Teaming Up and Giving Back: A Conversation with Michael Leonardi on a Habitat for Humanity Project

Michael Leonardi is an Executive Director and CFO at Holwell Shuster & Goldberg LLP; a New York-based litigation boutique focused on representing clients in high-stakes commercial litigation. Early this year, Michael reached out to Forrest Solutions to partner up on a community give-back, this time for a Habitat for Humanity project in New Jersey. Teaming up with his law firm and other partners to do community service is something Michael Leonardi does regularly, so we took a moment to talk to Michael about the project and giving back in general.

Forrest Solutions: Thanks for talking to us about your recent Habitat for Humanity project, Michael. Why don’t you give us a little background on how this all got started?

Michael:
I have a personal passion for charitable endeavors and trying to give back a little bit more to the community to assist the underserved. I always look towards the people around me, whether in my professional or personal life, to express to me what they’re passionate about, and then I like to come in and support their cause—and get my firm to support it with them as well.
The genesis of this particular project started during COVID. Like many companies, I was doing a weekly mental health checkup phone call with our employees, and we started chatting a bit about things that people were doing to help keep their mental ad physical health strong. I noticed some people were building furniture; some were painting, some were gardening. I had always wanted to work with Habitat for Humanity, and I thought, “You know what? This would be a great group to do a Habitat for Humanity project,” and people were receptive to it.
At that point, I liaised with one of my assistants and had her make some phone calls, and we found a Habitat for Humanity chapter to partner with. I got the support of my firm to sponsor teams to do so, even giving people the day off, along with a travel and lunch allowance if they wanted to participate.
I always look for opportunities to partner with people at Forrest Solutions because they are great people to work with. They share my passion for team building and community service events. So I was not surprised when I suggested to partner on this project; Juan Pazmino and Marcos Briones were highly receptive.
We’re like-minded in recognizing that we’ve done well in our careers, and part of the next steps of our career accomplishments is to mentor others and give back to the community.

Forrest Solutions: That’s amazing that you coordinated all of these teams to come together. How did the actual project go in New Jersey?

Michael: The volunteer day was finally scheduled in June, and a few more folks from Forrest Solutions joined us in addition to Juan and Marcos, including Jacques Boubert, Client Relations Director; Peter Gagnon, the VP of Operations; Fred Henderson, Client Relations Manager; and Stephanie Santiago, Client Relations Director.

We ended up going to a town called Sparta in Northwest Jersey. It was a very eclectic neighborhood and had low-income housing requirements. There was a property that was in a family for many years, and when the parents died, they had left it to the children. The children decided to donate it to Habitat. After Habitat for Humanity acquired the property, they went out and did a lottery for families eligible for their program. Specific requirements of income, need, and affordability to maintain and support the property must be met to qualify for consideration.

Our teams were split into two different project sites: my team went to one house, and the other team went to a series of built homes and worked on painting. Everyone was given different assignments: some of us were asked to tile a bathroom and to place a vanity once that was complete. Another person was asked to hang some molding. Another one of us was doing some staining of handrails that were going to go down to the basement and up to the second floor, and other people were asked to do some painting or some touch-ups here and there. It was a great experience.

Marco and I, along with his wife Katherine and a fellow ALANYC Chapter Board member, Tina Carter, followed up that project with another one in July at a job site in Plainfield, New Jersey. At that site, Marcos worked on completing a front porch and deck installation after he and I had filled in a 20 foot long by 18-inch deep electrical cabling trench. Katherine, Tina, and I followed up on our assignment by insulating and vinyl siding a free-standing garage on the side of the property, along with some sanding and clean-up assignments.

Forrest Solutions: Thanks for talking to us about this project, Michael.
Any last words on teaming up and giving back?

Michael: Anyone can do it. The first project my wife and I did was a whiffle ball tournament for autism awareness and juvenile diabetes. We thought we might get 50 or 60 people to come to our event. Still, we started seeking corporate sponsors and neighbors to participate, and it turned into a 400-person event with over 35 corporate sponsorships and other activities. People are looking to give back and just need an idea, some passion, and an opportunity to showcase themselves. Having great partners makes it so much more enjoyable.

Michael:
About Habitat for Humanity
Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit organization that helps families worldwide build a better life for themselves and their children, from home construction to innovation. Founded in 1976 in Americus, GA, the non-governmental organization has been around to help build homes for those in need and help families build self-reliance, stability, and a better future. Aside from home construction, the organization also specializes in neighborhood revitalization, disaster response, financial education, assistance with shelter, and help older adults across the U.S. improve their homes and quality of life.

You can learn more about Habitat for Humanity here: https://www.habitat.org/.