“‘Dig your well before you’re thirsty,’” said Keith Martinez, an 18-year-old high-school exchange student in Scarsdale. Scarsdale is a long way from the Pine Ridge reservation of the Oglala Lakota tribe in South Dakota, the “tough place” that Keith and his loving mother and six younger siblings call home. Theirs was a home without running water for 18 months on a vast reservation where the water delivery truck couldn’t reach them in the Dakota blizzards.
“That’s a Steinerism,” the senior carrying a 3.6 GPA at Scarsdale High School, and digging his well in a more privileged society, told me. He had just returned from wrestling practice to the home away from home that Brandon and Mara Steiner have made for him in Scarsdale. We talked over the muffled sounds of bouncing basketballs and squeaking sneakers on the home gym court where Brandon Steiner sweatily entertained 20 friends and neighbors.
“He has a lot of Steinerisms,” Martinez said, speaking of his host, the founder and CEO of Steiner Sports Marketing in New Rochelle. (“Don’t tell it, sell it” is another Steinerism.) “I like that one. It makes sense if you think about it. Basically he’s saying, make connections before you need them, so you have them when you need them.”
“His most recent one is, ‘All-in.’”
That Steinerism aptly describes its author’s approach to charity work. For about a decade, he and his wife have focused on helping teenage kids in Westchester build foundations – and dig wells – for their future lives and careers as adults.
‘The business of helping children’
Raised in Brooklyn by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet for her three sons, “I used to run the checkbook in my family at 12,” Steiner said, tossing in layups while awaiting his court guests. In a brotherly sharing of domestic chores, “I would do the shopping and the cooking.
“I grew up one step away from being a stepkid … I’ve always been in the business of helping children, knowing what a profound effect others had who helped me.”
In 2002, the Steiners decided to build their lives around their charity work, “instead of the other way around, like most people do,” he said.
There is the corporate volunteer program that Mara Steiner directs, where Steiner Sports employees mentor elementary-school kids in New Rochelle on their lunch hours. She herself mentors in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program run by Family Services of Westchester and sits on the program’s board of directors.
There are the two group homes for teens operated by Family Services of Westchester in a quiet neighborhood in White Plains. Brandon and Mara Steiner have raised at least $500,000 to renovate the homes in recent years. The Jerome L. Wagner House, a home to eight boys needing respite or refuge from their troubled family lives, is named after Mara Steiner’s late father. The Evelyn Sachs Steiner House, a home to eight girls, was renovated this year. The driving force behind the $250,000 project has been Evelyn Steiner’s son, Brandon.
A framed photo of its smiling namesake hangs on a wall of the rebuilt dining room in the home for teenage girls. It is inscribed with a mother’s oft-heard counsel: “If you use your head, you won’t have to use your feet.”
Steinerisms run in the family.
The group homes “were an intimate, small setting where you can make a difference,” said Steiner. “I wanted to set an example to the community.”
For both renovation projects, Steiner was a prime mover, raising money and coaxing donations of labor and materials, hiring and firing contractors, negotiating inflated bills. For the girls’ home, he purchased three computers for a computer room in a converted pantry.
His work and his visits did not stop with the renovations. He brings in professionals to speak to the housemates about their work and careers. He is working to arrange SAT prep courses for the kids “to help them develop their dreams,” said James Kaufman, the Family Services vice president who directs the residential programs, “so they can think about going to Harvard instead of thinking about just surviving.”
“This guy is a one-in-a-million-guy,” said Kaufman, who met Steiner on a basketball court, a serendipitous encounter that brought the Steiners to the Family Services fold and brought the agency its premiere fundraiser. “This is a real guy doing real things. I’ve been in the business 30 years and I’ve never seen a person come in and do something for seven years and get so involved. He never quits. ”
‘The Steiners are always there’
The Steiners brought home their community work with teens when they welcomed Keith Martinez to Scarsdale at the start of his junior year. Ranked first in his class on Pine Ridge, he was accepted in Scarsdale’s Student Transfer Education Plan, called STEP, a 45-year-old independent program that brings promising students of color to Scarsdale High School for their final two years before graduation.
Martinez is the son of an African-American father and a Sioux mother who made it clear he was college-bound rather than poverty-bound among the ranks of high-school dropouts on the reservation. Money is scarce for his family – $1,000 a month at best, he said – but Martinez has never been deprived of his family’s love.
He plans to return to Pine Ridge and open a retail business. “I want to start on the reservation because of the unemployment,” he told me.
But college comes first. With his more privileged Scarsdale classmates, he anxiously awaits word from the dozen colleges to which he has applied. He is considering a postgraduate year at a Connecticut prep school to raise his academic game to the level of Ivy League applicants.
“If I ever need help with anything, the Steiners are always there,” Martinez said. He wore a Syracuse University athletic T-shirt from his same-sized host’s wardrobe. “They’re always pushing me, ‘Don’t take this opportunity for granted. Keep going, keep going.’”
“They’re just nice people,” he said.