Monday, September 7, 2009

Mending the Broken Link in the Help Chain

How to get whole neighborhoods involved in community service.

A Germ of an Idea
In mid December 2008, I got an idea after watching a news story on our Community Food Bank here in Tucson. They were really struggling to meet the demands placed on them by the shrinking economy and an ever expanding unemployment rate. I thought that if every neighbor —nearly one million of them—donated one can of food a week, hunger could be eliminated in this city. The next thought I had was to make this idea my personal community service. Wait a second; I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m 67-years-old and have never done any community service but suddenly I have a personal community service program. The truth is I viewed community service as tedious committee meetings where hours are spent on nuance and non action. Then Senator Barack Obama, now President Obama came into my life and things started to change. I voted for President Kennedy. For the next 40 years I always ended up voting against, not for, someone. This election I finally got to vote for someone again. That’s the kind of change I mean—more emphasis on the positive.

Over the years I’ve helped people with traumatic brain injury get back into the work force and business people navigate out of tough times. The books I’ve authored were consumer reference tools and I even invented the first USB pet ID tag that protects dogs and their owners. I admit all of these helping hands I extended were mostly one on one.

A few months before the November election I saw a TV program on Senator Obama’s community organizer career and I suddenly had a bit of an epiphany about community service. One can be in a community service organization but that doesn’t matter. The idea is to just “do something.” What a great way to look at community service.

It was late December, 2008 and I was still thinking about community service so I decided to go to a local Committee 4 Change meeting. They were holding these house party meetings all over the city trying to get people involved in community service. Even though it looked like a “nuance and no action” get together, I pushed myself there anyway.

The invitation asked me to bring a community service idea and I did. I even wrote the idea on a 3”x3” yellow Post-It Note and stuck it on a white board as instructed. It took nearly an hour and a half for the meeting moderator to get to my idea. During all that time I had to listen to folks talk about their arts programs and political action groups which all required funding. Since the recession was just picking up a head of steam and our state government was feverishly looking for things to cut from the state budget, I sat there a bit amazed and amused.

Finally the moderator, waving my yellow piece of paper about said, “Whose idea is ‘Feeding the Hungry ’”. I started out by saying that here’s an idea that doesn’t need any funding. All you do is go around to your neighbors and pick up a can of food a week from them and take it to the Community Food Bank. By the looks on their faces I think I lost them at “doesn’t need any funding.”

But I pressed on. I told them I would create all of the collateral material they would need and send it to them as Word documents. I’d also go to the Community Food Bank and get their permission and copy approval on the collateral material.

No takers there. On the drive home I was a little disappointed…no, a lot disappointed that I could not interest anyone in helping their neighbors help the Community Food Bank. This was my first exposure to the “help chain disconnect” which—I have to tell you—went right over my head and out the car window that sunny afternoon.

As I got closer to my home I remembered President Obama’s community organizer story. I knew I had a good community service idea. It was simple and folks will have no trouble whatsoever reaching into their pantries instead of their pockets to support hungry people. I’m just going to do it myself…that’s what I’m going to do, I thought. I believe I even smacked the steering wheel in my resolve. Okay, now I’m back on track.

Do Something
Within a week I created a neighborhood food donation program called “One Can A Week” that included a short flyer explaining the program—which I ran by the Community Food Bank and got their approval—a sign up sheet and “Thank You” and “Sorry We Missed You” cards.

That first Sunday I nervously approached my closest neighbors to ask them to participate. At this point I didn’t collect any food. I picked Sunday between 11:30 am and 5 pm because it seemed to me that this was the only time during the week that most of my neighbors were home. This time slot was after Sunday services and hours before folks had to start thinking about getting ready for Monday. It turned out I was right, most were home and feeling charitable.

Every neighbor I talked to that first Sunday—about 10 in all—agreed to participate in the Community Food Bank donation program. I told them that I would stop by every Sunday to pick up at least one can of food and they could just put it on the porch. I would leave a “Thank You” card so they would know that I was the one who took the can. If there were no food on the porch, I would leave the “Sorry We Missed You” card and stop by again the next Sunday. (There is some kind of magic in the “Sorry We Missed You” card because on the following Sunday I usually find a whole lot more food. Maybe it’s just guilt, not magic.)

On the second Sunday in January, my personal community service program began in earnest. I was even more nervous than the week before because this was the true test. Were my neighbors being nice by saying they would participate just to get me off their front porch or were they kind of serious about doing something for the community?

On the dot of 11:30 am I left my home with shopping bag, clip board, note cards and flyers in hand. There it was, the first can on the porch of my next door neighbor. I was so excited and nervous picking up the can, I dropped all of the “Thank You” cards. And there was a can at the next house and the next house. All 10 neighbors had a can ready.

Then I spent a few hours talking to more of the neighbors on my block and one block down. Most said they would participate, then darted back into the house and returned with a can or two. The first official Sunday collection netted 20 lbs. of food which I delivered to the Community Food Bank on Monday morning. That was a proud day.

35 Weeks Later and Counting
We have just completed our second quarter and the total food we collected amounted to 4,411 lbs. or enough food to feed 1,311 folks three meals in one day. Every participant in the Miles Neighborhood is surprised, astonished and really pleased they are involved in a community service project that is making a difference. The expression I hear the most is “keep up the good work.” I usually say thanks and that I definitely will. But at those times my thought is “I’ve got to keep coming up with ways to help keep my neighbors engaged. They’re my customers and I’ve got to serve them well.”

Firing Up Other Neighborhoods
Now that I have my Miles Neighbors in a good place—which only requires about 2.5 hours on Sunday including a 45 minute lunch break to collect the food donations—I have time to encourage other neighborhoods to pick up the gauntlet. A few weeks ago I made a presentation to the board of the Sam Hughes Neighborhood Association. The Sam Hughes neighborhood is a very large and very historic neighborhood here in Tucson. The response I got was somewhat typical of the responses I get from individuals. They think One Can A Week is a terrific idea and immediately they suggest sending out flyers telling people to deliver food to a local neighborhood location such as a library. As politely as possible I say that is not how the idea works, you have to individually ask your neighbors to participate and then pick up the food weekly.

Here it is again, that help chain disconnect. At this juncture I still don’t have a clear image of what that disconnect is but I do talk to my friends about it. At lunch the day after my Sam Hughes Neighborhood meeting I tell Bill Roach my business partner what happened the night before. Bill who is a very astute and humorous marketer listened to me for awhile and then said. “Of course you have to go pick up the donations, most Americans just want to stay home and sit on their cans.” I felt better because he got me laughing but not really that much better.

Help Your Neighbors Help!
One evening a few months ago, I was speaking to Barbara Farragut, my 12th Street neighbor. She volunteered to collect food on her street to lighten my work load. Barbara is a professional nurse and an executive whose opinion I really value. Actually she’s a hard working skeptic and my reality check. Barbara says she is helping because she is amazed at how committed the neighbors are to the weekly food donation drive and she wants a front row seat to see just how long it will last. Her thinking is the weekly emails, web blog, quarterly reports and intermittent news stories on One Can A Week activities—which her neighbors tell her they really like—is the glue that holds One Can A Week together. Barbara’s betting it’s epoxy glue so she’s in it for the long haul. She makes me laugh.

That night we were talking about my lack of success in convincing others to assume my role in their neighborhoods. My question to Barbara was rhetorical. “How hard is it to help your neighbors get into community service? It is just customer service. I don’t understand why there is such a break in the help chain.”

I fell silent for a moment. That’s it! All those managers and coordinators I spoke to about One Can A Week have a break in their help chain. They think that their involvement in community service—or anything for that mater—just requires them to tell people what to do and the people should do it. What they fail to understand is you help people, you don’t tell people when you want to get something done. It’s the first link in the Help Chain.

Looking for Leaders
For the past several months I have been telling all kinds of people about One Can A Week and its ability to put food on the table of the needy and life back into neighborhood communities. Until I started asking individuals, neighborhood organizations, social clubs, TV and radio audiences, newspaper readers and faith based communities to step up and get involved, I really did not know or appreciate the meaning of the word apathy. For someone like me this situation is discouraging yet encouraging at the same time.

Recently, a gentleman came up to me after my presentation to a breakfast club meeting where no one had any interest in learning more about One Can A Week and said that I was living a life of selfless service which turned out to be one of his club’s mottos. I saw the irony but kept it to myself. This feeling I have to help folks in need whether it’s those wanting food or involvement in community service is probably similar to those feelings volunteer Little League or reading coaches get. But they are already busy helping kids. And I’ll bet they are always asking for help, too, because the task is great and important and the kids just keep coming.

Until I met President Obama on the TV and the Internet and thought of One Can A Week, I wasn’t into group help so I guess I have to be more patient and appreciate that there is a learning curve to everything.

Good things are happening though. Because of the national publicity about the Miles Neighborhood Food Donation Program which appeared in USA Today and The New York Time,
folks in neighborhoods in Phoenix, North Carolina and Kentucky are starting their own One Can A Week programs. Another good thing is we have a friend in Sandy Scott, the Director of Media at the Corporation for National and Community Service in Washington, DC, who keeps an eye on us and helped us get that wonderful publicity which we could have never gotten by ourselves.

The Help Chain is beginning to mend, I can see that. And telling people the answer is really not an effective way to foster the healing process. I just have to keep on helping my Miles neighbors help and then stir in a little publicity now and then. Actions do speak louder than words; however, it sure would be nice if some community service entrepreneurs like myself just picked up the ball and ran with it. Kids and people have to eat three times a day, you know.

Visit to review and download all of the free One Can A Week collateral materials.

The Heart and Broken Chain photograph (000001073398) is copyrighted by and is licensed from for this use. For more extensive use such as over 500,000 visitors/impressions the fee is $125 which I will pay prior to publication. Please contact Peter Norback at (520) 248-3694 for more details.

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