Every Day with Morrie: Mitch Albom on charity and writing

Author Mitch Albom has been a household name in the writing business for over 30 years, and for good reason.

Starting out as a sports writer in his early 20s after graduating from Columbia’s School of Business, Albom has since published sports-themed books including “Fab Five” and “Bo.” He has also published four collections of his best columns, aptly titled “Live Albom,” and has been voted the number-one sports writer in the country.

Albom has devoted the better part of his writing career to helping the homeless and impoverished in the Detroit area and abroad. He is the founder of eight different charities, including A Hole in the Roof Foundation and A Time to Help. In addition, he founded S.A.Y. Detroit, an umbrella organization for charities that help the needy. As part of S.A.Y., he opened the nation’s first free clinic devoted to homeless children and their mothers, the S.A.Y Detroit Family Health Clinic.

Reading all of the accomplishments Albom has racked up over the years, you might think it would go to his head. But the Passaic, New Jersey, native continues to be surprised that he’s a consistent New York Times bestselling author. His bestselling streak began when he released an autobiographical account of his encounter with a former college professor who was dying of Lou Gerhig’s disease. The professor taught Abom while he was attending Brandeis University in Waltham in the late 1970s. The book was called “Tuesdays With Morrie.” It sold 14 million copies worldwide and stayed at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list for an astounding 205 weeks.

Fun fact: Albom initially wrote the book to help Morrie with medical expenses.

“It was sort of a series of events [that led to “Tuesdays with Morrie”],” Albom said. “I had written a few sports books, and I didn’t really think I would do anything beyond writing sports books, until I saw my old professor dying from Lou Gerhig’s Disease. Actually, it wasn’t like I really thought I’d have a career doing this kind of thing. I just wrote it to pay his medical bills.”

“You don’t go into a book, thinking like that,” Albom said of the reaction to the book. “I never anticipated that. Being 37 when I wrote it, I wasn’t in my 20s trying to get onto the New York Times bestseller list. I never really gave it any thought until it happened.”

Albom’s success didn’t stop there. He went on to write the instant classic “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” in 2003, which was a New York Times bestseller for 95 weeks. This was followed by “For One More Day” in 2006, “Have a Little Faith” in 2009, “The Time Keeper” in 2012 and “The First Phone Call From Heaven” in 2013. Most recently, Albom published “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto,” which is accompanied by a rock-and-roll soundtrack.

“The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” focuses on a musician, Frankie Presto, whose divine guitar-playing skills affect the lives of the numerous people he encounters during his life and career. The novel was inspired by Albom’s own aspiration to be a musician, which started at a very young age.

“I never thought I’d have an album, let alone a soundtrack to a book,” said Albom. “It was always my dream, and I was a young musician wanting to make it in the music world when I was starting out, but once I gave up on that and moved into the writing world, I gave up the idea of doing anything on an album. So, it’s pretty nice for me to be able to have something that I can look at and say, ‘well, thirty-five years later, I now have an album!’”

All of his books since “Tuesdays with Morrie” have dealt with topics we probably all subconsciously think about on a daily basis, including mortality, life after death, serendipitous encounters and the possibility of talking to loved ones who have passed on. However, one of Albom’s most important themes can be found in “Have a Little Faith,” which recounts Albom’s discussions about faith with his childhood rabbi, as well as his attempts to help the less fortunate and homeless in Detroit.

It was during the writing of “Have a Little Faith” that Albom encountered a church in Detroit that sheltered many of the city’s homeless people. The church was in need of major repairs, and this inspired Albom to establish the A Hole in the Roof Foundation.

“The only reason I stumbled upon that church was because I had already started a charity to help homeless people,” Albom said. “Charity kind of stems from Morrie, as well. He sort of scolded me into making sure that I was responsible in my community. He told me I had a voice and needed to use it for other things besides making myself well-known. It was this that inspired my first charity work. I probably didn’t think about [helping the homeless] before then, as I was maybe too self-focused on my career and my ambition.”

Albom, as stated earlier, founded his own charity to help other organizations in their effort to help homeless people.

“I have sort of a two-pronged approach to helping people,” Albom said. “I think you help out the community where you live first, because you’re physically there and you can. I have a charity called S.A.Y. Detroit, which oversees nine charities, and many of their efforts are related to homelessness. We have the nation’s first clinic for homeless children, and it’s devoted exclusively to homeless children and their mothers, because of the huge problem of homeless children not being to go to school because they get sick, and a cold can turn into a three-week absence.”

“There’s a big problem with homeless people not wanting to take their kids to an emergency room to be treated, because if they say their address is at a shelter, foster care comes and takes their kids away, and they have to fight to get them back,” Albom said. “So we opened our own medical center, which is going into its ninth year. We fund a lot of shelter programs for men, for veterans, for seniors and infant daycare services for mothers who are trying to find jobs and who are coming out of drug treatment.”

“The second prong of my charity, for example, would be the A Hole in the Roof Foundation, which was set up after ‘Have a Little Faith,’” Albom said. “That actually does fund efforts around the country, helping places in California and on the East Coast in places where I don’t live or even go to, and of course, we have the orphanage in Haiti, where ‘homeless’ is a much smaller word compared to what the people of Haiti are.”

In addition to the problem of chronic homelessness, Albom mentioned the crack epidemic that ravaged the city of Detroit in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.

“Well, the current epidemic that is happening with heroin isn’t something that hasn’t happened before with other drugs, with the worst example being what crack did to the city of Detroit. It really devastated the city,” Albom said. “Anytime you have a drug that you get your hands on for relatively little money … you’re going to see society crumble, particularly in poor areas. You’re going to see crime rise and you’re going to lives broken apart.”

Even though Albom has helped many people with his philanthropic efforts through the years, he still feels that those on Capitol Hill should be doing more—in the form of housing and job growth. He also thinks they should be working together with charities to help the homeless community and impoverished people around the country.

“I don’t think the government is doing enough, but [just] as I say that, I [also] see that when the government does do things, it doesn’t do them very well,” Albom said. “The sad truth is that homelessness issues are being taken care of by faith-based organizations, where it isn’t so much the government but the government’s money, as private money and organizations, but I don’t think the government is set up to keep up with homelessness. I think the government can help homelessness more by doing things in the housing world and the employment world. Forget about crack addiction and heroin addiction. A huge problem with homelessness is the lack of jobs, lack of opportunities, people who have had run-ins with the law not getting hired or how the family ethic is blown apart, leaving people to drift. I’ve met people who have full families who are in the area, living in houses, but don’t want to take this person in because they are labelled as a troublemaker. These are big societal issues that I think the government can only help if they take care of bigger issues that affect poverty and the families. But in terms of them trying to clean up the homeless problem, I don’t see it happening.”

Albom has made a career of helping people, whether through his charitable work or helping people to process emotions through his books. All the books have central themes, and while they are all different, they have gripped readers since day one.

“I’m always inspired by a bigger theme, and then I try to find a plot and characters that match up with that theme,” said Albom. “The theme [for “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto”] was that everybody affects somebody else with the gifts they have or [the gifts they] sometimes don’t realize they have. So, with Frankie Presto, he has a magic guitar, and he is such a great player, that he can actually change people’s lives with this guitar, and the strings turn blue whenever he changes a life. It’s a very fairy-tale way of conveying the idea that everybody can affect somebody, and that we all sort of have a ‘blue string,’ if not many of them, inside us.”

“The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” and its accompanying soundtrack, featuring songs from Ingrid Michaelson, KISS, Little Richard, Tony Bennett and even Mitch himself, are on bookshelves everywhere now.

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