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Turning tragedy into philanthropy

After a string of crises in her own life, one woman applies the lessons she learned toward helping others in need

Jen Weigel

September 22, 2011

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Jill Markussen seemed to have it all. As an account executive for a lender in the mortgage industry, she made good money and had a lovely home in the Western suburbs. Even when mortgage companies started going out of business, this mother of six was confident she would be safe.

"We were one of the few lenders at that time that, when we qualified someone, we did so based on the full payment of the loan and not the ARM," she said. "We had standards. If someone had too many questions at a closing, we would stop the closing. I felt good about what I did because we didn't scam anyone and give people things they couldn't afford."

But then everything changed—and started Markussen on a new path toward helping others.

"Our CEO kept saying, 'We're doing great,' and the next day we came in and there were boxes everywhere," she said. "It was all over for us."

Markussen tried to keep her house, but between nursing a daughter who'd had three liver transplants and having no income, it became obvious that she would have to let it go.

"I was in such a state of denial," she said. "But then I saw the toll it was taking on our whole family, trying to hold on to the house—it was really hard."

She finally had to go to Bridge Communities, a nonprofit group that helps the homeless.

"Having to go to someone and say, 'I need help and can't do it on my own'—that was the hardest thing I've ever done," she said.

After moving into temporary housing, the tragedies didn't stop for Markussen. Her daughter passed away from complications of her illness, and she lost most of her family's belongings in a fire.

"The day of the fire I was hysterical," she said. "Our senior pastor called and said, 'You already have a hotel, and there are gift cards at the church to buy toiletries.' We went through some struggles but we were totally blessed. There was so much love and support. I thought, 'What about the people that are homeless and have nobody?' "

So Markussen started a website to collect donations for the homeless. Project Flipmode launched in June, and one family per month is chosen to receive donations and emotional support.

"Our first family was a single mom with a teenage son," she said. "She was trying to go back to school and had a 39-year-old car, so we got a car donated so she could have a new car."

How does Project Flipmode work?

"People can look on the site and donate," Markussen said. "But it's also about prayer and community. Everything that happened to us, from losing my house, losing my daughter, the fire—we had people there to help. We thought, 'What about the people who have nobody?' If it hadn't been for that kind of support, I don't think we could have made it. And Flipmode was my late daughter's nickname. This is dedicated to her."

Now living in Bartlett, Markussen focuses on helping other people who have fallen on hard times. She went back to school and got a degree in psychology, and is holding her second annual symposium called "The New Face of Homelessness" Oct. 12 at the College of DuPage.

"It's a free event designed to give people awareness, tools, and resources," she said. "People don't realize that homelessness is me, it's seniors, it's kids. It could be anybody. And there are so many people out there that need to know what's available to them. We'll keep doing this for as long as it takes. And unfortunately, there's still a homeless problem, so the need is there to keep on going."

To nominate a family in need or to donate, visit projectflipmode.org.

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel