As a rookie police officer in 2015, Rick Zoerb felt like he wasn’t equipped to help some of the families he encountered on the job.
“I would go into homes and see situations...things like no running water, no electricity, no food in the fridge, no beds for kids to sleep on,” he said.
Zoerb himself was homeless at one point before becoming a successful car dealer and, at 39, joining the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, so he understood some of what the families faced.
He knew there were organizations that could help, but he needed something convenient and fast. He didn’t want to leave a family hungry while he worked through red tape.
“When I reached out for help, to the resources that we had, they were always bogged down or hard to navigate and I just couldn’t get those resources to help these people,” he said.
So Zoerb reached out to some connections in the auto dealer world and elsewhere. By the beginning of 2017, he had raised $25,000 to create CMPD’s Emergency Needs Fund.
Officers have used the money to quickly turn utilities back on and buy clothes and groceries for people in need.
“It allows our officers now to, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, if they run across these situations, they’re able to use these funds to immediately help,” he said.
About all of the fund’s $25,000 was spent during the year, Zoerb said, and he’s hoping to double the budget in 2018. He said several of the fund’s supporters – which included Keffer Auto Group, the Steve Smith Family Foundation and Beds for Kids in 2017 – have already agreed to continue their donations in 2018.
Zoerb said his life story – leaving school after 10th grade, dealing with homelessness and having to earn his GED to apply for the police academy – helps him remember that people are more than the difficulties they’re facing.
“I see these people that I’m out there on the street with, and I understand, you know. Doesn’t make them a bad person because they’re in the situation they were in,” he said.
CMPD Chief Kerr Putney said he wished he’d had the idea for the Emergency Needs Fund first, but he’s glad Zoerb was able to see how small amounts of money could make a big difference.
“He knew what it was like to go to bed hungry,” Putney said. “He knew how difficult that is from his own experiences, and he wanted to be part of the solution.”