Offices | Currently Browsing: USA
Make-A-Wish Podcast (Bonus Episode) - Structure Tone
How can the AEC industry band together to give back? Tune in to our special bonus episode to find out how NYC's real estate and construction community has joined forces with Make-A-Wish to bring joy to little New Yorkers living with critical illnesses.
33908
post-template-default,single,single-post,postid-33908,single-format-standard,mkd-core-1.0.2,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,,onyx child-child-ver-1.0.0,onyx-ver-1.4.1, vertical_menu_with_scroll,smooth_scroll,side_menu_slide_with_content,width_470,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-4.12,vc_responsive
 

Make-A-Wish Podcast (Bonus Episode)

How can the AEC industry band together to give back? Tune in to our special bonus episode to find out how NYC’s real estate and construction community has joined forces with Make-A-Wish to bring joy to little New Yorkers living with critical illnesses.

Make-A-Wish Podcast Transcript

Narrator :

How can the AEC industry band together to give back? On today’s bonus episode, Breanna Ahern, a member of STO’s corporate marketing team will be speaking with Dan Finnegan, Chris Mee, and Elizabeth Merkouris on how New York City’s construction and real estate leaders have done just that. Welcome to Building Conversations.

Breanna Ahern:

So I’m here with Dan, Chris, and Elizabeth to talk about how the AEC industry gives back and, more specifically, how in New York, some organizations within our industry have joined forces to form the Make-A-Wish Real Estate Council. So, each of you have a different background and a different relationship to make a wish. Would you mind introducing yourselves and telling us a little bit about your involvement with the Make-A-Wish Foundation?

Lizzy Merkouris:

Yeah, I’ll start. Um, hi everyone. My name is Lizzy Merkouris. I’m the manager of our annual campaign and donor services at Make-A-Wish Metro New York. So what that means is I work with all of the generous donors who choose to give to our charity, um, and help make wishes come true. And that includes our incredible Real Estate Council, which of course we will get more into.

Chris Mee:

Uh, my name is Chris Mee. I’m a facilities professional here in New York City. Uh, I’ve worked in the industry for approximately about 35 years, mainly with professional services firms. I’m currently the manager of facilities and operations for Gibson Dunn here in New York.

Dan Finnegan :

And I am Dan Finnegan. I am executive vice president of Structure Tone here in New York. And, uh, I am the chair of the Make-A-Wish Metro New York Real Estate Council.

Breanna Ahern:

Great. So Elizabeth, do you want to just briefly go through what Make-A-Wish does does and how the organization grants wishes?

Lizzy Merkouris:

Yeah, so, yeah, at Make-A-Wish we grant the wishes for children that are battling critical illnesses. So these can be a number of different things. There’s a misconception that that means it’s a child who has cancer and that’s totally not the case. We work with all children who are battling critical illnesses. So this can be anything from cystic fibrosis to a transplant and beyond. We work to grant wishes because you know, people think a wish is just like this nice or amazing thing. Um, and it is that, but it is so much more than that. Um, wishes have have the power to inspire, um, not only the children that they’re being granted for, but their families and their communities. It helps kids look past the limitations that an illness brings into their lives. Families are able to overcome anxiety and then really the communities around them that come together to make these wishes come true, truly experience the joy that it brings. Most importantly, a wish can help us improve quality of life for a child and truly give them a better chance at recovering from their illness.

Breanna Ahern:

Dan and Chris, you are each members of the Real Estate Council. Can you talk a little bit about the Real Estate Council and how it’s involved with Make-A-Wish?

Dan Finnegan :

Sure. Maybe I’ll just start and talk about really how, how it all began. And a little over five years ago, I was working with a few other executives at Structure Tone and just talking about how we can be giving back a little bit more to the community. One of our vice chairmen actually, um, was part of the Make-A-Wish board. And he had said that they were struggling getting these construction related wishes come to fruition. And so we decided was we’ll get some of our friends and partners in the real estate community, which is essentially real estate, architects, our clients, owners’ reps and engineers and construction side and really look at how we can take on some of these wishes and take that burden away from the Make-A-Wish Metro group. So, what we really did is just started talking to our friends in the business and, and looking at who else would want to join us. And it was really grassroots starting with a permanent about five or six of us. And then it really just started to, to get momentum. And essentially what we do is we take on any construction related wish here in the Metro New York area and we take that we take that responsibility on from meeting with the family all the way through the construction and then turning it over to the family as a completed project.

Breanna Ahern:

And I imagine a lot of your wishes are really involved. And it must be nice to have some construction experts helping out with the building side of things.

Lizzy Merkouris:

Oh yeah, I mean we are so lucky. We, we have a couple of different wish types that a child can choose. So typically they can meet a celebrity or choose to be a police officer for the day. Maybe they want to go on a trip. Um, Disney is our most well-known wish. We have 70% of kids who wish to go there and you know, those wishes we can handle. And we really try to make these wishes as special as we can for the child. So when we started getting wishes like a room makeover or a home movie theater, that’s the expertise that our team doesn’t have. And we are so grateful that we have the Real Estate Council that we can lean on in those times of need. Um, and they truly bring these wishes to life and everything from, you know, what is on the walls to what do their sheets look like, in some of those cases, they capture every single detail for these kids, um, to make sure it is their one true wish that they’re looking for.

Dan Finnegan :

And for people like Chris and I was, you know, it’s something that we do almost every single day is these type of projects. So it was, it was easy for us and it felt really good to, you know, to do what we do every day for our, for our great clients, but now do this for, for an unbelievably worthwhile charity.

Chris Mee:

It also enables us to step a little bit beyond, because a few of the wishes that, um, I got involved with, we came up with some creative ideas other than just building things. Um, a recent one I also just finished, uh, with a few other people from the Council was to redo a room makeover, but to also include something about it looking presidential, like his oval office. So we introduced ideas with the presidential seal on the floor on top of the carpet and other momentos that would kind of give it that feel for the oval office.

Breanna Ahern:

Yeah, that’s, that’s really unique to have to replicate an oval office.

Lizzy Merkouris:

It just shows how creative these kids are, honestly. Um, and I think the amazing part is that when a child is battling a critical illness, so much of their normal childhood is like completely taken away from them. And it becomes exhausting physically, mentally for not only the child, but their families and what the Real Estate Council and what Make-A-Wish can do is bring some normalcy back into their life. So you’re finally giving all of this power that was taken away from the child. You’re giving it back to them and you’re saying, you know, what, what are you dreaming of? What is your one true wish? And for once they can be normal and like dream big again, where you know, you want that in a child and you want that for them. And a lot of it is taken away when they’re battling these critical illnesses. So it’s something incredible that Make-A-Wish in partnership with Chris and Dan and the Real Estate Council can make come true.

Dan Finnegan :

Yeah. And for us it’s, it’s unbelievably humbling and heartwarming when you see these children going through these unbelievably difficult experiences. And then they’re offered, you know, the ability to choose anything and any wish they want. And the only thing that they really come back with is a fun place to hang out with their friends or their brothers and sisters. So it’s a, it’s unbelievable to, you know, just to see what they come with when they’re faced with such huge challenges around their life and the only thing they want is a simple thing that we can do.

Chris Mee:

Yeah. The other interesting part to understand about a wish is that it takes more than just one or two people to grant it. For us, it’s a culmination of looking at what the project is and involving various partners that we all know through the industry, whether it’s a plumber, a painter, a carpet installer, um, an electrician, whatever the components are, we identify who else can help us and we help coordinate the wish along with the Make-A-Wish people. Um, but we also have somebody that stands by and watches each one of these trades, listen to what the wish is, and then have them do their part. And to see all of this come together at the end right before the unveiling. Uh, which is also the special thing is the excitement, uh, as the child is anticipating this wish coming. Um, and we get it all ready and then we do an unveiling that it’s just your heart starts beating faster. Everybody gets excited. And um, the people we’ve brought in, our partners in the trades, they play a part and when they see also at the end what the unveiling does to this young boy or young girl, it is just heartwarming. I, it’s just, you melt you melt and you feel, you realize how lucky you are in your own life and it’s a great thing to give back and everybody feels the same way each and every time they do a wish.

Breanna Ahern:

So it sounds like a lot of people are involved in every single wish. How does a wish kind of get started? Like how do you get a wish off the ground?

Lizzy Merkouris:

Yeah, so typically it starts with a medical professional or a family member referring the child to our chapter. Um, and again, the only requirements that are to have a wish granted is for the child to be between two and a half and 18 and to be diagnosed with a critical illness. Um, so once their wishes brought to us and they’re deemed medically eligible to receive a wish, um, the fun kind of begins. So for each child who is receiving a wish, two volunteers will go to their home and that’s where the interview process comes in. And that’s where you find out what is their one true wish. And for a volunteer and for the Real Estate Council, I know that’s probably the best part. Um, you see truly the excitement and you see them just kind of shift. I know some of my wish kids, I’ve walked into their home and they’ve been scared and you know, they, they look and seem depressed just because they’re so secluded because of their illness. And then they realize, you know, you’re there to help them and you’re there to actually let them dream and make their wish come true. And you just see that shift in, you know, even their outlook, their face, how they smile, their body language. And it’s absolutely incredible to see. So once we find out what their one true wish would be, it’s then brought back to the Make-A-Wish team and that’s where the process begins in planning the wish. So that’s where the real estate counsel will come in for where we need their expertise. And in cases where we don’t, the Make-A-Wish team can help grant them on our own and then typically the whole community gets involved around it. And, um, whether that’s people helping us get in-kind to help reduce the costs of the wishes, um, or our absolutely incredible donors who, without our donors we couldn’t make these wishes come true, everybody comes together just to make a difference in these children’s lives. And then from there, once it’s all planned and ready to go, the child goes on their wish. So whether it’s on a trip or to meet someone or a room unveiling, as Chris said, and we then execute from there for them to receive this magical wish that they’ve been dreaming of.

Breanna Ahern:

Awesome. Chris, you were just mentioning your heart melting at the unveilings. Do you want to talk a little bit about some of the unveilings you’ve been at and some of the things that the Real Estate Council has helped bring to fruition?

Chris Mee:

Well, the first one, um, and one that’s nearest and dearest to me is the one with Sebastian. That was actually my first wish, um, to be involved with. And we were actually assigned it through Make-A-Wish. Um, they had struggled to try and come up with a way to grant this one wish for Sebastian who wanted a jail cell in his basement. And early on, um, authorities from the police athletic league were trying to help fulfill that wish. And what they came up with for their idea of a jail cell was a little less than desirable. It look more like a birdcage. Um, so myself and, um, Brian, Donaghy, he got involved with this wish, we went to meet the family. Uh, we listened to the mom. Um, we met the rest of the family, uh, two other siblings and then, um, Sebastian, we met that day. And he kinda told us, and you could tell in his eyes what he wanted. And both Brian and I started to think about it and we kind of sketched out something and we started talking about it and it became just an unbelievable wish. We got a woodworker, we got a metalworker. We came up with taking conduit out of the ceiling to make that make steel bars, uh, for the bars itself. The jail cell, by the time it was done, the size of it had a sliding barn door on it, just like a regular jail cell door. Um, we went and just use our own mind and things that we’re seeing and things that we do in our jobs. We involve various trades and everybody got excited. And then we got down to the unveiling part. Instead of just thinking about unveiling the jail cell, we thought about pulling back in again, the police athletic league because they had started the wish. We didn’t want to kind of leave them out. And from there it involved almost the whole police department. And that special day, it wasn’t just the jail cell, it happened to be his eighth birthday. And the way it worked was the police department got involved. They picked him up at school in a police car, he got introduced to the police commissioner. From there, he got a ride on one of their, uh, police boats. He also got an opportunity to see one of their anti-terrorist robots in action. And then he was taken back after that to his, to his house to see the jail cell. So this thing took more than a few hours. And actually, I did not get to see the unveiling. Um, what happened was I was told in the end, um, that this made, uh, ABC news. They picked up the story and ran with it and followed the whole day and what happened. And, uh, I got a call and they said, you need to watch the six o’clock news at this time. You’ll see Sebastian’s wish. And it was interesting when the whole thing was done and everybody asked them what was the best part of the day? He says, the jail cell, not meeting the police commissioner, not, uh, any other part, but it was just the jail cell. He was so thrilled to have that. And it was between his two little sisters. The mom who had, um, gone through all of this, his father who also suffered through the illness that he was having. It just put a lot of happiness and just enthusiasm to them. Um, I’m still in touch with them. Uh, he still talks about his jail cell and that day and as they say, this really gave this kid an opportunity to see a brighter side of things and forget about the sadness that he had having this, um, illness.

Breanna Ahern:

Yeah, amazing.

Lizzy Merkouris:

And I think Sebastian’s wish is a perfect depiction of how the community comes together to make these wishes come true. Um, there’s this misconception that because we’re such a well-known brand and we have chapters all around the world that, you know, it’s not local and that is so not true, especially for the Metro New York chapter. We grant wishes in the five boroughs and in Nassau County and that’s where all of our wish kids are. That’s where all of our donors are. That’s where all of our volunteers are. So it is completely local and run on such a level that, you know, it’s New Yorkers helping little New Yorkers coming up in the world and helping to make their wish come true and changing the trajectory of their illness. And you know, most of the times this, this wish is a turning point for these kids. And that’s what a lot of the family members say. And that’s what the kids say when they’re adults and, you know, talking to us about what they remembered, you know, 10 years ago. Um, so I think Sebastian’s wish perfectly embodies that community aspect of what we do on a local level here.

Breanna Ahern:

Right. Yeah, totally. So I’m going to switch gears a little bit and pivot back to the Real Estate Council. How do companies get involved? Um, how long has it been around and how many wishes has the Real Estate Council done so far?

Dan Finnegan :

So we’re celebrating our fifth year. We’ve done just a little over 15 wishes. It’s about three or four wishes per year and they can be as you know, as elaborate, as, as Chris’s wish with Sebastian. And some of them are I don’t want to say simple but, but relatively easy where we put in a backyard handicap swing for a young child who had some disabilities. And that was a great story for Structure Tone because we got what was a handicap swing and it was, it was something that some of our carpenters put together and we had many volunteers from Structure Tone inside our office asking if they could come in and help. And it was a great, great way for, for some of the Structure Tone employees to get together and bond and, and do something that’s great for a great cause. So, yeah, so we’ve, we’ve got many many different types and varying sizes and shapes of wishes that, that we’ve done.

Breanna Ahern:

So I was just thinking, kids are really visionaries when it comes to their wishes from the oval office to the jail cell. So very specific. And for a company that does major, major projects in the middle of Manhattan, sometimes that might seem simple, but I was wondering if there were any wishes that the Real Estate Council has gotten that’s been challenging? Just because of maybe location or the way the building was.

Chris Mee:

That’s certainly a plays a part. Um, we’ve been challenged to go into homes that weren’t up to code. Um, some of the wish involved code involvement, um, for handicap outside in the yards and things like that. What the accessibility is. Um, that made it a little bit more challenging and involved other professionals, uh, that would have to go through local towns to kind of get permits in that, which makes it extremely challenging to do that, especially when you’re not really doing it on a real plan. It’s more of an adhoc basis that you’re trying to do it. So that challenge plays a part in it also.

Breanna Ahern:

Yeah. And I guess for us, that’s kind of where our expertise comes in and is really helpful for the Foundation.

Lizzy Merkouris:

Oh yeah, definitely. We wouldn’t understand a lot of that. Our wish granters are absolutely incredible. And make so many things come true. But that’s where we really rely on the Real Estate Council and we are so grateful for all that they have done for us over the past five years.

Dan Finnegan :

Yeah, I think it goes back to a lot, you know, to the Genesis of the Real Estate Council where Make-A-Wish really, you know, struggled with with, with achieving these wishes because it was so difficult logistically for them. They’d rather send someone to the Olympics then to have to deal with a bedroom makeover because there were so many different aspects involved. And again, it was for us, it’s, it’s something we do every day. You know, the Real Estate Council, we were really, you know, we loved Make-A-Wish. It was a, it was a cause that we all believed in, but what Make-A-Wish allowed us was an ability to really be hands on with the root of the charity. So we were able to be hands on to get to make these wishes happen. And it was something that for us it was, you know, it still is very special to us.

Chris Mee:

It also makes us, I think unique. Many of our businesses or business partners and firms that we work for certainly contribute to various charities around this city dollar-wise. But the give in-kind donations where it takes your own set of hands or something like that to help do wishes, it really makes it a one-on-one basis for someone to get involved and really see what the outcome becomes. This is really something that gets people right in the trenches and it’s really great.

Breanna Ahern:

Yeah. The council is intimately involved with everything from the start to finish, right?

Chris Mee:

Yes.

Breanna Ahern:

So I was wondering, does the Real Estate Council do anything other than grant wishes or, um, in addition to granting wishes?

Chris Mee:

Well, we certainly look to raise money because that’s also important. Um, we also look to get more and more people involved in our industry, whether it’s a tradesmen, other various industries that also do facilities and construction, whether it’s a financial real estate group, accounting, anybody that’s involved with the real estate aspect of it. We try to bring in the different industries or broaden the base that we have. Um, I think we’ve started out small and it’s not that we’re overly large, but we certainly are doing more and more and looking to do more and more.

Breanna Ahern:

So what’s next for the partnership between Make-A-Wish and the Real Estate Council?

Dan Finnegan :

Well, I can tell you what’s only a few weeks away is our ours our holiday event. And it’s a great event for us to, to celebrate what we’ve done in that year, but also to raise funds and raise awareness for what Make-A-Wish is doing and what the Real Estate Council is doing. It’s a great way for us to promote what we’re about and see if we can garner some more, more interest from the real estate community. So that’s, that’s what’s immediately next for us. It’s actually going to be an amazing event this year because it’s going to be hosted in, uh, at one of the projects we built at MetLife’s headquarters at 200 park Avenue. Um, but it’s also, uh, interesting because MetLife is a big supporter of Make-A-Wish and, and actually part of the, the, the Real Estate Council with us.

Lizzy Merkouris:

And I’d like to say that Dan and Chris are being humble right now because their event, when it started five years ago, raised $20,000 the first year, which was absolutely amazing for us and our chapters. We’re always looking for funding to help us make sure we can grant these world-class wishes and it has grown. And last year raised well over $150,000. So to see that kind of growth in only five years is a testament to the Real Estate Council and their enthusiasm and bringing in, you know, their contacts within the industry to really rally around our cause. So not only are they hands on and do they grant these wishes and you know, get all the in-kind that also helps us save money. Um, but they also help to fundraise for us. So they’re a pretty incredible group.

Chris Mee:

And we’re also trying to expand it. I know we’re involved with the Buffalo chapter, trying to give them pointers on how to find in kind donations and do this type of thing too, as well as you’re trying to take it national.

Lizzy Merkouris:

Yeah.

Dan Finnegan :

I think what we also do is we, we listen to Make-a-Wish and we tried to understand what else they need from us, from the community or us as individuals. I think last year we learned from them that they were challenged with finding wish granting volunteers in some of the outer boroughs. So what we did was collectively the Real Estate Council got together a training program and we really tried to promote wish granting volunteers, which several of us in the Real Estate Council and in some of our, in some of our companies, we brought on board 30 new wish granting volunteers. So that was, that was a great value-add. I think that the council brought as well. So it’s really just listening and seeing what else they need from us outside of the construction related wishes cause we want to try to do more and more each year.

Chris Mee:

We’ve also recruited family amendments. I know Dan has his wife participating. I have my, uh, daughter, Julia, who also is a wish granter now. She loves it and has gone to a couple of the events including the toast event, which she likes a lot each year. Um, so that’s the other aspect is others that we come become involved in and it just spreads out from there.

Breanna Ahern:

Right. Sounds like a true partnership from a personal level too.

Dan Finnegan :

Absolutely.

Lizzy Merkouris:

Yeah. And that’s what we, that’s what we look for. I mean, our CEO always says we’re in the business of hope and that’s what we do at Make-A-Wish. We bring hope to our wish kids. Um, and this past year we granted 926 wishes and I want to point out, you know, it’s not 900 and not a thousand. We don’t round it because each number in that 926 is a child. It’s, it’s their lives, it’s their family, it’s the community that rallies behind them. And to ensure that we’re granting these wishes, we really need everyone in the community to help us out. So that’s great.

Breanna Ahern:

So if someone wanted to be individually involved in Make-A-Wish, what would be the best way to get involved with the foundation?

Lizzy Merkouris:

Um, so I would recommend visiting our websites. So it’s https://metrony.wish.org/. Um, and if you click “ways to help,” it says everything on there from the Real Estate Council information to donating to becoming a volunteer, um, or getting involved in the community. And that can be, um, fundraising events on a local level. I work with some donors who want to have, instead of a birthday party, they want to donate and fundraise for Make-A-Wish so, a bunch of ideas on the website as well for how else you can get involved. Um, in addition, you can follow us on social media, which that’s listed on the website, just to learn more. We feature wishes and wish stories so you can just keep up-to-date with everything that Make-A-Wish is doing.

Breanna Ahern:

Awesome. Thank you guys for coming in today.

All:

Thank you.