Harris Rosen grew up as a poor man in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. But with his hard work in the Florida hotel business, he eventually became wealthy.
Although he was already successful, he didn’t forget his humble beginnings. He even shared part of his fortune with his troubled community called Tangelo Park.
Long ago, Tangelo Park was a neighborhood filled with small yet lovely houses. But sadly, the world has torn apart the community as battled with crime and drugs as well as increasing number of students dropping out of school.
With the help of a $11 million donation by Mr. Rosen, Tangelo Park is now starting to see the light. Seniors are graduating from high school and making plans for college with the help of the full scholarships given by Mr. Rosen.
In addition, kids are also attending free kindergarten classes, where they learn how to read and write. All these are made possible through Mr. Rosen’s provision.
Not only did education flourish at Tangelo Park, the real estate business also boomed; and while property values have improved, crime rate has decreased.
Jeroline G. Adkinson, president of Tangelo Park Civic Association and long-time resident of the mostly black community, said, “We are sitting on gold here now. It has changed the community.”
Despite the progress of Tangelo Park, many questions still arise. Can its success be replicated? Is it just a story of a person willing to donate not only his money but also his time?
Tangelo Park’s success can be credited to several factors such as its focus on education. Beyond Mr. Rosen, many other individuals have played vital roles in changing the lives of the community’s students.
George Weiss is just one of those people. He started the Say Yes to Education with an aim to provide scholarships that’ll help high-school students succeed. Another notable figure is Geoff Canada. He headed the Harlem Children’s Zone, which improved the future of kids in Harlem who go to charter schools.
Perhaps Tangelo Park is difficult to mimic in some ways. Why? The community only has a population of 3,000, and most of its residents are homeowners. Therefore, it is a pretty unusual place for an urban area. Tangelo has also joined hands with leaders who are always fighting drug trade, even before Mr. Rosen arrived.
Though the community had Mr. Rosen financing again and again for 21 years, he just said, “It’s not inexpensive. You stay until the neighborhood no longer needs you.”
He also added that there are plenty of wealthy people out there with enough resources who could do the same if they want to.
The 75-year-old man said the program was rooted in an element that is absent in most American communities—hope.
He was then asked why a student should devote countless hours at school if college is out of reach because of its high cost. His response was simple but direct to the point. He said, “If you don’t have any hope, then what’s the point?”
Overall, the Tangelo Park Program is considered a total success. There is no charter school for its kids, no high authorities, no struggle for money, no staff to speak with. The community is run almost entirely by volunteers.
Now Mr. Rosen spends over $500,000 per year, which is lesser than when he started the program. He doesn’t really give the money directly to schools. Instead, he helps kids and provides scholarships for students who graduate high school.
As a detail-oriented man, Mr. Rosen shows up to every monthly board meeting. While he runs seven hotels and takes care of his four kids, he still attends scholarship and graduation ceremonies for the high school students and day cares.
Daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the current director of Atlanta’s King Center, Bernice King, who gave an award to Mr. Rosen last January, said, “This program is drastically different from others because it wraps both arms around the community and says we are here to serve you and help you become the best person that you can be. A lot of these programs, they have only one piece here and one piece there.”
Another interesting part of the program is the one made for all Tangelo Park seniors headed for Florida trade schools and public colleges. Each year, Mr. Rosen provides college scholarships to cover their tuition, books, room, and board, as well as their travel costs.
For the kids, a system of free day-care centers in Tangelo Park homes was created. However, prior to its launch, Mr. Rosen himself ensured that the instructors, who are also homeowners, are certified to teach children as young as 2.
He also started a prekindergarten program in a local elementary school and offered parents training on how to support their children through University of Central Florida.
Diondra Newton, the principal of Tangelo Park Elementary, spoke about the day-care centers. She stated, “This has been so good for the children of Tangelo Park. You see a huge difference between kids who did the program and those who come from elsewhere.”
Since 1994, almost 450 scholarships have already been distributed personally by Mr. Rosen, including 20 seniors who graduated from high school last week.
Compared to its state about two decades ago, Tangelo Park has definitely improved. Sam Butler, a long-time resident of Tangelo, stated, “It’s half the battle—to visualize they can go to college.”
Jerry L. Demings, the sheriff of Orange County, even attested its change. Crime rates are now lower and cops no longer make frequent stops in the place. He said, “The quality of life there has improved significantly.”
According to Mr. Rosen, his approach to business and life is grounded in his upbringing as a grandchild of Ukrainian immigrants. As a boy who witnessed how life was in the 1940s and 1950s, he saw lots of homeless alcoholics in the Bowery, so he did his best to avoid seeing such scenario today.
He recalled, “I understand how difficult it is to extract yourself form underserved communities.”
Later in his life, he helped Disney World establish its first hotels—the Polynesian and the Contemporary—but he was then fired. He said he was told by the company that he wasn’t enough of a company man.
With only $20,000 in his savings in 1974, he bought the roadside Quality Inn in Orlando. He became the inn’s security guard, buffet server, and gardener. To further promote his inn, he offered cheaper rates to New England tour bus operators to attract more tourists. Now the hotel is called the Rosen Inn International, and his office still stands in the same room, where he lived for 16 years.
Next year, Mr. Rosen is expected to start his education program in Parramore, a community in downtown Orlando with a more transient population. Although more challenging than Tangelo Park, he still wants to be successful in the area. He said that he’ll try to persuade other wealthy people to support his program.
As of now, Mr. Rosen appreciates his time spent in Tangelo Park. He recalled his first visit to the community’s elementary school in 1993. When he asked the kids how many wanted to proceed to college, only two or three hands were raised. So he said, “That has to change.” The following year, he was surprised to see every hand went up.
Mr. Rosen’s success is reflected in the number of professionals the community has produced. Ariana Plaza, one of the lucky scholars who graduated from Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando last week, will be enrolling in the University of Central Florida as a pre-med psychology student. It was a goal that once seemed impossible and unattainable.
She said that before, she always spent sleepless nights as she had to juggle a job, attend classes, and help her autistic brother. But with Mr. Rosen’s scholarship, her life changed.
“He has taken the burden off me and my entire family. He opened up a lot of doors,” said Ariana.