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Before Robert Schwartz could become a 50-year-old lawyer, he quit law and started a new profession: emergency relief.

It's the kind of career switch many of us imagine we would make, were we only lucky or gifted enough to be in a position to do so. In real life, though, how many of us would dedicate most of our own time, labor and money to strangers in need?

Schwartz, 54, and his wife, Robin, a graphic artist, brought thoughtful intelligence to this second-career of philanthropy. In 2007, after Schwartz resigned from his Southfield law firm, the couple spent months winnowing their options, facing the abyss of human problems and the limitations of their own ability to solve them. They created a private foundation, naming it the Here to Help Foundation.

"So many people want to save the world," says Schwartz, "but we quickly realized we couldn't do that. Why not just try to save a block?"

Almost eight years later, Here to Help is a model of grass-roots philanthropy. After endowing Here to Help with a few million dollars, they decided to run its operation themselves, without drawing salaries or hiring staff. They also opted to be hands-on rather than committing funds to an existing foundation: They wanted to have contact with those they helped, as a way to better understand their needs, to monitor the usefulness of their programs and to keep down costs.

They reach out to clients who are striving for self-sufficiency and poised at the brink of success or a cascade into disaster. With one-time grants for emergency rent, a dependable used car, utility payments, furniture for an unfurnished apartment, they intervene at a time when $500 to $2,500 can matter in the long term.

"They are awesome. They helped one of my clients furnish an apartment, so she could provide a safe place for her children to visit," says Chanel Killebrew, an administrator at Starfish in Inkster, who calls Here to Help "my go-to agency for everything."

"We just don't have a lot of sources for that kind of help," she says.

But Killebrew says the foundation is selective, winnowing out clients they feel may not be able to be self-sustaining after they receive help. "We want to provide help at that point when someone really needs it to keep going," says Robin. But they also want to give more, so they are reaching out for donations to Here to Help, a 501C3 nonprofit. (www.heretohelpfoundation.org)

From the beginning they've kept a low profile, gradually building a reputation as a reliable and disciplined charity. You may not have heard of Here to Help but Bob and Robin Schwartz are well-known at Volunteers of America, say, or at Al's Furniture in Detroit, where they buy suites of furniture on a weekly basis.

For Bobby Thomas, a Canton resident who was pedaling his Sears bicycle to a restaurant job every day, that assistance came in the form of a vehicle. "I was very worried about keeping my on-time record at work," says Thomas, who met the Schwartzes in a Volunteers of America parking lot two weeks ago, to get the keys to a 12-year-old Pontiac Bonneville. "I am so grateful, but I feel very lucky and blessed that they helped me."

Over seven years, the couple has become a resource for 200 agencies in the Detroit area. The Schwartzes have furnished apartments for women leaving shelters and bought tools for a skilled tradesman who had been homeless.

"We're trying to make lives better, at a time of emergency. We don't know what people have had to endure," says Robert Schwartz.

lberman@detroitnews.com

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