The Orphans’ Best Friend
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The Orphans’ Best Friend

As hotel developer Andrew Stein moves between great wealth and great poverty, he is repairing the world, one needy Latin American kid at a time.

During a recent visit to the Dominican Republic, international banker-turned-real estate consultant Andrew Stein visited a Catholic orphanage one morning. When he goes to Latin America on business, Stein often spends time in orphanages, doing magic and making balloon animals for the impoverished children there.

That morning in the Dominican Republic, one of the girls in the orphanage, a teen who has taken computer training courses there, ran up to Stein when he entered the building. “She hugged me and started crying,” Stein says. “You changed my life,” she told him in Spanish. “I love you.”

Another rescued starfish, so to speak.

The teen, like thousands of orphans in Central America and South America, had taken computer training and other vocational training courses under the auspices of the Orphaned Starfish Foundation, a charity Stein founded in 2001. The training, he says, gives the children a chance to support themselves, to make a life for themselves, to stay off the streets after they turn 18 and laws in various countries stipulate that, as adults, they become too old to stay in the orphanages.

“I have always loved kids, since I was young,” he explains.

Stein, 46, “a nice Jewish boy from Long Island” who originally wanted to be a lawyer because “I love to argue,” now travels to the orphanages his foundation works with at least once a month, and usually schedules his visits around business trips. Now managing director of Savillis PLC, a global real estate service provider, he chooses his clients — Stein arranges debt financing for international luxury and ultra-luxury hotels — based on their willingness to support, or at least humor, his humanitarian activities.

Stein, who is divorced and lives in Lower Manhattan, operates in two worlds, hobnobbing with rich clients on the job, and spending his off-hours with children in slums. He’s spent “tens of thousands” of his own money on the foundation, and rounded up such corporate sponsors as Johnson & Johnson, Continental Airlines, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank to cover the foundation’s annual $350,000 budget.

His goal is to increase the budget to $3 million within a few years. Stein says he’d like to be able to retire within a decade and devote his time to his foundation. “I don’t have the personal wealth to finance all this [now],” he says.

Eventually, he hopes to expand the foundation to “every country in the Americas, including the United States.”

Today, he’s a hands-on philanthropist, one not very well-known outside of his business circles. “Everyone in my business knows what I do,” he says. “It’s what I’m known for in the industry.”

Orphaned Starfish (orphanedstarfish.org), which will mark its tenth anniversary in October at a gala fundraiser in Manhattan, supports training programs in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, Colombia, and, because of Stein’s business connections, in Ethiopia. In each country the foundation underwrites training courses in an orphanage, and offers outstanding students college scholarships, and internships in the hospitality industry. “Education is the key to escaping the poverty trap,” the foundation’s website states. The participating students “otherwise have little access to an education. Thus far, we have been able to touch the lives of over four thousand children.”

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A native of Forest Hills, Queens, who grew up in Commack, L.I., Stein started a life in philanthropy early. As a teen, he took part in the March of Dimes walk-a-thon, and in college he entertained kids in hospitals as a clown. His volunteer “tzedakah and tikkun olam” work continued when he went to the Philippines for Chemical Bank.

Ten years ago he was working in Santiago, the Chilean capital. A nun at an orphanage there told Stein, “We have a problem.” Girls were about to turn 18, and therefore become ineligible to stay at the orphanage, the nun told him. Life on the streets — drugs and prostitution — was their likely fate. “Can we do something to protect these flowers?” the nun asked. Stein promised to help.

Back in New York, he lined up funding for computer training courses. Within three months, the courses, based at the orphanage, began. The Orphaned Starfish Foundation was born.

Stein named the foundation for author Loren Eiseley’s famous parable about the power of one person to make a difference (in Spanish, the foundation is known as Hogar Estrella, stars of home).

As Eiseley tells it:

A wise man is walking on the beach. One day he spots a young man at the shore, reaching down and throwing small objects into the ocean.

“What are you doing?” the wise man asks.

“Throwing starfish into the ocean,” the young man answers.

Why?

“The tide is going out,” the young man says. “If I don’t throw them in, they will die.”

There are miles and miles of beach, and starfish the whole distance, the wise man says. “You can’t possibly make a difference.”

“It makes a difference,” the young man says, bending down to throw another starfish into the water, “for that one.”

The foundation’s scope, Stein says, is limited. “We’re not going to save every orphan in the world. We’ll never run out of orphans.

“We’re going to make a lot of difference,” he says, “to these starfish girls,” those in his training programs. “It’s giving them a skill, so they have something to do when they leave the orphanage.”

As Stein’s business travels subsequently took him to other countries in Latin America, he added an orphanage in each land. He now has a total of 20 programs in 10 countries. “It chose me,” he says of his charity work. “I kept meeting more and more kids. It started,” he says, “with me and a nun.”

Stein was raised in the Conservative movement. The environment in which he finds himself in Latin America, both in his finance work and his altruism, is heavily Catholic — with the exception of a Muslim administrator who runs one of his programs in Panama.

“My best friends are nuns and priests,” he says. “Everyone knows that I’m Jewish. We all get along very well. They tell me I’m doing Jesus’ work.”

The kids in the orphanages call him Tio (pronounced Chio in Brazil’s Portuguese), which means uncle. Some ask him about his Jewish beliefs; most don’t know or don’t care. “Here in Brazil, where all kinds of nationalities, religions and skin colors can be found, it is of no importance if a person is Jewish, Muslim, Catholic or whatever,” says Christa Bohnhof-Gruhn, a Rotary Club official in Rio de Janeiro who has worked with Stein. “The only thing that counts for the children in our projects is that Andrew Stein is a terribly nice person who comes to improve their lives. He is an American who speaks Portuguese with a funny accent.”

Stein has taught himself Portuguese, Spanish and Tagalog, the Philippine language.

He tells of being asked to serve as the godfather for the child born to a girl who had studied in one of the foundation’s training courses, and pretending not to understand Spanish during the newborn’s baptism ceremony, so he would not have to say Christian prayers; of being told by a bishop that he is “more Catholic” than most Catholics; of receiving uncounted crucifixes and other Christian gifts of thanks. “I’ve got more things with Jesus than I know what to do with.”

Rio de Janeiro named him an honorary citizen four years ago, and the Miami-based Spanish Broadcasting System began carrying public service announcements on behalf of the foundation last year.

“I get more out of it than I give,” says Stein. “It gives me perspective.”

If he has a problem, he says, it pales in comparison to those faced by the indigent — some were previously abused — kids he helps.

“He could be like most of the executives coming to Rio for business — having lunch and dinner in nice restaurants and sitting at the pool of their hotel between one appointment and another,” Bohnhof-Gruhn says in an email interview. “However, Andy prefers to visit the children of his projects, situated in the ugly parts of the city, where the normal visitor never goes to.”

What has Stein sacrificed for his orphans and his foundation?

Mostly time, he says. “Pick a recreational thing that I love to do and I do it much less.”

In the coming months, he’s off to Mexico, Columbia and Brazil. Sometimes his sons, Joshua, 14, and Zachary, 17, who are following in his humanitarian footsteps, accompany him when their school schedules permit.

Wherever he goes, Stein says, he gets hugs and thanks like the ones he received that morning in the Dominican Republic. The girl who came up to him in tears told him that, inspired by the example of Orphaned Starfish, she wants to become a nurse. “I want to help people,” she said.

Many of the teens who have graduated from the training courses return to the orphanages to mentor younger orphans, Stein says.

Those actions, and the words of thanks, are his payment, he says. “I get that all the time. I never get tired of it.”

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org

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