“Life-enhancing” is the kind of term a select group of financial services professionals use to describe a trip to Jamaica last December during which they donated and distributed more than 500 wheelchairs to needy recipients on that Caribbean island.

It all began in Las Vegas last June at the annual meeting of the Million Dollar Round Table, an association of more than 27,000 top-selling insurance and financial services professionals from around the world. It was at that meeting — and later at a dinner with MDRT members from ValMark Securities Inc., a full-service broker dealer based in Cleveland — that Kenneth Behring, the founder of the Wheelchair Foundation of Danville, Calif., inspired MDRT members with stories of how wheelchair donations not only change the lives of recipients around the world, but positively affect those who give as well.

“He delivered a touching message,” recalls Phil Harriman, an MDRT officer and a partner with Lebel & Harriman LLP, an independent insurance and brokerage firm in Portland, Maine. “He described how wheelchairs may seem debilitating, but are actually liberating.”

Behring's words were so inspirational that the 40 ValMark executives who attended the MDRT dinner began pledging to the Wheelchair Foundation on the spot. In that one evening, they committed money that, with matching funds, grew to more than $100,000, and spawned a meeting to distribute the wheelchairs that became known as Mission Jamaica. “Ken [Behring] was so touched by our enthusiasm he offered to fly us in his private plane to any destination for a wheelchair donation,” recalls ValMark President Larry J. Rybka. (Rybka subsequently persuaded ValMark carrier partners, including Manulife, Minnesota Life, Jefferson Pilot, and Lincoln Life, to each contribute $25,000.)

Six-Month Lead Time

Jamaica was chosen for the December 2003 wheelchair distribution event in part because ValMark had already scheduled its 2005 ValMark Leaders annual incentive meeting there. In addition, ValMark member Dennis Zahrbock, through church groups from his home in Minnesota, does work with a children's home in Montego Bay. In the end, 31 people made their way to Jamaica, including 12 ValMark members; representatives from Jefferson Pilot, Manulife, and the Wheelchair Foundation; and a number of spouses and children.

The kicker for Melissa Cohill, coordinator, corporate events and incentives for ValMark, was that transportation, housing, and a program all had to be organized within six-months. It was, she says, “the most rewarding and challenging event of my career.” She faced several obstacles, including an extremely tight budget. ValMark attendees (who had to contribute at least $1,000 to the Mission Jamaica wheelchair fund to qualify), paid in about $1,000 per-person for transportation and hotel costs for the four-night, five-day event. Thanks to the Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall in Montego Bay (the site of ValMark's 2005 program), Cohill found a property that would work within her budget.

She also had to get more than 500 wheelchairs to Jamaica, through customs (while avoiding onerous customs duties), into a storage facility, and ultimately to several distribution sites. That was on top of identifying those sites, organizing distribution teams, taking care of on-site security, and making arrangements for food and entertainment. “It was nuts,” Cohill says. She forged an alliance with the Jamaican Ministry of Health to help with the customs and delivery problems, and with Doneth Reid, a branch manager for Guardian Life Limited in Jamaica, to identify and organize distribution sites.

During the program, 300 wheelchairs were distributed in Kingston, more than 200 in Montego Bay, and 18 to children at the Westhaven Orphanage. The overall result of the trip was, according to attendee Harriman, an “unforgettable experience.”

The Giving Goes On

“It was heartwarming to see how people responded,” says Guardian Life's Reid, adding that support for the project within the Jamaican insurance community was “overwhelming” and had the added benefit of allowing the public to see the insurance industry in a positive light.

This kind of positive publicity is always welcome, particularly in light of the scandals and accompanying bad press that have afflicted some financial services companies recently. But there is also plenty of evidence that a strong culture of charitable giving already exists within the insurance and financial services industry. A recent survey by Walker Information of Indianapolis found that insurance company employees do more volunteer work than employees from any other field, with 44 percent of insurance employees and 32 percent of financial services employees involved in corporate volunteer programs.

Humanitarian and charitable endeavors such as Mission Jamaica absolutely help to polish the industry's image, says ValMark President Rybka, who also points out that the MDRT Foundation gives away more $1 million in charitable contributions annually. As for Mission Jamaica, “the story just goes on,” he says. So far more than $200,000 has been raised for the Jamaica wheelchair fund, and donations continue to come in. At the 2005 ValMark Leaders Meeting in Montego Bay, attendees can opt to spend a day at the Westhaven Orphanage. “Our member officers will be able to see first-hand how their donations have changed the lives of these children,” says Cohill.

Whether this kind of humanitarian component continues to be part of ValMark's future incentive meetings is uncertain. “It sure worked with that group in December,” says Rybka. “[But] you can't make everybody do it. It's a hard thing, seeing all those children with multiple disabilities. … I'm not sure everyone is prepared for it. I see us doing it on an optional basis.”

Solving the Snafus

Melissa Cohill, coordinator, corporate events and incentives for ValMark Securities Inc., intended to use the private jet offered by the Wheelchair Foundation's Kenneth Behring to transport Mission Jamaica attendees from Montego Bay to Kingston for the wheelchair distribution there. Two days before the event, Behring was forced to cancel because of health reasons, forcing Cohill to scramble to purchase 21 airline tickets.

The new transportation plan went out the window when the 5:30 a.m. flight was canceled. Faced with a three-hour land transfer “on some pretty terrible roads,” Cohill was close to panic before finally finding a commuter flight with enough available seats.

Once the ValMark group arrived in Kingston, the attendees were supposed to be met by Jamaican team members, who were planning to escort them to the distribution sites. But the Jamaican team was unaware of the change in travel plans, and when the ValMark group landed in Kingston, says Cohill, “there were no Jamaican team members in sight. No bus, nothing.”

Cohill then called a Jamaican contact and learned that there are two airports in Kingston. “Our escorts were at the other [airport],” she says. “What a way to start the day!”

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