Dressed in his pinstripe suit, blue-diamond tie and an air of confidence, one would never guess that Courtney Bell had ever been homeless. At only 26 years of age, he is putting his two bachelor’s degrees and one master’s degree from the University of Nevada, Reno to full-time use as the founder and executive director of the People First Foundation.
“The only thing we have control of is how we respond to different situations,” Bell said of the message People First Foundation hopes to instill in the members of the foundation. “The only thing you get out of life is what you are willing to put into it. Nothing more, nothing less."
Bell’s passion for the homeless sprang from his early teenage years, when he, his mother, two sisters and brother were living in parks, hotels and abandoned homes. One incident in particular set him on the path to become a figure in a position of influence and authority.
“I remember as if it were yesterday,” he said. “My family and I were sitting under a tree in the park when police came over and started asking questions. When they learned our story, they determined we should not have to be living in the park. They put in some phone calls, and by the end of the night, we got into the very shelter we were on the waiting list for.”
Bell attributes the authority the police had to their ability to gain help.
“If the police hadn’t intervened, we would have still been under that tree,” he said.
The People’s First Foundation has been a recent hotspot in the news for its intervening aid. Most notably is the coverage regarding the “Soap for Hope” laundry drive; the foundation is collecting laundry-related items in order to provide a month’s worth to each of nearly 200 families living in motels, different shelters and very low-income single parent families.
“The coverage makes people aware of what’s going on,” Bell said, “and it inspires them to do something. It makes people reflect on what they’re doing, and what resources they have.”
Other services include a mentorship program with a 97 percent success rate, and a scholarship for single-parent income families that have overcome and risen to the occasion to get back into school. However, these services are only available with one condition.
“We only help people who want to help themselves, period,” Bell said. “If adolescents don’t want to win in life, they can’t be in the foundation. Life is tuff for everyone, for those who have and those who do not. Be that as it may, continuing to find a way to win, that’s what life’s about. And even when you fall short you somehow gain more knowledge and wisdom, so you’re still winning, this is the mindset we teach.”
Bell helps others find a way to win in other ways as well. He volunteers at Washoe County’s Jan Evans Juvenile Justice Center and Pathfinders Children’s Ministry, not only that, he makes it a priority to advocate on behalf of homeless, transient and low-income children families and people. Keeping up on the programs and services that are provided for them.
Bell has several people who mentored him and helped him pursue his vision; Lester Molton, who at the time was a janitor from Curtis Middle School in San Bernardino, Calif., Marvin Neal, the chaplain at the juvenile detention center, Jeff Makoutz, the director of Pathfinders Children’s Ministry, and the late Milton Glick, all provided him with support and encouragement.
“One of the driving forces that sticks in my mind was when I asked President Glick for some one-on-one time during budget cuts,” Bell remembered. “Not only did he make the time, but he even showed enough interest in me to take notes on my personal background. He was encouraging and gave me some insight about life and to remember there is nothing wrong with being aggressive. I believe one of the attributes which made Milton D. Glick great was his character. That’s what I liked about him maybe the most… because that is how I always want to be. He was always himself, authentic. I remember when asked, ‘why did he make decisions?’ he would answer, “because it was the right thing to do.”
After six years of being aggressive, putting in 60 sometimes 70 plus hours a week, Bell is ready to step out of the limelight and let the others of the foundation step in.
“It’s not really about me, it’s about getting people to help other people,” he said. “My goal is to be like the wizard from the Wizard of Oz. I want to be the little, admirable guy behind the curtain making sure the foundation is keeping up good work. It’s all worth it, because it will continue without me.”
To help with the “Soap for Hope” drive, drop off laundry materials at the University’s Fleischman Building, Room 202 or 204, or Belvedere Towers, 450 N. Arlington Ave. Drop-off hours are between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Monetary donations to purchase the soap also are accepted. Donors who leave business cards or notes with their full names will be sent a formal tax receipt for donating to a registered domestic 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization. Send by mail to P.O BOX 162 RENO NV 89504.
For more information about the drive, visit the People First Foundation or call (775) 351-8120.