Mimi Silbert calls the Delancey Street Foundation "a Harvard for the bottom 1%." And like any great university, her organization benefits when its graduates go on to bigger things. Delancey "alumni" keep close ties to one another - and to their "alma mater."
Rick Mariano, 50 and Lewis Lillian, 59 became lifelong friends during their years at Delancey in the late 1970s. The two formed a close bond when Mariano, a senior resident, served as "tribe leader" to Lillian, who had arrived with his life in a shambles because of drugs. Mariano, a recovering heroin addict, was responsible for keeping Lillian on track. "As tribe leader," he says, "You're the first touch point for someone who may want to go back and shoot dope."
"We have a philosophy at Delancey - that A helps B, and A gets well," Lillian explains. Both he and Mariano benefited from that philosophy, and both now give back to Delancey every chance they get.
Today, as the director of real-estate investment for Richard C. Blum & Associates, LP, a San Francisco-based billion-dollar merchant-banking firm, Mariano handles multimillion-dollar real-estate deals. He's also Delancey's dedicated real-estate broker. He got into real estate while at Delancey - when the foundation needed someone to handle the sale of a property it owned in Sausalito, California. Now, he says, "there isn't a time when I don't have at least one Delancey project on my desk."
When Mariano graduated from Delancey, Lillian took over his former tribe leader's role as the foundation's lobbyist to San Francisco City Hall. A few years after his graduation, Lillian joined then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein's staff. She appointed him to the city's housing authority, where he was able to help Delancey establish new locations.
Later, when Lillian moved on to work for Gannett, he convinced the media giant to give Delancey a $200,000 grant. Why the fierce loyalty? "Delancey taught me to stand on my own two feet," says Lillian. "It's self-help in the truest sense of the word. I'm not going to forget where I came from."
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.