Setting the Bar – Vivian Risi

There’s nothing Vivian Risi does that is done the ordinary way. Her manner of philanthropy especially goes beyond the commonplace, motioning a special kind of collective awe from the public and her peers. From raising millions for society’s most vulnerable, to donating her time and money to strengthen our foundations and to rally for vital resources, the noted community leader and president of Royal LePage — Your Community Realty has helped jolt the community to consciousness since beginning to lay bare the social crises hidden in plain sight across York Region. “We’re not a region where you see poverty or the homeless guy lying on the street, so it’s tough to be heard when you tell the story of the groups of people struggling in our community,” says Daniele Zanotti, CEO of United Way York Region. “But Vivian can silence a room.”

The ability to still the chatter of a large crowd and galvanize its perspective most recently revealed itself at the 32nd annual Building Industry Luncheon (BIL), an annual fundraiser that has raised more than $8 million toward front line programs in York Region since its founding in 1982 by the late building magnate Alfredo De Gasperis. In a dark three-button suit, her long flaxen hair falling over her shoulders, Vivian is awash in excitement — and a little intimidation — as she takes to the podium as chair of the major individual giving cabinet for United Way York Region. Staring back at her in a sea of 1,200 faces are builders and leaders of note who have helped shape our landscape by paving our roads, building our homes and supporting our schools. Bracing the pressure, Risi forges ahead and sets the bar with a surprise pledge that would sustain her missive to bring help close to home.

“Good neighbourhoods are more than just stores and houses — it’s about service and a sense of community,” says the realtor, who received a thunderous round of applause at the luncheon after committing $50,000 to the United Way’s In Every Neighbourhood initiative. “I think if people opened their eyes and said, ‘Hey, this is my community, this is where I live, not everybody is so fortunate so let me give a little bit, we’d have a much healthier and functional society.” On any given night in York Region, up to 300 youth are in search of a place to sleep. Solutions can’t come soon enough for Risi.

Dubbed an “ambitious community aspiration” with a goal to raise $30 million and assist 325,000 people across York Region, the In Every Neighbourhood campaign addresses three key challenges — poverty, limited social infrastructure and shifting demographics — for people in areas where resources are needed the most. As of July 2014, the In Every Neighbourhood campaign closed in at 30 per cent of its aggressive three-year goal. “[Risi] is an unparalleled champion on all things social service. She steps up and puts her name and brand to the causes she believes in,” says Zanotti, adding that two anonymous supporters stepped forward and collectively donated $40,000 after her speech. Next to the government, United Way is the largest funder of social services in York Region, helping one in three people to move from crisis to a better life.

With over 25 years of experience in the non-profit sector, Zanotti cautions that while the municipalities of York Region (Aurora, East Gwillimbury, Georgina, King, Markham, Newmarket, Richmond Hill, Vaughan and Whitchurch-Stouffville) attract up to 12,000 newcomers each year as desirous places to live, work and raise a family, an “extremely challenging scenario” lies in wait as a lack of programs and limited supports meet rising populations, swelling house prices and widening gaps in income. “There are people very fortunate and with an abundance in their lives that they’ve worked hard for and should have, but blocks away you have people who are struggling to survive. But nobody wants to talk about that. Nobody wants to acknowledge that. But it’s a fact,” says Risi. “Some children don’t have dinner, or breakfast before they go to school. Dysfunctions in the home, single parents trying to raise a family — these are factors that are taking place right under the nose of a prosperous community like Vaughan. It’s there, even though we don’t see it.”

A devoted community leader, Risi made headlines back in 2012 as chair of the Yellow Brick House’s Second Shelter — Second Chances capital campaign, successfully leading the charge to raise $4 million for a much-needed second crisis shelter for abused women and children in York Region. Next to these efforts, the YMCA Peace Medallion recipient supports local hospitals, which include Southlake Regional Health Centre and the forthcoming Mackenzie Vaughan Hospital. “It’s not always about money, it’s about time,” says Risi. “Donating your time is a great way to give back.”

In the last two years alone, the broker of record has been recognized with Richmond Hill’s the Mayor’s Award for Business Excellence, the York Region Business Excellence award, and the Vaughan Chamber of Commerce’s Philanthropic Business Person of the Year award for her charitable efforts.

Quick Facts

• 10,000 to 12,000 newcomers move to York Region each year
• 1 in 8 York Region residents live in a low-income household
• More than 52,800 people in York Region were fed by food banks last year — 41% of them were children
• 21% of York Region residents work in precarious jobs — the highest rate in the GTA
• Last year, Blue Door Shelters had to turn away 5,845 people due to a lack of available beds
• A youth in York Region in need of mental health supports will wait an average of 270 days
• The number of seniors in York Region is expected to grow to 303,517 by 2031
• The York Region Abuse Program helped over 1,000 people who had experienced sexual abuse, and saw their wait list grow by 50%

Information provided by United Way York Region, a registered charity that funds close to 100 programs and projects to improve people’s lives by addressing root causes and meeting urgent needs within the community since its establishment in 1976.

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Amanda Storey

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