In an ideal world, people would donate to charities year-round, giving those that are helping others a steady stream of revenue with which to consistently do so. But in reality, that’s often not the case. Whether it’s in the spirit of the impending holiday season or a last-ditch effort to receive that charitable tax break before the year ends, this is the time of year where people start thinking more about giving. Still, we found five Eastside companies that make giving back a core part of their business models throughout the year. For them, the season of giving is 12 months long.

Photo by Rachel Coward

Photo by Rachel Coward

It’s all about cars and caring at Auto Connections of Bellevue

Stu Cordova is a used car salesman people trust. When he started his car dealership, Auto Connections of Bellevue, nearly 20 years ago, he wanted it to be a place where customers could go for honest answers. As a lifelong car fanatic, it’s pretty close to his dream job.

But Cordova’s charmed life of today is preceded by a colorful past — chapters in his life that he’s not proud of and ones that are dark. Together, they frame how he’s managed to brighten his and others’ futures. When he gives back today, it’s personal.

Cordova has a giving campaign that allows buyers to donate a portion of the company’s sale to one of three local organizations. Each option is intertwined with Cordova’s life in a meaningful way: Youth Eastside Services (YES), Katie’s Comforters Guild, and Homeward Pet Adoption Center. To understand how Cordova’s company gives back, you have to know a bit about the man behind the checks.

Driving out of Dark Places 

Cordova grew up in Bellevue, the son of a man who owned one of the first grocery stores in the city, and his first job was supporting that family business. But in his mid-20s, he had a yearning to apply himself to a community cause.

“I just felt like I can’t see myself doing this for the rest of my life. I want to do something where I feel that I can contribute and give back,” Cordova said.

So he started volunteering for Youth Eastside Services, a nonprofit based in Bellevue that provides counseling to kids going through a wide variety of issues, from substance abuse to bullying. At the time, Cordova thought he had found his calling. In his eyes, these teens who had run into trouble weren’t just screw-ups. Some were younger versions of himself.

“I struggled when I was younger. I got into trouble. I was the kid who got kicked out of school, suspended from classes,” he said.

As a teenager, Cordova said, he too hung out with the wrong crowd. Smoking and drinking never were his vices. Instead, he stole. And he broke into cars.

Photo by Rachel Coward

Photo by Rachel Coward

“It was self-esteem issues,” he said. “Feeling like that particular crowd was the only crowd I really felt accepted by. So, I got sucked into that pretty good.”

Cordova eventually ended up in juvenile detention, where he learned that he wanted to be better.

“That was really the catalyst for me to change. It was horrible, and it just wasn’t me. I felt like, ‘I’m different from these kids, you know?’ I could be different. These kids, I just didn’t want to be like them,” he said.

Cordova decided he wanted to be on the right side of the problem, helping society and not hurting it. Living a turbulent life as a youth gave him unique access to rebellious teenagers dancing on thin ice when he became a volunteer.

“When I was volunteering and working with these kids at YES, I saw a lot of myself in some of them,” he said. “I just felt like maybe I had something to give. I felt like I had something I could share with them, some wisdom from my experience. And maybe I could relate to them in a way that a lot of others wouldn’t be able to.”

After volunteering at YES, Cordova enrolled at Western Washington University to pursue a degree in counseling. He was 28, and often the oldest student in his classes. It didn’t bother him much. He was focused and knew exactly what he wanted to do.

After graduating, he came back to Bellevue and started working for YES with a job-placement program for kids who were homeless or struggling with substance abuse. He’d coach them on the interview process and work with businesses to hire them.

After six or so years at YES, Cordova transferred to Echo Glen Children’s Center, a juvenile detention center in Snoqualmie. Here, he worked with teens who had committed sexual crimes — everything from peeping to rape. Cordova estimates that 85-90 percent of the inmates he counseled had been victims of sexual abuse. His meetings forced him to go deep into chilling places. And once he got there, it became hard to get out.

“The (counselors that were there) for 15-20 years were the ones where when they left (work), they closed the door behind them. They would go home, they wouldn’t think about it, they wouldn’t talk about it, it was not even a part of their life,” Cordova said. “They could just turn off the light when they left. And the ones like me, the ones who only lasted four or five or six years, couldn’t do that.”

The deepest, darkest secrets of Corvoda’s inmates would follow him, the way smoke lingers around a smoldering fire. It haunted him day and night. Eventually darkness grew so thick around him that he burned out.

“I’d like to think that I made an impact in somebody’s life along the way even though you don’t get accolades and you don’t get thanks. It’s just something you do because you love it and you hope that you make a dent in somebody’s life,” he said.

Cordova decided to transition out of social work, and returned to one of his first loves: cars. Since he was a teenager, he has loved fixing, cleaning, and restoring them. Cordova, now in his 60s, started working at a friend’s dealership and studied the way it operated. Not long after, in 1997, he opened Auto Connections of Bellevue (then known as Auto Connections East) with 10 cars and one employee — himself. The exceptional listening skills he learned as a counselor now were put to use to help clients. Somehow, Cordova’s delinquent past had managed to steer him into becoming a car guy people could trust.

“Selling, it’s all about building a relationship. I don’t think it matters what it is: people want to be heard. People want to be understood. So to have that background that I have taught me how to be a good listener. How to relate. How to let somebody know that I understand them. Those skills go a long, long ways no matter what you’re doing,” he said.

Cordova does just that. He listens. He’s grown his company to include 17 employees who maintain the level of integrity Cordova built. It’s a trust those he gives back to recognize.

Besides donating cash, Cordova also has opened the doors of Auto Connections of Bellevue for kids at YES to host car wash fundraisers. He’s even taken a few kids out for a spin in fancy sports cars. If a car is donated to YES, which has happened occasionally over the years, Cordova has sold it and returned the money to the organization.

“He’s one of those champions in the community, he and his organization, that have just stayed strong to doing the right thing for others in the community, and it truly makes an impact,” said YES Executive Director Patti Skelton-McGougan. “I mean one kid at a time, one dollar at a time. It all makes a difference.”

 Finding Comfort in Heartbreak 

Cordova’s office is what you might expect of a car guy. Framed illustrations of classic cars breathe nostalgia into the room. Old license plates are tucked behind toy sports cars, on a bookshelf where bobbleheads of Mariners players also are clustered together.

You won’t find many photos of people in Cordova’s space. The walls aren’t decorated with family portraits, but there is a picture, pinned to the wall behind his desk, of a young girl. She’s wearing a long-sleeved pink shirt and looking up at the camera. She has bright green eyes and a wide smile.

It’s Cordova’s niece, Katie Gerstenberger.

About 10 years ago, Katie was a healthy, happy tween. She was sparky, her mom, Karen Gerstenberger, said. Katie wasn’t involved with girl drama at school, but she always wanted the latest scoop. She also was funny and could take the temperature of a room. She grew up in Poulsbo, and would cross the Sound to visit Uncle Stu and Aunt Debbie on holidays and for the occasional sleepover.

In 2006, when Katie was 11, she started to feel abnormally tired. She’d get a fever, stay home from school, and it would go away. It didn’t seem like anything serious. But when her mom noticed some swelling in Katie’s chest, after a few scans, doctors insisted they go to Seattle Children’s Hospital the next morning.

The family didn’t know to pack a bag, but as they were rushing out the door, Katie grabbed an old yellow blanket her mom had made her in grade school. It wasn’t anything impressive, skills-wise, but it was special to Katie, and its worth grew as she became more ill. Katie was diagnosed with a rare form a cancer called Adrenocortical Carcinoma. She’d carry her blanket everywhere she went in the hospital.

“That was her piece of home,” Cordova said of the blanket: a couple of layers of flannel and cotton that brought comfort to a dire time.

Katie was 12 years old when she died at home in 2007. In her final days, she created a handwritten will. She donated half her savings to her family and half to Goodwill. She wanted to give back.

Katie’s mom was distraught after losing her only daughter, and often would wrap herself up in Katie’s now-tattered blanket and sleep with it just to feel closer to her. Coping with pain, Gerstenberger needed a reason to get off the couch, and the only thing that inspired her to keep moving was thinking about other parents and kids arriving at Seattle Children’s — how desperate and scared they likely felt, and that they needed comfort. So in 2009, Gerstenberger started Katie’s Comforters Guild, which provides cancer patients at Seattle Children’s with handmade blankets. Cordova plays a big role in his sister-in-law’s mission. His donations help pay for supplies and other essentials to keep the guild gifting over 2,000 blankets to Seattle Children’s.

“I didn’t ask for this. This came from his heart,” said Gerstenberger. “He could pick any charity, and I’m well aware of that. There are lots of charities out there. And some that might bring him more recognition. We’re kind of small potatoes. But it just means a great deal … It’s such a loving way to honor her memory.”

 A Furry Companion 

Auto Connections of Bellevue has an official greeter. It’s Rusty, a sweet, fuzzy, mixed-breed pup who’s never far from Cordova’s side. He’ll lie at his feet or follow him around the office. If Cordova moves, Rusty’s eyes follow. Cordova and Rusty spend most days together — often only a few feet away at a time. “He’s like my child,” said Cordova.

Animal care is Cordova’s third cause. About 14 years ago, he adopted Rusty from an area woman who rescues dogs that are about to be put down. Rusty originally came from a shelter in Idaho.

“It was love at first sight,” Cordova said of meeting Rusty. At the time, his wife wasn’t sold on having a dog, but refusing 1-year-old Rusty’s friendly nature was too hard. Today, Rusty even has his own doggy door into Cordova’s office; above the door it’s clearly marked “Rusty’s Office.” Rusty contributes to the business, as well. Cordova says that having a dog around can take the edge off customers who are stressed about buying a car. Rusty has proven himself enough that he has his own bio on the company’s web page.

Rusty is one of four dogs that come to work at Auto Connections of Bellevue. A few of Cordova’s employees bring their pups as well. There’s Mojo, Beecher (like the cheese), and Wrigley. As a huge animal lover, Cordova had donated to the Humane Society for many years, until an employee started volunteering at Homeward Pet Adoption Center in Woodinville, and Cordova started giving to them instead.

Sharing the Fruits of His Labor 

For nearly two decades, Cordova has surrounded himself with shiny luxury cars — modern emblems of the good life. But his company’s most valuable asset is his own rich perspective on the world.

“I just feel like I’ve been so blessed with this business and the fruits that come with that. It just wouldn’t be right to keep it all,” he said. “I mean, you have an apple tree and all these wonderful apples are falling down, and you have to give some of those apples away. I mean, why wouldn’t you? It’s nothing deeper than that. It’s nothing bigger than that. It just feels right.” — LF

Volunteering is Part of Aboda’s Core Values

Since its founding in 1988, Aboda has made volunteering part of its core mission. At the heart of that mission is the company’s award-winning Aboda Cares program, which gives back to causes around the Puget Sound.

Photo courtesy Aboda

Photo courtesy Aboda

“The spirit to serve was always part of the values of the company,” said Jocelyn Quall, director of marketing.

Aboda offers corporate housing, furniture rental, property management, and housekeeping services. Always an Eastside company, Aboda moved its headquarters from Redmond to Woodinville in 2015.

The housing company’s volunteer work with Renton’s Way Back Inn is a perfect fit. Way Back Inn is a nonprofit that works with homeless families and children to provide transitional housing. It has housing units in Kent, Renton, and Tukwila. The organization has just one full-time staff member and a part-time Aboda assistant, so Way Back Inn relies heavily on volunteers like those Aboda provides.

Way Back Inn’s programs give parents the ability to focus on living-wage employment, apply for long-term housing, or finish school while alleviating the stress of finding affordable housing and providing a safe environment for their children. Short-term housing is provided for three to six months.

Aboda has worked with Way Back Inn for more than 15 years. The partnership began when Dave Caple, now president and CEO of Aboda, took a philanthropy class at Seattle University while studying for his MBA. At the time, Caple was Aboda’s vice president of operations. It was in the class that he heard about Way Back Inn. He saw a perfect match.

Aboda provides temporary places to stay for workers and interns coming to the region.

In 2016, Aboda Cares changed its approach. Rather than employees volunteering on a weekend or after work hours, Quall said, employees would be given a half-day during the workweek to go and volunteer together. Employees were surveyed about which of four organizations they’d like to work with and were split up and sent in groups.

Locally, Aboda volunteered with Northwest Harvest in Kent, Treehouse in Seattle, PAWS in Lynnwood, and Way Back Inn.

It’s a company-wide effort to get out and volunteer.

“Everyone from our CEO (on down) is out volunteering,” Quall said.

Aboda now has offices in Portland and San Francisco, and a small office in Rochester, Minnesota, as well. As the company has expanded, so has Aboda Cares. Employees in those offices also are granted time for volunteering.

“(Aboda Cares) is by our associates for our associates,” said Quall. “So it’s a program that will grow as we grow.”

The company donates money as well, through an employee matching program that matches dollars to hours.

“It really takes the hours and dollars further,” Quall said. — KM

Kemper Development Group Makes Giving Fashionable

Bellevue Fashion Week is best known for its runway shows during which rows of models walk down a bright, white catwalk wearing the top fashion trends for the season. But behind the layers of clothes, Bellevue Fashion Week is a giant fundraiser hosted by The Bellevue Collection.

Photos by Rodrigo DeMedeiros

Photos by Rodrigo DeMedeiros

Bellevue Fashion Week has raised funds for nonprofits since it started 11 years ago. In September alone, the Posh Party Trend Show raised $38,000 for Bellevue LifeSpring. The Front Row Fashion Show presented by Vogue raised $60,000 for Seattle Children’s. An anonymous donor then provided a matching gift of $50,000 for the hospital.

Part of what makes Bellevue Fashion Week such a successful fundraiser is that 100 percent of ticket sales go to the show’s beneficiary. The Bellevue Collection, owned and operated by the Kemper Development Company, pays for the stage, the models, and the entertainment, so there’s never an ambiguous proceeds amount that’s gifted.

“Kemper (Freeman Jr.) believes so much in giving back to the community that he funds all of this,” said Jennifer Leavitt, vice president of marketing for the Kemper Development Company.

For decades, the Freeman family has been instrumental in supporting Bellevue causes in a number of ways. Kemper’s father, Kemper Freeman Sr., was a leader in creating the first school district and hospital in Bellevue. Today, Kemper Jr. still supports those organizations. He also donated the downtown Bellevue land for the upcoming Tateuchi Center for the Performing Arts. Bellevue Fashion Week is just one piece of Freeman’s philanthropy.

Bellevue LifeSpring has been a part of that generosity for about 70 years. The nonprofit is one of the oldest tenants at Bellevue Square, which is owned by Freeman. Freeman rents a space there to Bellevue LifeSpring for a dollar a year so it can operate a thrift shop that sells lightly used clothing. Profits contribute to the nonprofit’s mission to foster stability and self-sufficiency for the city’s children and families.

“We forget that people in Bellevue need help when we see all of the growth and energy of this community. But the work of Bellevue LifeSpring is a critical resource to people living in our community,” said Leavitt, who received a college scholarship from the organization when she was younger.

In addition to raising money, Bellevue Fashion Week provides great exposure for these local organizations. When Molly Shen of KOMO-TV, for example, walked onto the stage before the Front Row Fashion show this year, she spoke about the medical help her child received at Seattle Children’s and the impact the hospital makes on kids every day. She announced to the crowd of about 550 people that the show raised $110,000 for brain cancer research.

On a surface level, Bellevue Fashion Week shines a light on what might be construed as materialism — shoes, dresses, makeup. When guests pack into the Hyatt Regency ballroom dressed to the nines, the event certainly does reflect some of the wealth in the area. But the event also drives awareness and secured funding to tackle the biggest problems in the city and the rest of the area.

Before the spotlight honed in on the fashion at the Posh Party Trend Show, Jennifer Fischer, Bellevue LifeSpring’s executive director, stepped onto the white stage to say a few words:

“You are supporting the 3,700 children and their families that are living in poverty right here in Bellevue; 250 of those children are homeless. People don’t think that that’s a need here in Bellevue, but it is real. Hunger happens here.” — LF

Lake Washington Partners is built on a Multi-Generational Foundation of Giving

Helen Banks Routon can remember the day, five years ago, when a massive shipment of boys’ and girls’ sweatpants arrived at Eastside Baby Corner, the Issaquah nonprofit where she serves as director of development and community relations.

Photos courtesy William Manning and Lisi Wolf

Photos courtesy William Manning and Lisi Wolf

“It was a thrilling moment,” Banks Routon said. “I can’t begin to tell you how good it felt.”

Banks Routon remembers seeing the bundles — the nickname for the packs of clothing set to go out to needy kids — she was about to send out and noting that there were no pants in them. So, she made a call to Issaquah-based Lake Washington Partners. Soon, she had pants, and plenty of them. The feedback she received from those caring for the recipients also thrilled her:

“(He) woke up early to get dressed into his new clothes and he spent last night folding and refolding — with huge satisfaction …”

“Amazing what a bag of clothes can achieve for a 12-year-old boy. We think of barriers to success and something as simple as ‘looking good’ could be the make or break for some kids.”

Banks Routon obviously called the right firm. A family-run real estate company, Lake Washington Partners is headed by Jordan Lott, who got into real estate the same way he got into philanthropy — it was passed down through his family. Lott is a third-generation Realtor and a third-generation giver who models his personal ethos after his father and his grandfather.

“I worked with my grandfather, and he was incredibly philanthropic,” Lott said. “He was involved in a lot of the same charities that I am today, and he absolutely instilled that in me — my father, my brother, myself — it is very much a family value for us.”

One of Lott’s earliest memories of his grandfather giving his time was as a volunteer driver, shuttling the neighborhood children to school each day.

“He was a van driver for the Jewish Day School in the early 1980s,” Lott said. “He did it because it was a way to help the school and to be a part of his grandchildren’s lives, and it was just a nice way to give back.”

As Lott raises his two young daughters, he makes sure they also see those charitable behaviors from their father.

“I am incredibly grateful that I can provide for my own children,” Lott said. “I also recognize that there are families out there that need help and can’t provide those same things, so Eastside Baby Corner is just a really efficient way to help those families in need.”

In addition to Eastside Baby Corner, Lake Washington Partners — a seemingly small business but actually one with offices in eight states that has built and managed more than 7 million square feet of real estate — sponsors other area charities such as Bothell’s Kindering Center — which provides education and therapy for children with diverse abilities — and the Rivkin Center for Ovarian Cancer.

Moreover, Lott encourages his employees to give to their own favorite charities and matches their donations. Employees also are given time off to volunteer for causes such as Northwest Harvest, which endeavors to nourish the hungry throughout the state. — JK

Microsoft Helps Close the Opportunity Divide

A year ago, Jameela Roland was working an hourly job at OfficeMax to help support her family. Then she heard about Year Up. Roland wanted to go to school, but money was a factor. She was attracted to the Year Up program, which was free and offered a stipend as well as an internship and college credit.

Photo courtesy Joanna Kresge

Photo courtesy Joanna Kresge

These days, she’s working as an intern at Microsoft and preparing for a career. She finally feels like she’s on track.

“I want a career that’s fun, engaging, and that I can live off of,” she said.

At first, tech seemed like a daunting sector to enter, but Year Up and her internship have shown her how to get started. Roland interns on the Millennium campus in Redmond with the IT Showcase team. She commutes to work via bus from Federal Way.

Year Up, the program Roland is enrolled in, is a free, year-long program aimed at young adults who are not able to afford college and do not have the advantages, economically, of some other young people entering the workforce. The goal is closing the opportunity gap between young adults who need employable skills and companies looking to hire them. Year Up is an application-based program where students even receive a stipend. It is open to 18- to 24-year-olds, and applicants must have a high school diploma or equivalent to be considered.

Year Up is just one of the local, national, and international benefactors of Microsoft’s commitment to giving. In 2015, the company gave $1.1 billion in a combination of cash and in-kind donations. Microsoft opens its wallet for a variety of causes worldwide, such as STEM education, human rights, and sustainability.

Mary Segesta, business development manager for Microsoft IT, said that the partnership with Year Up really exemplifies Microsoft’s mission statement: “To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”

Segesta said the Year Up interns her department has hosted are ambitious and smart. Her hope is the program and Microsoft can empower them to achieve their full potential.

“All they need is some help crossing that economic and opportunity divide,” she said.

Microsoft is a national corporate partner for Year Up and also offers internships. Annually, Microsoft gives more than a million dollars to Year Up, joining other major partners of the program, such as AT&T and Bank of America. Locally, Microsoft has brought in students from Year Up Puget Sound, which has offices in Seattle and on the Bellevue College campus. Bellevue College also has a partnership with Year Up, and students enrolled there are earning college credit for their internships.

“For me, what’s exciting about the Microsoft relationship is their relationship with us touches us in so many ways,” said Amy Mack, executive director of Year Up Puget Sound.

The Year Up program is six months of classes followed by an internship. Roland said the experience she had in the class has prepared her for the workforce. She’s learned skills such as project management, networking, and the art of the elevator pitch.

“No one really taught us how to do that in high school,” she said.

Roland said Microsoft provides career training to its interns, with networking advice and tours of the campus.

“Microsoft is also helping guide us on our way,” she said.

She works on the IT Showcase team, which is tasked with creating how-to guides and presentations about how Microsoft uses its own technology internally, said project manager Daniel Crumner, who oversees Roland’s internship. Roland’s internship is anything but fetching coffee. She’s involved in making videos in a small production studio. The videos demonstrate Microsoft’s IT. She’s helping with film and photo, setting up shoots, scheduling, and post-production work.

“She’s involved, really, from start to finish,” said Crumner.

Year Up’s Mack stressed the importance of Microsoft not just as a national partner, but also as a regional partner. The money that’s been given as well as the time spent with students have been invaluable.

“It would be hard to overstate the influence that they have had on the more than 500 alumni that have graduated from Year Up Puget Sound,” Mack said. “Their influence has been far greater than I think anyone could have imagined.” — KM

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