Shelter from the storm

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By BILL DWYER

Soon after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast last August, local Realtor Dan Bogojevich (Prudential Premier Realty) headed down to Louisiana with his buddy, Andrew Palomo. A retired Army lt. colonel, Bogojevich said he'd seen a lot of things in 23 years of military service. As such, he's not prone to hand-wringing, but rather to doing whatever needs to be done, whatever the circumstances. Post Katrina Louisiana, however, was something off the chart of even Bogojevich's experience.

"The devastation and need I saw there just overwhelmed me," he said.

Bogojevich traveled south a second time in October, bringing a truckload of food, water and clothing for distribution to those in need. Being amid scenes of total devastation and people who had lost every material thing they owned profoundly affected Bogojevich. It's one thing to watch the scenes on television, he noted, and quite another when, as he put it, "you can see it and smell it and taste it."

Yet all during his second 19-hour return drive back up north, Bogojevich felt unfulfilled. "I have to do more," he told himself. A plan to help provide something more permanent began to take shape.

Bogojevich contacted Habitat for Humanity, the organization that builds housing for people in need. The result was "Hands of Hope," a project to finance and build two homes in partnership with Habitat. He also contacted Brian Buffini, whose California company provides professional coaching services for real estate agents throughout America. Buffini embraced the idea immediately, telling Bogojevich not only that he wanted to be a part of the project, but they should build four, not two houses, and he would underwrite the $55,000 per house cost, a $220,000 commitment.

Hands of Hope will do the work from May 27 through June 3, during which time the 140 volunteers will start with four previously poured foundations, and build four houses. Among that group group will be 13 members of the Oak Park Board of Realtors, representing six different realty companies.

Realtor Tom Carraher, who works with Bogojevich at Prudential Premier, said he's excited by the prospect of actually getting his hands dirty helping others.

"I've always been one of those guys who just writes a check, and I felt it was time to actually do the work," said Carraher.

Going down to Baton and actually taking part in the building process, Carraher said, will pay him a dividend not available from simply donating money.

"This is something tangible," he said. "At the end of the week, we'll be able to sit back with each other and say, 'Look at what we accomplished.'"

Habitat trains and supervises

Each Habitat home requires a $55,000 donation, and 35 people committed to working on it. Habitat provides the site and the expertise, assigning two supervisors to manage the volunteer construction crew. When they get there, they'll find a large container holding all the materials they need to construct the house.

What most impressed Bogojevich about the Habitat program is that it requires families who will own the homes to be active participants in the building and funding of those homes. "They are not a give-away product," said Bogojevich. "If you just hand something to somebody, it has no value."

Under terms of the Habitat deal, potential owners of the 1,100-square-foot, three-bedroom, one-bath homes Habitat builds will be required to assume a $300-per-month, 20-year mortgage in addition to working side by side with those constructing their new home.

Buffini's largesse would be only the most notable support for Bogojevich's project. From the moment he conceived of the plan, Bogojevich said, the people in his business and personal life enthusiastically embraced it, supported it and helped expand its scope.

A call went out to all of the members of the Buffini & Company's "Club.Net," a national group of real estate professionals whom Buffini has coached. The response was stunning, said Bogojevich.

"The posting went up [on Buffini's] website at 2 p.m., Feb. 1, and by 5 p.m. the website was shut down due to the server being overloaded with responses.

Fundraiser at FitzGerald's

Closer to home, the Oak Park-River Forest Board of Realtors, which includes Realtors from Forest Park as well, was already planning a dinner to benefit Katrina relief. Chris Kohe, who works with Bogojevich, was in the process of organizing the dinner when he heard about Bogojevich's plans. He suggested that it be turned into a fundraiser for the Habitat project.

Part of the reason Bogojevich has had such success attracting support for his idea is the passion he's brought to it.

"He's so thoroughly engrossed in it," said Board of Realtors President Gerri Keating. "Whatever we can do to help him out, we will. It's a great project."

The dinner's organizers are hoping around 300 people will attend the fundraiser, which will be held next Tuesday, Feb. 21 at FitzGerald's in Berwyn. Board of Realtors members are currently selling tickets to the fundraiser, said Keating, and many have volunteered to go down to Baton Rouge as well.

Others have been more than ready to help in other ways. "Local businesses have been extremely generous donating items for the silent auction," said Bogojevich.

"Without Brian Buffini's support, I couldn't have done half this project," he added. "And without the Oak Park Board of Realtors, I couldn't have done the other half."

Bogojevich, who bemoaned the American public's short attention span, stressed that the repair and restoration of the Gulf Coast area will take years to accomplish. His only fear, he said, is that the country will forget the great need there.

A key challenge facing relief organizations is that the population of Baton Rouge doubled practically overnight, swollen by evacuees from New Orleans and elsewhere. The city, he said, must now somehow manage to absorb its own floodâ€"the one comprised of thousands of homeless human beings seeking to literally rebuild their lives.

"Many of those people are not going back to New Orleans," said Bogojevich.

Bogojevich said he doesn't care much about the political hubbub and blame surrounding the response to Katrina. The only response that matters, he said, is the response of Americans responding to other Americans.

He recalled a man he met in line at a Louisiana Wal-Mart last fall. The man, who'd lost his home and his business, was buying items for his family with one of the $2,000 debit cards the government passed out to Katrina victims to help them buy necessities. He told Bogojevich that he and his neighbors have experienced the gamut of emotions following Katrina, from fear to anger to feeling sorry for themselves. He also took time to thank Bogojevich and inquire if he was doing OK himself.

"Here's a guy who'd lost everything," said Bogojevich. "Every worldly possession he had was in a shopping cart or in the truck of his car. Yet he was more worried about how we would get home to our families. What a great example of the incredible American spirit I saw down there."

That spirit will be needed in the months and years to come. For the most part, the man told Bogojevich, people are past the emotions now. What remains, he said, is a resolve to do what it takes to put their lives back together.

"One day," the man said, "we'll have our lives back."

This May, thanks to Bogojevich and 140 volunteers, four families will at least have their homes back.

People wishing to help Dan Bogojevich's housing construction effort can send a check to the Oak Park Board of Realtors made out to the "Providence Systems Foundation." That foundation, said Bogojevich, is a 501 c(3) non-profit corporation, donations to which are fully tax deductable. The Board of Realtors' mailing address is 212 S. Marion St., Oak Park, IL 60302.

The FitzGerald's fundraiser takes place next Tuesday, Feb. 21 in the evening. Call the Board of Realtors (386-0150) for more information.

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