Better Choices

Like the guy at the of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade who chose the wrong cup for the holy grail, I chose “poorly” when I selected southWIRED as my non-profit. It’s not because southWIRED is an unworthy cause, I just feel it goes against the spirit of Advice For Good which is to serve those truly in need. My new non-profit is Operation Gratitude

I always love to see those people at the Atlanta Airport arrivals gate who cheer and hug returning soldiers. It’s pretty moving as these folks are coming back from serious, probably life threatening duties on the same flight that I just came back from vacation on. Whatever your opinion of our military, serving can be tough and coming home can be just as daunting. So I am committing to write letters for at least one hour per month for the next 12 months.  

Don’t get me wrong, southWIRED will be amazing, but it’s going to serve those who are already doing pretty well in their lives. We don’t have PTSD. We don’t have to read to our kids over Skype. We sleep soundly at night without worry. Perhaps my letters can remind someone they are not forgotten and someone who doesn’t know them cares. 

Beyond the Donation Bin

My first visit to the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB) was a great experience.  We packed 7,689 pounds of food, enough for 6,407 meals.  Those of us fortunate enough not to worry about where we are going to get our next meal take for granted that there will be a next meal.  In this Costco-sized facility, you begin to get a glimpse of the other side.  

This was my first food bank experience that didn’t end with bringing a canned good to a donation bin.  I now have some idea of what happens next.  All packages have to be inspected to make sure they’re not expired or damaged.  Chocolate and baby food are removed completely, although there are some gray areas like semi-sweet chocolate chips, which apparently count as food.  Items are sorted into categories and packed together into boxes.  Those boxes are then weighed and labeled for distribution.  Items that are not used are recycled.

I came alone for my volunteer duty, but in order for the session to be successful, everyone needs to work as a team.  There were some other corporate volunteers, and for the second half of our shift, a high school group showed up.  That ramped up our productivity significantly.  During the session, you start to become more efficient at your task, discovering shortcuts that speed up the process.  Repeat volunteers often take the same position.  I think I’m better at sorting now, but it might be fun to try a different position next time.

I think the ACFB would be a good volunteer day activity for our company as well as other companies in the community.  It fosters teamwork and generates awareness of an important cause.  I appreciate having the opportunity to donate my time and encourage others to do the same.

Atlanta Mission: The Line

Staring out into the cafeteria, it broke my heart to see such a long line of people who were in need of the basics like food, water and clothing. I briefly caught eyes with some of the members in line and noticed a sense of embarrassment and anger.However, it was refreshing to see  how many people were on my side and willing to help. Serving at the Atlanta Mission was a rewarding experience for me, I worked on a team of about 8 people that ran an assembly line that ultimately feed approximately 250 people. We literally served dinner plates until all the food in the kitchen was gone. I couldn’t help but to realize how fortunate I was but more importantly, how quickly I could be in the same situation.On my way out, I spoke to a man who was dealing with drug addiction. He told me a summary of his story and his plans for the future. I made a connection to this specific member because he had a plan for after the mission. I respect that. I plan on volunteering more often at the Atlanta Mission in the near future. 

Learning about Startups with Colin Ake

I’m a high school senior, and getting the opportunity to meet with Colin Ake through Advice for Good was fantastic. I got to learn a lot about startups, and gave back to the community by volunteering to make a website for free for a nonprofit organization that raises awareness of gender inequality.

Read more about my experience on my personal blog!

Meeting The Need

As a 29-year-old, it’s great to know there is still a place where being miscalculated as a high school student is possible. Last week, I volunteered at the Atlanta Food Bank and I unexpectedly learned what it’s like to live in the Middle East. It turned out my day volunteering would parallel a fellow volunteer’s journey to this region. 
Before I share how the connection happened, let me rewind.
I recently decided to walk away from our marketing company. As a part of this transition, I sought community and mentoring to help guide me through this transition.
Over the years, I have stayed connected with Jeff Hilimire. Jeff Hilimire is the owner of a company called DragonArmy, and he was someone who came to mind as I sought council. Well it seems, there are others who see Jeff as an approachable person and so he came up with a neat idea called ‘Pay it Forward’. The idea being, when I agreed to meet with Jeff, I committed to volunteer at least one hour of my time to help others. In addition, I agreed to write about my experience.
With the intent to go outside of my comfort zone, I asked Jeff if he would recommend a place I could serve. He mentioned the Atlanta Community Food Bank had a need for volunteers and he recommended I serve there. After our time together, I went online and signed up to volunteer in the program called ‘Kids In Need’.
Kid’s in Need is a program of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and they aim to provide a free store for educators to supply their classrooms with the tools for academic success. My volunteer position was to help load the supplies received by the teachers into their vehicles.
The day came and I drove down there about an hour early. By being early, it allowed me time to talk with the staff, learn about their mission and fill out paperwork. It also opened up opportunities for me to help and engage with the volunteers while we waited for the teachers to arrive.
One such opportunity was talking with a woman who, I came to find out, worked with the United States Government over the past 6 years. While working, she spent most of her time in Dubai and Iraq. With limited experience out of America, I decided to take this opportunity to learn. I proceeded to ask her about her perspective after being oversees.
I first asked her what it was like returning to the states and what her perspective of our country was. She proceeded to share how much she realized we, in America, take for granted. Being incubated in our country, there are so many little things in life we have access to that most of the world does not. She also shared how in America, we are busy and we work at a break neck pace. In these other areas of the world, they take their time and focus more on what is in front of them.
This was compelling, but I wanted to learn the other side of the coin. I flipped the question around to expand my perspective and I proceeded to ask her what does America value compared to this region. Her first response was our value for family. In America, we value and cherish family in a way they do not. In those parts of the country, she experienced how they would abandon or sell a family member with little or no hesitation. I asked her about the difference between the two worlds when it comes to generosity. She said we are much more generous than what she experienced from these areas of the world.  We give, help the poor and they tend to do the opposite.
It was humbling to learn how much we take for granted and how rushed we are in our culture. It was also reassuring to know our value for family, generosity and helping others was a strong point in our culture. As she shared, she said there was no way for us to understand and feel what it was like without experiencing it for ourselves. 
This made me think about what I was doing volunteering with Kids In Need. Before Jeff connected me with the Atlanta Food Bank, I had a limited understanding of the need our city had in this area. People in our community need help to survive, and teachers need materials and supplies to teach their students. The need is big, and being in this season of transition allowed me to slow down to such a level I could see what was going on around me.
As I loaded the cars, I asked teachers their names, what they taught and why they taught. I met teachers from all grades and subjects as I loaded cars with school supplies. I was contributing to the bigger picture. My commitment to volunteer was a profound analogy of how busy my life had gotten, and how little I appreciated the little things in life. By volunteering, it helped me to cherish my commitment to family, generosity and helping others.
I challenge you, go outside your comfort zone and consider volunteering. Find an organization like the Atlanta Community Food Bank and try it out. It just might change you.

I’m a Computer Science major at the University of Georgia, and I recently met with Jeff Hilimire of Dragon Army for an hour of discussion about the tech industry and advisement regarding my future place in it. He was also nice enough to show me around the Atlanta Tech Village and let me sit in on Dragon Army’s morning stand-up. It was easily the coolest hour in recent memory. In addition to all that, Jeff connected me to three awesome internship opportunities.

In return, he asked that I volunteer an hour of my time to the service of any charitable cause. This brought about a slightly disturbing realization - This would be the first hour, out of all the hours that have passed since I gained sentience, that I would be actively serving a charitable cause. 

I like to think of myself as a kind and charitable person, I’ve always tried to help others when presented with an opportunity to do so. However, I had never thought to seek out these opportunities. Growing up in the suburbs, without religion and outside of community organizations, perhaps I had allowed my world to shrink too small. I had no connection with my next-door neighbors, let alone those in the community who could have used my help.

As a student of political science (I’m an International Affairs double major) I’m used to thinking of poverty and the myriad social problems it spawns in terms of statistics, and solutions in terms of policy proposals. These were nation-scale problems - about which I, operating at medium sized man scale, could do absolutely nothing. It was for governments to solve these problems. My part would be to pay my taxes, vote for Democrats, and ponder over which policies might bring about the most positive change.

It was certainly a change of perspective to find myself making chili in the kitchen of the Athens Area Homeless Shelter.

I was very excited for my introduction to the world of active charity. I expected that my notion that the problems of society were intractable would soon be proved wrong. I arrived at the shelter with a package of assorted bell peppers - my humble contribution to the meal. I was struck immediately by the small size of the building, and with how few people seemed to be living there. There were, by my count, three young families present, and one older woman who may or may not have been part of one of the families.

I had also expected to feel awesome, I’d expected my heart to fill with the good feeling you get when you know you’ve really helped someone out. I waited for the feeling, but as we finished cooking and left the residents to their chili, cornbread, baked potatoes, and banana pudding (there must have been days of leftovers), it still hadn’t come. I felt normal. Happy to have helped, but far from bursting with satisfaction and pride.

Driving home, I realized that this was probably how it’s supposed to feel. I’d done a small amount of good for a small number of people in a short amount of time - it’s only right that I get a small amount of satisfaction in return. 

I came away from this experience without any illusions about how much of a difference I made to the lives of the residents, or to solving the problem of homelessness and poverty. I had been right, in a way. These are intractable problems, but the cool thing about intractable problems is that they can be solved - it’s just that there’s no quick and easy way to do so. You solve them though slow and plodding steps, and there’s little glory to be had. But it’s worth it. 

That’s step one for me.

Giving Back

I was able to spend 3 hours working at the Oasis Católico Santa Rafaela Center, located in Athens Ga.  The Oasis Center is located in a poverty-stricken hispanic neighborhood that hundreds of families call home.  The Oasis Center is a Catholic after-school center that host 115 students between the ages of 3-12 where the primary focus of the school is to help teach English, while offering a safe place for these children to have fun.  I met with Sister Margarita and was embraced with open arms.  As soon as I got there I was put to work painting their new tool shed and when I was done I was able to spend some time playing games with the children. It is great to know that I was able to help the Oasis Center that is doing so much for these children in need and I look forward to helping them again soon.  

Playin’ in the Dirt Again

Garden Entrance at the Wylde Center in Decatur

The winter vortex has eased its grip on Atlanta at last (knock on wood) and spring is in the air! To celebrate, Mattie and I traveled out to the Oakhurst Community Garden at the Wylde Center in Decatur. As the photos attest, it was literally a perfect day to be out in the open air getting down and dirty.

During the day, we worked with JC, a community gardener who studied political science and environmental law but left it all behind after she spent a season working the farmer’s life. JC led Mattie and I to the tomato garden and gave us our assignment for the day:

Move an assortment of tomatoes from here: 

tomato greenhouse

To here: 

Tomato field

Using these: 

wagons

Mattie and I had a blast! It was great exercise, we learned that there are way way way more varieties of tomatoes than what you see at your local grocery store, and it was awesome to spend an afternoon and see the steady progression of your work building on itself.

Everyone at the Wylde center was happy and friendly, I’d recommend spending an afternoon of volunteer gardening there to anyone looking to lend a hand and get some exercise - just be sure to bring a change of clothes!

Hungry Souls

Even though the sun is beginning to set, there is still a warm breeze blowing new clouds of pollen across an almost empty parking lot in downtown Columbia, South Carolina. For the moment, it’s just asphalt and a black Ford truck. The truck is old, paint greying from miles past, but still running with a bed full to the brim with everything from gas cans to wood planks.

Stepping out of the truck, a man closes a whining door behind him. He smiles and reaches out a hand.  His mustache outlines a smile as he says,

“I hear you’ll be handing out food to the homeless with us. Call me Johnny Floyd and sorry about the truck. It’s a mess, I know.”

In the past six months, Columbia has been the center for a terribly misguided fight against homelessness. In September 2013, city council attempted to criminalize homelessness in order to clean up the downtown area. According to the proposal, those found guilty of homelessness are forced to choose between going to jail or being shipped to a newly built rural shelter, far away from the city. The problem with this shelter? No kitchen. Columbia’s idea for helping the homeless was to help them out of the city. Period.

Fortunately, this was met with such opposition from citizens and law enforcement alike that city council was forced to rescind its unanimous vote. Unfortunately, in February the city passed a law requiring organizations and nonprofits to pay a $120 fee to feed the homeless in public parks.

Despite all the people out there trying to eliminate homelessness, there are also those actually caring for the homeless. It’s people like these who I’m standing with, loading water bottles into a cooler. After using my shirt tail to wipe the sweat from my brow, I shake Reverend Watson’s hand of Main Street United Methodist Church. For the past nine years, Watson and Floyd have run this program, feeding the homeless every Thursday night.

We climbed into a van with coolers full of sandwiches and water. Tonight it’s just going to be the three of us.

“Sometimes there are more of us,” Watson leans back to tell me from the driver’s side.

“Yeah, and sometimes there are less,” Floyd says, looking out the window at a dimming, purple city.

Turning on to Main Street, we pass restaurants and shops producing rich orange light that pours out onto the sidewalk. People are sitting at tables, sipping coffee, chatting. There are others just walking to enjoy the warm spring weather while two students set up a camera for some kind of video shoot. It’s everything you should imagine your capital city’s downtown to look like.

But, after taking just one left, you’ll find bus stops acting as shelter for the night. We stop at one where a bearded man sits waiting for no one.

“Hey buddy, are you hungry? Need a sandwich?” Floyd calls.

The man gets up and takes it, grabbing a water bottle from my hand, backing away and thanking us.

“No problem, we’re from Main Street Methodist!” Floyd calls back. We pull away.

We ride up Bull Street, onto Gervais, down Assembly, and over to Sumter, stopping all along the way to repeat this same ritual. Some thank us and others do not. But every person we hand a sandwich and bottle to gives a heavy, tired smile. Floyd turns back and tells me that the real heroes of this whole thing are the women of the church.

“They come by the church every week and bring the sandwiches for us to hand out. We never have to ask and they never want a thing in return. They do it out of the goodness in their hearts,” he says as he holds a hand up to punctuate this truth.

The sky as dark and city lights begin to pop on all around us – ushers of the night. We pull up for the last time by a bus station and make our introductions. Half of the station is at our windows grabbing bottles and food, thanking us and returning to their seats. None of them climb into the bus that arrives but before we finally leave, just two empty coolers in our possession, one man holds up a sandwich and yells, “God bless you, man.”

Watson and Floyd wave back and drive away. We didn’t solve the plight of homelessness or cure world hunger. But, for a few hours, three guys with a van and two coolers made sure that at least for tonight, downtown will harbor a few less hungry souls. 

-Ransom

The Value of Time

"We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right."      -Nelson Mandela

Recently I spoke with Jeff Hilimire of Dragon Army about a project I was doing for one of my classes at UGA. He provided me with some awesome background and advice on gamification, application development, costs, and quite a bit of other real world stuff that may have gone over my head without the help of google. As a professional in that area, his advice is incredibly valuable. However, what’s more valuable than his advice is his time that he spent with me. Time is often an undervalued commodity. It is constantly spent, and only when it is gone do we realize how valuable it was to begin with.

By spending some of Jeff’s time, I was unfortunately keeping him from doing things in the community he believed to be important. As an opportunity to repay him for helping me, I decided to help those that much of his time is spent helping: the homeless. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, approximately 1,750,000 individuals in the United States are homeless. Of these people, 28% do not get enough to eat every day. In Athens alone, the Northeast Georgia Homeless Coalition accounted for 249 individuals who were homeless. Of these, 87 people were unsheltered and 162 people were sheltered. Getting people in shelters is the first step towards making sure they are taken care of, but it requires a large effort from the community to make sure they are getting the supplies they need.

The Athens Area Homeless Shelter is one such shelter, which provides housing for about 20 mothers and their children who would otherwise be without a place to live. Three friends and I chose to spend our Sunday evening cooking dinner for the residents and getting to know them on a more personal level. Jeff introduced me to Dylan, another UGA student who he had given advice to, so I brought him along too. Pasta is a frequent meal for the residents since it’s cheap and easy to make in large quantities, so we decided to steer clear of that and provide them with a meal of chili, cornbread, and baked potatoes, with banana pudding for dessert. 

Cooking for a large group of people is undoubtably challenging, but by dividing up the tasks we were able to make the workload easier and get the chance to talk to some of the residents when they came by. The kids, especially, were curious as to what we were doing, and then very excited when they realized we were making banana pudding for their dessert. I had the opportunity to connect with one of the moms when we realized that we both came from the same area a bit north of Atlanta. She used to work about 5 miles from the house I grew up in. 

It’s humbling to realize how much someone’s life can change. My generation tends to think we are invincible and I think many of us lack the perspective to understand that a few decisions or twists of fate can alter the course of our lives. I would never have expected someone working in my hometown to end up homeless in Athens. I cannot even imagine the strength it takes to keep working and striving to provide for children when placed in that situation. 

This internal strength is much like our time: undervalued until we realize how much we need it. However, like our time, it can also be shared more than we realize. By providing dinner to these families, hopefully we gave them a little more strength and resolve, a little more time where they don’t have to worry where the next meal will come from, and a little more hope for tomorrow.