Living for giving to others

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Connie George
Philanthropists Ron and Sherrie Auen stand in the hallway of their Palm Desert office suite, where numerous recognitions for their generous financial support are displayed. The couple manage the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation and the Auen Foundation, which collectively contribute critical funding for healthcare, education, social services and senior needs.
Photo by Connie George

’Tis the season of giving for many in the Coachella Valley, but for one local couple it’s a year-round tradition.

Philanthropists Ron and Sherrie Auen have long been contributing critical funding to charitable programs through two foundations based on the principle of helping people to help themselves.

Ron, 80, serves as board president and chief executive officer of the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation, which has donated more than $350 million dollars since 1988 to charities throughout Southern California and elsewhere in the U.S. Its main focuses are on education, social services and healthcare.

Sherrie, 68, is program director for the Auen Foundation, which has awarded more than 800 grants since 1992 in the areas of education and healthcare, and particularly for senior services.

The couple, who live and work in Palm Desert, were seasonal residents with another home in the Los Angeles area before moving permanently to the valley in 1997. After becoming more involved in the area as full-timers, they began learning that in spite of its resort-like reputation, the Coachella Valley has many residents in need of a helping hand.

Soon they began investing their experience and funding locally, and now approximately 80 to 95 percent of the foundations’ charitable giving serves the valley.

“We moved here for ourselves,” Sherrie said, “but had no idea of the need here. I really believe you should support where you live.”

Changing lives

The foundations are governed separately, but they share the same standards, including the Auens’ interest in developing a personal involvement with the organizations to which they donate.

H.N. and Frances C. Berger, who formed the foundation named for them in 1961, were instrumental in creating this kind of meaningful connection. The couple was rooted in middle-class upbringings, but built a real estate and banking empire of such magnitude that they believed it was their responsibility to give back to those less fortunate than themselves.

Ron Auen worked closely with H.N.. Berger, and upon Berger’s death in 1988 was asked to take the helm at the foundation. He agreed to take over for a five-year period, but became transformed by the experience and has stayed on ever since.

After he began the administrative position, “I was able to research and contribute in a more meaningful way,” he said. “I was able to deal directly with charities and see the positive impact on the charitable entities receiving our grants. Giving became as rewarding for me as it was for the receiving organizations.”

Of particular impact was when the Berger Foundation began in 1991 to support the “I Have a Dream” educational program that follows at-risk youth throughout their young lives.

“We adopted a class of third graders in Pasadena and saw them through high school graduation,” Ron said. “This was at an at-risk school that typically graduated a small percentage of students, but by funding the mentoring and oversight of the I Have a Dream program in Pasadena, our classes graduated about 90 percent of their students.”

The program grew as a result of its increased funding, beginning intervention earlier and expanding to two other schools.

“We supported classes all the way from first grade through high school, and even assisted them with obtaining college scholarships,” Ron said. “We saw many successes with this program, including a troubled boy who ended up becoming a probation officer, and a grandmother of a participating student actually came to work for the Pasadena office of the I Have a Dream program.”

The Berger Foundation is centrally involved in the funding of education in the Coachella Valley, as well, with contributions supporting elementary and secondary schools, the College of the Desert and the Palm Desert campus of California State University, San Bernardino.

Inspiration in aging

For Sherrie, defining the mission of the Auen Foundation, which targets most of its giving to needs for seniors, grew from experiences in her own life.

“I had working parents, and grandparents who lived with us,” she said. Because of her close-knit, intergenerational upbringing, she added, “I’ve always loved the elderly.”

She has observed that the needs of seniors are often overlooked by funding organizations, but believes there is so much inspiration involved in supporting healthy aging and intergenerational activities.

Additional contributions are made to the Palm Springs International Film Festival to coordinate senior volunteers and transport seniors to the popular event, and to the Palm Desert Golf Cart Parade, specifically for the parade’s special senior seating.

“When we look back and reflect on the gifts we have given, it is truly rewarding,” Sherrie said. “We have received many thank you letters, such as one from a woman who said she was living under a tree before our gift to a local recovery center helped save her life.”

In addition, she said, intergenerational programs “make a difference in the lives of so many people of varying ages. We believe bringing generations together helps strengthen our communities.”

A group of seniors called the Mecca Angels is involved in one such program that has been supported by the Auen Foundation. They visit Mecca Elementary School weekly to read to students and help many Spanish-speaking students learn to read English.

“We are very proud to have helped this program in its infancy by providing the transportation for seniors to the elementary school,” Sherrie said. “We also provided the school with computers, which contributed to the students’ test scores increasing by 50 percent.”

Immediate needs

The Auens have noted that sometimes the most critical needs are immediate — such as for housing and food — so their foundations are donating to these causes as well.

No matter how carefully many people have tried to live their lives, “I think everybody needs help right now,” Ron said.

“So many have fallen through the cracks,” Sherrie added. “They didn’t plan for that.”

Even such basic necessities as socks, radios and hygiene products can make a big difference in the lives of people who especially need a helping hand, she noted.

Through the two foundations, the Auens are also focused on improving quality of life in other ways, such as with donations for medical research, computer training for seniors so they can stay in touch with their families through technology, hospice care, support for care givers and combating elder abuse.

In addition, the Berger Foundation is about to begin a fifth year of awarding the “Coachella Valley Spotlight.” The honor is presented in partnership with CBS Local 2, which broadcasts features stories about selected organizations during its “Eye on the Desert” program. The Berger Foundation presents a $25,000 gift to each of the charities featured, and the visibility each receives helps it to attract even more donations from other sources.

How others can help

“We’ve been given so much,” Sherrie said. “We have to give back.”

But the Auens stress that anyone, regardless of financial means, has the opportunity to make a big difference in the needs of those around them, and that local giving allows the opportunity to see the results pay off first-hand.

“People need to know it is important to give no matter the amount, be it money or time,” Ron said. For both donor and recipient, he added, “It has an indescribable positive reward.”

Just as importantly, said Sherrie, “Often time is more valuable than money. Volunteers who visit with homebound seniors are priceless.”

“In the spirit of the holidays,” she added, “now is a perfect time for people to consider how they can help others, whether it is money, food, clothing and other donations or time.”

For more information on the Berger Foundation, visit www.hnberger.org. For more on the Auen Foundation, visit www.auenfoundation.org.