At GutCheck, we have four brand pillars upon which we build our business. One of those is to ‘lead with empathy’, a guiding principle that we strive to demonstrate in all our actions. Last year, to bring this to life in a new and meaningful way, I brought the idea for a new event engagement program to the leadership team who were delighted to back the initiative.
In honor of National Hunger Awareness Day and National Empathy both falling last week, I want to share that initiative with you, and also demonstrate why it means so much to me personally.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s Middlesboro, Kentucky was home to over 30 coal mining camps. The total population of the town was only about 8,000-10,000 around this time, so pretty much every family had something to do with the mines.
My mother was raised in one of these coal-mining camps called Low Ash. She was the seventh of nine children, all born at home in mine-owned housing in the camp. Only 4 of the 9 children in her family, including my mother, lived long enough for me to meet them. The others died of things like stillbirth, spinal meningitis and a couple of the boys survived childhood but died serving in the Army. My grandfather died of what they called ‘black lung’ (Coal Workers’ pneumoconiosis, or CWP), when my mother was just 7. That is when she had to leave school – before she’d even finished first grade – to work to help support the family. She carried wash water from the river for other women in the camp, who had working husbands in the mine. Her brothers in the service sent money home from their meager pay. Everyone had to pitch in.
My mother was often hungry. Lard on a biscuit was a typical meal. Some days, meals were simply missed. They didn’t have shoes, and dresses were made from potato sacks that could be found lying around. The Salvation Army would bring a load of coal in the winter to heat their home after the mine was shuttered. I find it ironic that they needed donated coal to stay warm in a coal-mining camp.
My father was raised in the town next to the coal mine. My paternal grandfather died early too, and as a result, my father also left school at a young age to help support his family. He drove a cab in the town of Middlesboro well before he had a license to drive. When he was 21 and my mother 18, they married. Their courtship – how my father adored my mother from afar for quite some time – is a romantic tale for another day. This one is about hunger.
After marrying at the courthouse, my father took an 8 or so hour bus ride to Detroit, where the factory jobs were. After he secured work, he sent for my mother, and she also found a factory job in Detroit, at a meat-packing factory. My parents were very lucky to have a fresh start in a new city, together, with stable jobs. But not as lucky as I was to be born to them 14 years later.
My father had only completed the third grade, so both my parents were functionally illiterate. I learned to read and write quite early, I guess because I had to. I wrote my own permission slip for my first school trip in kindergarten, and my parents just signed their names. I started writing checks and balancing the family checkbook at age 11. My mother went back to school in her 50s after my father died, via a free program to get her GED, but again, that is a magnificent chapter for another time.
Despite the difficulties my parents both faced, I have never spent a day, not a single moment of my life, hungry. I have never known what it felt like to feel insecure about not having enough food to eat or wondering where my next meal would come from. I have had anything I wanted to eat my entire life. I’m even snacking while I write this. My parents worked very hard in harsh conditions, to make sure my brother and I never knew their reality firsthand.
But the stories were there and stuck with me. We visited the remnants of Low Ash and the one room schoolhouse my mother briefly attended many times. I heard stories about the aunts and uncles I never knew, about my grandfather who used moonshine a little too much as a means of tolerating his horrible living conditions. My mother had a rough youth, and my father’s though better, was still filled with struggles. My life, on the other hand, has been pretty charmed.
I was probably about 6 or 7 the first time I worked at a soup kitchen. Feeding people was my family ethos. I wasn’t allowed to work for money as a child (a byproduct of the hard youth of my parents), but I was allowed to volunteer. And so I did.
If a neighbor was out of work, we took groceries to them every week until they found more work. We never wasted food at home, we shared with the neighbors if we had too much. Our neighbors did the same. Our closest neighborhood friends, a family from Mexico that lived next door with five children, shared the most wonderful food with us. I looked forward to each week when Mrs. Gutierrez would bring over what she had made too much of. Homemade flour tortillas were a ‘given’. I was SO lucky.
The ethos of feeding others that I learned from my parents is something I still carry with me to this day. I have worked in soup kitchens in 5 or 6 different states; when I later moved to NYC, I rode a mobile soup kitchen two nights a week with Coalition for the Homeless, and I worked on fundraising as part of a board for City Harvest. Currently, I help my local director of Social Services with all sorts of food-related programs, including the fresh community farm produce distribution we started during the pandemic, when we had to close our canned food pantry.
From all this background, you can imagine my absolute elation when I was able to marry one of my primary avocations with my vocation at GutCheck, in the Connect for Charity program we started just over a year ago. While brainstorming some initiatives to put our company pillar of empathy into action, we came up with Connect for Charity; for every connection we make with a prospective client or partner at a conference, we donate $5 to a local food charity in that city.
In the year since we launched our Connect for Charity program, we have contributed funding for over 60,000 meals in locations across the country where we have attended conferences and enjoyed the many connections with partners that this initiative has afforded us. While it is immensely satisfying to think about so many people being fed, there is still much more to do to solve the problem of hunger in America.
Did you know that in 2021, 32.1 percent of households with incomes below the Federal poverty line were food insecure – that’s just over 10% of households in this country experiencing food insecurity at some point during the year, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. 22 million free or reduced cost ($.40) school lunches are served daily in the US – that’s 22 million children that have food insecurities in communities across the United States.
I actually didn’t know about National Empathy Day and National Hunger Awareness Day until a few weeks ago – to me, these have always been every day. The need is currently great in so many communities throughout the US every single day. Hunger is not limited to low-income areas – even in higher household income communities, there are families that struggle occasionally due to job loss and other factors. Hunger hits every community in this country.
My hope with this blog is to encourage and inspire others to get involved in their own communities. From donating to a food drive at a local food bank, bringing food to neighbors (whether you worry they may have food insecurity or even if they just seem busy and could use a hand), or even bringing the idea of your own charity initiative to your company’s executive team, while the need is great, the ways in which we can help are also great. The seemingly smallest gesture can make an immense impact on someone’s life.
This wasn’t easy for me to write – I have never shared this part of my background in such a public way before. I sincerely thank you for reading, and hope it inspires you to put your own empathy into action.