In The Magazine

The Feeling is Mutual

by Linda Marx Photographed by Neil Francis Dawson
Friday, March 30, 2018

Stephen Robert and Pilar Crespi discovered that they had a mutual passion for philanthropy when they met in 1996 on a blind date in New York. Yet nothing happened for two months. Stephen wasn’t sure that Pilar liked him.

But when the principal owner of Oppenheimer & Co., who also served as chancellor of his alma mater, Brown University, ran into the friend who’d introduced them, he was encouraged to call Pilar again.

“I liked Steve,” says Pilar, the former New York model, fashion coordinator for the designer Valentino in Rome, and public relations professional. “I was on the board of the Henry Street Settlement, which provides vital services to more than 60,000 New Yorkers each year. Steve and I discussed our interest in giving back and discovered that we had many of the same values.”

Pilar and Stephen’s second date at an Italian restaurant sealed the deal. They were married the following year, about the time Stephen left Oppenheimer after selling the investment bank to the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce for $525 million.

Within months, the newlyweds began to focus solely on philanthropy through what Robert calls a holistic approach. They seek to understand a problem in its entirety, and to supply sustainable aid like food, water, medical care, money and education to those who need it the most. Together, they slowly began building their Source of Hope Foundation to provide monetary aid to disadvantaged people at home and abroad, helping them lead healthier and more productive lives.

Not content to write checks and live an otherwise frivolous life, Pilar and Stephen insist on knowing and nurturing the various organizations that they endow. They travel to places like Africa, South America, Haiti, Israel and Palestine. And of course, they are active in New York City, where they keep an apartment. Their philanthropy is self-funded through the Source of Hope Foundation and has become a full-time job. 

“Pilar and I want to be 100 percent involved in causes that are not attractive to other people,” says Stephen. “We help the homeless and battered women. We can’t feel that we lead a useful life without helping others. We travel together and see it firsthand. We don’t do any project unless we personally go, and we want to be sure it is sustainable over a long period of time.”

They started in Africa, where the misery in Ethiopia was so chilling that the couple did not talk on their way back to Italy, where they spend time in the summer. They were shell-shocked for two days. “I never conceived of poverty on this level,” says Stephen, who vividly described the conditions of no doctors (the concept of a hospital is alien to them), no homes (only mud huts) and very little clean water. Because food is so scarce, “Cows are more important than people,” adds Pilar.

Now, Source of Hope helps fund the humanitarian Mercy Corps. As one of the first NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) that the couple adopted, they now provide more than 100,000 people with fresh water in the southern Ethiopian provinces of Konso and Derashe. To help reduce nasty waterborne diseases, they have built aquifers to collect stream water high in the hills that is then piped directly into the villages. Source of Hope has also built two schools to train young women in these provinces to learn the basic elements of business, which lead to microloans for establishing small companies to support their families.

Both Pilar and Stephen grew up with a strong sense of the power of philanthropy. He is originally from Massachusetts. His father, Samuel, made women’s clothing and was president of a

synagogue, chairman of the United Jewish Appeal and active in Community Chest. His mother, Mildred, was president of Hadassah and involved with Brandeis University. “To my family,” says Stephen, “philanthropy was like breathing.” He has two children from a previous marriage to Alexandra Robert.

“We always gave back,” says Pilar of her family. She is the daughter of the late Countess Consuelo Crespi, an influential New Yorker who became the editor of Vogue and Vogue Italia and was named to the Fashion Hall of Fame after years of being on international best-dressed lists, and the late Count Rodolfo Crespi of Rome, a global magazine executive. She lived in Bogotá, Colombia, for a time, while married to Gabriel Echavarria Obregon, with whom she has one son. While there, Pilar volunteered at a hospital for burn victims.

Now, Source of Hope supports several initiatives in Colombia, including the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar Foundation near Cartagena, which aids 450 adolescent mothers by offering schools and job training. “We train them to work,” says Pilar. “Girls are raped by their families, then shunned, so we help them. We take in the kids and give them free health care.” They support the Crib Sponsoring Program for 350 newborn babies to help reduce child mortality rates and eradicate preventable deaths from malnutrition and disease. And in Bogotá, Source of Hope funds the Fundacion Cardioinfantil, a pediatric institute providing access for poor children to highly skilled doctors who perform free procedures like heart transplants that can transform their lives.

Pilar and Steve had traveled to Haiti even before the January 2010 earthquake. Afterward, they joined the disaster relief and funded Partners in Health, an international humanitarian organization that works cooperatively with communities to fight disease in resource-deprived areas. Source of Hope supported its modern hospital lab after the couple met Dr. Paul Farmer, who cofounded Partners in Health. Dr. Farmer is a Kolokotrones University professor and chair of the Department of Global Heath and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

“Stephen asked me what it would cost to buy a CT scanner after he learned we did not have one,” says Dr. Farmer, who describes the couple as funny, kind and unpretentious. “Then they bought one. A year later, they committed to more help. So we named the lab after them.”

Says Stephen: “When we went back to Haiti a year later and saw the lab in action, including a CT scan of a 50-year-old man’s brain—which they would have had to drill holes in his skull to see without our equipment—I never felt so good about a donation.” Pilar also quietly supports a baby whom she sees every time they visit Haiti.

In Israel, Source of Hope supports several initiatives, including Hand-in-Hand, a network of integrated schools that mixes Palestinian-Israelis and Jewish-Israeli children for an education that spans both cultures and languages. Classes are taught in Hebrew and Arabic. “When kids become friendly it helps the adult Jews and Palestinians who tend to avoid integrating to keep more of an open mind,” says Pilar.

Robi Damelin, a spokesperson for The Parents Circle–Families Forum, a group of 600 Palestinian and Israeli families who have each lost an immediate family member in the ongoing conflict, are in awe of the couple’s dedication. “They hear and support the work we do on the ground with such modesty and love,” says Damelin. “They have been with us during dark times, always willing to listen and to give.”

Closer to home in New York, the couple remain involved with a number of organizations. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a variety of other arts and business organizations. She has remained with Henry Street while producing documentary films.

Through the Henry Street Settlement, they have provided homeless families in their shelter with a new, state-of-the-art computer lab in order to help clients develop, marketable skills so they can obtain employment. They ensure that the college success program continues to be effective in helping low-income, underprivileged students pursue their dreams by resourcing counselors, tutors and professional staff to provide them with guidance and resources. They enable Henry Street to provide 24-hour case management and crisis counseling in their domestic violence shelter, working with the children and families who come to them directly from dire circumstances.

“Pilar and Steve have also provided invaluable leadership for Henry Street’s Gala and Art Show fundraising events, where the resources generated help us achieve and sustain impact,” says David Garza, executive director. “They distinguish themselves further by maintaining a detailed working knowledge of the challenges we are looking to address, and how our work addresses the problems, all the while still letting their hearts lead the way.”

At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Program for Pediatrics, they are helping provide massages and other touch therapies to enhance the quality of life for children being treated for cancer, which are offered free of charge.

Their newest project involves New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center’s emergency room, which was a chaotic mess with patients waiting as long as nine hours to be seen. Many people who come there are on Medicaid and are rarely examined by a doctor. So the couple funded a namesake rapid medical evaluation center within the Adult Emergency Department to

improve care and shorten waiting time. Now they have agreed to support a community health center worker program where area leaders go into people’s homes to see what’s wrong before issues spiral out of control.

For as long as they live, Pilar and Stephen have pledged to help desperate people find better lives through their Source of Hope Foundation. While still taking personal time to play tennis, exercise with trainers, hike in Switzerland and Tuscany, collect art and visit their six grandchildren, they have created a philanthropic bond as a couple; and as individuals, they have learned to be more compassionate, understanding and less judgmental of others.

“It is critical in this world for people to help each other,” says Stephen. “We can’t feel that we have led a useful and meaningful life without doing so. When I am gone, I want my children to know about this work, not about my business success or art collecting. I want them to know we have helped people who never heard of us.”


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