John: I am here today with Jesse Giordano who has been nominated as a Model Citizen for the February issue of Model Citizens Magazine. Jesse is a philanthropist and also a Financial Advisor and Principal with Opal Wealth Advisors in Jericho, New York. Jesse, I’ve just learned that you’re a cancer survivor and I’m wondering if you can share your story with us.
Jesse: Sure, I was seven years old, just before my eighth birthday, and I was playing Little League baseball. I was at the plate and my mom was sitting in the stands watching me and from her seat, I guess it is a parent’s instinct, noticed something on my neck and it worried her. When I came off the field, she looked at my neck and asked what the lump was. She seemed a little panicked. I remember that she asked me if it hurt and if I hurt myself. My dad came to look as well and the next thing I knew I was in my pediatrician’s office.
John: I am sure it was surreal.
Jesse: They ran several tests and ultimately confirmed that I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I had to do chemotherapy for about eight months. The chemotherapy was definitely the hardest part.
John: I watched my father’s treatments, and the chemotherapy he went through was the worst thing I ever witnessed in my life. Cancer just devastated him.
Jesse: My first chemotherapy treatment was on my mom’s 33rd birthday. My parents are the same age, so they were 33 at the time. It was a difficult eight months. I can still remember the burning, vomiting, and nausea. It went on for several months and fortunately once the treatment was over, I never had an issue ever again. It certainly left a mark on my childhood. I think if there is any remarkable or positive outcome from my illness, and this is difficult to imagine and I hesitate to say this because it may sound insensitive to those who are going through chemotherapy today, but I am grateful that I went through it because it gave me an appreciation of my own vulnerabilities. Not in the sense of having something to be afraid of, but I was most moved by and can remember clearly, even though I was only seven or eight, the care from nurses and doctors, my family, and the students in my school.
John: Is that what motivated you to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Man of the Year competition?
Jesse: Well, I did not talk about my cancer until maybe my junior or senior year of high school which was about 10 years later. I started off with a wonderful woman in my high school who ran the Community Service Program. Her name was Julia Salat. She gave us a lot of opportunities to get involved on in philanthropic efforts in our community.
There was one Doctor, Dr. Weinblatt, who is still practicing today as a matter of fact, and he was one of the gentlest and caring human beings I’ve ever met in my life. I still remember vividly one time when I only had three or four treatments left. I was crying because they stuck me about 15 times trying to find a vein for the IV. He came in with a Mickey Mouse Yamaka, olive corduroy pants, and a yellow and brown striped shirt. He took my hand and asked me why I was crying. I said I did not want to do this anymore. I just wanted to go home, and he said to me ‘don’t worry I got you’. He kneeled on the floor and he just sat with me and on the next attempt they got a vein. This man was head of the pediatric oncology unit and he was responsible for every child on that floor, but the most important thing to him at that moment was to just be with me.
John: I’m a firm believer that doctors and nurses are God‘s angels on earth. I spent months in the hospital myself and I never would have made it without them. They are miracle workers.
Did all these experiences lead you to the Man of the Year competition? You raised such an extraordinary amount of money, setting records. Everybody talks about you. You are a legend whether you know it or not.
Jesse: Well, here’s what I would to make sure I communicate. Dr. Weinblatt and that experience inspired me, but there are several people along the way who gave me opportunities. Like Mrs. Salat in high school who helped me be involved with community events to fulfill that and meet that and that is when I did my first cancer walk. My first job was at Citibank, they were involved in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and it gave me the opportunity to start fundraising and learn how to build a team when I had my first job. Many people approached me over the years to do other events and I did decline the nomination for Man of the Year twice before. But then I got the opportunity to share my story at another LLS event a few years ago. A friend had introduced me to the executive director, Sarah Lipsky and I shared my story and I just got hooked. I was the chair of the campaign for all of Long Island and we were on track to have our best year in fundraising ever for the Long Island region. We were going to be one of the best in the country and then Covid hit. After that, we went from about 23 or 24 candidates for Man of the Year to just 10. I wondered how I would be able to make the biggest impact and then decided to run myself. With Covid, the prediction was that fundraising would drop by 50%. We knew that research was being put on hold because of funding shortages. I thought to myself “how do we raise money right now?” Others said it could not be done but I said “we’re going to figure it out.” Then I built a really big team and set out to raise one dollar at a time and go by volume rather than worry about big contributions. For three weeks I built a team of 100 people to raise the money. We did it all by zoom, letters and emails.
What I would like to highlight is that people showed up at various points in my life to give me a chance. If those people did not show up for me, I would never have been able to do it because I was too scared. I always wanted to, but I did not know how. Thankfully, many people stuck their necks out to give me a chance to experience what it’s like to go beyond the fear and make a meaningful impact. In philanthropy, you may be successful on your own, but the people who raise big dollars like Asaf German, they do it through a team.
John: I was part of that effort. I photographed at every event he did.
Jesse: So I followed what successful people have done in the past. I built a team and made sure they had all they needed to be successful. There were people that raised $500 with me who never did that before. My mom raised money for my team, and even though she had never done it before, she broke $5000. It made her 2020. She could not believe she raised that much.
I said no to previous nominations because I did not believe I could do it. But when people stick their necks out, they give others an opportunity to try and that is essential. Those who provide opportunities to others and teach them and mentor them and say ‘I have your back’ are the most important people that philanthropy has. I got to where I am today because of people like Dr. Weinblatt, Mrs. Salat, Citibank and countless others who approached me over the years and gave me a chance. If they didn’t, I would not have had the most moving and fulfilling moments in my life.
John: Why was it the most fulfilling moment and experience of your life? What motivated you?
Jesse: I would say having childhood cancer. What Dr. Weinblatt did for me, and the countless people who showed up for me, to give me the opportunity to heal my own wounds from childhood and to participate. I was responsible and accountable for this most recent campaign in 2020 and I worked very hard with an incredible committee of people who committed to volunteer to make this an exceptional year for Long Island in 2020.
John: That is a very intense reason. During Covid, there was such an extreme need, even more so than any other time.
Jesse: Yes, suddenly patients could not get to the hospital and were forced to delay treatment. Doctors are incredible heroes. The physicians I know who are Oncologists were going into hospitals to take care of patients, putting themselves at risk. They were saying ‘the hell with it! Let’s just do it anyway!’ I was moved by that. It was unreal to hear about these amazing research projects that save lives but were being put on hold. The brilliant young minds at work at these research facilities and agencies were potentially leaving to go elsewhere because they weren’t getting paid.
John: Charitable donations dropped everywhere across the country. What you did is really a miracle as far as I’m concerned.
Jesse: Thank you. You are right, fundraising was expected to drop 50% nationwide. I said to my team that we are building this together and we are going to turn this around for the entire organization. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew we were going to do it. They are going to hear it and we are going to inspire people across the country.
John: I’d really like to talk about you as a person for a moment. A little bit about you and your career. You are a financial advisor and run a substantial company called Opal Wealth Advisors. Can you share with our readers what it is that you do? It seems like you take a very professional and analytical approach, but with a human factor as well. You seem to have an exceptionally good team and I know you’re growing and looking for new people, aren’t you?
Jesse: Yes, we are looking to expand. We just reviewed our numbers today and are up over 20% in the last 12 months as an organization.
We are looking for quality advisors who can help us to continue to fulfill our mission which is to help people achieve meaningful goals using one of their most important resources, their personal finances. We believe that money itself is not the end game. It’s what they hope the money will provide for them that is the true motivator.
People lead busy lives and finding time to make sense of all the noise and stay on track is difficult. We want goals to drive the planning, not the dollars. We call it The Opal Way, which is our unique approach to helping people build roadmaps to achieve their most meaningful goals. We are with them every step of the way as they encounter obstacles and need to strategize how to overcome those roadblocks.
John: When I was young, I heard about stockbrokers and people who were financial advisors and then those who invest on their own. Then you saw a trend where people went back to professionals because they needed the expertise. I feel as though those who worked with experts seem to accumulate more wealth than people who do not. Why do you think that is?
Jesse: Investing is an important part of financial planning, but it’s not the entire part of the process. I make sure that clients can answer questions like what do I need to do now to be able to live the retirement lifestyle that I want? How should I position my retirement portfolio and 401(k)? What should I do with my cash in my account? Should I refinance my mortgage and what kind of insurance do I need, term or permanent? Should I take this extra job and am I making enough, saving enough?
I heard an interesting comment the other day from Jordan Peterson who wrote a book called “Twelve Rules for Life”.
John: I think I noticed that you had posted something about this quote recently.
Jesse: Yes, I did. One of his rules is about authenticity, and being honest with yourself. He cautions not to make too many concrete goals for the future. His point is that it is nearly impossible to know what you are going to want in 20 years. People need to be prepared for anything to change. I think it is fascinating because we are given rules of thumb for what we are supposed to do with financial planning, but if we get too concrete then we box ourselves into what the future is going to look like without bringing in flexibility. It is important to have a target, but we need to remain flexible enough to adjust along the way.
When people are raising children and running a business and taking care of their careers, their community, and spending time with family, with all these important aspects of life it is often overlooked to set aside time for ourselves. If we do not check in with somebody to help us stay on track it’s easy to let things fall through the cracks. A financial planner can manage an investment portfolio and create financial plan for you. But the best Financial Planners go beyond by asking thought-provoking questions to help each client identify where they really want to get to. We help our clients stay focused on a destination and course-correct when necessary. It is important to make sure clients take all the actions needed to move in the right direction. Planning is more than just investing in an account. The more complex someone’s life becomes, the more challenging it is to fulfill goals. That is what we see with our clients. Many people come to us after life gets too complicated to handle on their own and they need our expertise to make sense of it all and take the best actions for them to reach their goals. This is what we create together.
John: That is excellent. Thank you for that description and the why because I think many people believe they can manage their own investments and project out the cost of living based on the time value of money and inflation and other factors. But the fact is it is very hard to plan for anything never mind what may happen in 20 years. We are all not experts at everything and so why not use an expert. Thank you very much for sharing your experiences and how you began in philanthropy and charitable work across Long Island and for sharing with us your passion for helping people plan for their futures.