More than 80 percent of students in the Fort Worth Independent School District receive federal breakfasts and lunches, according to the Tarrant Area Food Bank (TAFB). At face value, “80 percent” looks like any other statistic. But for food bank staff and volunteers, it represents reality, and for some, stories of children who struggle to find daily meals – like the boy who used to take home a backpack full of food from the food bank every Friday and eat the food under his house in fear that his family would take it away.
Stories like that are shared among TAFB volunteers and staff, many of whom also share close friendships with one another – friendships they realized could be leveraged to raise more money for the food bank.
Since 2012, TAFB has capitalized on peer-based fundraising through its Friend-to-Friend letter-writing campaign, luncheon and Mahjong Play Day. Proceeds go toward the organization’s Food for Kids Program, which includes the backpack initiative, summer feeding programs and food pantries, along with in-school and after-school snack programs. The events helped TAFB raise more than $1 million and distribute 5 million meals to children – all within a five-year span.
The focus on reaching out to friends, as opposed to traditional forms of fundraising, has made all the difference, said Becky Delaune, TAFB director of community relations. She says it’s one thing to hear a hunger statistic in passing; it’s another thing to hear it from a friend.
“It wasn’t a dry fact,” Delaune said. “It was their friends saying 80 percent of kids in Fort Worth public schools are hungry and telling stories about that. It had an impact.”
In fact, the fundraisers themselves started with a conversation between two friends. TAFB volunteer Elizabeth Ray was attending a meeting in Dallas when she and a friend, who served at the North Texas Food Bank, began a conversation while walking up a flight of stairs. Ray’s friend brought up the idea of writing letters to other friends as a way to raise money – a strategy that had been successful in Dallas. Ray then passed along the idea to Mary Kathryn Anderson, who had Delaune’s job at the time.
The idea was well-received at TAFB, and Anderson requested that Ray co-chair the campaign with her lifelong friend Mary Ralph Lowe.
Event committee members dressed in red robes for Mahjong Play Day.
Ray would only do it under one condition.
“I said, if [Lowe] says yes, I’ll do it,” Ray said. “And so she said yes.”
Hence, Lowe and Ray headed the campaign in 2012, writing letters to 10 friends and asking them to help the food bank. Those 10 friends then wrote to their friends, and so forth. With a 36 percent response rate, the campaign raised $162,335 in its first year.
So they did it again the following year and the year after that. In 2014 and 2015, TAFB added a luncheon to raise additional funding. Event chairs Janis Brous and Charlotte Tripplehorn, with the help of – you guessed it – their friends, coordinated to presell tables, and the luncheon was sold out before personal invitations could be printed. Nearly $200,000 was raised that year.
The problem was, luncheons eventually began to feel bland, Delaune said. As the ladies were “bemoaning” another luncheon, she said, it suddenly dawned on her that there was one thing that many of the ladies had in common – playing Mahjong. And they were serious about it too. Some played in tournaments, while others would travel just to spend the weekend playing the game.
So in 2016, TAFB began hosting a Mahjong Play Day.
And it took off.
Joan Russey plays Mahjong to benefit the TAFB.
“People loved it,” Ray said. “Everybody wanted to do it again.”
The 2017 event was held in March at River Crest Country Club, where canned goods lined the stairway leading to the ballroom, decorated with orchids, blue and white china and Chinese-style decor to complement the Mahjong tables. Event committee members dressed in red Chinese robes. Delaune said the event was not competitive, but the atmosphere certainly felt like it.
“They pay attention… They don’t want to talk to you,” she said.
This year, the events raised $200,000 for the food bank. And while Delaune says she isn’t sure where the event is headed next, there’s one thing the group has learned about fundraising: relationships work.
“They just told their friends, and their friends could not stand it,” Delaune said. “That’s why they started supporting it.”
This letter by Mary Ralph Lowe launched the Tarrant Area Food Bank’s letter-writing campaign. The initiative has grown since, and in 2017, 1,130 letters were sent in an effort to help the food bank.
While Fort Worth thrives, we have a staggering amount of very hungry children! Texas has the 2nd highest number of hungry children among all fifty states. In Tarrant County, one in every four children in our community is under or malnourished or chronically hungry, going to bed or to school with growling tummies. Tarrant Area Food Bank provides nearly 12 million meals a year to children at risk of going hungry; however, they are still 18 million meals short of meeting the needs of our children. Surely, WE can do better! We need your help, and I beg you to help us WIN THIS BATTLE against malnutrition and hunger, which brings sickness, suffering and grief in our community.