On May 10, the Muscular Dystrophy Association hosted its 22nd Annual “A Night Under the Stars Black and White Ball” at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, and the most prestigious award of the evening–The Humanitarian Award–was given to Brett Ellen, founder and president of American Financial Network, a firm in Calabasas, California, that offers financial planning and advisory services for both individuals and businesses.
Ellen was recognized for his philanthropic endeavors and dedication toward making a difference. “That was a very humbling experience for me,” Ellen recalls. “There were close to 500 people there that night.” At the MDA event, a thank you letter from kids at a care shelter in Tahiti (where Ellen visited a couple of months ago) was read aloud. “We founded a care center in Tahiti with 85 kids that had never met Americans before,” Ellen explains. “We brought them stuffed animals, taught them American football, and left them some Game Boys.” Ellen still tries to send a care package at least once a month for them with basketballs, baseballs, and necessities like shoes.
Ko’d by Kindness
In 2001, Ellen and his wife, Mandy, formed their own non-profit–Turn Kindness On (TKO) Helping Hands. The organization was inspired by their two sons, Keanu and Tristen, and fosters community involvement and social responsibility in young children by offering creative opportunities to help others in a global and intergenerational way. “TKO was started for a two-fold reason,” Ellen explains. “To do more for children, to give them hope in areas that I think are important, and to teach our kids how to empathize with what the world is really about.” The hands-on youth service and philanthropy program teaches children the value of volunteering, and has been involving children from five years old to adults to feed the homeless in the Los Angeles area. “We have been going out and feeding the homeless for seven years at least once a month,” he says. “And not a weekend goes by when we go feed the homeless where we haven’t brought another family or five or six other kids with us to share with them the experiences. It’s pretty unbelievable.”
Many Memorable Moments
Ellen recalls one of his most memorable TKO moments: “We were feeding some homeless people in Santa Monica, and my four year-old son put a food package down beside a homeless man that had fallen asleep. He didn’t want to skip by him without giving him his lunch and drink,” Ellen reminisces. “Afterwards, my son came over and said, ‘Dad, I feel like Santa Claus.’” Besides caring for the less fortunate, TKO also offers companionship to the elderly by frequently bringing young children to different retirement homes to talk and visit with the residents.
As for future plans, Ellen and his wife are working on a new program called Living & Learning. “There are beautiful destinations around the world where literally one street over is poverty,” he explains. This program involves traveling to the lesser known, poorer parts of these destinations and helping the people there. “We’ve been sharing these ideas with lots of friends of ours and three sets of friends have traveled to different areas of Mexico and Europe and brought things to [the people] there; those experiences were the highlights of their trip.”
At the time of this interview, Ellen was in Alaska performing some Living & Learning work in a couple of shelters as part of a bigger cause supported by the Salvation Army. At one shelter there are 16 families that are being taken care of, with about 37 kids between them all. Ellen and his family, along with some others, brought stuffed animals, electronics, and fishing gear to share with them, as well as food. “Living & Learning will make a big splash,” Ellen believes. “Don’t be surprised if you see my boys on TV in the next year or so doing some work with that, and hopefully making a difference in the world.”
Staff Editor Kara P. Stapleton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.