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Gene Epstein: Consummate volunteer and philanthropist

STORY BY JOSEPH W. FENTON, (Week of January 12, 2012)
Photo of Gene Epstein

Gene Epstein is something of a one-man social service agency. He sends food to troops in Afghanistan, raises money to provide turkeys for those without at Thanksgiving, matches thousands of dollars in donations to non-profits and sends Muslim, Christian and Jewish high school students to Israel so they  get to know each other and develop an understanding of each other's religions.

Epstein, who spends winters on the barrier island, began sending the food packages to troops last year after he learned about Joe Schachter, a Vietnam veteran from Philadelphia whose son is serving in Afghanistan.

Epstein's group is Food4Troops and he says if someone goes onto the group's web site and registers a family member who is in the military, a package will be heading his or her way within 48 hours.

"We are looking to do as much good as we can," Epstein says. "Hopefully, we don't have to be in existence very long.

"We shipped five tons last year," he adds, noting that among the foods that goes out in the box are cookies made from his mother's 1940s recipe. "My mother used to send packages to my brother in Germany and others.  President Roosevelt's secretary sent my mother a thank you letter. My mother didn't think anything of what she was doing. She just did it."

Epstein says he took the recipe for his mother's cookies to a baker who initially made 200 pounds of cookies, an amount that later grew to 1,000 pounds of cookies heading to troops overseas.

Epstein does it because he's had a good life and wants to help others. "I don't care if things are tough, we have it pretty good," he says, noting that's not the case for soldiers in Afghanistan who are in harm's way on a daily basis.

The troops in Afghanistan just don't have PXs like they do at home or had in Iraq, Epstein says.  "All the money goes for the packages. We're all volunteers."

Epstein learned about the need from his former congressman who told him about Schachter, who was spending about $500 a month shipping packages of food and necessities to his son. He was in his mid 60s and had very little income.

"I thought it was unconscionable for him to have to do that so I sent him a check," Epstein says. Now, Food4Troops operates from Schachter's home.

"We figured out a way to squeeze the most we can into a 10-pound box,"  Epstein says. "They really appreciate the towelettes."

In addition to the food, Epstein helps troops who return home and have financial problems. He originally approached the Coatesville, Pa., Veteran's Administration Hospital to raise $250,000 for servicemen and women with financial problems.

Epstein says he met with hospital administrators and they loved his idea. Weeks went by, however, and he didn't hear from them. Finally, he called. "They said they still loved the idea but were awaiting the OK from Washington," he says. "I was getting pissed off."

Another six weeks went by before he heard back from the VA. "Someone in the legal department said we could do the program and not do the same for other veterans," he says.

Undaunted, Epstein started his own program to help returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan with money problems.

The Epsteins live in the Moorings. An automobile dealer for 30 years, he eventually went into commercial real estate before retiring in 1985 ¬– April 11, 1985 to be precise – because, if Gene Epstein is anything, it is precise.

He then veers off the conversation and talks about how he gave up a four-pack and seven-cigar-a day smoking habit on March 15, 1978, in a hotel in Ocean City, N.J., where he had gone to buy a Cadillac/Pontiac dealership. That night, he says, he lay in bed and was kept awake by his own wheezing.

As quickly as he turned off onto that conversation, he quickly reverts to talking about his charity work like providing turkeys at Thanksgiving to the poor. Last year, the Gene and Marlene Epstein Charitable Foundation distributed 322 turkeys.

"We've been doing that for 26 years," says Epstein. "People just expect us to do it."

Last winter, Epstein challenged philanthropists in Philadelphia to donate money to Project H.O.M.E. to help the area's homeless. The Epsteins said they'd match gifts to the charities up to $50,000.

"The time is now for Philadelphians to join together and unfreeze a life, making this spring a true time for new beginnings," Epstein said when issuing his challenge.

In addition to his homeless challenge, Epstein issued a challenge to match donations of up to $50,000 to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where his brother, Wesley, had a heart transplant in the 1986. That surgery extended his brother's life another 12 years and Epstein hasn't forgotten the center's transplant program.

Epstein also helped raise $250,000 for his Common Ground Mission to send 41 Muslim, Christian and Jewish high school students to the Holy Land so they could get to know other faiths and see what the issues were first hand. When they returned, many gave talks at Philadelphia area high schools.

The students were chosen from 100 who wrote essays about why they wanted to go to Israel.

Even without the talks at high schools, Epstein says the students reached over 800 people who included parents, siblings, friends and other relatives.

At one point, Epstein pauses when asked how many organizations  he volunteers with or helps.  "At home, I have a list on the wall so I can keep track," he says.

Right now, Epstein wants to talk about "Hire Just One," a program he's trying to get Congress to pass.

The goal  is to convince business owners who have trimmed their overhead that they can't wait for a government jobs program and that they need to hire just one person. The person comes off unemployment, starts paying taxes and company's productivity improves because people see a person is hired, and are not as worried about their own jobs any longer.

"We can create over one million jobs within 120 days of legislative passage of my new Hire Just One initiative," says Epstein.

Under Epstein's plan, unemployment benefits would be paid to the hiring company, which in turn would pay the employee at least double the person's unemployment benefit.

There are only a few requirements to make this work, according to Epstein: First, the new job must pay, at a minimum, double the amount of the unemployment benefits, the company must not eliminate another position.

"Let’s look at a hypothetical situation," Epstein says on his web site, "John Doe has unemployed for more than six months and is receiving $350 per week in unemployment compensation. XYZ Company is in need of an employee but because of the slow economy they’re reluctant to pay the $700 per week salary that the job requires.

"My plan is to have the government pay the XYZ Company the $350 compensation weekly,  which encourages the company to hire right now and not wait for some future tax refund. The other employees at XYZ feel a sense of relief that the trimming of payroll (layoffs) has stopped. Soon they’ll start spending their pent-up savings.

“This spending actually starts a new cycle of benefits that come back to the local, state and federal governments and the entire economy. Consumer confidence will increase – creating yet more jobs which will reduce future unemployment compensation payments.

"This keeps me busy," says Epstein, 72, of his charity work. "I love it. I can't stop. I'm up sending out e-mails at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m."

One recent acquaintance found out just how true that was. One night, Epstein fired off about 15 e-mails throughout the night and finally signed off at 7:30 a.m.
"I just want to make the world a little better," he says.