Community Involvement

By: John Fish Issue: Conscious Capitalism Section: Collaborator Profile

"Starting a New Box"

Community Involvement A famous poet once said, “Nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something.” These words resonate with me today, but there was a time when I didn’t truly understand their meaning and relevance to my role in the construction industry and business community.

When I founded Suffolk Construction over 27 years ago, I was ambitious, passionate and determined. I was also focused on leading my own organization and making it profitable. I quickly realized I had the tools and skills necessary to be successful in the business world and over time my company began to manage larger and more complex building construction projects. Suffolk Construction quickly expanded and all my dreams began to come true. The opportunities seemed endless.

Throughout all of these successes I never forgot where I came from, but I was also focused on my company’s bottom line. As my company and I raced forward at breakneck speed during stronger economic times, I did not always take the time to consider the people who might be left behind due to circumstances beyond their control. It wasn’t until later when I realized the importance of giving back and contributing to our surrounding communities.

Suffolk is extremely committed to philanthropy, and our charitable efforts have never been as organized and focused as they are today. Rather than “thinking outside the box” for new opportunities to raise money and organize fundraising events, our approach was different. Our company decided to “start a new box” and develop more innovative, creative opportunities to help people in need.

To maintain our focus on the causes that matter most to us, we established a 501c3 called the Red & Blue Foundation. Named after the bold red and blue colors in our distinct company logo, Red & Blue Foundation is the charitable arm of our organization focused on making a difference in local neighborhoods by positively impacting underprivileged and underserved children, particularly through educational programs. The unique programs we have unveiled as part of our Red & Blue Foundation have already had impressive results.

Camp Harbor View

A few summers ago, youth violence in Boston’s inner-cities was skyrocketing. Despite the city’s efforts to curb the violence through community programs and more police on the streets, the crime rate continued to rise. The City of Boston was no longer in a position to “look outside the box” for solutions to this problem, city officials, businesses and community groups needed to “start a new box” and find an innovative solution that would have a long-term impact on the city’s children. It was decided that the kids of Boston needed a place to spend their summers, away from the violent street corners of the city.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino turned to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston, local philanthropists and Suffolk Construction to raise money and construct Camp Harbor View on an abandoned Boston Harbor island. The Camp would be used exclusively for underprivileged children living in Boston’s inner-city neighborhoods. It was an ambitious project to say the least - the Mayor asked that the Camp be completed in time for the summer, which was only a few months away.

Our Suffolk Construction project teams exceeded the schedule goal and completed construction of Camp Harbor View on an amazing 109-day schedule despite numerous challenges. One of the most significant hurdles was the location of the project itself, which was situated on Long Island in the middle of Boston Harbor. Due to limited access to the island by road, all construction materials and equipment had to be delivered to the project site by more than 60 barges navigating across Boston Harbor. The completed Camp Harbor View facility consists of a 14,100 square-foot main building, 1,712 square-foot beach house, 1,500 square-foot pavilion, two basketball courts, two tennis courts, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, three soccer fields and a pier used for sailing lessons.

The new facility is impressive, but the impact the camp is having on the kids of Boston cannot be measured. When I recently visited Camp Harbor View, a young girl personally thanked me for helping build the camp. She was bursting with energy but still seemed a little shy. After I prodded her a bit, she began to tell me her story. She said she loved playing with her friends at the camp but that her life hadn’t always been that happy. Before she was invited to Camp Harbor View, she often had to stay indoors during summer afternoons because of the violence outside her home. There were even nights when she heard gunshots outside her bedroom window.

When I heard this young child’s story, it quickly put all the negative economic news of the past year into perspective. Camp Harbor View was making an immediate impact on the kids of Boston and it was changing their lives for the better. Today, more than 700 underprivileged children from Boston’s inner-city neighborhoods attend Camp Harbor View each summer, and the number keeps growing as plans to expand the Camp continue.

The story behind Camp Harbor View was clearly not the construction of this amazing camp, but instead was the vision and innovative thinking that led to an incredible place that has made such an enormous difference in young people’s lives.

The Boston Scholar Athlete Program

Camp Harbor View was not the only time that Red & Blue Foundation and the City of Boston joined together for an important cause. For years, there have been well-publicized inadequacies in the athletic programs in the Boston Public Schools. Stories about the shortage of quality sporting equipment and consistently uncompetitive teams were heard all too frequently about the Boston Public School teams.

Many of us believed it was time to do something, but we decided that “thinking outside the box” and finding new ways to raise money for the Boston Public School athletic programs was not the answer. We decided it was time to “start a new box” and create a solution that would have the greatest and most immediate impact on the young people of Boston.

In response to the crisis in Boston’s public school athletic programs, Mayor Menino and I partnered again and announced the creation of The Boston Scholar Athlete Program. The program is a multimillion-dollar charitable foundation designed to support academic achievement through athletics and foster a platform that encourages participation from a consortium of professional sports teams, colleges, universities and corporations. The ultimate goal of the program is to enhance opportunities for Boston student athletes and develop individual student athlete growth through mentoring, tutoring, coaching and conditioning.

Red & Blue Foundation contributed $1 million to fund The Boston Scholar Athlete Program but we also play a critical role in its leadership and management. By partnering with colleges, universities, individuals and corporate sponsors, Red & Blue Foundation is now offering increased funding, tutoring programs, scholarship opportunities, equipment upgrades and training opportunities for students and coaches across the city.

Red & Blue Foundation is administering the program with the help of a Suffolk-hired Executive Athletic Director and Chief Academic Officer responsible for managing the athletic and academic program efforts, respectively. In addition to providing guidance to formulate a strategic long-term plan, our Red & Blue Foundation is raising money, organizing athletic and academic clinics, and instituting training seminars to improve coaching while encouraging increased participation in Boston’s public school athletic programs.

As part of the roll-out of the innovative Boston Scholar Athlete Program, Red & Blue Foundation has also recruited major colleges and universities in Boston to provide goods and services, including academic tutors. We have also engaged local non-profits for this important cause to see how we can most effectively combine our efforts to reach our common goal of providing enhanced athletics and academic opportunities to the children of Boston.

Again, “starting a new box” and approaching this community issue with an innovative, creative solution is making the biggest impact on the community. By assisting and encouraging academic achievement while expanding and enhancing opportunities on the playing field, our unique Boston Scholar Athlete Program model is drawing national attention and is already making significant progress within Boston’s public schools.

Red & Blue Foundation A National Presence

Our Red & Blue Foundation is a national initiative and is making a positive difference in communities across the country, particularly in the Southeast. The Red & Blue Foundation and Rex Kirby, Suffolk’s Southeast President, have been committed to partnering with Home Safe, a non-profit organization that provides services to neglected children in South Florida. The Foundation and Suffolk’s Southeast office have played a strong leadership role in fundraising for the organization and raising awareness of abused and neglected children in Florida.

The Red & Blue Foundation is also beginning to make inroads in the Mid-Atlantic and West Coast regions of the country. Suffolk’s Mid-Atlantic teams recently participated in the District of Columbia Building Industry Association (DCBIA) Community Improvement Day and the renovation of the Douglass Community Center, which provides sports leagues, youth development, therapeutic recreation, aquatic programming, outdoor adventure, camping and child care services. Suffolk’s West Coast teams consistently organize volunteers to assist local Habitat for Humanity projects in Orange County. The Red & Blue Foundation is in the process of developing even more charitable initiatives in these regions for the coming year.

With Crisis Comes Opportunity

Our current economic situation is creating an enormous opportunity for companies to become more involved in their communities. Today, companies are no longer playing by a different set of rules, but instead are playing an entirely new game altogether. “Thinking outside the box” is dead. Organizations are changing their entire mindsets and “starting new boxes” by reinventing and recreating themselves. They are also looking beyond their balance sheets and finances to make a positive impact on their local communities.

Business leaders are beginning to understand that giving back is not just about donating money. It’s about volunteering time, offering unique skills, sharing knowledge and discovering new, innovative ways to make a positive difference. Their leadership and passion for giving back is becoming contagious and is already creating a ripple effect that is having a dramatic impact on local communities.

Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” As business leaders continue to navigate through the difficult economic times, it is important that they “look around them” and remember the important role they can play in helping the less fortunate achieve their dreams.

John F. Fish is Chairman and CEO of Suffolk Construction Company, Inc., one of the largest privately-held building contractors in the country. Mr. Fish is also Chairman of the Board of the Red & Blue Foundation which was established to assist underprivileged and underserved children nationwide through education and community initiatives.