Lessons learned from our giving table

Todd Struthers chronicles “what went right, what went wrong, and the lessons we’ve learned running our 4H Giving Table in Waukee.” -promoted by Laura Belin

It started for us on May 26. The idea came from a post by Andy Slavitt, former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Barack Obama. He linked to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch titled, “After losing loved ones to virus, Maplewood woman makes her yard a lifeline for others.” 

Slavitt occasionally showcases people doing good in these “difficult times,” to quote an overused phrase. The feature was about a cancer survivor named Shana Poole-Jones, who lives in the suburbs of St Louis. She had family who died or had gotten sick with COVID-19, and she had created these grab and go tables where people can drop off or pick up food or toys. 

One thing she said resonated with me: “I realize that I’m a broken person and most of the people who to the table are broken right now. But all the broken pieces pieces come together and make a soft of community to survive this.”

Now to be clear, I’m a man who easily and openly cries. I am not a small man, and no one has ever accused me of being meek or timid. But the Jim Valvano quote at the 1993 Espy’s, where he gave a speech summarizing his fight with cancer, hit me so hard and is with me still today: “Three things you should do every day, laugh, think, spend some time in thought, have your emotion moved to tears. If you laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a full day.” 

The words of Ms. Poole-Jones both moved me and made me think. My wife and I have great jobs, are well paid, and have been blessed not to suffer from the virus or the economic fallout it has created. Yet I’m a broken person too in a lot of ways, and to not do as much as Ms Poole-Jones was doing in her community seemed wrong to me.

So I sent the article to every person in my family. My gosh you guys, what do you think? Could we do this? How about we do this? It went over so well that I immediately got the following back on a group text  …  wut? …  

OK, so not everyone was on board, but maybe I hadn’t explained it properly.

As we all sat down to dinner, I said guys, what if we did this? My 12-year-old didn’t understand that we wouldn’t be selling it. My 4-year-old was very glad to do it so long as he could run the cash register. Thankfully, my bright, lovely 14-year-old daughter Elaine said, ok, so we would just give things away, and people would come and take whatever they need? Oh, I could kiss you on the forehead 100 times like Marie in Everyone Loves Raymond! (She did not get the reference.)

Needless to say though, we had some excitement. My wife, who is a 4H leader of the illustrious Walnut Wanderers of Waukee (yes it’s a mouthful), suggested that Elaine do it as a 4H Community of Service project. I am not a 4H’er but I liked the idea. Brand recognition, community service, sharing what we have, what could go wrong?

Well dear reader, here’s where our tale turns into what went right, what went wrong, and the lessons we’ve learned running our 4H Giving Table in Waukee.

Elaine took off with the idea right away, from a Thursday night dinner table conversation to a Sunday grocery delivery. Elaine researched every single food item, price shopped the stores, and browsed the websites for coupons and bargains. We found some items were always cheaper at Hy-Vee and some things at Target were a steal. We could get some bulk items on Amazon for way cheap. 

Initially we believed we would end up making loads of sack lunches and distributing canned goods and chips and fresh veggies and fruit. Let me tell you something you may or may not know about Iowa. In the summer it is not only very hot, but also very, very humid, like I imagine saunas are in the Alps in the dead of winter, or what I would guess the movie Frozen is trying to depict at Oaken’s Wandering Trading post. 

And as anyone could tell you, fresh food, bread, fruits, and vegetables are not inherently sauna compatible. 

We had some 8-foot tables. Initially we only set up one, close to the road, made literally dozens of PB&J sandwiches and put them in clear baggies. (Yes, clear baggies in the Iowa heat–I know, I see it now as well.) 

The first day, a single 8-foot table, 20 or so cans of corn, soup, and Manwich, three bags of carrots, two bags of tomatoes, some celery, apples, and fourteen sandwiches, sitting in the sun, late May–yes, I see it now as well. The tomatoes more or less melted the first day. The sandwiches starting doing a weird bleed-the-jelly-through-the-bread thing. And hot cans don’t make for fast-moving items. 

We had a few setbacks. It was way too hot not to have some cover for the food. Clear bags make it easy to see what you are getting, but also don’t hold up under heat. The spread wasn’t all that appetizing either. We had a single table trying to look like a moderately interesting Hy-vee shelf, and failing miserably.

So I put out an email to people I worked with. Does anyone have a party tent we can borrow? It’s a pandemic, parties are no longer in fashion, who can assist? Luckily I got two tent offers and we picked them, thinking ok we now have one table and two tents, what do we do with that? 

Our first idea was to add a second table. The tents were 12×12, and 8-foot tables still easily fit under 12×12.  So we used the better of the two tents, put it close to the road, and threw away the tomatoes and half the carrots.

One thing to note for those not from Waukee: much of this town, especially the newer parts of it, is recently renovated corn and bean fields. Where our house now stands, there were amber waves of grain (or something that was knee high by the fourth of July, more likely) five years ago. 

Since most of my neighborhood was field in the recent past, trees and other common wind break items are in short supply. The winds get strong. Thus we learned two weeks into the giving table, when the tent my boss was so generous to lend us did a full 360 kick flip and an ollie back onto itself. (I googled those terms, so blame the google machine not me for there incorrect usage.) That is to say, the tent flipped over, bent the arms back onto itself, and snapped in the middle. It was an ominous start to our experiment.

So we unfurled the second tent, the blue bomber as it was affectionately known in my mind, and moved it closer to our house, with hopes of shielding it from the wind. That lasted another two weeks or so, until the blue bomber tried to pull off a 540 with a grind (again, google, not me), and bent its pole back on itself, but largely remained upright. Some duct tape, super glue, and we were back in business with tent two, which I was now going to replace for a co-worker.

As you can see from the photo, a month in, we had two tables, a mildly respectable laminated sign, lots of quick, easy snacks and non-perishable items and no more sandwiches. (Sadly we ended up eating most of those first sandwich batches ourselves, as the bread was going bad. The 12-year-old loves peanut butter and jelly, though, so they were consumed quickly). 

We also lost most of the fresh food–it just couldn’t keep in the heat–but oddly, we found lots of people who wanted to chip in with donations.

So we had a successful set of tables, a functional tent, but stuff wasn’t moving very fast. We know that we live in an affluent community, we know our street is certainly upper middle class homes, but I knew that even if that was true, there was need everywhere. Almost everyone knows someone, at least one or two someones, who are hurting and need food. 

At first it was our UPS and delivery drivers who were thankful for some extra help and to have a snack while they worked long hours. Then it was younger kids looking to grab stuff, and eventually it started becoming families, driving up or walking by, filling up a backpack and leaving. It is joyful to be able to share, but let me pass along the other lessons before I get there.

Lesson 1: We’ve got great neighbors, lots of whom wanted to help. Granted, sometimes we got donations of food that was 10 years old or older. Yes, we threw those things away, but I’m guessing most of those folks had stuff lying around, didn’ remember when they got it, and just wanted to give. Iowa nice is real, alive and well, but does everyone want three-year-old Squirt? No, they do not, but my son liked it, so again, no harm no foul.

Lesson 2: People absolutely will not take the last of something. It is so rare for someone to take an item if we have just one. If we have two of something, they only take one, even in times of extreme need, duet to the genuine politeness of Iowa folks. Ope, that’s the last one, someone else might want that. I’ve had to order quantities of items to give away and include “last of” items in a delivery.

Lesson 3: This relates to filling backpacks. People are generally embarrassed or terrified of the perception they need help. If we waited outside with the food, most of it wouldn’t get taken, so we stopped doing that. When we do come outside and say hi, people usually leave quickly, so we usually don’t anymore. At this point we’ve donated close to $1,000 worth of items. There’s a ton of need, and we are scratching the surface or providing a one-off for a lot of folks. People are good, but proud, and the stigma we’ve put on the poor or those in a bind is frankly tragic.

Lesson 4: The wind ruins signs and tents. The August 10 derecho blew our tent six houses down; it was flattened, the “blue bomber” died. Signs and tents have been an expensive side cost to this endeavor. Also when the derecho hit, my wife sprang into action like a mama bear protecting her cubs. She grabbed empty baskets and just started filling them with food items and dumping inside, one after the other after the other. Our hallway looked like the supermarket scene in Hot Fuzz, and yes I know only a very small number of you will get that reference, and that’s a shame because Hot Fuzz was a funny, lovely cop movie, and those are hard to find right now.

Lesson 5: There’s still a ton of need. We want to be able to help more, and I think the main issue is most folks need help, but don’t know where to turn. When we made a run to Cedar Rapids post-derecho, so many people had so much need. The pandemic and the economic fallout had already hit our state so hard, bad weather compounded it, and the food bank is busier than ever. We can deliver and want to, but not everyone knows where to go, what we are doing, and how to get that help. Coming back to point 3, people are embarrassed and proud.

One more lesson: This one made me smile a lot. When people have asked can we help, can we donate, can we drop stuff off, the answer is always yes. We’ve turned almost everything on the table two or three times over. The follow-up question I’ve been asked more than once is, can they set up their own table. Enthusiastically yes, you absolutely should!

We had initially planned to do this for only a month. We said at the end of June, we will stop wherever we are. Then the economy slowed in July, so we replenished and kept doing it. Then the derecho hit and we said, how could we possibly stop now? Even more important, can we go help, so we did. 

I won’t say it has been easy or cheap or even second nature. It’s still hard to get the tables in and out every day and stock them. On the weekends, well, they don’t get put out as early as they should. 

But also, I think of all the things we’ve done, causes we’ve donated to, and time we’ve shared, I’ve enjoyed this one the most. When I see someone perusing the table as I look out from my office, it makes me feel good that a roll of toilet paper, a box of macaroni, and a few apple sauces seem to genuinely help people. 

We do a regular delivery to the other side of Waukee, after a woman said she’d love to get a bag once a month, her grandkids really love the treats inside, something we don’t usually have. It’s then I’m reminded of Valvano: “You laugh, you think, you cry, that’s a full day.” 

As rough as it’s been, the table has allowed us to have many full days this summer.

Todd Struthers is a super proud father of four, cybersecurity professional, dad trying to make a difference, and believer in good government.

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