April 17, 2013 at 10:21 AM ET
Harris Rosen went from a childhood in a rough New York City neighborhood to becoming a millionaire whose company owns seven hotels in Orlando, but his self-made success is not his proudest achievement.
Twenty years ago, the Orlando, Fla. neighborhood of Tangelo Park was a crime-infested place where people were afraid to walk down the street. The graduation rate at the local high school was 25 percent. Having amassed a fortune from his success in the hotel business, Rosen decided Tangelo Park needed some hospitality of its own.
“Hospitality really is appreciating a fellow human being,” Rosen told Gabe Gutierrez in a segment that aired on TODAY Wednesday. “I came to the realization that I really had to now say, ‘Thank you.’’’
Rosen, 73, began his philanthropic efforts by paying for day care for parents in Tangelo Park, a community of about 3,000 people. When those children reached high school, he created a scholarship program in which he offered to pay free tuition to Florida state colleges for any students in the neighborhood.
In the two decades since starting the programs, Rosen has donated nearly $10 million, and the results have been remarkable. The high school graduation rate is now nearly 100 percent, and some property values have quadrupled. The crime rate has been cut in half, according to a study by the University of Central Florida.
"We've given them hope,’’ Rosen said. “We've given these kids hope, and given the families hope. And hope is an amazing thing."
Tangelo Park resident Georgia Gordan admitted that she was ready to move away 20 years ago, saying the neighborhood was “drug-infested” and remembering when people were afraid to walk outside. Gordan decided to stay when Rosen offered free day care, and her daughter eventually became a college scholarship recipient from Rosen’s program.
“It's one thing to offer a scholarship to one person one time,’’ Gordan’s daughter, Rachel Jones-Manuel, told TODAY. “But to continuously, for over 20 years, to continue to provide this type of incentive for people to go to school, I think is absolutely wonderful."
Rosen is hoping other private donors see the positive effects of his scholarship programs and start their own versions in hard-hit communities across the country. His generosity continues to benefit students like scholarship recipient Kamillia Crawford, who is a freshman at Central Florida studying to become a lawyer.
“(I want to) make sure that I show the world that with his gift, I was able to reach my max potential,’’ Crawford told TODAY.