Fighting for Them as They Fought for Us
Tracey C. Velt
Meet Good Neighbor Award Finalist Nick Manis, who gives hope to vets who are homeless or facing foreclosure and eviction.
Meet the 2013 Good Neighbor Award finalists
The Good Neighbor Awards recognize REALTORS® who are making an extraordinary impact through community service. We will profile one of our 10 finalists each day in our Daily News. Five of these finalists will be named winners and will receive $10,000 grants for their charities. They will also be welcomed into the Good Neighbor Society during NAR’s 2013 Conference & Expo in San Francisco. The five honorable mentions each receive $2,500 for their cause.
Starting Sept. 17, we will give our readers the chance to vote for their favorites. On Oct. 1, we will announce the “Web Choice” top vote-getter, along with the five winners of the $10,000 grants. The Web Choice winner will receive an additional grant of $500, whether they are chosen as a Good Neighbor honorable mention or a winner.
The Good Neighbor Awards is sponsored by Liberty Mutual Insurance.
The 23-year-old war veteran had a young daughter and was eight months pregnant. She was also losing her house to foreclosure and had nowhere to turn. In stepped the G.I. Go Fund, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Nick Manis, 32, which assists veterans with the transition back to civilian life. Manis uncovered a program through the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency that helped her refinance her mortgage so that she could keep her house.
“Had we not had Nick here as a REALTOR® able to handle these things, we may not have been able to help her,” says Jack Fanous, co-founder and executive director of the G.I. Go Fund.
Started in 2006, the G.I. Go Fund helps veterans with all facets of life, including securing government benefits and finding stable employment and housing. “We came up with the idea after losing a friend, Army Lieutenant Seth Dvorin, in Iraq,” says Manis, who co-founded the fund with his two brothers and two childhood friends.
“Some of these vets have been living in Iraq for three tours, and we expect them to incorporate themselves magically into society,” says Manis. “We help them navigate the process to make sure they get all the benefits they earned and deserve as quickly as possible.”
In 2009, the G.I. Go Fund partnered with Newark Mayor Cory Booker to create a nonprofit-run Veterans’ Center in Newark City Hall. “This allowed us to reach thousands more veterans than we were reaching on our own,” says Manis.
“I am proud of how the G.I. Go Fund manifests our love and support for the men and women who have given so much to protect the freedom and liberty we enjoy,” Booker says of the initiative.
The G.I. Go Fund excels at tapping into little-known funds and resources. “We pull the information together and learn how to access the help. Then we can assist the vets so they get what they need,” says Fanous. One need the organization sees all too often is housing security.
That was the boat Alex Pino found himself and his family in when he returned from combat. Pino served three tours in Iraq in before returning home in 2006. “I was married with two small children [now ages 7 and 10],” he says. “I was jobless and had no food to feed my family.” He also couldn’t pay rent, so “we were just about homeless.”
Then Pino heard about the G.I. Go Fund. “Nick and the guys gave my family what we needed to stay alive. From supermarket gift cards to job references to help paying my rent, they were there for me.”
Manis found rental assistance for Pino through a government housing assistance program. “They paid my rent for six months until I got on my feet,” says Pino, who secured a job with the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office within seven months of his return home. “I’ve been on that job for [almost] seven years and am in a much better situation, and I have Nick and the G.I. Go Fund to thank for getting me what I needed when I needed it.”
In addition to securing rental assistance, Manis helps with all facets of housing. Fanous remembers one family who refused to acknowledge that they might lose their home to foreclosure. “Nick broke it down by the numbers and [gently] counseled them. He told them about the short sale process and closed the transaction. They are happy now, and the vet volunteers for us,” says Fanous.
To date, the G.I. Go Fund has helped hundreds of families with housing issues. Through programs that Manis has pioneered, at least 38 families and individuals were saved from living on the streets.
On top of knowing the ins and outs of assistance programs, the key to the Fund’s success, says Manis, is that the founders don’t rely on the vets to come to them. At least three times a year, in the wee hours of the morning, Manis and other volunteers hit the streets, train stations, and bus stations, where they hand out care packages to anyone who is homeless. These “Midnight Missions” also serve to connect homeless vets with emergency Veterans Administration assistance.
Each year, the Midnight Missions program reaches at least 150 homeless people and helps at least 18 homeless vets find housing. “We are the first step toward getting them off the street,” says Manis. “Some of them get registered into a detox program; some are taken to get medical help. It gives us the opportunity to get them the benefits they qualify for but don’t know how to get,” says Manis, who adds that the process for getting these benefits can be time-intensive and sometimes intimidating.
To help vets with financial matters, Manis holds seminars at the VA office. During each seminar, he offers information about foreclosure options, saving for a home, and smart financial planning to audiences of about 100 vets.
Manis is passionate about teaching other REALTORS® about VA loans so they can help more vets. “Right now, when faced with a VA loan or a conventional loan, many sellers will choose conventional because they and their agents don’t understand how the VA works. Everyone should know the ins and outs of VA loans.”
For Manis, helping vets all boils down to brotherhood. “A reporter called us a ‘band of civilian brothers.’ This organization keeps our bond with the community strong, and we’re able to help those who have given everything to our country. It’s an awesome responsibility.”
A job that Manis and his band of civilian brothers are handling just fine. Pino agrees: “The G.I. Go Fund took care of me when I was ready to give up. I’m forever grateful.”