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We all need a little help from each other from time to time. A story of a philanthropist with a long history of giving back to the community still finds that she needs help to make a much bigger difference.

Audio: Giving Back and Making an Extraordinary Difference to the Community

Transcript: Giving Back and Making an Extraordinary Difference to the Community

Narrator: Beth Renner, Head of Philanthropic Services, Wells Fargo Private Bank
Host: Phyllis Silverstein, Senior Regional Fiduciary Manager, Wells Fargo Private Bank
Guest: Marjy Stagmeier

Beth: Are you someone who contributes to your community? Maybe you coach your kid's soccer team, volunteer at a local charity, or even sit on your city council.  What if one day, as you were volunteering, you had an idea that you knew could make not just a small difference but an extraordinary difference to your community? What if you started down this path, achieved incredible results, but then found yourself facing some major challenges?

This is exactly what happened to Marjy Stagmeier. I'm Beth Renner, head of Philanthropic Services for Wells Fargo Private Bank, and I'm going to let Marjy tell her inspiring story in her own words in conversation with her relationship manager, Phyllis Silverstein.

Marjy and Phyllis have a long history of working together which started when they bonded at a meeting about a local community food bank program.

Conversation element:

Phyllis: You were always my favorite from – from the get-go, because you-you just got what we were all trying to accomplishment here in the community. That it's not enough just to take care of today, but also tomorrow. So, um, from there, we then had lunch. what were your impressions of that first meeting? And why did you then reach out to me and say let's have lunch?

Marjy: Well, first off, I was so impressed with you. And I was very impressed with Wells Fargo because I felt like Wells Fargo got what we were trying to do around sustainability with our non-profit. And also, you mentioned that you were a foundation specialist. And I really wanted to pick your brain and get your expertise. And you have never disappointed. I think that you really know what you're talking about.

Phyllis: And you talked to me about your journey from being a businessperson to philanthropy. And let's talk about that for a little while.

Marjy: So I grew up in a household that was always community oriented. My parents were very active in the DeKalb County where I grew up. They were always having political fundraisers. They were always giving out and, uh, reaching out to non-profits. They were very active in their community. And that is sort of our family culture. Um, I have two sisters and all three of us are very active in community philanthropies or giving back. So I grew up in a household like that.

In my 20s, I actually got on to the Atlanta Community Food Bank Board. And I had been on one of their boards in some capacity for over 20 years now. And I've grown with them. I've learned a lot with them. And I think it was a great training ground for me for starting my own non-profit. So not only on the food bank board, but I've also sat on many community boards in my neighborhood and in my profession which is commercial real estate.

Phyllis: Well, one of the, um, commercial real estate projects that you talked to me about, I actually drive by every day on the way to work. And when you tell me about the change in the community, I was just in awe that you, from my perspective, single-handedly turned that entire community around.

Marjy: Well, I had an "aha" moment. I purchased a 446-unit apartment community that was severely blighted in Cobb County. And it had – had 200 units with black mold. And I had 75 units that were burned out. And I had a seven million-dollar budget to renovate this property. And I went to Cobb County to try to get permits, and the county said no. And the reason is they told me is that the school was failing.

And it's very unusual for a county not to work with someone who is trying to improve a blighted apartment community. So the very next day, I went and met with Brumby Elementary. I was very fortunate to get to meet Dr. Richie who was the principal. And basically she explained to me how blighted apartment communities can dramatically impact the performance of the school. And what she explained is the concept of transiency. And I had never heard that before. So as an apartment community, if the landlord is raising the rents, and it's forcing these working and poor families to move, they basically take their children out of the school. And so the children have to go to another school. And it's virtually impossible for schools to be able to educate children when they're moving one and two times a year.

Beth: It turns out that Marjy, who had been in the real estate business for years at this point, hadn't realized that there was a relationship between low income families, affordable rents and school performance. This was her "aha moment", and being the community-minded person that she is as well as a successful business woman, she looked for solutions that would be mutually beneficial. Let' pick up her story. 

Marjy: So that relationship between my apartment community and Brumby Elementary flourished over the next five years. And within five years, we took her school from failing to a Title 1 School of Distinction through a partnership between our apartment community and her school.

We had 90 children in our afterschool program that was onsite at the apartment community. And we had a hundred percent pass rate on the school tests. And so she became a Title 1 School of Distinction. Um, and from there, it's like the whole community started improving because once you have a school that is successful, all of a sudden the homeowners around the school want to send their children there. Home values improve. And crime rates go down. So it shows how an apartment community and a school working jointly can be a catalyst for an entire community.

Beth: And this is where this very inspiring story now starts to get a little more complicated largely because of Marjy's success.

Marjy: So after five years, my investors came to me. And they said, Marjy, you need to sell this apartment community. We had a five-year ownership term. And they actually ended up giving me a six-year because I – it took me five years to get the permits from Cobb County. But after five years, we finally got our permits and were able to renovate the property. And so I sold it. And the new buyer came in. He immediately closed the afterschool program. He cut down on our security. So crime went up. The afterschool program went away. And he started raising rents between a hundred and $150 a unit. So a lot of our families had to move out. And then once again the transiency came back to Brumby Elementary. And within a year and a half, they were a failing school again.

Phyllis: So what did you do next?

Marjy: So from that experience, I decided that we had a very good model and that it could be replicated. So – but before we pursued the model, I wanted to have a beta site. So what we did is we took 186-unit apartment community that we have in Atlanta. Uh, this particular apartment community in some ways was much more challenging. We found out the elementary school which we share a property line, was one of the worst-performing schools in the state of Georgia. Um, the average household income of the families living at this apartment community is $18,750 a year. So we're dealing with a tenant base that was living way below the poverty line. So we decided to use this apartment community to test our model. So I formed a non-profit called Star-C. We got ourselves a board of directors.

And we decided to really study the model. So the conclusion was every apartment community that we're involved with needs to have three things.

  • It needs to have an afterschool program that partners with the local elementary school.
  • It needs to have a wellness program. So all our residents have a primary care physician, a dentist and a way to pay.
  • And we need to have – needed to have community gardens so that our residents would not be living in a food desert. And they would have healthy choices as far as nutrition.

Phyllis: Now, did you experience with the food bank lead you to that?

Marjy: Yes. Um, so working at the food bank, I saw first-hand about the value of community building around gardens. Um, and not only that, I can tell you the value of the gardens is it dramatically cut our crime, because our residents are in their gardens all summer long. Um, so it really – from the gardens has-has come this incredible sense of community where the people living at the community now know each other, um, through being in their gardens.

Phyllis: How – how are you doing this? Uh, just – you're – you're one person. You're trying to run a company and do this. And there's only so many hours in a day.

Marjy: So we're able to actually consolidate the afterschool and the wellness navigation director in one full-time job. The apartment community actually funds about – probably about 60 percent of the program cost. And because we're a non-profit, we're allowed to go out and get grants to help pay for the services offered through the program. So it's been very exciting at Willow because we partnered with Emory School of Public Health. And they actually developed our whole wellness program. And they found a federally qualified health clinic called Oakhurst. And between the two of us, we're making sure all 700 of our resident have a primary care physician, a dentist. And if the family is not insured or cannot pay for these services, then Star-C the non-profit will pay for them through the grants.

Phyllis: How is the school connected?

Marjy: So we went and met with the principal of Indian Creek Elementary and explained to her what our programming was. And it was actually her idea that we should have a wellness program, because at her school a lot of her students did not have access to medical or affordable dental. So in collaboration with the school, we have 60 children in this particular program. And we basically work with the school to get test scores; to get study materials. And if students have any educational issues or any behavioral issues, usually we get involved and work with the families to make sure that that child has an educational advocate. And we found that that has really tremendous impact on the child's educational performance. Um, a lot of our children, uh, go into school maybe not even speaking the language. So we've been very helpful in helping the children speak the language. 

Um, so we have one family that lives at the property that is a family from Burma. They have seven children--all daughters. And we recently met the second daughter. She's actually on a full scholarship at Agnes Scott College. And she's in neuroscience with plans to go to medical school. And she's making straight A's and she told us that that would not have been possible without our afterschool program for her family.

Phyllis: Wow. Just amazing. So students that – that first started almost 20 years ago are now headed towards amazing greatness because of what you've accomplished?

Marjy: Exactly. Well, and I would say it overlap: all the directors and everyone involved in the program.

Phyllis: What's next on the horizon?

Marjy: So we're putting together a 10 million-dollar fund. And we're trying to raise the money to go purchase more apartment communities around Atlanta. We'll do the exact same model. And offer 142 families an opportunity to improve their education and, uh, wellness outcomes. So that's our next steps is we're trying to raise the money to basically continue the model.

Phyllis: And this is through Star-C?

Marjy: No. We're actually forming another non-profit called 3-Star Communities that will own and operate the apartments. Star-C basically operates the programs. So in the world of apartment ownership, you always want to keep your operators separate from your ownership for liability purposes.

Phyllis: Wow. That's really amazing. And how – how have you found this experience of fundraising at the food bank different from what you're doing with Star-C and TriStar – 3-Star?

Marjy: Well, you know, in some ways it has been very similar. Uh, I think what the biggest surprise for me is, is how competitive it is with the foundations in – I mean, you know that. You have so many non-profits out there that are competing for the foundation dollars. But what we're finding with our model is that we are the community – the whole community. We're not just coming for one little piece of it. So we're starting to get a lot more people and foundations interested. They're not just impacting one component of someone's life, like education. They're actually impacting the whole individual through housing, education and wellness. So I'm very excited for some of the discussion we're having with the non-profit community and with the foundation community.

Beth: So this is Marjy's story: an "aha" moment, lots of support from willing partners in the healthcare field and education, an awesome board of directors, a community in Atlanta who has seen the results and is pulling together to try and find the funding to help  more people with affordable housing. As I listened to this narrative, what I found most interesting is that most of the people Marjy is helping are working people like you and me.

Marjy: A lot of times there's a lot of stigmatism around poverty. But what they don't realize is people living at our apartment communities are working families. Um, and they're people you meet every day. So that's one of the things that we're trying to do is break the barriers around poverty and the stigmatism associated with it.

Beth: What's the moral of Marjy's story? I would say that we all need a little help from each other from time to time. Marjy is helping those in her community. And, who knows, one day one of them may help her. Remember the straight A student with the scholarship who wanted to go into medicine?

And we at Wells Fargo are proud to be helping her help our community, in turn she is an inspiration to us as we seek to help others with similar planned giving needs. At this point I would like to give her the final word.

Marjy: I really want that to be my legacy, is that I left a better community behind. Um, that was sustainable and really helped families improve their lives.

Phyllis: Wow. And I get to do that with you. And that is what makes me want to come to work every day and meet lots of people who can one day become Marjy Stagmeier. And do wonderful, incredible work. And truly make a difference in the lives of so many people who really just – just need some help.

Marjy: Well, and the Marjy Stagmeiers cannot be successful without the, um, Phyllis Silversteins either, and the Wells Fargos. So thank you so much for all your help and for your continued collaboration. I just really, really appreciate it.

Well, anyone that's listening, if you want to learn more about our organization, you can visit us at www.star-c.org. And on the website, we're getting ready to – put up some tools for landlords that are interested in possibly replicating the model in their community. Or a way that they can connect with us as far as how they can do the same thing.