Last autumn, Mortgage Bankers Association President and CEO David Stevens announced that his organization had created a new, nonprofit entity — MBA Open Doors Foundation — to be the umbrella operating unit for all the MBA’s philanthropic activities.

The first charity the MBA chose to support was Spare Key, a Bloomington, Minn., nonprofit that helps families with critically ill or injured children by making a mortgage payment on their behalf.

"Helping families who are current on their mortgage but under incredible financial pressure while dealing with the hardest emotional challenge a parent could ever have is just the right thing to do," said Sarah Tinsley Demarest, executive director of the MBA’s new charitable group.

"Parents want to be with their child, but they also want to hold on to their home. This gift allows a parent to do that, so they don’t fall behind on their mortgage."

Demarest added, "It’s for parents who are maxed out on taking leave from work. (It allows them to spend more) time with their child in the hospital."

Spare Key is a unique program founded in 1997 by Patsy and Robb Keech, whose son was born with a genetic birth defect and endured many hospitalizations during the first two years of his life. The Keeches were torn between wanting to be with their child in the hospital and going to work to maintain financial stability.

They chose to be with their son, so family, friends and strangers raised money during this time of crisis to pay the Keeches’ mortgage so they wouldn’t lose their home.

After their son died, the Keeches vowed to help other families in Minnesota who were in the same straits, and that was the start of Spare Key.

In 2010, Spare Key made 140 payments; in 2011, it made a record 201 payments.

Spare Key makes only one mortgage payment per family in a calendar year.

"We know, for families in more dire financial straits, this may not be exactly what they need, but for those families who need a bit more time in the hospital, who need a little bit more money in their pocket, who need that extra support, it’s what we do," said Erin Werde, Spare Key’s director of development and communications.

The one qualification to be eligible for Spare Key is that the a child must be in the hospital at least 21 out of the past 90 days, which means the charity serves kids that are at the more severe end of illness of injury. Of the children assisted, 47 percent had birth defects, 16 percent cancer, 13 percent prematurity, and 10 percent leukemia and accidents. About 75 percent of the Spare Key children are under 5.

In October, Werde got a call from a mother who lived in northern Minnesota, in a rural area far from a hospital. Her daughter, 6, had been complaining of headaches, which turned out to be brain tumors. Not only did the mother and daughter have to travel from northern Minnesota to Minneapolis — they also traveled to Boston for treatments. Spare Key paid for a month’s mortgage. As for the girl, she’s doing much better.

Generally, the initial contacts with families are through hospital social workers. "We’ve been around the community long enough now that we have been able to form great relationships at the hospitals," Werde said.

"When a pediatric social worker sees a child has been in the hospital for an extended period of time, (the worker knows to) refer the families to Spare Key."

A family fills out an application, which can be obtained from the social worker or online, and then the Spare Key program director verifies all of the information: whether the family is current on the mortgage; length of hospital stay; and even that the house is actually located in the state of Minnesota.

Once those things are in place, a program committee reviews the application to double-check whether it fits Spare Key’s criteria. When all that happens, Spare Key will make a mortgage payment with a cap of $1,200 directly to the mortgage company.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the Spare Key program is that it makes only one mortgage payment per calendar year. Also, the $1,200 cap may not come close to covering some families’ monthly payments.

"We have discussed changes, but on our estimation there are about 1,000 families within our program parameters that we could be serving every year," Werde said. "There are other programs out there that will provide other types of support with bills. We highly encourage our families to seek other sources of support, as we are relatively narrow in our focus."

The MBA will follow the original Spare Key’s formula and it, too, will stick to the "just one mortgage payment" formula.

What the MBA intends to do is support three new chapters of Spare Key. The first will be in the Washington, D.C., metro area, and the second two locations have yet to be announced. All should be open sometime in 2012.

"Our president, David Stevens, had heard about Spare Key some years ago and has been supporting it personally, as well as some of the other MBA members," Demarest said.

"Since the program was announced, we have had incredible outreach from our members wanting to be involved. We are trying to do this so the actual monies raised will go into mortgage grants and assistance, so we are looking where we have need and where we have members who will help us with the fundraising."

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer in Arizona and author of several books. His latest book, "Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis," is now available for sale on Amazon.com.

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