Usually, when a married couple says, “I do,” they utter those words on a special day, also known as a wedding.
For Sara and Blair Riffel, the phrase has echoed throughout their commitment to their communities.
We find nothing more heartwarming during the holiday season than watching Nebraska Children and Families Foundation staff and executives working with their families to create a thriving state!
Sara Riffel, Vice President of Connected Youth Initiative (CYI), and her husband, Blair, who is Corporate Director of Operations of MH Hospitality, had a meeting of the minds and heart. This discussion impacted young people experiencing homelessness.
Such collaborations are symbolic of our organization. A Nebraska Children initiative, CYI has long provided supports and services for young people who have experienced various life challenges including, foster care, child welfare, homelessness, and juvenile justice.
Aside from helping young people experiencing housing insecurity during the pandemic, Sara and Blair created positivity from an otherwise dire situation.
You likely know all too well the situation to which we refer. We’ve integrated the pandemic into our minds, hearts, and homes for the past year and a half.
Let us flashback to March 2020, when the world screeched to a halt.
Blair said he experienced turmoil at a former company as the then-mysterious Coronavirus tore through Nebraska’s health and businesses.
“Our company went from the best quarter we’d seen in the industry to the worst one,” said Blair.
Still, Blair wanted to help the local hotel industry and his business, which owned and operated Omaha-based hotels.
“We saw record numbers. Overnight, we went from 90 percent to 8 percent full,” said Blair. “We needed to stay afloat and for our staff to remain employed.”
The transformative evening began as a normal one, with Blair and Sara sitting at the dinner table.
Pretty soon, the couple began to discuss their professional setbacks. For Blair, having to lay off over half of his employees remained heavy on his heart.
“I furloughed 65 percent of my staff. That was not easy sleeping. My employees depend on me,” said Blair.
Blair expressed his anxieties to Sara, who was working with young people hit hard by the pandemic, leaving many of them homeless.
When Blair asked Sara to join forces, she said, “I do.”
Blair said, “It was a win-win for us. Who knows how many young people got their feet off the ground, a job, a roof over their heads, maybe even a better apartment than their hotel room?”
One year later and Blair changed jobs. One thing, however, remains consistent: he is impacting his new company, MH Hospitality, which owns and operates four Omaha area Hilton hotels, and by organizing holiday efforts to help young people, this time in the form of a winter clothing and essentials drive.
Blair said he and Sara’s dedication to their professions and young people continues to inspire him.
“That night, a husband and a wife in two different industries said, ‘How can I help you?’ We have a great relationship but an even better one due to our [Nebraska Children] connection.”
Blair said he loved the enthusiastic response he received.
“I got phone calls; people kept saying, ‘How did you do this?’ I smiled and said, ‘I had to do something; my wife works there.’”
That said, Blair said this work didn’t evolve quickly.
“Sara said she knew young people were losing their homes. It did not happen overnight,” said Blair.
Blair said that hotel’s first residents moved in sometime in April, which led to him rethinking his approach.
“Hotel business is reactive, and we tried to be as proactive as we could,” said Blair. “I saw hotels closing, and even big hotels closing; that was scary. Those 10-20 rooms occupied every night kept our hotels afloat.”
Blair said that he and his staff are particularly empathetic, as many young guests may be human trafficking survivors.
“I explained to my staff that some of these young people may have been trafficked or are on the verge of homelessness,” said Blair.
Blair said his rooms filled and his business, during difficult times, remained afloat.
“We were filling ten rooms, then 15, then 20; guests were staying for a minimum of ten days thanks to generous local philanthropy that paid for the cost of the rooms so young people avoided living on the street. It was revenue for us and something the staff enjoyed because they were doing something for the community,” said Blair.
When the story hit the newspapers, Blair was in awe of how good deeds beget more good deeds.
“When the news story ran, our hotel’s phone went off the hook!” said Blair. “People wanted to drop off food, clothes; the outpouring from the community was surprising. Then [Nebraska Children] began getting phone calls from hotels wanting to do the same thing!”
Sara and Blair continue to collaborate on more good ideas, hence their current efforts to create donation boxes.
Blair said he and Sara are putting together boxes of winter gear for youth, which contain gloves, stocking caps, and socks. Donation boxes are also placed in the lobbies of four Hilton hotels, owned by MH Hospitality, where guests have the opportunity to give back to the community as they visit and stay in Omaha.
“I see stuff STILL getting put in there. One of our employees went to the mall and asked for supplies,” said Blair.
Blair said MH Hospitality will buy another few hundred dollars’ worth of items to help out.
“We put some items in there to get the donations going. One of the employees knits scarves as well. It’s a neat thing! Staff keep asking, ‘What can I do so I can give some stuff?’”
Blair continues to see this work as a victory for everyone.
“This effort is good for us but important for young people who need these items. Being at a for-profit, I used to be for that model, but having met and married Sara, she opened my eyes to nonprofits and community causes,” said Blair.
Blair said he wasn’t always aware of how he and his business could impact their community.
“I’ll be honest, I was blind to it my whole life, as many people are,” said Blair.
“I grew up in suburbia and thought people had the life I did. Sara opened my eyes; she had all these stories about young people struggling; it now has a special place in my heart.”
Blair said his wife’s generous heart has continued to inspire him.
“Sara wants to give and give and give. She’ll say, ‘I have a young person who needs shoes.’ I’ll say, ‘Get them two pairs!’ We STOPPED giving Christmas gifts; we now sponsor families,” said Blair.
As Blair assumes his new role, he builds benevolence into his brand.
“That [community giving] is my goal with my new company,” he said. “I say, ‘Let’s make sure we take care of our locals.’ We’ve since done bake sales and fundraisers for Make a Wish. Our guests want to help, even if they’re passing through!” said Blair.
For Blair, these acts of kindness extended to his staff as well.
“You’ve got to help out. I buy my staff bus passes out of my pocket. If someone can’t make it to payday, I will give ten bucks out of my pocket,” he said.
No matter what, Blair said he recognizes the power of partnership.
“We need to partner with Nebraska Children to help our community on a larger level,” he said.
“If we help the community, if we become known for this work, it gives us more opportunity to help out locally,” said Blair.
Blair continues to create resources, hope, and partnerships to support others.
“I want to continue with this project. Whether we do a clothing drive or a room drive, Sara comes to me and says, ‘Let’s do this!’ And we do.’”