OneVillage Partners — with a big assist from Twin Cities CRE community — making a big impact in Sierra Leone

John Breitinger, vice president of investment and development at United Properties, in Sierra Leone in 2013.

John Breitinger, vice president of investment and development at United Properties, in Sierra Leone in 2013.

by Dan Rafter

Before he ever made his mark in Minneapolis’ commercial real estate industry, Jeff Hall seved in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in Africa.

Hall lived in Sierra Leone in the late 1980s for two years, spending most of his time in the village of Jokibu. He then returned to the Twin Cities to start his successful real estate career. Today, he is the founder of Ursa Investors, an industrial real estate firm that does business in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

But Hall’s time in Sierra Leone changed him. He felt connected to the country, and had made friends during his time there. In 2004, he returned to the country. Once there, he discovered that the village in which he had lived during his Peace Corps days had been destroyed because of war.

Hall decided to help.

“I wanted to help them get going again,” he said.

Hall raised money from family members and friends to help the people of the region rebuild their homes and their community. And once he did this, Hall decided that he didn’t want to stop helping. He formed the Minneapolis-based non-profit OneVillage Partners in 2007. Since that time, the organization has provided money to help bring clean water to Sierra Leone villages and help send Sierra Leone children to college.

The organization’s members have worked alongside Sierra Leone villagers to build latrines and develop agricultural programs.

“We have a long-term commitment to this country,” Hall said. “We are there for the long run. And it’s not about us doing everything for these people. It is about us working with them to make the residents of Sierra Leone self-sufficient. The residents are the ones making the changes and taking the steps to improve their living conditions.”

Real estate support

The commercial real estate community in the Twin Cities has been a big supporter of OneVillage Partners, not surprising considering Hall’s own background in the industry.

For the last three years, OneVillage Partners has organized a breakfast meeting with commercial real estate professionals to help raise funds for the organization. This year’s breakfast, the fourth, will be July 22 at 7:30 a.m. at the Minikahda Club just west of Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis.

Hall said that the commercial real estate community has been incredibly supportive of OneVillage Partners. He expects that 30 to 35 companies involved in the commercial real estate business will have signed up as sponsors of the breakfast by the time July 21 rolls around.

Hall said that the real estate breakfast raised $25,000 its first year, $35,000 in its second and $50,000 last year. The goal this year is for the real estate breakfast to take in more than $75,000. Hall said that he expects more than 100 people to attend the breakfast.

Brian Carey, from United Properties, and his wife Jaclyn in Sierra Leone in 2013

Brian Carey, from United Properties, and his wife Jaclyn in Sierra Leone in 2013

Hall described the annual breakfast event as a combination of a networking event and presentation about OneVillage Partners and fund-raising.

“Real estate folks tend to travel a lot. They really enjoy seeing their friends at this event,” Hall said.

Hall said that it makes sense for members of the Twin Cities commercial real estate community to be such strong supporters of OneVillage Partners.

“As real estate people, we are trying to help our communities develop here,” Hall said. “We want to provide quality spaces here where people can live and shop and work. That spirit translates into wanting to help these other communities in Sierra Leone build their own spaces to do the same.”

John Breitinger, vice president of investment and development at United Properties, and Brian Carey, executive vice president at United Properties, traveled with Hall in late 2013 to Sierra Leone.

Breitinger said that he went on the trip to determine what economic development efforts really work. It was a way for Breitinger to learn what approaches might work when it came to economic development work in North Minneapolis.

“More than anything, I have been inspired by how much one person’s persistent initiative has improved lives,” Breitinger wrote in a e-mail message describing his trip.

As Breitinger wrote, he and Carey visited villages in Sierra Leone that sat just a few miles from the start of a deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The villages here, though, were among the least-impacted in the region. Much of the credit goes to the clean water and new latrines that OneVillage Partners helped bring to these residents, Breitinger wrote.

“Simply being set up with a culture of collaboration and problem-solving kept these villages largely healthy and intact,” Breitinger wrote. “There are many great leassons here.”

Hall travels to Sierra Leone about once a year. During these trips, he gets to see the good that his organization — fueled in large part by the Minneapolis/St. Paul real estate community — has done in the country.

“We have helped bring 100-percent clean water to some of the villages,” Hall said. “That has made a huge difference. People were getting sick so often before. They have built latrines, which also helps to reduce germs. We are helping to send hundreds of more kids to school. Some villages have had 15 to 20 kids go to college. It is rare for any kid to go to college. We’ve made investments in agricultural development and income generation. It is inspiring to be able to go back and see some of these changes.”

For more information about OneVillage Partners, visit the organization’s Web site at OneVillagePartners.org.

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