Written by Melissa Bean Sterzick
Colleen O’Neill grew up in a Midwestern town like the ones in the movies where everyone knows everyone else and everyone takes care of everyone else. Her instinct for helping others comes from a deeply rooted commitment to generosity and service.
Colleen no longer lives in a small town, but she creates community wherever she goes. She’s on a mission. Her desire to share her time, energy and resources and a no-nonsense approach to the ups and downs of life make her a force for good.
Several years ago, Colleen’s brother passed away and she faced a difficult process to settle his estate. He had a trust, but probate was complicated and stressful. The experience made her realize she did not want her trustees to go through the same struggle. She decided to establish a charitable remainder unitrust (CRUT)—a unique planned giving tool that lets individuals draw an annual income for life and then donate assets to designated charitable beneficiaries.
“I looked at what I needed to do to prevent difficulties for my trustees. I talked to financial advisors, read books, spoke to my CPA, and the CRUT seemed to be an excellent vehicle to serve others,” she says. “It will provide me an income and the opportunity to give to others. It’s an effective way to take care of what is important to me—and hopefully my mission is successful.”
Torrance Memorial Medical Center is one beneficiary. Colleen is also giving to two children’s hospitals and Doctors Without Borders. “Torrance Memorial is right in my backyard, and I have seen what they have done throughout the years. I am impressed with the way the hospital educates people in the area on how to improve their emotional, physical and mental health,” she says.
Setting up the CRUT took time and effort, but now that it’s done, Colleen can go back to the other priorities in her life—her friends, interests and a lot of community service. She still manages her family’s ranch in Nebraska, takes classes to keep up with the latest technology and loves to garden. “I love to dig in the dirt,” she says. “I was raised in the Midwest, and that’s just what we do.”
She also volunteers as a “conversational companion” for disabled and homebound seniors. When she stays at her home in Palm Desert, she gives her time to Martha’s Village & Kitchen, a nonprofit providing food, emergency shelter, child care, education and case management for homeless individuals and families.
“It’s just giving back to the community. You can spread yourself around. I am generous with myself because this is my fourth quarter in life,” she says. “I think you must focus on whatever you can do to improve the quality of life for everyone. I was taught that’s what is important.”
Colleen’s mantra is “having a positive attitude is the best tool for making the most of life.” Giving to others is work that makes her feel fulfilled and grateful. Retirement hasn’t been as leisurely as she expected, but she’s happy about that. “I really believe it is a responsibility for all of us to be philanthropic—the magnitude does not matter. It makes me feel good to give back in a small way.” •