From fire house to school halls, Mark Bezos advocates volunteering

Standing on stage in full firefighter gear, Mark Bezos told a crowd gathered for a series of TED Talks in California in 2011 the story of his first fire with the Scarsdale Volunteer Fire Department.

He was assigned to race into a burning home and find its barefoot owner a pair of shoes, not quite the act of heroism he was hoping for, he said. Another volunteer who arrived just before him got to save the family dog. The story is better told in full by Bezos himself, so we’ll skip straight to his message. Shortly after the fire, the woman wrote a thank you note to the fire department and singled out the shoes in particular. While Bezos said he has been a witness to acts of generosity on both global and individual scales, he’s learned one thing: “They all matter.” 

“Not every day is going to offer us a chance to save somebody’s life, but every day offers us an opportunity to affect one,” Bezos said in closing. “So get in the game. Save the shoes.”

The speech has been viewed close to two million times on the TED website. Its message, getting involved in ways big and small, appears to drive many of the choices Bezos makes. He spent a decade working for the Robin Hood Foundation, New York City’s leading anti-poverty group. Now a member of its Leadership Council, Bezos is also a member of the board of directors of iMentor, matching high school students with college-educated mentors; and a director for the Bezos Family Foundation. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because his brother, Jeff, is the founder and CEO of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post.

Mark Bezos landed in Scarsdale after living in New York City, where he met his wife, Lisa, who was raised in the Westchester County town. Originally a Texan, he said he bounced around a lot in his childhood as his father worked in the oil industry. He graduated high school in Norway.

But New York City, he said, was where he knew he had to be to launch his career in advertising. He eventually ran his own firm, which he sold in 2006. After that, he said, he was looking for something new. 

“I had to figure out somewhere to go and I got a phone call from a guy named David Saltzman who was executive director at Robin Hood, and I guess through friends of friends, he heard I was looking for what’s next. Robin Hood was looking for someone to help with communications and marketing, so that began a 10-year adventure.” 

That adventure has included helping to raise millions of dollars for the needy and for disaster relief. The Robin Hood Foundation hosts an annual gala at the Javits Center in Manhattan that often features a mix of big names from the business and entertainment worlds to support organizations and programs that fight poverty — hence the name. But the foundation has also stepped in to aid recovery efforts after catastrophes around the country. Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the foundation directed the massive “12/12/12: The Concert for Sandy Relief” at Madison Square Garden, featuring performances by Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Kanye West and The Who, among others. The Robin Hood Relief Fund allocated close to $75 million to people in the tristate area affected by the storm. 

“It was incredibly moving, with just so many people there,” Bezos said. He added he remembered especially the performance of Springsteen. “Any time he mentioned New Jersey, the crowd would go crazy.”

The Bezos Family Foundation, established by Mark’s parents, Jackie and Mike, focuses mostly on education issues. Programs such as the Bezos Scholars Program, Mind in the Making, Students Rebuild and Vroom all concentrate in different ways on expanding access to education. 

Mark is also president of the Scarsdale Schools Education Foundation, which raises money to help supplement the Scarsdale School District budget. The group has helped fund MakerSpaces at five Scarsdale elementary schools, which allow students to design, prototype and work with 3D printers; a gaming initiative at Scarsdale Middle School; and a HackScarsdale event at the high school that let students work with community leaders to try to build innovative apps to solve local problems. The foundation is also raising money to fund the construction of a design lab for Scarsdale High School. Bezos’ two daughters attend the high school, while his younger sons are at private elementary schools. 

Bezos is now a captain with the Scarsdale Volunteer Company #2. He said he first got started at his wife’s suggestion, when he was looking for something to balance out his marketing career.

“I wanted to be able to give back in some way more meaningfully than just writing a check,” Bezos said. “And this just really clicked. It was physically challenging, which I appreciated. But it was also a way to be a bigger part of the community.”

The volunteer force supplements Scarsdale’s full-time paid fire department, either responding to fires and large storms or manning the firehouse during mutual aid situations in which the Scarsdale Fire Department responds to emergencies in nearby communities. 

As for the theme in his TED Talk, how to find that “Save the Shoes” moment, Bezos said it can be as easy as just looking around for a problem to solve. One day his son commented on how much garbage he saw along the Hutchinson River Parkway on his way to hockey practice. Since then, the family has made it a tradition for the past four years to take a day and pick up trash along the side of the road.

“It’s just a matter of deciding to do something,” Bezos said. “And that’s not profound. I don’t know that we are saving the environment or anything as a result of that, but it’s a very simple thing that you can do to get started.”

Bezos recommended looking to food banks and soup kitchens for ways to volunteer for the holiday season. 

“It’s the most rewarding time you can spend,” Bezos said. “Obviously, you want to be altruistic about this stuff, but you can’t help but walk away feeling very good and very fulfilled.”  

For more, visit bezosfamilyfoundation.org.

To view Bezos’ TED Talk, click here.

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