Thursday, November 17, 2005

10/17/05: Project Holiday Cheer 2005

Donor fatigue. Yesterday, I read an article in the newspaper about the local food pantry and the lack of donations due to donor fatigue. I can understand their plight. Not only do we have donor fatigue, we have volunteer fatigue.

In the past, we have pushed ourselves so hard and tried to help so many people that we are cutting back this year. Donations are down and our energy needs revitalization. It hurts to have to turn away people who need help. I've been sending people to churches since we are focusing on a smaller group for the holidays. I hope those churches can help them.

This year, we are helping several of NJ social service agencies to help the foster kids again. One donor just contacted me with an overwhelming offer to spend $500 on gifts for children. What an amazing relief it is to have FACT NJ's children taken care of! In addition, BASF is doing a donation drive and invited us to speak at a luncheon in December where we will speak about the communities and people that we help. Finally, Cafe Beethoven in Chatham will be doing a donation drive, too.

Of course, we are working closely with our Virgie, KY community and, in the spring, I will be taking a road trip out to meet with the community and experience first-hand the conditions in which they live. Unlike Pembroke and their community advocates, the Virgie people have responded to my requests for information, photos, and videos. They are so much more receptive to and appreciative of the help given to the people. After the miserable experience dealing with that slick Pembroke pastor, it's refreshing to be supporting a community that actually thanks us!

I cannot thank these individuals and corporations enough for offering to help out. So, even though we have scaled back, we will be able to help the people we've committed to without the stress of past years.

Happy Holidays to all!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

10/13/2005: Oprah and Pembroke

I have heard from many people regarding Pembroke regarding Oprah's show that aired yesterday and highlighted Pembroke, IL. While I did not watch this segment on Oprah yesterday, I must speak to what was certainly aired.

Pembroke has become the poster child for poor communities in the past four years. I can assure everyone that this community has plenty of help, regardless of the ridiculous comment that one caller shared with me that, since Pembroke does not have a zip code, they cannot get government assistance. My hometown does not have a zip code and we still receive plenty of government assistance as needed.

In fact, Focus America no longer supports Pembroke simply because so many people are helping them. Frankly, and only based upon my personal opinion, I'm not a big fan of Rev. Dyson. This happened after my volunteers sent school uniforms, food, and hundreds of Christmas gifts for the children and, according to what I was told, Dyson distributed the items under the auspice of "Look what I collected for you." Granted, this came to me second-hand so I cannot guarantee the accuracy of that statement but the very fact that this MIGHT have occurred did not make my volunteers feel good about the hours spent collecting gifts and money spent in shipping the items to Pembroke, IL.

About 12-18 months ago, someone who told me that they were from the Governor's office contacted me and discussed how the Governor's office was putting together a task force to focus on developing Pembroke: pave the roads, install water, etc.

So, anyone who wants to help a poor community, I encourage you to consider another community that does not have a PR machine with a questionable agenda. We have communities that live in conditions just as bad as Pembroke was...possibly worse.

Unlike the children from Pembroke who, when asked what they needed/wanted for Christmas, said GameCubes, Nintendo, and CD Walkmans, the children from our Virgie community ask for food and coats while their parents ask for jobs to earn money to support their families. This one community wants work. I find that most admirable. We are arranging a program to provide mail order commerce to help these people earn money. We are trying to organize a Christmas drive as well as collecting gently used coats for Thanksgiving.

I could use a great deal of help or arrange for you to adopt one of these families. In my opinion, they could use it much more than the people of Pembroke...

Thursday, September 22, 2005

09/22/2005: Hurricane Katrina: Part II

Sometimes the little things mean the most simply because those little things are the most that the people can give. I just reeived a phone call from the parent in charge of a gynmastic association. They collected almost $500 in donation toward Hurricane Katrina and decided to donate it to Focus America for our cause. This is such wonderful news. We have already donated several hundred dollars to the Hurricane Katrina cause and now, 100% of that new donation will go toward the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast.

As always, I remind people to monitor where they donate money.

We are 100% volunteer and, thanks to our big Santa Claus anonymous donor, we don't have to worry about our day-to-day operations for the next few years. That means that all donations are sent 100% to the cause it was intended. HOW MANY CHARITIES CAN SAY AND PROVE THAT??? I personally work to fund our efforts and our anonymous donor helped cement our future outside of my personal funding.

So thank you Rettigs Gym and thank you parents. You have donated money to truly and really help the rebuilding of Lousiana and Mississippi. Not only will we help rebuild it but we will help provide WORK for these people to make a new life. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!

Thursday, September 01, 2005

09/01/2005: Hurricane Katrina

I have received several calls about what, if anything, Focus America is doing for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. After much thought, the decision has been made to research the best reflief effort agency and donate money to them in order to give them the financial resources to assist the people in need. We will find the relief agency who guarantees that 100% of the money donated will be used to help the victims (and not pay overhead).

Anyone who wishes to donate money may send it to Victims of Hurricane Katrica c/o Focus America (PO Box 267 Convent Station, NJ 07961). All money will be forwarded to the relief agency with a modest matching dollar amount from Focus America on your behalf. While we do not have the financial resources to match 100% of the money donated, we will do our best to insure that every donation has some additional contribution.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

08/31/2005: Project Pencils III

We did it. Once more, we managed to help several hundred children return to school with brand new school supplies. With the help of several churches and local corporations (as well as individual donors), we donated over 250 backpacks with additional boxes of supplies to children working with social services agencies in northern New Jersey as well as shipped numerous boxes to Virgie, Kentucky (along with toys, clothing, and household goods). It's always rewarding when these collections are over. The relief on the faces of the social services workers as well as the children who receive the goods is worth the time and energy collecting the items.

Of course, I always reflect back on the project when it is completed and wish we could have helped more people and more agencies. But I'm very grateful for the children we did managed to help.

As always, a special thank you to Assumption Church for their continued dedication and support.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

August 2005: Donors Keep Coming...

Just when I think I am down and out, donors surprise the life out of me. One donor contacted me and she personally collect over 100 notebooks, dozens of pens, crayons, etc. Assumption Church is collecting goods again as in Sankyo Pharma. It's a good feeling to know that so many people out there care. It's refreshing to know that my efforts have the support of people in the community.

This year was hard because I scaled back, partially due to a lack of volunteers to help me manage, partially due to my burnout from overextending myself during the past holiday season, and partially due to extensive construction at our house which severely decreased any sort of storage space. But the donors are coming through with notebooks and backpacks for these children. Thank you, thank you. The children will be so happy...

Friday, July 15, 2005

July 2005: Kentucky Passed the Test

Just a quick note…I received a thank you call from the Pastor in Kentucky. He just passed my test. I had shipped out a few boxes of goods…nothing major. The fact that he called to thank me just elevated him and his community in my book. I had that gut instinct about him. Now I feel much more comfortable in spending the hard earned money that my donors have entrusted to my organization in order to ship goods out to those children living in the coal mining region of Virgie, Kentucky.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

July 2005: First School Supply Collections!

It always amazes me how people find us. The Essex Baptist Church in Livingston reached out to us. They had several large boxes of backpacks for us. I am very grateful for their donation since this kicked off our first official donation for Project Pencils 2005.

I have to admit that I’m disappointed in having to scale back our donations but, I faced the fact that I am a one-woman show at this point. Since I am no longer with the College of St. Elizabeth, my pool of eager college students to run the projects are gone. So much for service learning…Oh well.

The good news is that the programs are still running and helping hundreds of children. I find it amazing how much one person can do. If only we had an army of people helping us. If each person could do what I am doing, no child would return to school without notebooks and pens/pencils…the basic tools to succeed. But at least my wonderful donors are helping those children that I can reach. Yes, it isn’t 1300 children but the 250-300 children we can help will be grateful.

I also have to admit that I made a decision not to assist the day laborer community this year. I know that many of these people need a helping hand. However, I also have to admit that I saw a lot of greed and uncharitable behavior from this particular group. Men sent children into our donation centers for multiple items so that they could sell the items to their friends or send back to their home countries. People lied about how many children they had during our holiday giveaways. When Anne Marie ran her garage sale to raise money, the day laborer women paid her with crisp 100 dollar bills. It made me think that, in scaling back, I need to help the people who do not have money or resources…the children directly.
This required a lot of soul searching on my part. At one point in time, my ancestors were immigrants and struggled in this country. Perhaps that is what more people need…a bit of a struggle to realize that life is not a hand-out. Frankly, a bit of gratitude goes a long way in motivating me to help people so when I don’t get the gratitude or don’t recognize the look of appreciation, my own motivation decreases. I’ve been burned throughout the years and it has been a learning experience. From helping young women try to develop business acumen who later turned on me to recipients of goods who never say Thank You. It’s a tough pill to swallow.

This has truly been the year of assessing where I want to be and where I want to take Focus America.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

June 2005: Project Pencils 2005

It's time to start collecting school supplies for the children who live in foster care or poverty-stricken communities. We were fortunate to receive an extremely generous donation from an anonymous donor which will allow us to expand our reach in soliciting donations from local corporations and churches in our collection effort. It appears that Assumption Church in Morristown is going to help us again. Also, we may have recruited the Methodist Church to assist in our efforts. Several corporations agreed to do small drives and the Market Street Mission is helping us one more time for our local people in need.

I must admit that I'm still exhausted. The last holiday season really burned me out. I am slowly getting remotivated now that I've received letters and photos from the new KY community. It's hard to give, give, give and receive no appreciation. The anonymous donor also helped re-motivate me. Their letter was so kind in acknowledging the good that we/I do. A little appreciation really goes a long way. Otherwise, you begin to feel taken advantage of...such as last year at our Project Pencil giveaway when one man sent children in from the street to collect dozens of backpacks so that he could sell them in his local community! We now have worked out methods to avoid similar situations but, that type of action really hurts my enthusiasm to help.

Anne Marie, one of my friends, ran a huge garage sale with items from her days as Miss Delaware and a contestant in the Miss America pagent. The idea was to raise money for Focus America. She wound up selling most of her goods at ridiculously low prices to women from the very communities that Focus America helps! She noted that the women paid for most of their goods with crisp 100 dollar bills! Ironic, isn't it?

I'll get it back. The coal-mining community is in such need that I know they will not take advantage of goods that are shipped out to them. And I know that the children need the school supplies. The money saved by the parents who really need the supplies can buy food or clothing for the children. We are just going to downscale our collections a bit in order to focus on providing the children who really need the goods, vs. a massive giveaway.

May 2005: New Community to Adopt

A new community has contacted me. This community is located in the coal mining region of Kentucky. The organization that is acting as the liaison is Manna from Heaven. I asked them to send photos and they did. Ironically, for well over three years, I've been asking Pembroke to send photos and have received nothing. Well, the KY community is in bad shape. People live in houses that are literally falling down around them. Cinder blocks are the front steps, doors are barely on hinges, roofs are rusted or full of holes, walls are rotted, you name it.

In one house, there are two adults and four children living in a two bedroom shack. Since this is the coal mining region, there are really no jobs for people. Simply coal mining and that's it. I looked up the community on a satellite website and it is so remote...on top of a ridge with one road leading up to it. Very isolated and, unlike Pembroke, completely neglected and unknown to the general public.

I did send one box of clothing out to them so far. I want to encourage as many people as possible to package up clothing and mail it to this organization. But, if they do, they should label the box with the contents (i.e. clothing for a 3 year old girl, coats for children, etc.). I'll make certain to add them to our school supply and holiday drives. They really need it. These children have nowhere to go and no way to escape. There are always pockets of poverty in every community but this community simply IS poverty. So, we will continue helping out our local families but I'm adding this little community into our circle. I cannot help them all but...even a little bit goes a long way.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

March 2005: Low-Income Child Care

Last week, I distributed the snack food that my loyal volunteer, Tiffany R, collected to several low-income daycares in Morristown, NJ. It was an unusually bittersweet experience, having just shut down the childcare center in December that we had started to raise money for expanding our programs.

Well, recently I've been a bit down about Focus America. Financial donations are hard to get from people. In many ways, charities are expected to do so many good-will activities but no one wants to pay for them. We run this charity, Focus America, as a volunteer-group, and, since our inception, I have encountered debt upon debt because I believe in this cause. I'm tired of receiving bills that cannot be paid and tired of listening to my husband complain about how I'm trying to save the world. Christmas 2004 burned me out with lots of work and stress, not to mention the overwhelming disappointment from a volunteer from the Illinois area who collected over $800 to purchase beds for a poor family in Michigan...beds that never arrived and the money is MIA although I suspect I know who's pocket it went to. I had disappointments in some people I had considered friends, too...friends who begrudgingly offered to help families but only after they complained that "these people should be given birth control and not hand outs."

There are some dear friends and family who are close to me encourage me the best way that they can. My greatest champion, my mother, always reminds me to focus on the lives that I have touched and not the negative experiences I have encountered. I try but, there are days that it is hard. This is a line of (volunteer) work that doesn't come with a lot of accolades or appreciation.

However, on the day that I delivered the snack foods, something happened that was so turned me back on track.

The director from the one center, Children on the Green, welcomed me with a big smile and praise for all that we do. Then she said, "Come, see Austin! See how big our little boy has gotten." It took me a minute to truly understand what she was saying.

I looked around the childcare center, searching the faces of the children. Who was Austin and why, on this miserable, raining day, did I care? But then I saw him and I remembered. There stood little Austin, his big blue eyes sparkling and his blond hair in gentle waves around his ears. Oh yes, I remembered. I remembered everything that I had blocked out from the horrible experience of running that childcare center...the stress, the tears, the debt, the disappointments. But then I remembered that in blocking out the bad, I had blocked out the good. I had blocked out Austin.

Dear little Austin was born with a terrible physical handicap (and the name of it escapes me right now). He was small at birth and didn't grow properly. He had to have a feeding tube inserted into his belly and he carried a backpack at all times so that he was basically getting 24x7 nutrition this tube. At the time we met Austin, no other child care center would take him. We took him. Or, rather, I took him. My staff didn't want to really have him in their group...understandably so because we were starting out and his "illness" was scary. What if the tube popped out? What if another child pulled the tube out? What if we were sued? But, we did take him because he was a little boy that needed to have friends and socialization.

He was a darling boy and I fell in love with him immediately. But, his time with us was short. His condition was taxing on my staff and, after his tube DID fall out and we rushed him to the hospital, I was even a bundle of nerves. But we worked with his mother, a courageous and lovely young woman, and I pulled a few chits to help expedite his inclusion with a larger daycare that could help him and his mother in more ways than we could...especially since we were so small and new.

Yes, I had blocked out darling Austin. But it came flooding back. And wouldn't you know it? That child remembered me! His face lit up and he danced up and down, clapping his hands. I rushed over to his side and talked to him, my eyes searching his. He wasn't wearing his backpack anymore (although he does still need it). And he was beautiful...a regular little guy with friends at this new center.

Yes, after 7 months, this child remembered me. And surely I remembered him. He was the good...the one true thing that happened with that experience that, as my mother would say, proves that we can make a difference in someone's life. In front of me was the little, living proof.

Oh yes, I remembed Austin and I couldn't talk anymore. The tears came and I rushed out of the center, so choked up that I could not say goodbye to the director. I was crying for so many things...the things that were, the things that should have been, and the things that I truly want so much for the future. Bittersweet thoughts and tears for certain.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Snack Collections for Low Income Children

Well, my dear volunteer, Tiffany, did it again! For the third year in a row, she has spear-headed a volunteer drive at her organization, Pru, for the February snack drive and collected tons of snack food to be distributed to low-income child care centers in the area. In the past, we have distributed these foods to Children on the Green to help defray the expense of purchasing snack food for their children, some of whom are from the homeless and battered woman's shelter. This year, we are going to invite Collinsville Child Care Center to receive some goods, too. I've heard quite a bit about this new center and how they have been struggling a bit but doing a wonderful job.

It's amazing to me that this is the THIRD year we have been helping these centers. Sometimes I forget about these wonderful things that we do and the impact they have on our community. It really realigns my own expectations. Perhaps we'll never be a Habitat for Humanity but we are helping day at a time.

Thanks, Tiffany, for another wonderfully successful drive.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Answering to donors

I was very excited yesterday when I visited our PO box and found the very first gift card for a shopping center. We just started this program and, like all things charity, they are slow to take off but, as the momentum builds, this program will be as successful as our other ones. Now, our dear client in Ohio who is terribly ill can receive her fresh fruits that she needs but, since she is ill, cannot afford to buy.

The joy of this single gift helps when I have to answer to people who question our existance, afraid to send a gift card b/c we sound "shady". It breaks my heart that so many people must have been hurt or burned in the past by unscrupulous people.

We try so hard to reach out and touch people, to organize this charity to help eliminate any suspicions. We are one gets a salary. We have been recognized by the White House...isn't that a good endorsement? We have helped over 3000 children at Christmas in the past three years and over 2000 children during back to school. Plus, we've distributed hundreds of coats to the poor during winter, collected and distributed snack food to low-income child care centers, collected cells phones for domestic violence victims, and so many other wonderful programs.

I just don't know what else we can do to convince people that our grassroots effort is a worthy investment. Well, actually...that's not true. I do know what we can do--marketing. But that costs that I cannot personally afford to spend anymore and, frankly, we shouldn't have to spend as it takes away from the very programs and people we want to help. Every dime spent on marketing is taking food away from the children we are helping.

Do we need financial donations? Absolutely. However, I would prefer more gift cards to be sent out to these needy families and communities. Gift cards take up less storage space which, right now, is our two car garage that we haven't been able to park in for over two years. They also only cost 37 cents to mail...vs. $50 for a large box of canned goods.

To the Katie McGraw's of the world, thank you. You have made a difference in someone's life...and not just our clients...mine.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Ring of High Hopes

It's always exciting when someone calls, inquiring about how they can help or offering assistance with raising funds or goods. The people who contact us are usually full of heart and spirit. One woman in Florida has been especially supportive, emailing words of encouragement, offering support, and helping out some of our families in need. Today in Walmart, I ran in to a neighbor who had purchased a gift certificate at Cascata Spa in Morristown to help raise money for Focus America. The other day, I received a phone call from someone in Wisconsin (at least, I think that's what he two children were racing around, screaming and playing...he called during the evening "witching" hour). This gentleman wanted to verify we were still operational and to learn more about what we are doing. He followed up with a nice email and a referral to another organization that sounds like a charity we could team up with!

Occasionally we get phone calls from people who offer services or hopes of great things to come but...nothing materializes. I hold my breath, hoping that something might happen when these promises are made. However, over the past two+ years, I have learned that hope can lead to disappointment. Not everyone believes in the cause...not everyone wants to help. Complete strangers have provided more support to this cause than most of my own friends and family.

But there is a positive note behind the hurt of disappointment. Out of the ashes rises a phoenix that is much stronger...the determination to succeed on one's own without hand outs, without assistance, without begging for family and friends to help out. And when the recognition is is much sweeter to know that, indeed, the acknowledgement of a job well done is true and honest. By helping the children and by supporting the people, we have impacted someone's life. If friends and family do not care to share that glory for whatever reason, there are many strangers who become friends and family who cheer and cry with job alongside me. We cannot make people believe in our cause. We can only make them believe in the results. That's enough for me...

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Starving Families in Need

When I receive the emails and phone calls from social service agencies, requesting assistance for a family that is struggling to make ends meet, my heart breaks. Right now, we have about 20 families on our list and we are barely able to supply these people with food on a semi-regular basis. Without funding and without a dedicated force of volunteers, it's so hard to motivate those volunteers who do contact us.

If I could help them all, I would. The woman who was living in a motel room, paid for by her social service agency, with three small children. The man who is working for minimum wage but can hardly put food on the table for his four children and wife. The woman with stage four cancer who can barely afford medical treatment, nevermind food for her two children. Their stories break my heart over and over again. Each time a volunteer contacts me, my hopes swell, hoping so much that this time, they will help just one of these families. Some do, like the woman from California who mailed two huge boxes of food to a family in Michigan. Others don't and, while I understand that there are reasons why, it doesn't make it any easier to know that we cannot help every family that is on our wait list.

Of course, with the help of local organizations and churches (like Assumption Church who has consistently support our efforts!), we can make a difference...even if it is only one family at a time.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Welcome to the Blog

Over two years ago, I founded Focus America after reading an article in the New York Times about a poor community in Pembroke, Illnois. I suppose what bothered me the most about the article was the timing. Our nation had just observed the first anniversary of 9/11, a defining moment for all of those who watched the horror of the Twin Towers collapse, the burning of the Pentagon, and the smoldering wreckage of Flight 93 in Pennsylvanian. Our nation was entrenched in the war against terror. While we were liberating Afghanistan, the country watching the Middle East, I realized that the distraction of current events was creating a negative butterfly effect: forgotten were the children in this country starving to death, forced to become adults before they have tasted the joy of childhood.

Starting a 501(c)(3) non-profit (and volunteer run) charity was not easy. I fell into it by accident and, strictly by stubborness, I saw it through. As a professional adjunct professor at several colleges near my hometown of Morristown, NJ, I knew this could be a wonderful way to provide my students with an amazing, hand-on and real world experience. My circle of "favorite" students quickly agreed and the then-chair of the Business Department gave me the thumbs up to incorporate service learning into my marketing and management classes.

As I continue my blog, I will share some of the experiences I have encountered with creating, organizing, implementing, running and funding a volunteer-run charity. There have been high-points such as the days when volunteers distributed 600 coats to the needy at the St. John's Soup Kitchen in Newark, NJ or when we distributed thousands of gifts to the new generation Americans at the Market Street Mission during the past holiday season. I hold dear the moment when a larger and older woman, a bit sweaty from trying to weed through tables and tables of gifts and new clothing to find the perfect gifts for her four children, came up to me. She grabbed me by both shoulders and gave me a kiss on both cheeks then clutched me to her chest. In broken English, she said "Thank you, thank you. God bless you." Nor will I forget the moment when I stopped my white mini-van on the streets of town in front of the day laborers. I pulled over and they stared at me, wondering why the young white woman was getting out of her van and flipping open her trunk. My son leaned over the back of the seat and helped hand me grocery bags filled with food as I shouted, "Comida! Libre comida para tu!" in my broken Spanish. The men converged on me, grabbing at the bags, laughing at their good luck of finally being in the right place at the right time. As I drove away, one of the men shouted out, "You are an angel! God bless you!"

These are the moments I hold dear. These are the moments I remember when times are tough, when volunteers let me down, when those people closest to me disappoint me, and when opportunities slam the door shut in my face. By sharing these moments and these stories, I believe the world can understand the motivation behind true charity...the type of charity that, indeed, can move mountains, even when obstacles seem to block the path to success.