After finding homes for her clients with Section 8 vouchers, Jess Oknin helps families become more involved in their communities by teaching them about a free sports league where their children can make friends and learn valuable leadership skills. Through her time volunteering with Volo Sports, she has been able to watch the children of the Boston area not only grow in their abilities but also in their confidence.
As a busy real estate professional, how do you stay engaged in philanthropy? Why is giving back a priority?
I am passionate about my long-standing volunteerism with Volo Sports, a program that provides free access to quality sports programming for youth which fosters not only athletic ability but also social skills and community building. This is an important and worthy program whereby children have a safe space, each week, to engage in fun and exciting athletic activities but also can develop confidence as individuals and learn to become strong leaders. It is a remarkable program and each year I can see the growth in the returning children season after season. These sessions are the highlight of my week and I prioritize attending. Last year, I still made it to practice to support the kids less than 48 hours after my ACL surgery (see photo). I want to be someone consistent for these athletes even when other aspects of life carry uncertainty.
I am fortunate to have found ways to incorporate my enjoyment of volunteering with my occupation as a realtor. Although it is a more complex process, aiding in the housing search for low-income families is extremely fulfilling. I work alongside veteran and first-time landlords who understand the impact of renting to families with housing vouchers. One of my favorite aspects of being a Realtor is the ability to assist in major life decisions to secure the basic human necessity of a place to call home. I have worked with children in the past who were unsure when their next meal would come or where they would be sleeping that night – if I can resolve this situation for just one family at a time, I know those children will have the bandwidth to worry less and be a kid more.
How did you first get involved with assisting clients with Housing Vouchers? Why is Fair Housing and affordable housing so important?
My first Section 8 placement was with a first-time landlord who only had basic knowledge of the housing voucher programs. Although it was a bit daunting at first to explore something entirely foreign to either of us, we learned alongside each other and navigated the forms necessary to secure the home placement. The applicant was a single mother, who worked full-time for the Boston Public School system and had two school-aged children. At the time, her daughter was in middle school with a strong interest in the arts, while her son was a sophomore in high school who just made the varsity team. Her children were of different genders and of the age where they should each have a comfortable bedroom to call their own at the end of the school day. Unfortunately with a single income, she could only qualify for a one-bedroom apartment. Her son should not have to decide between working a part-time job or playing on the Varsity football team after school because additional funds were needed to pay for the basic family living expenses. For this family, the Section 8 housing voucher in essence was the second form of income necessary to achieve the living standards that most dual-income households maintain.
You regularly work with clients in the Section 8 community, helping low-income families find stable housing. What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities that come with doing this work in the Boston area?
Aside from actually finding the right property that my clients can envision calling home, one of the greatest challenges faced with housing vouchers is the uncertainty of timelines when it comes to approval. This process can be time-consuming and tedious between the added paperwork and follow-ups, but there is no greater feeling than helping a family secure a safe and comfortable new home. I have past families that send me holiday photos & life updates, which remind me of why all people, regardless of past circumstances, deserve proper housing.
One memory that stands out was a follow-up from a single mother to three young children, who was completing Nursing School at the time I had assisted in her home search. Upon passing her final Nursing Exam, she sent me a photo in her graduation attire surrounded by her children. I know that by offering client representation, I can shrink the gap of misinformation that many new landlords have regarding housing assistance programs.
Can you share any rewarding moments from your work with disadvantaged clients? What are you most proud of?
Many of the families I work with have school-aged children who are relocating to a new town or school system, which can be another hurdle to overcome. As previously mentioned, I volunteer with the Volo Kids Foundation, which provides FREE sports leagues, healthy snacks, and social engagement for youth ages 4-12 who do not have the means or access to participate in private athletic programs. I have been able to inform parents about these sports leagues, which are at no cost to participating families, and watch their children develop athletic and social skills throughout the 6-week sessions. Since the fruition of Volo Kids in Boston, the program has grown from 2 to 40 leagues in a given year. In 2023, over 2,650 athletes participated in these free athletic programs. The numbers are amazing with growth year after year, but the ultimate reward is the continued IMPACT.
One of the most rewarding moments was being able to see the framed awards hanging on my player's wall when I stopped by to visit a family I had placed less than a year prior. His mom mentioned that he asks to wear his Volo Kids shirt more often than she can keep up with the laundry. The clear impact I have left on that family drives me to continue helping others.
Do you have any recommendations for those considering taking a deeper dive into philanthropy?
Just get started! Sign up to volunteer for a one-time event, and surround yourself with people from a different walk of life. My favorite quote is from the movie Pocahontas, “If you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew, you never knew.” I believe once you get a taste of how fulfilling it is to serve others, your hunger to give back will continue to grow.
To learn more about Volo Sports, click here.