By Matthew Power. "I had come from the same background that I saw many of these kids experiencing," says Lee Wetherington, president and CEO of Lee Wetherington Homes. "I felt that if I could make it where I am, they can make it too.
"The trouble is," he explains, "these kids live inside their story, and they don't see any hope. They live in a world that's not of their making. It's a world of alcohol and drugs, of parents who are serving time in jail. They may live with an aunt, or their grandparents. And they often don't see any way out."
Lee Wetherington Homes builds about 200 upscale homes a year in Southwest Florida and employs 61 full-time staffers. Wetherington also owns a few spin-off businesses, including a pool installer. The builder says he feels that he owes something to the community for his success. And if he can improve the image of home builders and contractors at the same time, all the better.
Back in 1978, he got his first taste of volunteerism, helping the Meals on Wheels charity. "It was an accident, really," he explains, "but after that, I became pretty active in the community."
Leading by example
When his chance came to serve as president of the Sarasota HBA in 1990, Wetherington used the pulpit to urge builders to go public with their philanthropy and improve their lousy image in the community.
"That year, the community had threatened a building moratorium," he recalls. "I saw the opportunity to start taking builders into community service and getting it publicized. They were doing good work," he says, "but not in a way that I would call loud."
In 1991, while working with the local boys and girls club, Wetherington spied a unique, high-profile opportunity. "They were nearly bankrupt," he says. "So I organized a mini 'day of sharing' for them, and then we built them a new administration building."
Efforts like those have caught the public eye and made Wetherington the darling of his community. As a member of the board of directors of the Boys amp; Girls Clubs of Sarasota County, he has since participated in about 20 related projects, including founding a college scholarship program (he raised money for the award), creation of a mentoring program for troubled kids, and even construction of a new, 23,500-square-foot Boys amp; Girls Club in Newtown (Sarasota), the largest such club in public housing in the United States.
"Children are our future leaders," the builder says. "These disadvantaged kids can excel far beyond what people realize. But they have to have the opportunity."
"We involved everybody in the company," says Wetherington. "We built a huge garden and a storybook playhouse. It's never a problem getting people to help out."
That willingness extends to trade partners, he says. "I'll give you an example," he says. "I was helping renovate a home for developmentally handicapped women. Twelve women were living in this place, but they told me only two could get a hot bath each morning. That's when the hot water ran out."
"I called my buddy, Danny, who's a plumber," he continues, "and said 'Can you get me a 175-gallon water heater?' They put that new heater into the house the next day, and when I came back a week later, you'd think I was Elvis Presley, the way those women jumped all over me. I had to call Danny and get him over there just to share in the moment."
For that project alone, Wetherington raised more than $400,000 in labor and materials, and supervised 400 volunteers, who refurbished, cleaned, and painted seven buildings in the complex.
More recently, Wetherington became involved with a Sarasota County HBA-sponsored project. He provided free design and public relations services for the Salter Home, a private home built for the family of a 13-year-old boy who became a quadriplegic after a football injury. Members of the HBA donated time, materials, and labor to make the project a success.
No matter how busy these trade contractors, Wetherington says, they will drop everything to participate in a good deed. "They're looking for something to do to give back. I've never once heard them say no."
"The bottom line of all of this is simple," he adds. "It's just fun. If you ever want to lift your day up, just go out and do something in the community."