High Holidays | Local

Tikkun olam: Jill Rich

Jill Rich and her husband, Jim, serve dinner at the Primavera Shelter, July 30. (Courtesy Jill Rich)

How do you create a philanthropic heart? Make an early start.

Jill Rich has been a volunteer for nearly all of her 69 years. Her first foray into raising money to help others began with her curiosity.  At age 4 she wanted to understand what was meant by the term “Milk Fund” that she’d heard on the radio. “It puzzled me,” says Rich. “For me, milk could be found by just walking over to the refrigerator. So when I asked my parents to explain what ‘Milk Fund’ meant, that’s when they sat me down and gave me the poverty talk and told me what I could do to help in our community.”

Rich, who grew up in Rock Island, Illinois, says that her parents were “total volunteers” who had her involved in philanthropy from the time she was 5 years old. One of her first forays into community service involved fundraising: Her father bought cases of Hershey’s chocolate bars at wholesale, and Rich went around her neighborhood carrying a basket of chocolate bars that she sold for 5 cents apiece, donating the profits to the Milk Fund.  From that point on, explains Rich, she, her parents and her older brother engaged in a philanthropy project every year.

“We organized a yearly neighborhood carnival in the street in front of our house where we offered rides and contests, food and fun. All the proceeds went to the Crippled Children’s Fund.” Rich notes the now politically-incorrect name of the organization with some humor. But another decades-old cause that continues to engage her is deadly serious.

Back in the early 1980s, says Rich, when an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence, she lost two beloved first cousins to the disease. Recognizing the example set for her by her mother, who became an AIDS hotline volunteer, Rich has remained engaged in activities in support of those with HIV/AIDS. She is a vice president on the board of Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network and an active volunteer, focusing on development and fundraising. She is encouraged by the significant improvements that have come to HIV and AIDS patients in recent years. “I find it so moving to see those with HIV who come to TIHAN feeling horrible and alone, move to a place where they have hope, where they come to feel that they have a complete support system at their disposal.”

Rich arrived in Tucson in 1965 to attend the University of Arizona. After graduating in 1970 with a degree in psychology and sociology, she decided that Tucson was home.  She met her husband, Jim Rich, after graduating from the UA and they were soon engaged in more than just the traditional sense. “He has done a great deal of volunteer work with me,” Rich says. “In my early days in Tucson I did hands-on volunteer work for the American Red Cross in disaster relief as that sounded interesting to me. My husband and I did that together. Then after some years of volunteering with them, they asked me to join their board, which I did.” This pattern of engaging in volunteer activity and then helping to guide those philanthropic organizations has repeated often for Rich, who has been committed to helping others in our community for nearly 50 years.

Her ongoing dedication to the Jewish community has been covered by the Arizona Jewish Post (see “For Woman Lost Boys of Sudan Call ‘Mom,’ Helping Others is Second Nature”(2.28.14) and “Temple to Celebrate Humanitarian Jill Rich” (3.11.11). Rich has been the social action chair at Temple Emanu-El since 2003. She has spearheaded programs that feed and shelter the homeless in winter, such as Project Hospitality, which was formerly administered as Operation Deep Freeze. She continues (since 2006) to serve as the social action chair for the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and has been a meal provider at Primavera Foundation, a nonprofit organization that feeds the poor, for nearly 25 years.

“What is closest to my heart, though,” admits Rich, “is helping refugee families that are newly arrived. It’s a wonderful experience; showing them Tucson and helping them navigate a new life.” Since 1988, Rich has been a continuing mentor and surrogate family connection for 54 young men from Sudan. This year she is actively assisting families with children from other politically perilous parts of the world, including one family from Africa and two from Europe. In the mid 1980s, she and her husband adopted and raised two Vietnamese children as their own.

It’s a feat in and of itself to enumerate the organizations, causes and numbers of people that Rich has volunteered for and supported during her life. Her curriculum vitae features more than two pages dedicated to volunteer experience and resultant awards. Some of the highlights: The National Association of Fundraising Professionals of Southern Arizona awarded her its Volunteer of the Year award in 2015, the National Association of Social Workers named her Public Citizen of the Year in 2001, and President George H.W. Bush named her a Point of Light in 1991.

Despite the extent of Rich’s volunteer activity, her professional career as a full-time Tucson realtor is anything but a sideline. Her commitment and success as a realtor are reflected in the recognition and awards that she has garnered from her professional colleagues at Long Realty Company as well as the Tucson Association of Realtors and the Arizona Association of Realtors.

Rich says, “I am always asked by people how I work a full time job and still have time for all my volunteer commitments. I tell them that it’s easy. The secret is to have a silent partner — for me it’s my husband, Jim. We have a unique relationship as volunteer partners; he does half the work and I get all the awards.” And those awards come from completely diverse sectors of the community where Rich gives of herself to make a difference. So Tucsonans should not be surprised if they see Jill Rich ringing a bell for Salvation Army this holiday season. It’s just another of her ways of helping those who are less fortunate in our community. “I have a good time,” she says. “That’s what I do, seriously.”

Renee Claire is a freelance writer in Tucson.