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Whitestone fundraiser named Biz Man of Year

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For years, William McDermott dedicated his spare time to making sure his mentally retarded son got the best care and education possible.

A former marketing and public relations executive, McDermott took a lead role in raising funds for his son’s school, the Seton Foundation for Learning, assisting the Staten Island institution’s expansion to three campuses.

But last year, taking the role of director of development and public affairs for the Whitestone-based Transitional Services for New York, Inc., McDermott met a new challenge in trying to raise funds for the group.

The Staten Island resident found that people were much more willing to give to a school which helped the retarded than to TSI, a non-profit aimed at helping the mentally ill.

“I got the response, ‘Stop wasting my tax dollars, tell them to get a job,’” McDermott said. “The stigma of mental illness is so thick.”

But over the years, McDermott has managed to convince people to get over that stigma. In a year when donations flooded into Sept. 11-related charities, TSI’s private funding nearly doubled with McDermott on board.

As a result of his efforts, the Queens Chamber of Commerce will award McDermott the “Business Man of the Year” for mid-sized business at its November meeting.

McDermott’s 27-year-old organization treats thousands of mentally ill people in the borough every year.

The goal of TSI is to help the mentally ill become independent with a job and housing. In a network of 10 locations across the borough and one in the Bronx, TSI offers counseling, housing and job training.

TSI’s $13 million budget relies almost exclusively on government funding, a fact that McDermott hopes to change.

McDermott credited his success so far to his drive to become “Mr. Contact.”

As soon as he took the job, McDermott began contacting as many businessmen and businesswomen in the borough as he could find. He scheduled conferences and meetings at TSI locations, bringing the borough’s business community to his door.

“As long as they keep on coming back and visiting our facilities in some shape or form, then in some point in time they are going to fall in love with us,” McDermott said.

Many in the business community have brokered deals in meetings arranged by TSI, McDermott said, and in turn have donated to the non-profit.

“People are going to respond because they are going to remember that I am the person who introduced them to the person they are working with,” McDermott said.

William Egan, executive vice president at the Queens Chamber of Commerce, said his group has decided to award McDermott because his strategy has worked.

“He has put Transitional Services on the map,” Egan said. “He’s been tremendously energetic, tremendously vibrant and personable, and he makes people want to get involved and participate.”

Egan said it was “somewhat unusual” for his group to award someone from a non-profit.

“We have done it in the past, but it really takes an exceptional person,” he said.

McDermott’s strategy helped land a contribution from former Mets Manager Bobby Valentine.

Rather than simply asking Valentine for money, McDermott proposed hiring the manager’s Corona restaurant, Bobby V’s, as a caterer for one of his events.

“I’m helping people so they can help me,” he said.

Although donations have increased, McDermott said they are still “not where they should be.”

But he expressed hope the situation was changing.

“We were the best-kept secret in Queens,” he said. “With all the exposure and outreach I have done, we’re not a secret anymore.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300 Ext. 141.

Updated 7:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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