GEM: A Precious Commodity, Part II — Hope and Redemption

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A school built by GEM in Coopers Town Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian. The cyclone is remembered as the worst to ever strike the island. “We rebuilt three schools in the Bahamas and we created a model in a way that gave family offices and foundations something that is tangible,” informs Michael. “So, donors can have their names on the school.”

Born in Belgium, GEM’s founder, Michael Capponi moved to Florida at the age of six. He was in high school when he started promoting nightclubs in Miami Beach. Having publicized mega-clubs like LIV, BED and Mansion, Michael helped revive South Beach’s club scene in the 1990s. Eventually, the nightlife mogul became a successful real estate developer too, renovating and building dozens of luxury spec homes.

But, by Michael’s own admission, the early success went to his head and took its toll.  “I lived a very early life of excess, materialism and drugs and by the time I was 22, I completely crashed and burned,” he says of his youth.  A stint in New York, where he was virtually homeless followed: “I developed a major drug addiction and I spent about 60 days from Halloween to New Year’s Eve in New York, basically in the streets, begging, collecting subway tokens and trading them for drugs.”

Today, he views this “extremely difficult, hellish time” as “one of the greatest gifts that God could give me. I can relate to people because it trained me to learn to fully understand what it’s like to suffer and what it’s like on the other side.”

Michael Capponi with Maui’s mayor, Richard Bissen and Hawaii Lt. Governor, Sylvia Luke, at the recent opening of GEM’s distribution center in Maui.  The Maui branch was set up in a week.  The warehouse and distribution center were set up in another week.  Different areas have different response needs, some more long term than others, according to Michael.  For instance, GEM will have a presence in Hawaii and Ukraine for several years to come while a recent tornado in Kentucky required only a 3-month “pop up.”

Case in point: “There are 100 survivors right now in our Hawaii office. They’re telling us their stories of how they lost everything. I can actually speak to them from the heart because I’ve been there.  A decade of my life was just ultimate hell.  I was stripped of everything. I went from being the prince of Miami nightlife to a fallen so-called club king.  And, when I made it through this passage, I vowed to never ever touch a recreational drug again and I never have.”

On his first trip to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, Michael brought a tent with him that had been donated by a group of Miami rabbis. “I put 30 kids in that tent,” he says. “Some of them had lost their parents, some of them were with their parents and they stayed in that tent. That was the most traumatic experience in those children’s lives. Those children were illiterate at the time, most of them were not going to school and they suffered greatly.”

The suffering didn’t end in his youth.  A high-speed boat crash in 2015 resulted in severe injuries for Michael and his soul mate. Michael fractured his shoulder and skull, broke his nose, seven ribs and punctured both lungs. His girlfriend fared even worse, sustaining brain injuries that left her in a coma for nearly a month and erased most of her short-term memory.

It was from the ashes of this accident that GEM was born. Global Empowerment Mission grew out of Haiti Empowerment Mission, a nonprofit founded by Michael in the wake of the devastating earthquake that hit the Caribbean nation in 2010.

By then, Michael had been on the board of various charitable institutions and had organized relief drives for a multitude of catastrophes including the refugee crisis in Kosovo, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.  With a solid, decade-long track record of charitable endeavors, when the Haiti earthquake struck, Michael requested and was granted permission by local mayors to send firefighters and paramedics to the island.

Michael with some of the children he aided, 10 years after the Haiti earthquake. “They are now grown up and on a new path to life,” says Michael. “Those children speak English, some French. They all have laptops, they’re all on the internet, they’re all friends with me on facebook, they all call me father and most of them are in college or graduating high school or graduated college,” Michael proudly says. “Some of them are going to be doctors, some of them are going to be lawyers, some of them are going to be presidents of Haiti one day. That earthquake in 2010 rerouted their entire destinies. They would have been on the same exact trajectory as their illiterate parents. But those children turned out to be some of the best students in some of the best schools in Haiti. People always say the intelligence comes genetically. It doesn’t. The intelligence comes from the will to learn. And when you give people an opportunity, they’re empowered by that and driven to achieve. Because of the tragedy, the victim of the disaster is given a new opportunity and direction in life.”

When they arrived, they were met with infernal scenes.  “The firefighters and the paramedics we brought had to literally saw off arms and legs.  It was extreme gore.  It was something that most people would not be able to deal with,” recalls Michael.  “It was too much blood, too much suffering, too much screaming.”

After two weeks in Haiti, he went back to Miami where he was still in the nightclub business.  “Imagine going from that to getting home on a Saturday afternoon, showering, changing and then walking into a nightclub.  Imagine!” he says, still incredulous at the memory.  “People were dancing on tables, spraying $10,000 bottles of champagne in the air thinking it’s funny and they’re cool.  And I started looking at it in a different light – kind of like ‘What am I doing here?  I need to return to Haiti now.  This is where I’m needed, not in this nightclub.”’

Michael in Haiti in 2010 with the 600 tents he bought and brought on a second mission trip.

So back to Haiti he went, this time armed with 600 tents that he bought himself, and set up a tent city to house the people rendered homeless by the earthquake.  Over the next five years, Michael would travel to Haiti close to 100 times.  The lessons he learned were priceless.  “I can honestly say that I have an MBA in humanitarian sciences just from Haiti,” he says looking back on the experience.

That’s because in Haiti, Michael was witness to a lot more than human suffering.  “I saw a total of 22,000 organizations come to Haiti.  I saw gigantic conglomerate organizations raise $400/$500 million for Haiti and I never saw them do anything over there.  And it helped me really understand what the problem was,” explains the humanitarian.

Michael with Khenpo Namgyel on a spiritual quest in Bhutan, earlier this year.  “When people lose everything, they have choices to make spiritually,” says the humanitarian. “One is ‘do I get up and rebuild and become a pillar of my community?’  That’s what a lot of people do and they find themselves almost more worthy while they’re doing that work than the previous life they had before disaster struck.  And somehow, magically, they get everything back anyway – there’s insurance, something happens and a lot of people get back what they lost.  But they go through a process just like I went through, of losing everything, which sometimes can be healthy for people’s souls because it helps you know really what’s important to you.”

“The problem is that a lot of big organizations have a centralized pot of money where the money flows.  That means they can run a commercial on CNN asking for money for Haiti, but that money goes into a big pot and they’re not obliged to donate the money to Haiti.  They can actually keep it for corporate overhead, for expansion, for buying offices, for hiring more people or paying back staff for when it was in the red because there were no disasters,” he elaborates.  “If you dig deep, you’ll see that that’s actually happened with Haiti.  And I also saw a lot of co-mingling of funds.  I saw a lot of people trying to make money off housing or donor funds and then invest in prefab companies and things like that.  I thought the whole thing was ultimately disgusting.”

Realizing that his work in Haiti is replicable, Michael decided to turn Haiti Empowerment Mission into Global Empowerment Mission.  One major difference with other international relief organizations is the setting up of different bank accounts.  “We have about 45 designated bank accounts.” says Michael.

“We have a fund for Morocco. We have a fund for Libya, for Haiti, for Hawaii.  In Hawaii, we have a Rebuild Fund, an Operations Fund and we even have an Abatement Fund.”  In other words, “if you donate for Hawaii, the money will only be used for Hawaii.  That’s a fact and if you donate to Haiti, that money will only be used in Haiti. We don’t have this collective pot where we can just decide how to spend it and maybe spend it differently than the donor intended.”

The decision to form GEM was not the only life-altering choice Michael made in 2015, the year of the boating accident.  After much soul searching, he elected to walk away from the private sector and devote his energies entirely to GEM.  “I transmuted all the pain and trauma into something valuable.”

Soon, he found himself in Africa and then the Amazon, and various other places around the world, applying the lessons he learned in Haiti, providing aid comparable to some of the larger organizations, but with less money.

For instance, “I would be in Africa watching a gigantic cargo plane come in with aid that was imported from China,” he elaborates.  “And I would do some quick math and realize it cost $300,000 just to charter the plane and then the rice they’re bringing from China is counterproductive to the rice that’s already being grown in Africa.  So, why don’t we just buy the rice from African merchants directly and create jobs and produce an economy and not waste all that money importing it?  And that’s ultimately what GEM at its core is about.”

Michael purchasing warehouses of locally grown food in Mozambique.

Michael’s philanthropy, in the true sense of the word (love of man) may have gathered force through the years, but the roots were there all along.  “My soul has always wanted to change the world.  I have always been on the side of the underdog,” he says.  Indeed, when Michael was in high school, he befriended a homeless man while surfing.

Michael, aged 11

“He had long dreadlocks and he was pretty wild looking and I brought him home and my mom said ‘Who’s your friend Michael?’ and I said ‘this is Red.  He’s homeless and I don’t want him to be homeless, so he’s going to be staying with us, OK?’  And there was nothing my mom could do because that’s just who I was already,” he recounts.  Soon, Michael’s mother suggested that perhaps it was time for Michael to move into his own place.  “And when I moved into my first apartment, I was 15 ½.  I moved in with that homeless person and gave him a room.”

Back at GEM headquarters, as I tour the large warehouse, I asked Patrick Lynch, the Chief Development Officer, if he and the staff ever become overwhelmed with the number of disasters, whether man-made or natural, springing up all over the world: “Yes,” he admits. “We’re a small team.  But, as vast as the need is, I would say the opposite is also true – the incredible support and people who are willing to step up and become a part of this mission is equally overwhelming, so the tragedy is equally as tremendous as the beauty in everything we do.  For every awful disaster, there has been an equal and proportionate positive response from the people who want to make a difference.”

GEM’s global headquarters in Doral, Florida. Opened in 2022, the 60,000 square foot facility can store up to 3,500 pallets of aid. In addition, GEM currently has seven branches worldwide: California, Hawaii, Haiti, Turkey, Guatemala, Poland and Ukraine. All the employees are from the local areas, and many are disaster survivors.
Family kits and other necessities housed in GEM’s global headquarters.

On the phone, as the sun sets in Miami, I ask Michael, who was still in Hawaii at the time, how pulling people out of rubble and attending to one calamity after another has informed his worldview.  “A lot of people always tell me, ‘You must be numb by now,’ and I’m actually not numb at all, I’m extremely sensitive,” says the humanitarian.  “But I also have a macro understanding that there’s birth and death.  I see it as seasons passing.  The leaves fall off a tree, they get absorbed into the ground and eventually they turn into soil and get reabsorbed by the root of the tree and blossom again.  For every death, there’s a new life on earth and for every misery, there’s hope and for every tear, there is joy.”

As for his hopes and dreams for GEM, above all, Michael is looking for sustainability.  “Even though we have a large budget — this year, including in-kind donations, it will exceed $150 million — that is just a drop in the bucket in proportion to the responses needed.”  To that end, he is looking to build rapport with people “who want to support really tangible things.”  And he is striving to build relationships with foundations and institutions so that GEM occupies a spot on their annual giving list.

Michael with, from left to right, Brooke Shields, Rebecca Moses, Donna Karan, and India Hicks at a GEM benefit in Sag Harbor this past summer.  “For me, spending $1 million on an event is ridiculous,” says Michael, who invited 100 people, for free, at a fundraiser held at a private home in the Hamptons.  Auction items consisted of family necessity kits, funds for building schools and the like.  The event raised $300,000.  This will be an annual occasion.

“Some people want to build a school.  Some people want to help you pay your staff.  Some people understand that operations are incredibly important.  The investment bank, Jefferies, funds us for operations,” reveals Michael.  Without operations, there is no GEM.  There are no trucks and no warehouses.  You have to pay the rent on the warehouses.”

As Patrick explains, having funds in the bank before the next crisis hits is vital. “What we try to do is get somewhere quickly and cheaply.  Those first 72 hours are the most crucial.  So, our greatest need, ironically, is before the calamity.  The more we can encourage folks to consider becoming monthly donors, to consider giving before the next disaster strikes, out of the goodness of their hearts, the more impactful we can be.”

To find out how you can help, click here.

Click here for Part 1.

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