He Gave Up His Career to Build Homes for Others
Robert Young was a bottom-line guy, owner of a Bellevue, Wash., outdoor-clothing firm that pulled in around $2 million a year. Charity was not in the plan. "The biggest thing I used to do was put change in those boxes by the cash register," says Young. "I'd think, 'Okay, I've done my good deed for the week; make that the month.'"
That breezy take on the world seems a lifetime ago. For today, after selling his business and moving his family to Montana, Young runs nonprofit Red Feather Development Group, which builds ultra-low-cost homes for Native Americans living in poverty. On a late-September morning, you could find Young—who prefers action to words—starting his 18-hour workday on a Hopi reservation in northern Arizona, carrying an armful of two-by-fours while 40 volunteers hammered and sawed away. This four-week project, the group's 55th: a three-bedroom house for Kerri Shebola, mother of Danielle, 10, and 8-year-old Matthew, who is undergoing treatment for leukemia.
"Somebody answered our prayers," says Shebola, 30, fighting tears. The specially ventilated house will make life easier for Matthew, who underwent a bone marrow transplant last year and is vulnerable to mold and other airborne contaminants. Shebola had written Young of her plight last year at the urging of another villager. "I thought I was writing to some executive type," she says. "But he's so down-to-earth, always making my kids laugh."
On a more serious note, Shebola—and others Young has helped—are proud to own a home. Young helps arrange small mortgages to cover a fraction of the costs, in Shebola's case $7,500. His approach has helped such people as Martha Bear Quiver of Montana's Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, who went from clerking at a convenience store to running her own grocery after Young built her a home in 2001. "Once I had a house," she says, "it freed me up to focus on what I wanted to do." Says Mark Roundstone, an administrator for the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation: "We see the volunteers as family."
So how did a self-absorbed capitalist morph into a lumber-hauling altruist? The epiphany struck one spring morning in 1993 at a Taos, N.Mex., ski resort where Young had gone to schmooze a customer. Picking up a Native American newspaper, he was shocked to learn that as many as 300,000 of the 2.5 million people on reservations were homeless or lived without running water or electricity and that a handful of elderly froze to death every winter. "I was a pro at rationalizing why I never had to get involved," Young says. "I couldn't rationalize this."
He did some research and came across the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, one of the nation's poorest areas. Young signed up with an Adopt-a-Grandparent program there and befriended Katherine Red Feather, now 87. In 1994 Young visited her at Pine Ridge. "She was living in a travel trailer," he says. "The wheels were off and it was on the ground. Seeing how she lived, that was the catalyst."
Young resolved to build Red Feather a proper home. He found a financial angel (Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, a friend of a friend) and put up a two-bedroom house. Young formed Red Feather Development, named in Katherine's honor, in 1995. Four years later, after building a dozen more homes, he sold his firm; in 2003 he moved his wife, Anita, and now-7-year-old daughter, Skylar, to Bozeman, now the charity's headquarters. "I had a job in benefits I really liked," says his wife. "When he asked me to quit, I said, 'You want me to do what?' But I don't have a single regret."
All she had to do was behold Kerri Shebola as she stood proudly atop her home—and a new future. "Never did I think I'd be nailing a roof on my new house," she says. "What a payoff."
Know a hero? Send suggestions to HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM. Please include your name, phone number and return e-mail address. For more information on Robert Young's organization, go to www.redfeather.org