, they open up like a flower.” However, he added, “It’s no magic pill, and it’s a lot of hard work.”
The Demonstration School, a huge accomplishment in its own right, is only the starting point for a much more ambitious and comprehensive project, which is to not only construct a larger school but also offer vocational and residential programs to serve the more than 600 families in the Naperville area impacted by autism, as well as a recreational facility that will serve the roughly 2,000 individuals in the area with other special needs. Although his son does not attend the Demonstration School, Wolf is hopeful he will be able to make the transition when they open the larger school.
Additional property for the project has already been purchased. Completing the campus, Wolf said, is “just a matter of fundraising.” He added, “That’s been very challenging with the economy, but it’s also humbling how much we’ve been able to raise and how much support we’ve gotten from the business community.”
The foundation held a black-tie fundraiser gala in February 2011 and is the beneficiary of several golf outings this year, including its own invitational and the Danny Mac Golf Outing, which was presented by Dan Wolf Automotive Group and Chicago sports-talk radio personality Dan McNeil (incidentally, also the parent of an autistic child). Wolf mentioned that the auto group also donates $100 to Turning Pointe for every goal scored by the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team. Last season, that came to about $28,000.
“We’ve come a long way. It’s been a lot of work. But we’ve got a long way to go,” said Wolf. “This is a marathon and I feel like we’ve run two miles. We still have 24 to go, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”
To learn more about Turning Pointe Autism Foundation, visit TurningPointeAutismFoundation.org.
A Man on a Mission
Scott Pitman, President and Chief Evangelist, Suzuki of Wichita, Wichita, KS
Without a doubt, Dealer Scott Pitman is an extremely successful businessman who has no problem with ambitious undertakings. In his mid-20s, he set himself the goal of becoming a new car dealer by the age of 40. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t born into a family that had automobile dealerships,” he said. “[Becoming] a new car dealer is a tough process.” Not only did he achieve his goal in spite of that disadvantage, but his dealership, Suzuki of Wichita in Wichita, Kan., is the number-one Suzuki retailer in the country.
Pitman and his wife, Michelle, have done some significant work in Wichita, including the Wichita Project, which is aimed at helping children in the area with needs relating to food, clothing, shelter and education, and the Lady Bugg House, which has resident and non-resident programs to help young mothers become more self-sufficient and also ministers to young fathers.
However, Pitman’s most ambitious undertaking may be the work he and his family perform in and for the village of Balan, Haiti.
It all started when Pitman, while reading about ministry and humanitarian efforts around the world, encountered the concept of microlending, which is the practice of making small loans to the poor to help them improve their circumstances through entrepreneurship, seen most often in countries with developing economies. He likened it to the concept of “‘give a man a fish’ versus ‘teach a man to fish.’” His search for more knowledge on the topic led him to a man who sponsored a village in Nicaragua. “They’d had it for about six years and made some really neat changes in the village, where they were creating sustainable commerce and teaching the people … to earn a living,” he said.
He also met Rick McNary of nearby El Dorado, Kan., who had created an organization called Numana to package and send food to starving communities all over the globe. “He had a trip scheduled to Haiti,” Pitman recalled, “so I tagged along with him.” This was in late 2009, before the devastating earthquake that struck the country in January 2010. Although the quake brought a new sense of urgency and threw a spotlight on the need for help in Haiti, the level of need in the country was already very great. Pitman reflected, “I’m glad in hindsight that we met Haiti and saw the need there before the earthquake.”
Pitman’s attention was drawn to the village of Balan because it seemed to be the area most in need of help. He was told by the Salvation Army that Balan was “the poorest, driest area in all of Haiti” that the organization served. “So we picked the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and then inside of the poorest country, we picked what the Salvation Army terms the poorest village that they serve,” he summed up.
In addition to food, water is a critical need in the village. Villagers must walk 75 minutes, one way, to obtain water, and the average family typically must go for water twice a day—a total of five hours every day spent simply getting water, which the villagers transport by carrying in five-gallon buckets on their heads. Currently there are two well-drilling projects underway in the area, and Pitman fought hard to get the first project off the ground. As it turned out, raising funds was not the only challenge.
“I talked to 20 different well-drilling organizations and ministries, and all of them said no, I was wasting my time … They said, ‘You’ll either not hit water, or if you do hit water it will be brackish,’ or part salt, which is not treatable in Haiti without massive expense,” he recounted. “I finally found somebody who shared the same faith that I had and we just went in with the knowledge [that] if God can get water from a rock, then we believe that we can get water out of the ground in Haiti.” As of mid-August 2011, it seems they may have done just that. Although they were waiting for a larger rig to arrive in order to drill deeper, they did hit treatable water and the driller believes he will be able to tap a well. “We’re prayerfully hoping for that,” said Pitman.
From the standpoint of microenterprise and developing some kind of sustainable commerce, Pitman said they are looking into raising and selling livestock as a potential business that could be developed by the villagers. He said they were also looking at models in Africa and South America where people were taught sewing as a trade and sewing centers were developed to make clothing. And although the area is very dry, there are hopes of eventually having an irrigation system and being able to grow produce.
Pitman and his wife, Michelle, have established a non-profit, non-denominational evangelical Christian organization called Walking in the Reign, which serves the Wichita Project, the Lady Bugg House and the work in Balan, Haiti. The organization has partnered with the Salvation Army for the work in Haiti.
Pitman said that Walking in the Reign is getting ready to “make a much larger commitment” in Balan. “I want to buy five to 10 acres’ worth of land, and our next project is to build a community center and an orphanage. There’s no orphanage in our area, so we’re currently raising funds to build those,” he said, adding that some of the orphaned children are not orphans in the literal sense, but instead have been left in the care of family or friends because the parents have had to leave the village to find work in a bigger city. He said he was also contemplating the possibility of building someplace for him and his family to stay while in Haiti because lodging tends to be the biggest travel expense.
Working in Balan has always been a family affair, ever since Pitman’s very first trip when he was joined by his son, Parker, and his father-in-law, Gary. Michelle and the couple’s daughters, Kelsey and Kayley, have all made the trip as well. “We have just returned from our seventh trip to Haiti, and we have [trips] eight and nine booked,” said Pitman, adding that that none of the money raised for their work in Balan is ever used for travel or lodging. While he admitted that overseas mission work is not for everyone, he said, “There’s no part of it that we believe is a sacrifice. We really love it there.”
Pitman said spending time in Balan has given him a new perspective on things. “It’s really changed the way the Gospel comes to life for me,” he said. He referred to a portion of the Lord’s Prayer and pointed out, “My whole life as an American, I’ve prayed, ‘give us today our daily bread’ with a whole table full of food in front of me. In Haiti, my friends wake up in the morning and they pray that prayer and then go look for food, so it really will grab you if you stop to think about the way most of the world lives. We’re very blessed to be Americans, but I think we have a great responsibility with that as well.”
Working to End Alzheimer’s Disease
Jim Holman, Owner, The Car Store, Oklahoma City, OK
According to the website for the Alzheimer’s Association (alz.org), “Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that damages and eventually destroys brain cells, leading to loss of memory, thinking and other brain functions.” While that definition gives an idea of the damage the disease is doing to an estimated 5.4 million people in the United States who are currently afflicted with it, it doesn’t convey the devastation wreaked upon millions of other lives—the families, friends and caregivers of those suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Jim Holman, owner of The Car Store, a lease here pay here operation in Oklahoma City, Okla., knows firsthand how the disease affects its victims, both the patients and their loved ones. His late mother was afflicted with Alzheimer’s, which is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States today.
“I remember one day I got my mother in the car and she pulled out the seat belt,” he recalled. “She’s got the buckle about 10 inches in front of her face and she said, ‘I forgot what I’m supposed to do with this.’ That was her world. And you just have to figure out how you’re going to handle that.”
Holman (who’s also the Oklahoma Independent Automobile Dealers Association’s 2011 Quality Dealer) recently accepted his third two-year term on the board of directors for the Oklahoma and Arkansas Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. He became involved with the association after being approached about the possibility of donating a car for use by the chapter; this later graduated into a request for him to serve on the board. Although he was initially reluctant to take on the additional commitment, he eventually agreed to both requests and said his work with the association has taken on a life of its own for him.
He said he was impressed by the amount of money that was raised locally for Alzheimer’s as well as how that money was spent. “If you give a dollar to the Alzheimer’s Association, it gets spent where you would want it to be spent, even if it’s an undesignated dollar,” he stated. A relatively low percentage of the money brought in goes toward the administrative costs of the organization; according to the website for the Oklahoma and Arkansas Chapter, 76 percent of the funds raised are used for research efforts, programs and services.
Holman said evidence of the organization’s impact on the local community popped up recently in an odd place—on the windshield of the car he donated for the chapter’s use, which is adorned in large purple lettering with the slogan, “We’re on the move to end Alzheimer’s.” He said, “The CEO got a note on the car recently … just on a little piece of paper on the wiper, and it said, ‘Thank you for what you do. My mother has Alzheimer’s and you guys have been great.’” Getting that kind of affirmation, he admitted, is “kind of cool.”
He said raising money for Alzheimer’s is more difficult than raising money for other causes because it’s not as easily marketable, for lack of a better term. “Nobody could say no to children who are suffering,” he offered by way of example. “That said, here’s Alzheimer’s. It is arguably the fastest-growing epidemic—and it is an epidemic, it’s no longer just a disease,” he declared. Until the public became aware of early-onset Alzheimer’s, which can strike people in their 40s or 50s, “Alzheimer’s … was always thought of as an old person’s disease.” He believes that misconception is still a big challenge to fundraising efforts, one they must find a way to overcome soon.
“How do we get a 35-year-old to pay attention to something that’s not even on their radar … until their age doubles? … We need the money, [and] we need the awareness today.” Awareness is growing partly on its own, due to the growing number of people being diagnosed with the disease. “It’s getting rarer and rarer that you talk to somebody who hasn’t had … some connection to the disease.” He speculated that some kind of social media campaign might help the chapter reach a younger demographic.
At present, the chapter does two major fundraiser/awareness events a year, the Walk to End Alzheimer’s (which is part of a much larger national effort) and a local gala. Holman said he and the rest of the Oklahoma and Arkansas Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association were also working on developing a 30- or 60-minute infomercial they hope will air on local television stations in November, which is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. Their wish is that it might eventually develop into an annual telethon. “What we’re really trying to do is raise awareness,” he said, adding that a $5 donation from someone is “wonderful,” but more importantly, it would hopefully get people accustomed to the idea of regularly donating to the Alzheimer’s Association. As of mid-August 2011, Holman – who as a car dealer has some experience with commercials and infomercials – was in the process of meeting with local television stations about the project.
While Holman hopes other dealers will get involved in the fight to end Alzheimer’s disease, his advice to dealers is simply to get involved with something, even if their only motivation is image and reputation. “If somebody gets helped along the way, even if your motives are incredibly selfish … in spite of yourself, you’re doing some good. So whether it’s the right motive or the wrong motive, go get involved. Give back to your community. Don’t be a taker only. We take a lot of money out of people’s pockets every day. Let’s give something back.”
To learn more about the Alzheimer’s Association, visit alz.org.
Vol. 8, Issue 10