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From Cuba to Cambodia: Hollywood Realtor’s Humanitarian Missions Inspire

by | May 15, 2017



By Chris Umpierre

MIAMI Staff

 

Naked, impoverished babies running around. Tiny huts with corrugated metal roofs. Residents scavenging for food.

Ellen Mitchel had seen poverty on TV and in magazines, but never this close. Never this poignant. Never this heartbreaking.

The Hollywood Realtor had just landed in Cape Town, South Africa, for a 2004 family vacation when the sight of the country’s poorest communities along the highway changed her. From now on, she and her daughter agreed, all of their international vacations would include a humanitarian mission.

The 2017 MIAMI Association of REALTORS® (MIAMI) Broward President — who is a longtime supporter of many South Florida organizations — participated in a humanitarian trip to Cuba in 2014 and will now travel to Cambodia in December with her daughter, daughter’s partner and the Restore One charity. Mitchel will teach English, build homes and deliver feminine hygiene products to a country beset by sex trafficking, illiteracy and poverty.

“I’m about serving the world locally and internationally, and I want my children to carry it on,” said Mitchel, who has three children. “It’s very important to give back because we are so blessed in this country. And when I say blessed, I don’t mean material things. We know where we are going to wake up in the morning. We don’t have to worry about our roof or food in our fridge.”

 

Inspiration

Mitchel lives and breathes community service.

“It’s something she’s been instilling in our family for as long as I can remember,” said Heather Bithell, Ellen’s 25-year-old daughter. “Anytime we wanted to get new clothes, we had to donate the clothes we didn’t want to wear to the Broward Outreach Center. This is how my siblings and I were raised. It feels natural to give back.”

An adopted foster child, Mitchel learned to give back from the Hall family. The then 12-year-old Mitchel became close friends with the large Catholic family in Chicago. Mitchel, who is Jewish, watched in awe as the Hall family loved their foster children.            

The Halls weren’t wealthy in financial means, but they were wealthy in generosity. Not only did they care for their own children and foster children, they volunteered at events all over the community including the Special Olympics.

“People think in order to volunteer you need to have a lot of money or means but that’s not true,” Mitchel said. “There are everyday ways everybody can volunteer and give.”

 

South Florida Community Service

Mitchel, a full-time real estate professional since 1998, volunteers for a long list of South Florida organizations and charities.

Let’s begin with the Children’s Diagnostic & Treatment Center in Fort Lauderdale. She and her nieces deliver Thanksgiving baskets there every year. Mitchel also collects purses and costume jewelry. Children are a theme for Mitchel. As a mother, Mitchel’s heart aches to see kids in distress.

Mitchel also supports the Broward Outreach Center by collecting unused toiletries from hotels. Her friends call her “bag lady” because on the last day of every out-of-area real estate conference, Mitchel brings a bag to each room and collects toiletries for homeless women and children.

“Bag lady” has been helping the homeless for 15 years.

Next, she serves as a transporter for the Dachshund Rescue. When a dog needs to be picked up from a foster home for a medical procedure, the center calls Mitchel. Mitchel picks up the dog, takes it to get neutered and delivers it back home.

Finally, Mitchel is a 15-year supporter of the Susan B. Anthony Recovery Center in Pembroke Pines. It’s one of the few local centers for mothers who have substance abuse problems. Mitchel attends the center’s annual holiday party.

“I just look at those children and they are so innocent,” Mitchel said. “They didn’t ask to be born into a chaotic life.”

 

Cuba

Mitchel’s temple, Temple Sinai in Hollywood, set up the opportunity to help Cuban Jews.

There are an estimated 1,500 Jews on Cuba, an island country where religion was outlawed by Fidel Castro. The Caribbean nation used to be a great Catholic country.

Pope John Paul II helped loosen the Cuban government's tight grip on religion during his 1998 visit. Christmas Day became a Cuban national holiday after his trip. And when Pope Benedict visited the country in 2012, Good Friday was added as a holiday. Holy Week processions outside of churches have been celebrated for about a decade.

Temple Sinai’s humanitarian mission brought medicine (Children’s Tylenol, for instance, is in short supply in Cuba) and feminine hygiene products to the island. Mitchel felt awed by the strength of the Cuban people living under the hands of a brutal leader.

There were no temples, churches or religious buildings. For 55 years (1959-2014), not one new brick for one new church was laid in Castro’s Cuba. A devoted communist, Fidel Castro hated religion. By the late 1960s, Christmas was banned on the island and churches were shut down.

“Temples in Cuba are in people’s homes,” Mitchel said. “Maybe they use the second floor as a gathering place or a storefront. There were no private property rights because the government took all the private buildings for government use.”

 

Cambodia

Emboldened by her trip to Cuba, Mitchel wanted to complete another humanitarian mission. Friends pointed her to Cambodia and the organization, Rescue One.

About 36.1 percent of Cambodian children work in child labor and 31.4 percent of children receive inadequate care, according to She Rescue Home.

Cambodia is ranked 14th in the world for modern slavery. An estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked every year, and about 22 percent of human trafficking victims are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation, of whom 55 percent are women or girls.

Mitchel, Heather Bithell and Heather’s partner Kim Bowling will travel to Cambodia from Dec. 27-Jan. 12. The trip includes 13 days of service.

The group will visit the Cambodian killing fields (where more than 1 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime); meet with children ages 5-15 who were rescued from sex trafficking; visit a Cambodia hospital to wash patients’ hair and provide other help; and spend a week in a Cambodian village building homes and teaching English.

The trip ends with four days of leisure and a visit to the famous Angkor Wat temples, which were built in the 12th century.

 “When you think of going to another country and helping, the first thing you think about is physical labor: building homes,” Bithell said. “We will do that, but we also have the opportunity to teach. We will teach English and women’s health. It’s important because there’s a lot of misinformation in Cambodia about reproductive health.”

English will help Cambodian women work in the country’s tourism industry and escape the cycle of poverty and sex-trafficking.

The group will bring much-needed toothbrushes and feminine hygiene products. It will teach Cambodian women how to use products like the “Diva Cup.” Bowling, a nurse practitioner, will play an important role. Cambodian women don’t have access to hospitals.

The group will teach sewing, art and computer classes. A classically trained dancer, Heather Bithell will teach ballet and tap. The Cambodian women will teach Heather their cultural dances.

It’s all about leaving a mark in the world — no matter how far away.

“We think our troubles are overwhelming,” Mitchel said. “But when you hear what these Cambodian women and children are going through… it really puts things into perspective.”

 

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MITCHEL BIO

Name: Ellen Mitchel

Board position: 2017 MIAMI Association of REALTORS® Broward President

● Employment: Owner and co-founder of RE/MAX Executive Realty in Downtown Hollywood

Achievement: Inducted into the RE/MAX Hall of Fame, The Chairman’s Club and The Master Broker’s Forum

Did you know? A portion of each commission Mitchel makes goes to the Children’s Miracle Network, which benefits the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in South Florida

 

ABOUT THE PROJECT

Getting to Know Our MIAMI Leaders is a project by Chris Umpierre highlighting the 2017 presidents and chairmen of the MIAMI Association of REALTORS®. The leaders are: Chairman of the Board Christopher Zoller, Residential President Christina Pappas, Commercial President José María Serrano, Broward President Ellen R. Mitchel, Young Professionals Network Chairman Alberto Carrillo and JTHS-MIAMI President Lynne Rifkin.

 

Read all the profiles at www.miamire.com/MiamiLeaders

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