Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Home of Hope tells more than one story

Sanger Unified School District Superintendent Marc Johnson hosts a luncheon once a year that goes far in explaining why the Assemi family has become a force in Fresno business unlike any other in city history.

I begin by reviewing Wednesday morning’s Home of Hope ground-breaking ceremony in southeast Fresno.

Home of Hope is a fund-raiser sponsored by Assemi-owned Granville Homes.

The concept is simple. Granville builds a new house. People buy tickets — $100 each. A drawing is held. The winner gets the house for free. Ticket proceeds (100 cents on the dollar) go to local non-profits.

This is year No. 8 for Home of Hope. The event raised a total of $2.4 million in the previous seven years (four of them representing the nation’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression).

The goal this year is at least 4,000 tickets. That would be $400,000 to be divided among eight recipients:

* Community Food Bank
* Poverello House
* Hinds Hospice’s Angel Babies Program
* Assistance League’s Operation School Bell
* Foundation for Clovis Schools’ Students of Promise program
* Foundation for Clovis Schools
* Foundation for Sanger Schools
* Fresno State’s Renaissance Scholars program

The 2013 Home of Hope will be built on a lot in Granville’s Sunnyside Grove project on Church Avenue, a bit west of Fowler Avenue. The house on the lot’s east side belongs to the 2012 Home of Hope winner.

Sunnyside Grove will have 213 single-family homes. It’s well on its way to full build-out. The 2013 Home of Hope’s design will be what the project calls the “Mia” plan: 2,216 square feet, 3 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, 2-car garage, loft, stainless steel appliances, granite counters, front yard and backyard.

Estimated value: $270,000.

The site currently is nothing but dirt — perfect for a photo op.

I’m guessing 75 people showed up for Wednesday’s ceremony kicking off the 2013 ticket-selling campaign. Some took advantage of the chairs beneath a large canopy. Many stood on the edge of the road.

This was a well-run event. No microphone problems. The speeches were brief and to the point — sincere with occasional bits of humor.

Fresno City Council Member Sal Quintero (whose district includes Sunnyside Grove) bought the first ticket while standing at the microphone.

The big Home of Hope drawing is on Oct. 19. To spur ticket sales and maintain momentum, Granville in partnership with Fresno’s Mathews Harley-Davidson is sponsoring an “Early Bird” drawing on Aug. 3. A lucky ticket-buyer will win a 2013 Harley-Davidson Breakout motorcycle.

I sure would like to win that motorcycle, Quintero said. He’s a pro. He knows how to get a tactful chuckle from a crowd.

Then he got serious. Home of Hope’s funds have done a lot of good for a lot of people, he said.

Speaking to Granville President Darius Assemi, Quintero said in conclusion, “Thank you so much to you and the Assemi family.”

Council Member Paul Caprioglio (whose district borders Quintero’s district to the north) also bought a ticket while at the mic. Caprioglio predicted he would win the Harley-Davidson. He said he’d put Quintero on the back “and we’ll cruise Blackstone Avenue together.”

Caprioglio is no rookie at working the crowd, either.

But Caprioglio also got serious. Looking at Darius Assemi, he praised “the quality of the Assemi family.”

Sanger Unified’s Johnson was among those speaking between Quintero and Caprioglio.

“Welcome to Sanger Unified,” Johnson said. “Many of you didn’t realize that you’d come to paradise when you came to this part of Fresno.”

Granville’s Sunnyside Grove is in the Sanger district, even though Sanger High and its Apaches football team are 10 or so miles to the east. Many of the new housing tracts to the north of Sunnyside Grove are in Clovis Unified.

Southeast Fresno is growing, despite the Great Recession.

“You’re truly making a difference,” Johnson said to Darius Assemi.

All of the speakers, but Johnson in particular, worked the generosity of Granville and the Assemi family into a bigger theme: The Valley is a wonderful place to live; at the same time, there are many challenges; teamwork is pivotal to the spread of opportunity and success.

“We have to come together as a community,” Johnson said.

Darius Assemi made only a few comments. Modesty and gratitude were the common threads.

Then 17 people gathered on the 2013 Home of Hope site and somehow got their hands on the handles of 15 shovels. Fresno County Supervisor Debbie Poochigian was there. So was former Fresno City Manager Andy Souza, now head of the Community Food Bank.

The plan: Everyone digs up a load of the Valley’s rich earth, then smiles for the cameras while tossing the dirt in front of them.

Those 17 strong backs managed to collectively move about 20 ounces of soil. Somebody shouted “do it again.” The second effort moved enough earth to at least raise some dust.

All in all, the 2013 Granville Home of Hope ground-breaking was most impressive. Best wishes on the ticket sales.

I cornered Marc Johnson as everyone drifted away. He had mentioned in his formal comments that Home of Hope funds are important to Sanger Unified’s foundation. I wanted Johnson to expand on that thought.

The foundation is about five years old. In that time, it has raised nearly $500,000. Sanger is like a lot of Valley cities — not real big, tied closely to the surrounding farms, plenty of small mom-and-pop businesses in town but none of the big companies capable of writing five- or six-figure checks to the local school district’s foundation.

Of that half-million, Johnson said, at least 30% has come from “Granville and the Assemi family. That’s phenomenal.”

Is the money important to the district?

“It’s incredibly important,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to understand the nature of Sanger Unified. We’re a high-poverty district. We have one of the lowest funding rates in the state of California. We have so many needs.”

The Home of Hope money buys things for the classroom, Johnson said. It funds scholarships. It puts food on the family table when household budgets are tight during the holidays.

The Assemi money “has, in many cases, helped a family turn the corner when they saw no opportunity,” Johnson said. “I don’t know anybody else in this region with the heart of the Assemi family.”

Keep in mind the numbers we’re talking about. Home of Hope has raised $2.4 million-plus in seven years. It’ll probably raise another $400,000 this year. That’s not chicken feed. Every penny goes to worthy non-profits.

It’s not just Sanger that’s lacking Microsofts and Googles and other corporate residents with the deep pockets and organizing skill to raise big money for the local needy. Fresno is in the same boat.

How many other Fresno-area companies raise that kind of money for the needy? Not many is my guess.

I asked Johnson: Fresno is a good distance from the city of Sanger. Do the regular folks in Sanger know of the Assemi family’s contribution to their community?

Johnson answered my question with a story. Once every three months, he hosts what he calls a “Superintendent’s Forum.” The principals from each of Sanger Unified’s 20 schools gather with Johnson. Each principal brings a parent from the school. The parent is always someone who has shown some leadership talents, a knack for connecting with other parents. It’s a parent with the kind influence among other parents that school big-wigs aren’t likely to have.

I’m guessing about 50 people (including other staffers) show up at Johnson’s forums. He feeds everyone lunch and they talk.

Johnson gets a call each year from Granville: Your Home of Hope check is ready. Johnson replies: Tell Darius to hold off until our next Superintendent’s Forum.

“We have Darius come in and bring that check,” Johnson said. “We take time out to do the presentation in front of (the parents). Then the PTA leaders, the leaders of our community, they all go throughout the 185 square miles of Sanger Unified and carry with them a message. It is a message of the incredible generosity of the Assemi family and Granville Homes and all of their business partners who contribute to this.”

Step back for a moment and think this through.

Fifteen years ago, Fresno’s Uptown District was desperate for investment. Today, you can’t walk a hundred yards without seeing an Assemi family project.

Fifteen months ago, Running Horse in southwest Fresno was a one-and-a-half-mile-long hole with no future except as an illegal dumping ground. Today, it belongs to the Assemi family. Tomorrow, it’ll be almonds. The day after tomorrow, it’ll be the sea of new homes that District 3 council members have dreamed of for decades.

A couple of miles west of Highway 99, out in the Grantland Avenue/Ashlan Avenue area, is the site of the nearly 500-acre Westlake project. There will be a couple of thousand homes, a man-made lake and retail galore. The project is going through the EIR phase at City Hall as we speak. The area west of 99 will change forever when it’s built. Westlake is an Assemi family project.

Along the shores of Millerton Lake, just a short flight from the northeast tip of Clovis if you’re a crow, is about 500 acres destined to be homes, retail and an array of colleges that’ll help generations of Valley go-getters land good-paying jobs in a healthcare industry that figures never to stop growing. Might as well call it Assemi University, because this, too, is an Assemi family project.

That’s just a hint of the force of nature that the Assemi family has become locally in the past decade or two.

And while all this is going on, there’s a mother in Centerville who sits in her living room one evening and tells a friend about the lunch she had that day with a bunch of principals and Sanger Unified’s superintendent and this stranger from Fresno.

“What’d he want?” the friend asks.

“He gave us a check,” she says. “A big one.”

“Any strings?”

“No strings.”

“What’s his name?”

“Assemi.”

A stranger no more.

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