Modified: March 04, 2013 1:02 PM
Son's illness made giving personal
For Atlanta dealer Jim Ellis, a longtime contributor to mental illness causes, the connection is personal.
Ellis and his wife of nearly 60 years, Billie, experienced the devastation that mental illness can cause when their son, Greg Ellis, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Greg Ellis, who worked for his father's dealerships in his younger years, struggled with his illness until he died in 2000 at age 40.
"It is one of the types of things that doesn't change and gradually gets worse," said Jim Ellis, 81, choking up as he remembered his son. "And there's no answer for it. There's no cure. And when they reach a certain age to see what their destiny is, it's not good."
Through the Ellis family's loss, they realized how much help is needed. People suffering from mental illness have a hard time keeping jobs. Many end up in jail. And public programs to support and treat the mentally ill have dwindled over the years.
"Unless you deal with it, you never understand it," Ellis said.
In January 2000, the same month their son died, the Ellises established the Jim Ellis Foundation. Each year since, Jim Ellis Automotive Group has put up to 10 percent of the 13-store company's profits into the foundation, which now has an endowment of more than $5 million.
The foundation distributes about $500,000 annually to various local and national charities. In addition to mental health causes, the foundation supports other social, religious and educational organizations and the arts. Several million dollars have been distributed through the foundation so far.
The Ellis family donated $380,000 to help build the Norcross Cooperative Ministry Center, which is now named after Greg. It provides food, clothing, temporary housing, financial aid, job services and medical assistance to the needy.
Ellis got his start as a dealer when he and his wife used all their savings and cashed in Billie's retirement fund to open a suburban Atlanta Volkswagen store in 1971. As the dealership group expanded and became more successful, Ellis was able to contribute more and more to community organizations.
Today, Ellis and his wife are preparing their two daughters to get involved in the foundation. Their son, Jimmy, is the COO of the dealership group. Giving back has become a family legacy for the next generation.
"We enjoy doing it," Ellis said. "You don't do it for the recognition but for the satisfaction of seeing how some people respond to what you give them to fill that need."