Building Networks, Paying it Forward | OCRA Heroes

Andrew Berger sure knows how to throw a birthday party.

And yet, birthdays were never a big deal for Andrew. He always saw it as just an excuse to gather his friends together in celebration. But when his mother passed away from ovarian cancer in February 2017, and three months later he was turning 28, he decided to bring people together in her honor.

“We were still really down in the dumps,” Andrew said, “and I wanted everyone there to recognize and appreciate all she had done for our family and for everybody.”

Andrew also decided to turn the event into a fundraiser to support ovarian cancer research – it was the perfect way to gather people around him when things were tough, and raise money for a cause that was incredibly important to him.

Honoring his mom

Andrew gave a speech at that party, and the ones that followed, honoring his mother. “I kind of became a professional eulogizer,” he said, “because we lost three of my grandparents and my mother in the span of two and a half years.”

He describes his mother, Sharon, as brilliant … someone who loved numbers and math and responsibility. “I was reading and doing math by the age of three or four because she loved it and pushed it upon me,” he said.

He and his mother were very much alike, and Andrew said, “when I lost her, I kind of lost the only person that I had to guide me.”

In addition to teaching him basic educational skills, she imparted life’s greatest lesson: You always want to do something nice or treat people well because you never know the impact it will have on them 10 steps forward; a little thing you do now can spiral into something significant. It takes so little effort, so you should take every opportunity to do that.

Pay it forward

This notion of paying it forward paid off in dividends. The first party that Andrew threw raised over $40,000. He attributes this success to the fact that people had seen what happened to his family, and most people have been touched by cancer in one way or another and wanted to help. 

Andrew also understands the power of building a strong network. He tries to broaden his network and friendships, never turning down a meeting, believing that good people attract good people. But he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t do this thinking ‘what are they going to do for me?’ It’s just that you never know how the world is going to turn out and you’re building the probability in your favor.

“Human beings are naturally selfish,” Andrew said. “But to me, being ‘selfish’ is about getting personal satisfaction from helping someone; in seeing someone else succeed. That feeling of personal happiness in helping to contribute to someone else is a good form of selfishness.”

This is what motivates Andrew, a trader by day, to volunteer his time teaching a class on personal finance. But rather than receive payment, he asks his students to make a donation to their charity of choice. Ultimately, he’d like to become a professor because he really loves mentoring others.

A party in a pandemic?

Fast forward three years to Andrew’s 31st birthday. He usually begins planning his parties at the end of March, but this year, a little thing called Covid-19 put a wrinkle in all of that. In the season when New York City, where Andrew lives, normally comes alive, most people were staying put in their apartments. And the virus was wreaking havoc.

“I was thinking, ‘I’ll do this party eventually. It won’t be on my birthday, but it will be a few months later and it will give everybody a nice excuse to come out and see each other again,” Andrew said.

But then he started getting messages from people who look forward to this event and love the cause, asking what the plan was for this year. And asking if they could still donate. So Andrew began sending emails to various groups of people, broadening his typical outreach, and letting everyone know that while there may be a party at some point in the future, he was fundraising now.

The response was beyond his expectations, and as of this writing, Andrew has raised more than $60,000.

“Everyone was so eager to get involved,” Andrew said. “People are dying. People are getting sick. People are losing their jobs. But you can’t do anything because you’re stuck at home. You’re looking for ways to actually help out and have some sort of benefit to society.”

What matters in the end

Andrew’s mother lived for seven years with ovarian cancer, and as Andrew remembers, she did everything she could – no matter how much pain she was in – to go about it like she was perfectly normal. She wanted Andrew and his older brother and sister to live their lives to the fullest and not be burdened. 

“What that translated to me,” Andrew said, “was a false sense of security that she was going to beat it; that she’d be fine.”

But her last eight or nine months were incredibly difficult, and Andrew made sure to go home to Westchester every weekend to spend time with his mom.

“There’s never enough time. She was the person I learned so much from growing up,” Andrew said, “and I know I could have learned more. Taken more of her wisdom and advice.”

What Andrew’s doing now, though, is taking the teachings and encouragement his mom gave him for 28 years and trying to do the best at whatever it is he does. “I happen to be in a field that measures success in a monetary way,” he said, “but that doesn’t determine who you are. It’s what you do with that that determines the kind of person you are.. 

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