Reach For The Stars

The holidays bring out the best in everyone, but many jewelers extend the season of giving throughout the year. Here’s the story of three who take a hands-on approach to creating life-changing opportunities for others

A hand-held bell rings to the tune of clanking change outside your store, reminding you the season of giving has returned. Hearts grow a little bigger, compassion runs a little deeper and many people who spend the month thinking about gifts for their loved ones are also moved to do something special for the rest of humankind.

For some in the jewelry industry, the spirit of charity continues long after the last present is unwrapped. These people work in their communities or contribute to organizations year-round, locking up their stores for the day, then lending their evenings and weekends to causes important to them. According to a poll of the JCK Retail Jewelers Panel in September, 65% of retail jewelers volunteer their spare time to a charity or organization.

Volunteer work is done in many capacities. Some jewelers work for nationally established organizations such as the American Cancer Society, United Way or American Red Cross. They join local chapters of the Lions Club or Kiwanis, both well-known for their charity work. They work with children through Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, youth clubs and sports teams, or they work for children through education funds, school boards and child advocacy programs. Jewelers are represented also in dozens of health-related groups and volunteer time to work for homeless shelters, art foundations, museums, symphony orchestras, churches and synagogues.

Jewelers who get involved spend an average of five to 10 hours a week outside of their businesses on charity work, according to the JCK poll. They do it for many reasons. They see people in great need, they like the way an organization helps its beneficiaries or they find the work personally rewarding. Carl Carstens of Schnack’s in Alexandria, La., for example, began to donate eight hours a week to the Lions Club, an organization that helps blind and physically disabled children, when he met some of the children who were benefiting. “A visit to the Lions Crippled Children’s Camp or the Lions Eye Foundation and you can see the results,” he says. “The stories are fantastic.”

Other volunteers have been personally touched by a problem that their organization was organized to solve. George Robey of Sibbings Jewelry in Dubuque, Iowa, spends up to 10 hours a month raising money for the American Cancer Society. “My father died of cancer,” he says. “I’ve known too many people whose lives have been affected by cancer.”

The three jewelry industry members in this article didn’t need to look further than their own communities to find problems that deeply concerned them. Through their grassroots efforts and hard work, they have created new opportunities for people to change their lives. This year, JCK profiles these innovative people as examples of jewelers who continue to do good work.

JEFF COMMENT: MINING DIAMONDS FROM CITY STREETS

by Jeanette D. Gardner-Littleton

Jeanette Gardner-Littleton is a freelance writer in Columbia, Md. This story was excerpted from an article in the June-July 1996 issue of World Vision magazine.

At 2 a.m. Sunday, in a well-to-do Kansas City suburb, the streets were quiet. Jeff and Martha Comment had long been asleep, resting up for another busy day. In the morning the Comments would worship at church with their kids; in the afternoon, a family outing was planned. The diamond merchant nestled deeper into his pillow.

In another part of town, a policeman tapped his pen as he surveyed an arrest form. “Got anybody you can call?” he asked. From the moment he began talking to the driver of a car he had pulled over, the policeman knew he was talking to a seasoned criminal. This guy knew all the questions, all the answers.

The guy lifted his head and looked at the officer. “Yeah, Jeff Comment.”

“Jeff Comment? I used to work for a Jeff Comment. He’s the CEO at Helzberg Diamonds,” the officer said in disbelief.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” the guy said. His wary eyes met the cop’s skeptical gaze. “Look, he’s my friend. He’s the only one I can call.”

Jeff and Martha jumped as the shrill call of the phone split the silence. Comment reached for the phone, trying to focus on the numbers of the bedside clock. Adrenaline pumped. Calls at 2 a.m. rarely bring good news.

His breathless hello was answered with, “Jeff, I’ve been arrested. I don’t have tags for my car yet, but I was driving it. And when they found out I don’t have a license…” Odies (he wishes to be identified by his first name only) said, his voice choking up.

Comment sat up. “We’ll take care of it, Odies, calm down,” he answered. “Let me talk to the officer.”

Jeff listened to the officer’s explanation, then promised to make bail, pick up Odies and have the car towed after daylight. “Odies used to be a gang member,” Comment explained to the officer. “I’m trying to help him develop a new life.”

The policeman promised, “I’ll reduce the charges as much as I can. Odies will be OK until you pick him up in the morning.”

The rest of Comment’s night passed, but frequently interrupted by thoughts, worry, anxiety and frustration.

In the morning, Comment picked up Odies. Driving to the college in which Comment had helped Odies enroll, he spoke with Odies about the situation just as he would with his son.

In the college parking lot, the two bowed their heads and prayed together. Then with a handshake, a pat on the shoulder and encouraging words, the medium-framed, white-haired Comment watched the 300-pound, 6-ft.-5-in. Odies walk back into the ivy halls.

How did such an incongruous pair — one from the inner-city streets, the other a part of the city’s elite group of businesspeople — join forces?

Getting together: Comment is no stranger to crime. He had worked in downtown Philadelphia, where the problems and challenges of inner-city life were apparent from his office window. “One of my best friends was a judge,” Comment explains. “Over time, my friend would share situations that were going on in the inner city. On one hand, delving into inner-city problems gave me a sense of despair. On the other, I found encouragement. I would see very small organizations working hard to make a difference in people’s lives. And their work was succeeding even though they didn’t have adequate financial backing or lots of help.”

The sights of Philadelphia’s streets stayed with Comment after he moved to the Midwest. During seven years in Kansas City, Comment served on the boards of several organizations working in the inner city. Then officials asked him to chair the Chamber of Commerce’s Committee on Crime and Violence — no small task because Kansas City sees a higher percentage of crimes per capita than New York City or Los Angeles.

“For the Committee on Crime and Violence, we interviewed people about their perception of violence in town,” Comment says. “Then I got the brainstorm to bring in a gang member.”

Comment turned to a church working in the inner city. The church sent Odies to the next committee meeting. “Odies told us what life was like on the streets,” Comment says. “I said, ‘You have 12 CEOs sitting here. How can we encourage you and you friends to change your lifestyle?’ He simply said, ‘Hope. Give us hope.'”

As a diamond merchant, Comment is used to searching out gems. And somewhere in the carbon of the 30-year-old Odies’ life, he saw a diamond — in the rough, maybe, but nevertheless a diamond. “After he visited our meeting, I asked him what his dreams were,” Comment says. “He wanted to go to college. I asked Odies, ‘If I could make your dream happen, would you turn your life around?’ Nobody had every given him that opportunity. Now I’m trying to teach him a whole new world.”

Abundant miracles: That new world has included abundant miracles. With Comment championing Odies’ potential, others caught sight of the vision. “Prosecutors had enough warrants for Odies’ arrest to put him in prison for five to eight years. I talked to prosecutors, to judges, to policemen. They decided to give Odies just a 120-day rehabilitation program, with parole on its completion,” Comment says.

“While Odies was in the rehab program, I visited him. I also looked for a college for him. Finally one said, ‘We’ll overlook his records. We like his dream of returning to the gangs to help others.'”

As Odies watched Comment act on his behalf, the walls of suspicion began to fall. And a bridge of understanding slowly crossed the chasm between the men. Like learning to walk, changing a life is full of tumbles and spills. Small successes and occasional falls and failures are part of the process.

Comment has seen several successes with Odies. “A couple of months ago, he helped build houses with Habitat for Humanity during his spring break from college. When he got home, he laughed and told me, ‘Jeff, last year, I tore houses down. This year I built one.'”

There has been backsliding also. Nearing the completion of his first semester in college, and a period of being off drugs for longer than ever before, Odies slipped. Being found with drugs was a parole violation, and Odies was sent back to prison. He will not be eligible for parole again until next year.

“All of us who have worked with Odies feel sad about this,” Comment says, “but not discouraged. As the president of a business, I like to see everything organized, put together with a nice bow on top. But people’s lives don’t work that way. We don’t always see success. I can’t fix Odies. All I can do is be his friend, offer him advice and lead him to people who can help. I still feel Odies is different today from who he was a year ago. Maybe Odies needed to fail this time in order to gain the wisdom he needs to succeed the next time.”

Indeed, since returning to prison, Odies’ faith in God has grown and he is counseling other prisoners to stay away from drugs and alcohol — which are readily available among them. In addition, Comment and Odies write to each other once a week and pray for each other regularly.

Still, there are no guarantees that Odies won’t fall again. “Working with Odies hurts at times,” Comment admits. “I love this guy and want him to make it, and yet I can’t tell you he’s going to make it. But God has called me to be with this man. As a result, I, too, am learning and growing and facing new challenges. I’m learning what real ministry is, and what God’s grace really means in my own life.”

KATIE SMITH: DOLLARS AGAINST DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

by Stacey King, associate editor

Early on a chilly Saturday morning as summer turned to fall, Chicago’s Lincoln Park had come alive. A gray sky obscured the sunrise over Lake Michigan as early risers arrived in sweatshirts and sneakers to stretch and sign their names at registration tables. By 9:30, the park path was jammed with more than 300 people, energized and passionate about their commitment to walk 10 kilometers to benefit a local coalition against domestic violence.

When the walkers set off, Katie Smith and other organizers and volunteers got to work, pounding tent poles into the ground, preparing the grills for a noontime barbecue and setting up musical instruments for the afternoon entertainment. But their persistence and hope didn’t drive away the clouds. As participants rounded the last curve of the walk, the skies opened and a cold rain poured down.

Back at the home base, volunteers remained optimistic. Walkers returned few by few to a cheerful party in the park: the pounding music of a Korean women’s drum corps, dancers performing a traditional Chinese New Year dance, the mouth-watering smells of grilled burgers and chicken, children and adults alike indulging in the colorful fun of face painting.

“They were troopers,” says Smith, the benefits chairperson of the Midwest Women’s Jewelry Association and organizer of the annual “Step Out to Stop Abuse” walk-a-thon. The rain was pesky, but it didn’t keep the organizers from reaching their goal: by day’s end, they had raised $5,100 to support the Chicago Abused Women’s Coalition.

Supporting the CAWC has occupied most of Smith’s spare time and energy in the past five years. Now the training manager for jewelry for Sears, Roebuck & Co., she has a background in marketing in the jewelry industry. She had been using her talents in fundraising and publicity for several years to organize annual Women’s Jewelry Association benefits for various women’s charities when, in 1991, she and other members decided to adopt just one organization.

Smith and other members interviewed four Chicago-area charities, three of which were popular and well-funded. The fourth was the CAWC. “They seemed to be really in need,” Smith recalls. The coalition serves about 700 women and children a year with meals and shelter, individual and multilingual group counseling, art therapy and legal advocacy. The CAWC Greenhouse shelter is the one of the largest in Illinois, accommodating 42 women and children at a time and often operating at full capacity. CAWC Director Olga Becker says the shelter turned away a record 7,502 women and children in 1995 due to lack of space. Only half of the CAWC’s operating funds are provided by the government; the rest must be raised or donated.

The need for money was striking, but equally impressive to WJA was CAWC’s effective programs and policies. The Greenhouse is the only one in Illinois to admit male children up to age 18, and it operates age-appropriate counseling sessions to help the children work through anger and stress proactively instead of violently. The families in the shelter work together as a community to run the household. Believing that shelter alone cannot solve the problem, CAWC staff members designed two outreach programs to build awareness in Chicago’s medical and law enforcement communities. President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno gave CAWC the National Crime Victims Service Award in 1994 for these innovative programs.

WJA decided to adopt CAWC as the beneficiary of its volunteer and fund-raising efforts. Smith excitedly began organizing the first WJA benefit, the walk-a-thon that would become an annual event. She knew domestic violence was a national problem — one affecting 3 million to 4 million women in the United States each year — as well as a major local problem, one of the foremost causes of injuries seen at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, which operates the busiest emergency room in the U.S. But her intimate work with volunteers and contact with survivors suddenly brought the violence home to her. She looked around and realized how many people in her own life had been affected by abuse. “We all know a family member or a friend who has been affected by domestic abuse, and we all wish we could have been there earlier to help her,” she says.

Smith wanted to get more involved. Her enthusiasm for organizing the WJA benefit was quickly noticed by the CAWC executive board, which asked her to work on the fundraising committee planning other benefits throughout the year. She realized the best way to support the coalition was to apply her talents for “bringing them dollars,” and she eagerly accepted the position.

She now spends several hours a week year-round organizing the walk-a-thon, a silent auction and a “Visions of Chocolate” sweets-tasting benefit held each March. Her contacts in the jewelry industry have added a new dimension to the fundraisers. “At least 10% to 15% of the goods in auctions and raffles have been jewelry in the past five years,” she says. She and other WJA members also put together the popular Diamond Drawing during the walk-a-thon, giving purchasers of $5 tickets the chance to win a diamond. Together with WJA and the CAWC fundraising committee, Smith helps to raise more than $50,000 a year for the coalition’s programs.

Smith is inspired by the women she meets through CAWC. “I hear about their everyday victories,” she says. Their small joys, ones that others take for granted, remind Smith that her time, creativity and tireless planning can change lives in so many ways — no matter what the weather brings.

Helplines:

The Chicago Abused Women’s Coalition and hundreds of organizations across the country are manning the phones 24 hours a day to provide support and advice to victims of domestic violence and their friends and family.

CAWC (Chicago, Ill., area): (773) 278-4566 or TDD (hearing impaired) (773) 278-4114.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-SAFE.

TERESA SALDIVAR: LENDING A HAND TO A HOMETOWN

by Stacey King, associate editor

Santa Ana is a small town by California standards. Located 25 miles south of Los Angeles, the city of 311,000 is the center of Orange County, a place known more for Disneyland and beaches than for its cities. Santa Ana continues to grow and pulse with tourist-filled shopping centers and a newly built Civic Center. But for life-long residents, the city remains a close-knit community where everybody seems to know everybody else.

Teresa Saldivar, owner of Teresa’s Jewelers in Santa Ana, was born and raised here, and she embodies the concept of hometown pride. At age 12, when most young people begin to grow restless and yearn to move away from home, Saldivar discovered the gratification of involving herself in her community when she volunteered at a local theater. She focused her growing social awareness during high school on local politics by working passionately for political campaigns.

After graduation, she worked for a local jeweler and in 1985 opened her own jewelry store. As she grew to be an influential businessperson, she gained some perspective on the town. Santa Ana is a young city: more than 46% of the residents are under 24. The kids, Saldivar realized, lacked guidance and self-confidence. “So many students don’t know which way to turn,” she says. She also identified the need for increased morale and involvement among the city’s Hispanic community, which makes up 72% of the population, and the need for a sense of purpose among the town’s senior citizens.

The town needed community members willing to act as role models. She visited local schools and spoke to high school students about the importance of staying in school and following dreams. Seeing that her words were making a difference in their attitudes, she started working the phones. “I started nudging other businesspeople to get involved and become mentors for the kids,” she says. In a town whose motto is “Education First,” businesspeople started to visit schools and bring in guest speakers to inspire elementary, junior high and high school students.

Saldivar has rallied community participation and focused on concerns among the Hispanic community by joining one organization after another. She encourages support of the local political process through the Latin American Voters of America. As a board member of the United Western Medical Center of Santa Ana, she serves on the Hispanic Advisory Council to address health care issues and educate the community. She concentrates on issues for Hispanic women through her membership in the Mexican-American National Women’s Association, and she frequently offers her input on the importance of quality recreational facilities in Santa Ana through the city’s parks and recreation division. She’s also a board member of the California Jewelers Association.

Visit to seniors: One day Saldivar visited the senior center a few blocks from her store, only to discover hours of camaraderie with people eager for her friendship. She now visits regularly and helps with fundraising. She got an unexpected gift in exchange for her time. “Some of the seniors came into my business and asked if I had anything for them to do,” she says. “They have offered their services to do direct mailings, filing or anything I need done around the store.” Her friends were happy to have something useful and important to do, and with her busy schedule, she was touched by their gratitude and happy to accept their help.”

Saldivar cooperates with promotional efforts among downtown merchants and spends about 10 to 12 hours a week calling merchants for raffle donations, organizing fundraising events, rounding up guest speakers for organizations, attending meetings and planning contests and holiday events. Her store frequently contributes jewelry as prizes for fundraisers. “We do use that as part of our advertising,” she says. “I’d much rather do that than spend the money on traditional advertising.”

The number of lives she touches each month is large, so it’s difficult to determine how her efforts make a difference.But they are highly recognized and appreciated, as indicated by her many awards: Woman of the Year in Business from the League of United Latin American Citizens, City of Santa Ana Volunteer Person of the Year Award and awards from the Orange County Minority Business Council, the Orange County United Way and the YWCA.

Recently proof that the spirit of volunteerism in Santa Ana is making a difference showed up even closer to home. “One merchant brought in a pilot from Delta Airlines to speak to students, and my niece was among those students,” she says. “When my niece graduated soon afterward, she decided she was going to be a pilot and went on to work for an airline. If not for the fact that she met this gentleman, I’m not sure what she would have done as a career.”

This kind of support makes Santa Ana a better place to live, Saldivar says, and she throws herself into fulfilling her community’s needs with cheerful energy. For a business owner, the number of responsibilities and hours to which she commits herself seem overwhelming, but she is happiest when she gives back to the city that nurtured her. “I was born and raised in Santa Ana, and I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t involved,” she says. “I know so many people here.” Santa Ana is Saldivar’s home, and she embraces every opportunity to make it a happier one.