Building a New Gateway

Posted on Jul 19, 2012 in Marc Sparks: In the News | 0 comments


Knowing more about the Samaritan Inn’s success makes you want to get involved, MICHAEL LANDAUER says
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By now, you’ve heard of the Samaritan Inn. It’s one of Collin County’s most impressive success stories. It started in 1984 as a group project of several community leaders, and it barely survived for years in a rundown building in East McKinney. I remember the tour I took in 2001, a very quick circle around a cluttered set of darkened hallways.

Nowadays, in the new, state-of-the-art shelter, you can take a tour of the building online (www.the samaritaninn.org). You can make a reservation by phone (972-547-5567) to donate items to a fully functional, separate thrift store instead of just dropping them off at the busy shelter. You can (and should) donate online, too, where you can also buy chocolate truffles made by residents of the Inn through a venture called Greater Goodies.
The Gateway

The shelter has come a long way, and this week, it’s about to start a whole new chapter in its incredible story by breaking ground on a transitional housing complex next door to its growing campus. But before we begin writing that new chapter, there’s a major part of the story — little known to most people — that needs to be told.

* Marc A. Sparks would always try to avoid eye contact with the cashiers at Target or Sam’s Club when he was buying carts full of underwear, deodorant and toothbrushes. He knew they would ask him what he was up to, and it’s not something he likes to talk about. So, he says, he would just ignore the cashiers when they asked and keep loading stuff onto the conveyor belt. Why didn’t he make something up? Because he didn’t want to lie while doing God’s work, he says.

It was the late 1980s, and he regularly loaded up his Chevy Blazer and trekked over to the Samaritan Inn, where he got the enthusiastic help of volunteers in unloading the stash. Why did he start doing this?
“It’s my duty,” he said recently during an interview in his ground-floor office in! Addison Circle. “We don’t have a choice but to support one another. We have to give back. If we don’t, society won’t succeed.”
For a time, Mr. Sparks, a middle-aged Dallas husband and father active in his University Park church, did his good deeds at the Austin Street Shelter, but he says he eventually came back to where he was needed the most — the Samaritan Inn.

He had become more and more successful in business, but he continued his shopping-and- giving sprees, sometimes taking the basics directly to people living under an overpass.

He is a fast-paced talker, but he slows down when he talks about how it must feel trying to find some place to sleep when you’re the coldest you’ve ever been. And so he would stand there in the aisles of a big-box store and think, if I were homeless, what would I need? What would I not want to share?
During one of his regular stops at the shelter, one of the staff members said something about how happy she was that he came by because now they could stay open another month. At first, he thought she was exaggerating, but she wasn’t. She explained that if it weren’t for the basics he delivered, the shelter could not afford its other bills.

For the first time, Mr. Sparks realized that his donations were not just “the cream on top.” More important, he says, he realized that we all too often make the mistake of assuming someone else is responsible for basic services.
So he stepped it up. When he was dropping SUV-loads of toilet paper and T-shirts off at the Inn, did he imagine that he would end up furnishing a new 10,000- square-foot shelter, buying the charity a thrift store and building transitional housing for its residents? “I did,” he said. And it’s not just that he could predict the future, but, as he put it, “Who else is gonna do it?”

* Since that encounter with the staffer in 2002, progress at the Inn has moved at what Mr. Sparks’ employees call “S parks speed.” A successful venture capitalist, Mr. Sparks sa! ys he lo oks for people who are passionate, who have faith and who are tenacious — and he has no use for bureaucracy and delays.
Lynne Sipiora, the executive director of the Inn, has firsthand knowledge of “Sparks speed.” Last December, he called her and asked what the shelter’s biggest need was. In the past when he asked questions like this, the answer was a new shelter, a computer lab, a thrift store. Done. Done. Done.

Last December, Ms. Sipiora said it was affordable housing. An unwed mother making minimum wage has a hard time finding an apartment where she’ll be able to make ends meet and save a little for her future.

Two days later, Mr. Sparks called her back and said, “Find some land. We’re building.” This enthusiastic generosity was contagious, Ms. Sipiora said. The owner of the land adjacent to the shelter sold for less than his asking price. Darling Homes agreed to waive its profit. Attorney Bob Roeder represented the Inn for free in the long proce ss of getting approval from the city. A furniture company has talked about furnishing the apartments for free.

And on Thursday, ceremonial shovels in hand, this growing army will break ground on Gateway, a transitional housing project that is unusual in that it is being funded by a single donor. If the Inn had sought grants from the government or large foundations for the project, it would have taken years to get to this point. But by next December, families who spent the better part of the year living in a homeless shelter may be putting up a Christmas tree in their very own Gateway apartment.

“It’s all about mankind and serving other people and God,” Mr. Sparks says, tapping the blueprints for the Gateway apartment project. And when you consider that your duty, it’s hard to accept any thanks, especially publicly. When the shelter’s new building was named for him, Mr. Sparks insisted that the media not be invited to the ceremony. But Ms. Sipiora has urged him for years to step into the spotlight, not to take a bow,! but to inspire others to give.

Besides, for the 123 people living in the shelter right now, it must be gratifying to know that a man who makes millions by investing in people is investing in them. He cares. “It is so rewarding to see someone make it,” he says. And thanks to him and the pay-it-forward multiplier effect that he has started, more people will make it.

So what’s next, after Gateway? When I asked, Mr. Sparks eyed the blueprints on the table and smiled. He looked across the table at Ms. Sipiora and said, “Lynne, what’s the need?”

Michael Landauer is the assistant editorial page editor for suburbs. His e-mail address is mlandauer@dallasnews.com.

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