It starts with people donating five or 10 bucks each from the healthy, socially distant comfort of home. It ends with scores of hot meals going to the neediest people in the city.
In between lies a chain of community: a team of volunteer drivers, the organizational brio of charitable dynamo Rick Clark, and the power of Facebook.
“It helps us immensely, but then it also helps the businesses of Spokane,” said Bethany Kuhn, a chef at the Union Gospel Mission’s crisis shelter who Monday was unloading 100 macaroni-and-cheese meals purchased by donors. “What a blessing all the way around. I love it.”
Clark is well-known for his Giving Backpacks project, which distributes backpacks full of necessities to homeless people. He used Facebook to help rally support for that work, and he can raise an army of helpers through the networks he’s built.
On March 18, he hosted a Facebook live video that allowed people to donate to an effort to buy meals at a local restaurant and deliver them to a homeless shelter.
He thought it would be a “little thing,” but the idea took off – he’s going live on Facebook every day at 5 p.m. to raise money and rally helpers. People can give via Messenger, and while he’s gotten some large donations, he’s also gotten droves of smaller ones. So far, he’s organized the delivery of about 100 meals from a different restaurant every day for seven days. He usually hits his $1,000 goal in minutes.
It’s an object lesson in the power of community.
“If 100 people donate $5 each, which I think most people can afford right now, that adds up to $500,” said Jan Spackman, one of the volunteer drivers.
Clark, who is recovering from a serious flu, is staying home right now. But it isn’t his style to stay on the sidelines – even if he’s on the sidelines.
“When all this is over, I think we’re all going to be looked at for what we did in this” crisis, Clark said. “I don’t want to say I ran off to the woods with my shotgun. I wanted to help.”
‘We’ve gotta be quicker’
For all the downsides of social media, the positive connective power of online platforms has risen to the forefront as we strive to avoid each other. In-person contact has been replaced by virtual interaction. Business meetings have migrated to Zoom. And people like Clark have harnessed Facebook to do good.
He’s not alone. A new project called Spokane Food Fighters, spearheaded by Rep. Marcus Riccelli and a few others, is operating a website to coordinate donations, volunteers and meal delivery. It has begun delivering meals prepared by local restaurants to 25 homes a day.
Riccelli, who just wrapped up the session in Olympia and who has become a leading advocate for helping those who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, said he has been concerned about the community’s ability to respond nimbly to food insecurity – a problem that requires more urgency than some systemic, bureaucratic responses allow.
A 2017 estimate by Second Harvest found 1 in 8 Spokane County residents, and 1 in 5 children, are “food insecure.” . As Riccelli saw the community response to the coronavirus threat, he said he became convinced – despite all the good work – it could be more comprehensive and more nimble.
“I thought, ‘We’ve gotta be quicker,’ ” Riccelli said. “What do people do if they need a meal now?”
‘Above and beyond’
On Monday afternoon, Mac Daddy’s Pub & Grill, near Whitworth University, was eerily quiet.
The front patio was empty. Chairs were stacked against the wall inside, and benches turned upside-down on tables. On the TV was a ghostly echo of a different time – a replay of a pro football game, glowing on a big screen in the darkened room.
In the kitchen, though, co-owners Jeremy Dillon and Nick Bokarica were buried under a dinner rush – 100 meals in one order.
Before long the families at the crisis center would be choosing from pizza, Buffalo chicken, pulled pork or Cougar Gold mac and cheese.
It’s a brutal time in the restaurant business, which is shut down except for delivery and takeout. Mac Daddy’s has closed its downtown location and idled its food truck, and is serving takeout at its North Spokane location. That means the staff – which ranges from 15 to 28, depending on the season – is out of work.
“It’s a bummer all around, for everyone involved,” Dillon said.
He said Clark, because of his history of good works, has the ability to mobilize a huge team of helpers.
“A lot of the community is fully behind him,” he said. “Rick took it above and beyond, just like Rick always does.”
Spackman, the day’s volunteer driver, was waiting to pick up the meals and deliver them across town. She knows Clark because of connections with her own charity work – she is president of the local chapter of Sleep in Heavenly Peace, which makes and delivers beds to children who don’t have them – and she understands firsthand how social media can drive generosity.
Sleep in Heavenly Peace was featured on Mike Rowe’s Facebook program “Returning the Favor” (as was Clark’s backpack project). After that exposure, the nonprofit organization grew from seven chapters to more than 200.
In his daily live videos, Rick rallies helpers, praises donors, conducts votes on which restaurants to use, and tries to keep up with the responses. He has also begun coordinating efforts to deliver individual meals to shut-ins.
“It’s incredible,” Spackman said. “Rick has such a following. If he speaks, they will come.”
Food Fighters came to life in a matter of days. With help from two “techies” – Robbi Katherine Anthony and Patrick McHugh – and philanthropist Sharon Smith, they had a web site up a few days after the thought crossed Riccelli’s mind to build a clearinghouse where people could request a meal and others could respond quickly.
“This is like, ‘We need a meal now,’ and how can we connect that to people who are wanting to help out,” he said.
They hope to do 25 deliveries a day, partnering with local restaurants. Just as Clark discovered, Food Fighters found a lot of people want to give right now. Many individual donors helped, 30 bucks at a time, while STCU put up a $5,000 matching grant, to help inspire more giving, Riccelli said. The project is evolving daily.
“It’s been nonstop,” Riccelli said.
He delivered five meals himself Sunday night, including to a family of four.
The mother told him, “You can’t imagine how much this means to us. ”
Editor’s note: This story was changed on March 25, 2020 to correct the spelling of Rick Clark’s name.
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