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The Power of Noticing a Problem

by John Franklin • January 2018

Many nonprofits are birthed when someone identifies a need and takes action to meet it.

One of the privileges of serving as a program director at the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust is that I get to meet inspiring people who identify an unmet need and have the courage and initiative to build an organization to address it. They usually undertake this work in the face of huge obstacles and often at great personal sacrifice. The history of the nonprofit world is filled with their remarkable stories.

For example, in the 1950s Eunice Kennedy Shriver noticed that children with intellectual disabilities did not have a place to play. Moved by this need, Shriver took action and held a summer camp for these children in her own backyard. What started as a backyard event evolved into the Special Olympics, the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities. Today the Special Olympics features more than 4.9 million athletes from 172 countries.

Many organizations start with a similar story. Someone identifies a need then takes a risk and initiates a solution. Sometimes these stories grow out of the founder’s personal struggle. One such story that we encountered at the Murdock Trust is that of Barry Birch. Birch lost his job and marriage in the early 1980s and found himself living alone in a house he couldn’t afford. Birch was so cash-poor that he resorted to pulling food out of dumpsters and eventually had to sell his home at a huge loss.

Birch was able to get back on his feet and, in 1986 he met and married Suzanne, a single mom. The two learned that restaurants and grocery stores in their area would often throw out unused food, so they began collecting the discarded food and putting it on the front porch of their rental house for those in need.

Soon, the food they were collecting grew and took over their kitchen and living room. The couple moved to a new home with a garage big enough to store the food and invited the working poor in their community to access the groceries as they needed them.

The Birches formed a board in 1996, incorporated as Birch Community Services, Inc. (BCS) and moved into their first building in Northeast Portland. In 2000, BCS moved to its current Rockwood location, a Costco-like warehouse that serves close to 900 working poor families per year. Its mission is “to provide a community where people can be responsible and accountable for meeting their basic needs and to equip them with tools to overcome financial difficulty.”

BCS members are allowed to shop at the warehouse four times per month in exchange for two hours of volunteer work at the warehouse and a small monthly service fee. Members also make a commitment to develop and execute a personal financial plan with the aid of BCS’s Sustainable Families Program Manager, all with the hope of bettering their financial situation within three years or less.

BCS has distributed more than 50,000,000 pounds of merchandise with shoppers receiving an average value of $800 per month. Birch passed away in 2015, but Suzanne has continued to lead the mission. BCS has made national news and has been replicated in eight different communities.

Another inspiring narrative involves Alan Evans, a man whose meth addiction led to repeated arrests and years of moving in and out of the prison system. Evans tried in vain to get a job and concluded that crime was his only way to survive.

In 2001 Evans was arrested once again outside a strip mall in Seaside, Oregon, but this time something different happened. The arresting officer paused and asked Evans to tell him his story. After Evans shared his story, the officer made several phone calls to try and find a bed for Evans in a homeless shelter. After learning that all the shelter rooms were full, the officer managed to place Evans in a local group home.

The action changed the course of Evans’ life. He got sober and was inspired to launch Thugz Off Drugs in 2002 (Katu 2 News channel covered the story). The arresting officer who had helped Evans turn his life around served on the founding board for the first six years.

The mission began with one emergency shelter housing eight people per night in Seaside. The organization changed its name to Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers and has since grown to 11 reentry facilities in four counties, housing 190 men and women per night in Clatsop, Yamhill, Lincoln and Tillamook Counties. Helping Hands collaborates with over 120 community partners to connect its constituents with mental health counseling, relapse prevention, GED programs, ready-to-rent training and parenting and domestic violence classes. Today the organization is recognized as one of the largest homeless reentry programs in Oregon.

Both the Helping Hands and Birch Community Services stories started with founders who were determined to make the world different for those struggling with the same issues that had affected them. At the Murdock Trust we feel honored to hear these and other stories from heroes like this every day, and we are honored to partner with their vision, if only in a small way.

John Franklin is a program director at the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.