Episode 5: Philanthropist John R. Fisher, Public Servant For Children

In this episode, I talk with John R. Fisher, President of the Delaware Valley School District Board of Directors. John credits his father for the lessons he learned as a young boy that spreading goodwill is just part of life. Utilizing his talent as a financial services professional, John improves the lives of others through balancing budgets, creating dialogue between people with different opinions, and listening to all members of his community. John R. Fisher inspires us today to, “just get started.” John wants you to know you can make a difference, too.

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Guest Info

John R. Fisher has over 25 years of investment and tax planning experience as both a Certified Public Accountant and Certified Financial Planner. Among his many other accomplishments, he is President of his local rotary club, former President of the local little league, former board member of the Camp Speers YMCA, former Development Chair for the Greater Pike Community Foundation, and currently serves as President of the Delaware Valley School District Board of Directors. He graduated from Hofstra University with a major in Accounting. He also holds a Masters Degree in Financial Planning.

Show Notes

Support one of John’s favorite charities: Greater Pike Community Foundation.

Reach out to him through his website.

Transcript

JK: Welcome to the You Are A Philanthropist podcast. This is Episode Four, and today we’re talking with John R. Fisher, a certified public accountant and certified financial planner. He offers comprehensive financial services. He’s had extensive experience with nonprofit and school board service. He’s currently the school board president of the Delaware Valley School Board in Milford, Pennsylvania. He’s served on that board for 20 years. And he’s the president of the Milford-Matamoras Rotary International. Formerly, he is a development chair for the Greater Pike Community Foundation, president of his local Little League, and on the board at the Camp Speers YMCA.

JK: John, welcome to the show.
JRF: Hi, Jenn, it’s nice to be with you.
JK: I want to talk about your extensive volunteer service. Can you tell us how you got started in volunteer work?

JRF: Well, I guess if you really want to look at the genesis of it, it would go back to when I was a young boy, maybe 12, 13 years old. And we had a neighbor across the street who was a widow, Mrs. Santangelo. And we had a heavy snowstorm one day. And my my dad tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, come on. You’re going to go help out.” And I said, “Help out with what?” He said, “You’ll see. Grab the shovel.” And he showed me that I was going to shovel her entire walkway, her extensive driveway, and her sidewalk around the house. She lived on a corner house. So I spent the next two and a half or three hours shoveling out about a foot of snow. And she was very grateful. She wanted to pay me, but my dad said, “No, this is just volunteer work. He needs to understand what it’s like to help his neighbor.” So I learned at an early age that helping your neighbor is part of life.

JK: That’s amazing, and that’s actually what we’ve been talking about with our prior guests, is that some of these ideas with giving back to others started in their childhood and started with loving your neighbor.

JRF: Yes. No doubt. My dad was unable to himself do any of the shoveling because he had a bad back at the time and through most of his life. So anytime he had an opportunity to show me which neighbor needed help on, I would either cut the grass or shovel the snow or whatever that individual needed.

JK: That’s amazing. That’s such a great father. And we had a prior guest who said her parents were so influential in her life as well. So I love to hear that even though your dad couldn’t be a part of that volunteer work, he taught you the value of that volunteer work and encouraged you and helped you learn the value of giving to others without receiving anything back.

JRF: Yeah. And interestingly enough, dad just passed away right before Christmas, during Covid season. And it was my honor to give a short eulogy at his funeral of the great guy he was.

JK: I’m so sorry for your loss and I can’t imagine the lives that he’s touched with his inspiration of giving to others. And I want to talk a little bit about how that childhood experience brought you to where you are today with 20 years of experience with your public school board serving as the president today and then your extensive experience with Rotary International. How did you get started in those volunteer roles?

JRF: Well, my first volunteer effort was with the the local Little League back– boy, it had to be in the early or mid 1980s. It was a time when when my children were just about to start playing playing ball. I had been a little leaguer. My dad had been a coach. And I noticed that there was some need not just for coaching, but someone who was organized and someone who understood bookkeeping and ordering and logistics. So I volunteered to be the vice president. And of course, the vice president always gets promoted the following year to the presidency. And I was for about three years helping out with a great group of girls and guys. And we started a girls softball league at the time, and got heavily involved with that group for probably half a dozen or more years. And then, of course, once your kids are out of that phase, you move on to other things. And I naturally lean toward the school board. And I ran for school board and I lost. Your first attempt at something doesn’t always work out the way you thought it would be. So I realized I needed to be more empathetic to the needs and cares of parents, and not just be an analytical tool.

JRF: So I ran again two years later. And lo and behold, this is now in 1995, and I happened to convince enough voters to vote for me and I won my first four year seat on the board. And I’ve run six times in the last election cycles and I’ve been fortunate enough to win five of them. So it’s been quite a journey for me on the school board. Of course, with my background, I was almost immediately put in charge of budget and finance and auditing because I knew those topics very well. But as you get into public education, you realize that it’s much more than just numbers on a page. It’s people’s lives, it’s people’s livelihoods that you’re that you’re dealing with. So over that period of time, our school district grew tremendously from about 1600 students when I first started out to almost 5600 students almost 20 later. To this day, we still maintain almost 5000 students in our school district. This past year has been been a novel year with the virus. We have maintained a full slate of activities. We’re in school five days a week and certainly we understand safety protocols that are called for these days.

JRF: So yes, we’ve all evolved over time. And I’m very fortunate that I have worked with a great group of colleagues. And it’s so important because you bounce ideas off each other and you see where everyone stands on certain issues, and you do it most of the time. We do in a very simple fashion. I’ve worked with over 50 different individuals now on the school board over this period of time. And the vast majority are really good-natured people trying to do their best for students. So it’s very rewarding. I’ve been able to go through two cycles of kids who were in kindergarten when I first started out, who have graduated. And then another group, and I’m coming up on their 12th year. So it’s been amazing to watch two generations of our students marched through the curriculum and through the halls of the Delaware Valley School District. And of course, we’ve been very fortunate to have two excellent superintendents over that period of time who just keep us at the top of our game. So it’s been very rewarding.

JK: Well, I love that you talk about community because your community trusted you. Maybe at first, didn’t know who you were and didn’t know what you could do. And then you just didn’t stop and built on that, and you had determination to try again. And I love that they have supported you for 20 years in what you’re doing. And then you have that community when you’re served with people for so long. So I’m proud of the community for supporting you and valuing what you do. That’s a big accomplishment. And I’m sure your finance background is greatly appreciated.

JRF: It is. There’s no doubt that when you get involved with government financing, monies from the federal government, monies from the state government, and of course, local tax revenues, which you always have to understand where your local people are at, economically. And especially, this past year, we’ve gone from the greatest economy in the history of America back in February of last year to the depths of what some folks would call a depression just a few months later as the entire economy shut down. And it affects every aspect of the community life. You don’t get to see each other as much. We’ve had lots of meetings on Zoom. The citizenry cannot come to the meetings that many times now. They can now, with social distancing. But it’s been a year of firsts for us. It’s really important to realize what you need going forward when you hit this type of pandemic. Things change, attitudes change, people change. So it’s been a learning year to keep people’s thoughts, and your good intentions are always there, even though they are suffering in some of the worst circumstances.

JRF: Now, I have many friends who are in the healthcare business, who are in the restaurant business. Here in the Poconos, we live off the hospitality industry. That’s our main economic impetus. And boy, it’s been shut down for almost a year now, and people are really hurting. So it changes people’s perspective. When I’ve been fortunate that my business has not truly been affected at all by the pandemic. Maybe some extra late nights and things like that, but not economically speaking, just time- wise.

JK: And so we talked a little bit about the community and how they supported you. And you mentioned that you are open five days a week and that’s not as common today as it was all the time before COVID. I’m curious how your community supported you during that time.

JRF: So you’re talking about having school open five days a week. We had a really good conversation back in March. We were told on a Friday, I think it was March the 13th, that school could not open on March the 16th, which was I think a Monday. And we had to have extensive discussions about what do we do next. And do we have enough Chromebooks for kids so they can zoom from home? Are teachers able to do their curriculum via Zoom? As much as we could, we stayed open by Zoom for the last three months of last year. But we decided in the summer that we were going to open August 28th, five days a week, and we would give parents the choice. We would allocate resources to those that wanted to zoom from home and those that wanted to come full time to school. Or if you wanted to– and we have here in Pennsylvania, Cyber Academy, or you could homeschool. So we had four choices for parents.

JRF: And that seemed to be the one thing that set us apart is that we offered parents choices. And parents chose what they wanted for their children. About 1,000 said they were going to stay at home. 1,000 students in Zoom. And about 3,000 decided they were going to come to school every day. And we were going to monitor the situation every day. We were determined to do a deep clean every single day. Now, it was very expensive to do that. We had to hire time and a half– time and a half of custodians and janitors to every single night. When kids were in school the next day, they came to a school that would have been deep cleaned the night before. And we’ve been very fortunate that we have not had a tremendous COVID problem. Mainly, I believe, because we chose to do the extra work and hire extra people if needed to do that. So the community really supported us. To this day, I still get emails from parents who are just grateful that their lives were not tremendously impacted by COVID because they could send their children to school if they chose to do so, or they could keep them home if that’s something they wanted to do.

JRF: And we set up classes for every grade level to do by Zoom so that they could feel part of their class and their classmates, even if they were zooming from home. So it’s been a learning experience for me. I had never seen Zoom before. Now, I use it weekly. You always try to learn something new from the trials that come into your life. And that’s what I think our entire school board has done is decided that, “All right. Let’s make the best of a bad situation.” Hopefully, now, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. There’s vaccines coming. We just had some of our teachers about 150 of them were vaccinated just this weekend, and we’re hoping to get every everyone who works for the district and chooses– once again, that personal choice is theirs, whether they want to get the vaccine or not. But we’re hoping we get a large number of staff and teachers who will do that.

JK: Well, I can imagine that there were some tough times and a lot of hours and a lot of discussions from both sides of the table. And to be the leader during that time, I’m sure was very difficult at times. But to hear that there’s so much success, that the school didn’t close, that people are already getting their vaccines and that people had options because what an important part– what our society needs right now is to really feel safe and do what they feel is best for their families. I want to just take a commercial break. I want to share with my listeners about something that I did so that they can be inspired to be volunteers and donors in their communities to both individuals and non-profits. So we’ll be right back.

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JK: So John, we’re back. I want to thank you again for being here, and your story is so inspirational, particularly about how you got started as a young boy and how you ran for school board and didn’t find it successful the first time, and now have been doing it for 20 years. And I really want to encourage our listeners that they can do this, too, that they can make a difference. You mentioned how important community is, and I’m curious what you would advise our listeners about how to get started in volunteering.

JRF: Well, I guess the first thing with volunteering is just show up. You’ll be surprised how how people like to have new folks come to their meetings and there’s always something for new people to do. Start with the smallest of tasks and work your way up to being on a board. You don’t necessarily have to run for school board immediately. But certainly, we have tremendous volunteers at our PTAs, and they seem to give us all types of inspiration and ideas on what we need to do going forward. So I would say, “Just show up.” And that’s the first thing that you need to do, and then raise your hand, ask a question. There are no stupid questions. There are always things for people to do. Having a firm discussion on issues in a civil way is really important in our open and free society. There’s lots of different opinions that come forth from both ends of the spectrum. And if you respect that, you’ll realize you’re going to make friends. And let’s face it, we all want to make friends, and we all want to do what’s best for our community. So yeah, show up, raise your hand, ask a question, and then say, “Here’s how I can help. Do you need my help?” And the answer will almost always be, “Sure.”

JRF: In my case, wherever I go, and whether I’m with Little League or the Greater Pike Community Foundation, which is another passion of mine, they seem to need to have an understanding of finance. And that’s just happens to be my expertise, and I enjoy learning about each organization’s financial strengths and weaknesses. No gift is too small. I’m having a birthday party on Facebook this week, and I’ve told folks, “If all you can give is $5, give $5. You are doing as much with that $5 as someone who might give $5 million because that $5 is of great importance to you.” So yeah, let’s encourage people to show up at meetings and give up their time. And it doesn’t have to be vast amounts of time. It can be just a few hours a month. And then, of course, tell others after you do something. Let others know what you’re doing. And tell them, they too can get involved. In this way, more people involved, the lighter the burden.

JRF: So I’m very fortunate to live in a small rural county with lots of great people doing lots of great things. And it’s been the joy of my life has been to see that county have one of the finest school districts in the state of Pennsylvania, have a community foundation that is doing all types of wonderful things, literally, dozens and dozens of nonprofits. We have an annual meeting of all the nonprofits, and we don’t have a room big enough for them anymore. We must have 50 nonprofits that show up at this annual meeting. Now, this year, it had to be done by Zoom, so it wasn’t as impactful as in the past. But when you see all of these different organizations doing all of these different wonderful things, you just have to give credit to what a great community you live in.

JK: I’m really glad to hear that. And I love that you mention just start. And I think a lot of people feel dis-empowered that $5 doesn’t make a difference. And that’s really what this podcast is about, for everybody to feel empowered that what they can do with whatever they have, whatever time they have, whatever financial capacity they have, just start. Start small are in any way and spread the word about how fun it is to donate all the growth you can see in your community. And you bring up a good point that Jessica Brand from episode three mentioned that loneliness is an epidemic, and volunteering is a great way to make friends you said. And I think people today are isolated and probably looking for people to be in their lives. And Zoom is a great way to connect people. It’s not as fun as in-person. And I miss my hugs, and I miss seeing smiles underneath masks. But hopefully, that’ll all be over this year. I want to talk a little bit about not just the advice you give people and not just the reason why you do this but also what your vision is for a better world.

JRF: Oh, a vision for a better world. Well, I’ve always liked to see people’s passion. What are you passionate about? And are you working toward that passion? And I think if all of us were to– there was a statement years ago by President George Herbert Walker Bush. He called it The Thousand Points of Light. Well, those thousand points of light are each person in your community who is just trying to do the one thing that they’re passionate about and whether it be Little League or whether it be, in my situation, the Delaware Valley School Board. But if you’re doing that thing that you’re passionate about, the world becomes a better place. And when you realize that the vast majority of people are good, hardworking people looking to make a better life for themselves, it’s a wonderful thing because when you look at the news, you would think the world is falling apart. Everyone is hating each other, and everyone is mad and angry. And it’s just not true. When you get around people, whatever they have, whatever time they have, whatever financial capacity they have, just start. Start small are in any way and spread the word about how fun it is to donate all the growth you can see in your community.

JK: And you bring up a good point that Jessica Brand from episode three mentioned that loneliness is an epidemic, and volunteering is a great way to make friends you said. And I think people today are isolated and probably looking for people to be in their lives. And Zoom is a great way to connect people. It’s not as fun as in-person. And I miss my hugs, and I miss seeing smiles underneath masks. But hopefully, that’ll all be over this year. I want to talk a little bit about not just the advice you give people and not just the reason why you do this but also what your vision is for a better world.

JRF: If I had a vision for a better world, that would be for people to stop watching this much on the news, whether it’s CNN or Fox or whatever station you listen to, and go out there and meet people. And you’ll realize they’re going to give you a big smile. And as you get to know them, like you said, they’re going to give you that big hug, and they’re going to say what they are passionate about. And you’re going to learn what they’re suffering from. People want you to know. And just like you and I, there are times in life when we suffer. And then, we really need those folks. So most of the people I’ve met over time are very special, unique individuals. And very few of them are what you see on TV of who’s evil and who’s bad and who’s a hater and who’s not a hater. The vast majority of people are just wonderful, special, unique individuals. And I enjoy getting to know people and I like to talk to them, and I like to talk with them. So it’s been a wonderful 20 years for me on the school board. We’ve had lots of people who have come in and out of my life. And I’ve been fortunate to learn from each of them.

JRF: So the vision for a better world is get out there in reality. Get out of your house. Get into it into a building with other people who have like-minded passions and talk to them and be civil with them and understand where their life is coming from. And you’ll hear the joys in their life. And you’ll also hear what’s going on in their lives in terms of who’s suffering and what are they suffering from. All of us eventually suffer from some type of health problem. And when people are suffering from health issues, they certainly need [a year?] to listen to them. So listening is very important as you’re getting involved in any type of organization. In fact, you’d probably do better to listen than to talk most of the time and then to understand where people’s lives are coming from.

JK: Wow, I was not expecting that answer. I haven’t heard that you want the greater vision of the world to be people expressing their passions. I did, as I mentioned, have that guest, Jessica Brand, who talked about loneliness being an epidemic. She said that she created a cookbook club to get people around the dinner table. And once you’re around the dinner table, you’re sharing food. You’re sharing this delicious meal you had. You’re sharing laughter. And with seven billion people in the world, there’s so many people to meet. There’s so much diversity. And when we reach out to other people who are in need or when we are in need, it’s such a important aspect of community. And really, what our world needs is more kindness. There’s so many people spreading the word about the importance of kindness. And I hope, in some way, that this podcast does break through the media news of all the negativity and reminds all of us that there are so many people in the world that are making small and large impacts in their own ways every day that aren’t getting the credit. And I want to thank you for being here. I want to thank you for all your service of your community. And I do want to plug your fundraiser for the Greater Pich Community Foundation. So if our listeners are so inclined, they can go to greaterpich.org. And if you’d like to reach out to John, you can reach him at johnfishercpa.com. Thank you so much for being here.

JRF: You’re welcome. Have a great day, Jenn. Thank you.

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