Coming Alive

By Bill Bolling, Executive Director
February 2010 - April 2010

Just before the holidays, people were coming and going from our facilities throughout the day; trucks delivering food, partner agencies picking up their orders, youth groups taking Hunger 101 classes, teachers picking up classroom supplies, groups of volunteers doing everything from packing food boxes to collating material for our upcoming Atlanta Prosperity Campaign free tax preparation services. Many good people were dropping off food and donations, and our meeting rooms were full.

A gentleman volunteering in the administrative area came up to me and said he had heard me recently give a talk - he had been touched by something I said, and had followed up to volunteer and help out during our busy season.

As we talked more, he shared that he had worked in the restaurant and hospitality industry for more than 25 years, an industry that we at the Food Bank have worked closely with. He had recently been laid off, and wasn't sure of his next step. He had thought about it, and decided that volunteering during this critical time was important to him. He wanted to find a way to give back, to do something more meaningful in his life, and found volunteering at the Food Bank very helpful. He shared that he never seemed to have time to volunteer before, and didn't want to miss this new opportunity. He ended up volunteering the whole week and promised to be back early in the New Year. His thoughtfulness and introspection were impressive for someone whose future was clouded with doubt.

For the first time in over half a century, our country had a decade of zero net job growth. What this has meant for those who were coming into the job market or for those who have been laid off because of the bad economy is - jobs, living wage jobs, jobs with health and retirement benefits are much harder to find and keep. And many of those in the market for a job have ultimately shown up at food pantries and community kitchens across the region.

Unfortunately - or maybe fortunately - this has great implications for our work ahead. One of the things that the Food Bank takes great pride in is our commitment to transparency and measuring outcomes. We have a strategic plan that we actually follow, measuring all aspects of our work and output.

Not insignificantly, distribution of food this fiscal year is up 38% - and over the last decade, our distribution has grown by 76%.

That is a testament to our hard work and to the strong community support that we have received. A sacred trust has been built which we honor and hold dear.

But all of our measurements - pounds of food distributed, volunteers utilized, classes taught, agencies empowered, teachers served, gardens built, collaborations realized, and earned benefits received - still do not quite capture what might be our greatest accomplishments. What really counts is the impact we've had on peoples' lives - the role we have played in changing their stories or transforming their situations. This, I suggest, is where we find our hope for the future.

Unfortunately, it's in the individual stories we continue to hear that we also know the problems of hunger and poverty are far from being solved.

While our political leaders in recent years have been challenged to make the hard decisions and have not been able to work on almost any issue in a bi-partisan way - the unemployed, the bankrupt, and those in-between are left with few choices.

There is certainly some collective soul searching going on at every level of society. That includes not only those out of work, in-between jobs, or aware of a different call, but all of us at the Food Bank whose role it is to serve them.

What we clearly need is leadership - inspired, ethical, informed, collaborative, and courageous. We need honest conversations and a willingness to move from fear and blame to hope and reconciliation. We need honest and open conversation across our perceived differences, organized around our common needs and interests. We need to take a longer view, one that allows us to realize the rewards of sacrifice and risk taking. We need to take a moral stand, built on a foundation of principles and values that have inspired our willingness to delay gratification, work hard, and share the bounty.

Like the volunteer who chose to spend his "in-between" time helping others, we all need to take a step in that direction, to surround ourselves with more goodness and hope, and be open to the possibilities.

Howard Thurman may have said it best when he wrote, "Don't ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive."

The community that makes up the Food Bank will stay alive to the possibilities of transformation, and our commitment is to use our gifts to bring us together around the bountiful table.

Even now, there is enough.

Bill Bolling