Many agencies came to a United Way meeting at some point last year, not knowing what to expect. We were told that things were changing, and that community impact in the "self sufficiency" goal was going to be the way forward.
TIMEOUT. I know from many people that I've talked to that the United Way (both nationally & locally), Erika Dvorske & their board has caught a bad rap for these changes. Regardless of how you feel about United Way, please hear me out for a moment, because I used to be extremely skeptical of United Way's in general. One of the first things I did when I moved to Lawrence was sit down with Erika and have quite a long conversation with her (it was more than 90 minutes, if I recall). I did all the research I could about the efficiency of our United Way, before I committed our organization to be a community partner of theirs. I was then, and still am now, impressed by their initiative and desire to see systematic changes in how services are delivered. Throwing money at problems do not make them go away. I know some of our locally favorite charities are getting funded differently, but let me assure you, everyone is being more efficient with the dollars that are being donated. This process, as I understand it (community impact), wasn't to inhibit an agency's ability to serve clients, but to empower them to do more, together. And to actually help make a difference long term, instead of sitting around and blaming the government, or the economy. At some point, we have to stop blaming everyone else and start taking some responsibility for what's happening in our world. Erika, her staff & her board have done an incredible job through a difficult transition...but I can promise you this. In five years when things are better and our economy is worse...the same folks that are speaking ill of these changes will be the same ones singing their praises.
GAME ON. Fast forward to early last fall. The entire self-sufficiency goal had a meeting and we were told that we needed to bring what we needed and were requesting from United Way to the next meeting. Self-Sufficiency is broken down into three different things: gainful employment, emergency services & affordable housing. We broke out into those subgroups at the next meeting, and I listened as myself, Kyle Roggenkamp from Ballard Center, and Lieutenant Matthew McCluer from the Salvation Army all asked for money to feed people in our community. It was a significant amount of money. To feed the same people.
TIMEOUT. In years past, if we would have been funded for those amounts, we would be using community dollars to do the same thing. Not a jab on any agency, or United Way for how things used to be, but it's not efficient. And it's not sustainable. The need is increasing. Resources are decreasing. The same story would be prevalent every year. Help us do more with less. No one ever bothered to wonder if there was a better way. We were just simply doing things the same way we always did and would always wonder why things didn't get better.
GAME ON. Kyle, Matt and I had this awkward moment, as we were around the table with several other folks from our community, who weren't requesting money for duplicative work, that we just knew that no matter how great we thought our programs were, we had a few choices: work together or selfishly go for the most money at whatever cost. Thankfully, these guys are wonderful. The clients they serve are more important than protecting "the way things have always been" at their organizations. They came to the table willing to talk, work together, and what has come out of those conversations has been something that, in my opinion, is unprecedented collaboration with community partners working together to have an indelible impact on the lives of clients. In conversations since then, we have worked through details, and taken an enormous amount of time and care to make sure that when our clients come in and want a better life, our silo doesn't just hand them a box of food and send them on their merry way.
I'll talk about more tomorrow the great things that are happening that you've hopefully heard about. You'll also hopefully hear their perspectives too, because I've invited them to write on the Just Food blog what this collective impact will have for all of our clients, and what it has meant to them personally.
My apologies for the long break in writing! With Christmas, and the New Year, and all of the exciting changes happening, this has unfortunately taken a back seat.
I remember one of my first meetings where I was sitting in a room with many agencies in Douglas County. I had been back in Lawrence for just a few months. And someone made a comment that I wholeheartedly disagreed with. They said,
"Why, every agency in Lawrence works well together, and there's no competition at all."
I bit my tongue so hard it almost bled. Those that know me know that I don't bite my tongue often, but I gave it a shot to see perhaps if there was something I was missing.
By nature, every agency has to be selfish. Our livelihoods are at stake, right? If we don't protect what we have and guard our mission closely, then maybe one day we will be deemed irrelevant and have to close.
If you didn't catch it, the statement I just made is HEAVILY toxic. And one that I wholeheartedly don't believe in. Why? Because this isn't about protecting an agency. No matter how much good an agency does, if there's someone else that is doing it better, and more cost-effectively, then by all means all power should be put behind that agency to focus on that.
Agencies in Lawrence have had to become all things to all people. There wasn't much here 20 years ago. So, agencies whose primary mission wasn't food, had to give food out, because no one else was doing it.
So, we have a ton of agencies in Lawrence doing a ton of good work, and much of it is not happening symbiotically. And the only reason it's not happening symbiotically is because people haven't sat down at the same table, willing to lose everything for the good of those that are investing, and those that they are serving.
I realize what I just wrote could be hard for many to digest. It's hard for me to digest. But, are we focusing on those that we serve and making things better for them? Or simply sustaining our organizations because they've always existed?
Three agencies came to the table willing to lose it all, to gain better service to clients, and selflessly made decisions that will forever alter the way that food distribution is done in Douglas County. We pickup there tomorrow.
We have asked a lot of our clients recently. We have asked them to give us something that they have plenty of, and that is free to give: an opinion. We've invited them to be blatantly honest with them about their struggles, needs, challenges & opportunities as they relate to food insecurity.
Shockingly (hopefully you can sense my sarcasm here), we have found that 100% of our clients didn't imagine themselves in the position that they're in. While everyone was dreaming of being a firefighter, astronaut, cop, physicist, lawyer or doctor, no one was dreaming of being poor. But somewhere between our pre-K years and the time we are legally recognized as an adult, many factors come into play that often relegate us to the same path that many before us are on: poverty. Poverty is generational. It's hard to break. Sure, sometimes it's because people made bad choices. But mainly it's because people don't know how to get out.
Food insecurity is a symptom of a greater issue. Giving out food won't fix it. More pounds distributed this year won't help it. We have to begin to attack the cause of these issues, and not just the symptoms.
So, we have clients coming to us who almost unanimously say, "I want to do better." Shame on us if all we do is put a box of food in their hand when the last thing they want is a box of food. They want a better life.
Our first focal point starts on: the need.
We started talking about what would help our folks have a better life. Wouldn't you know it - most of the time when we started asking that question, no one that was around was anyone who could have answered the question. We started asking our clients. We were shocked and amazed at the results.
So, we're starting over. We're demolishing what was and, from the very ground up, beginning again. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won't. But at least we won't have sat back another year and been averse to change, while the problem has gotten progressively worse. Just Food will look different from an operations perspective. But I can tell you this: we will be more solvent than we have ever been before. Why? Because we're no longer focused on a symptom.
There are so many numbers about how large the need is in our community, but we really don't know how large the need is. I am not into wasting resources or the investments of people's hard earned money to meet a need that we know exists, but we're not sure to what extent. We want to answer questions that people are asking, and not spend time providing solutions to things that people have already solved. This is where our quest for change began, and where we will pick up with tomorrow.
I didn't get into being a non profit director so I could sit around, tell other people what to do and play golf all the time. Speaking of golf, we'll update you on our tournament really soon (but it was awesome!). I know more about the names and stories of our clients than I do my handicap, and I intend to keep it that way.
We've told stories about our volunteers and what we do. But here's why it matters...we have made that an important and integral part of our culture.
People matter here. Their stories matter here. They are listened to here. They belong here.
One of our volunteers came in and told us her husband told her she needed to be at Just Food more because she "was way happier."
Another one of our volunteers called in on their vacation numerous times just to speak to people from our team and say that she missed us.
We've had volunteers say that they have no family, and they come here because this is a family. They are accepted and loved for who they are here.
Why are we so passionate about this? Why do we care so much? Because this stuff matters.
I can't tell you how many times I go places and people talk about the great things that Just Food is doing. The phone calls, texts and emails from people who are just blown away at how much momentum we've been getting.
We say it around here all the time: We will not be ignored.
We can't. We can't afford to be ignored. We can't afford to sit back on our hands and hope that someone else takes care of our issues. We can't afford to tell our clients that we're too busy to help them. We can't afford to tell our volunteers that they aren't important enough to invest in.
At Just Food today, here's who we have: a former retail mobile phone district manager, a former budget director, a former office manager/cleaning business owner, three unemployed people, a former pastor, a former HVAC manager, a teenager doing community service, a caring grandpa, a retired City employee & her grandson, a former occupational therapist, and two students from KU. Black, hispanic, white & american indian. All represented here. No former non profit executives who wanted something local. No professional volunteers who wanted to stop with one organization and start with a newer one. We're the crazy ones. The misfits. The round pegs trying to fit in the square holes. But I love these people. And THEY are the heroes that make up Just Food and who care so much about those that we serve.
"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The trouble makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They aren't fond of rules and have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the one thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them a crazy, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world are the ones who actually do." -Steve Jobs
We are crazy enough to believe that we can change the world, and here's the great news....we are. One life at a time right here in Douglas County.
Seriously, you'd be even more crazy not to come down here and join us.
Just Food: Shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots….EVERYBODY!
I have been increasingly weary lately of how many times it's been said to me... "why would you want to set your goal THAT high?"
It's no secret that I'm a risk taker. I don't like playing things safe. Safe is boring. I lead the same way. Our organization takes risks. We aren't just satisfied with a food pantry, so we undertake the mission of adding and providing food from food drives to (now) 42 agencies in Douglas County. We are in the process of initiating a food pantry on Haskell's campus and will be doing the same (hopefully) on campus at KU. We're starting cooking classes in October, teaching people how to cook healthy, nutritious food at an affordable cost. We are looking at a community wide food distribution system, rather than many individual silos, trying to maximize impact and effectiveness.
We are growing at abnormal growth rates. We are distributing more food, to more people and more agencies. Last year at this time, we had 8 agencies and were distributing food to 2,000 people a month. Now, we have 42 agencies and are distributing food to 12,000 people a month. I say that because we never would be where we are if we didn't take risks.
Wayne Gretzky (hockey great) said, "you miss 100 percent of the shots that you don't take."
Our team knows. When it comes to events, fundraisers, community awareness initiatives...we don't set our sights low. They hear me say frequently... "if we set our sights low, you'll hit it...everytime." So, we don't ever set our sighs low. We take risks. We take shots. We make some. We miss some. But what can't be said is that we're not giving 110%.
Every volunteer at our organization, and every staff member. They leave it on the field of play everyday. All of themselves. We go home tired. Not because what we do is that exhausting (most of the time), but because we're executing our personal mission with precision and absolute effort.
It's okay to fail. It's not okay to not try.
We will continue to set big, fat, hairy, and completely audacious goals. Our team would be disappointed with anything less than that. And as we do, continue to support us as you've always done. You won't regret it.
BE A VOICE. Hold a food drive at your business or at your party. Go to http://justfoodks.org/donate/hold-a-food-drive/ for details.
VOLUNTEER. October 8, 2012 - Mobile Food Pantry, 11:00 a.m. Come and see hundreds of cars line up to receive between 7-10 tons of food.
DONATE. October 12, 2012 - Late Night in the Phog Bring a canned food donation or text justfood to 80888 to donate $10.
DONATE. October 21 - Stuff the Bus, Dillon's on 23rd Bring canned food to help KU Stuff the Bus for their 100th Anniversary Homecoming.
DONATE. October 21-28, Dillon's across Lawrence KU Homecoming slogan..."CENTURY LONG, TRADITION STRONG" - we're starting another strong tradition that will hopefully be centuries long to fight hunger in Douglas County. Sponsored by Dillon's, each store will be competing with one another to see who can raise the most food during homecoming week!
VOLUNTEER. November 19-21, December 19-22 at Just Food Our holiday distribution, we will be open 8am-8pm each day to help serve the ever-growing number of those in need, especially during the holiday season.
EVENT. December 15, 2012 - TCP5 http://www.facebook.com/events/156728241133863/
Take a risk. Give it a shot. Come on in, the water is fine. Join (if you haven't) and continue with (if you have) the rest of us at Just Food as we fight hunger in Douglas County each and everyday.
One of the things that has consistently bothered me about the scope of social services in the United States has been the unwillingness of agencies to work with one another to accomplish common goals. Everyone has their own agendas, motives, staff, resources...and social service agencies have become hoarders. But it's worse than the TV show. Because it's not just our stuff that we're hoarding. We're hoarding volunteers (your time), money (your hard-earned cash) and all in the name of helping people.
One of the things that I told our team when I arrived in Lawrence is that we will not be hoarders. We will give...so much that it doesn't make sense. We will leverage influence & resources to make sure that other people have enough, even if we have to suffer because of it.
It is no surprise that for many communities, including Lawrence, working together with other agencies is often difficult. Everyone has their own logo, brand, resources, ideas, etc. Everyone wants the same thing, but has different ways of getting there. So, we operate as silos, intermixing when the opportunities present itself, and the amount of waste and duplication in the system is astronomical.
Enter Just Food.
Last October, we did the Late Night in the Phog food drive. Lawrence & Douglas County was so incredibly generous (as usual) and over 2,000 pounds of food was donated. For those that don't know, we have a client services division as a part of the Just Food umbrella that, in June, served 7,047 people. (It encompasses a food pantry, mobile food pantry, daily market: where clients can come and get fresh bread and produce, and two federal commodity distribution programs.)
It would have been nice to take that 2,000 pounds of food to feed the hungry people that walk through our doors in droves. But we didn't.
We had a meeting, and the first meeting was attended last October by about 15 Douglas County agencies. I laid out the vision for what Just Food's partner services division (food distribution to partners) would be: no hoarding allowed. We will relentlessly and selflessly work our tails off to raise resources to give to Douglas County food distribution agencies free of charge. We could absolutely use those resources here. But this isn't a competition. And we are all in this together. Together, we win. Together, we lose. Together, we succeed. Together, we fail. Besides, this was the idea from the beginning.
And as a teaser, next week, I will sit down with our founder, Ann Weick, and share with you her reasons for starting Just Food. I can't wait to share that with you.
But for now...since May of this year, we have distributed more than 30,000 pounds of food to now 40 (and growing) partner agencies...FREE OF CHARGE TO THEM. This food includes produce that our friends at the Farmers Market donate, as well as the selfless giving of Mr. Voigt from Voigt Farms, the Master Gardeners, and many other farmers and gardeners. This also includes food that we have purchased at deep discounts, and food that has been donated that we have transported, sorted, stored & packed. That being said, we have distributed in 2 1/2 months nearly $50,000 worth of food to these agencies at no cost to them.
Many would say that we're crazy, and we are. But we are incredibly passionate about helping agencies with huge hearts, but a limited pocketbook make ends meet to continue to feed the hungry that come to them each and every day.
Tomorrow I'll go into more detail about what the role of Just Food as a food bank is. I encourage you to follow along the way. We are making a difference together!