In an era of vast economic growth, multiple million-dollar homes being sold, and Silicon Valley and San Francisco businesses booming, it’s disheartening to realize there is still a very real struggle for some members in our community to be properly nourished.
White Pony Express (WPE) was founded by Dr. Carol Weyland Conner in September 2013. The genesis of this endeavor began when Dr. Connor recognized that in this county of tremendous abundance, thousands of people go hungry each day and many more suffer from inadequate, unhealthy diets. Conversely, in Contra Costa County alone, many grocers, retailers, food manufacturers, and restaurants are discarding thousands of pounds of high-quality, fresh food everyday due to artificially created “Sell By” dates, excess inventory, or simply because it doesn’t meet presentation standards for the average customer. This was a disconnect that she saw as an opportunity.
Dr. Conner developed a Food Rescue Program that ensured surplus food from participating businesses, would be delivered to organizations that serve those in need. In March of 2014, we incorporated as an independent nonprofit public benefit 501(c)(3) corporation, with the goal of uplifting lives through a broad-based, secular community program. With an $800 formation budget and zero assets, WPE’s growth was fueled by generosity. Dedicated volunteers gave time and equipment, a faith group provided space and utilities, local service organizations raised money for refrigerated vehicles, and numerous individuals donated everything from funds to internet access. Through the sacrifice of time and funds, by some caring Samaritans, White Pony Express was off and running.
As White Pony Express built relationships with service agencies across the county and learned more about the needs of people living in poverty and how to serve them, additional programs were put in place to get surplus resources to the people most in need. In 2014, WPE’s outreach expanded to include the White Pony General Store. This program allows individuals in need to acquire adult and children’s clothing, toys, and books. These items are distributed free of charge through pop-up Mobile Boutiques, our Cold Weather Clothing program, direct distribution to agency partners, and outreach to those living without shelter. Over the past 6 years, White Pony Express has built over 100 partnerships with major food and clothing donors. Our 60+ regular food donors and partners include: Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, The Cheesecake Factory, Safeway, and CLIF Bar to name a few. Our White Pony General Store donors and partners include brands such as Deckers/UGG Shoes, Soles4Souls, Sephora, Target, Gap Kids, Barnes & Noble, Ross, Tanger Outlets, and The Children’s Place. Our organization is fueled by financial donations from 350 generous individuals, families, civic clubs, giving circles, corporations, and charitable foundations. Key sponsors and supporters include many companies in our area such as: Bank of America, Lesher Foundation, and Wells Fargo Foundation.
“Our latest data has tallied the TOTAL NUMBER OF PEOPLE SERVED by our various programs during 2019 to be 82,594.”
Our outreach has enriched the lives of many struggling neighbors in our community. Our latest data has tallied the total number of people served by our various programs during 2019 to be 82,594. Our food rescue alone has served 6,404 unique individuals per month. That is a lot of healthy meals being served up. Chris Dikes, Culinary Arts Manager for the Bay Area Rescue Mission in Richmond says, “Even though we have lots of contributors, we never get enough protein here. But WPE brings eggs, and meat, like hamburger, pork chops, and steak. There are times I’m out of milk and they don’t know it, but they show up with milk. It’s like the Lord has it all planned, and it works out a certain way. Every little bit helps because I serve 800 people, eight meals a day.” Our School Pantry Program is designed specifically with families in mind and serves between 50-70 low income families per delivery which equates to approximately 200-300 individuals. The pantries are set up in schools where at least 80% of the students receive free and reduced lunch. Once selected, the school communicates the start of the pantry with the families by sending flyers home with the students. Often, the news of the pantry spreads in the community and we see an increase in the number of people flooding in.
Being a part of an organization that provides so many resources to help bring the people we serve, from the margins to the mainstream, cannot be described in words. Each day I come to work knowing that I am making a positive impact in the lives of many who may have slipped through the cracks otherwise. I witnessed a single mother of five who came to a pantry to get food for her family. She was so grateful for the food she picked up from the pantry because she didn’t have any food in her refrigerator, and the food she received was going to allow her family to have enough food to last until her next payday.
In general, I am always amazed by how timely our donations are. During a recent pop-up mobile boutique for our White Pony General Store, we came upon a pair of shoes that were completely full of holes on the bottom, sitting in the middle of the floor. The little boy who was wearing them had found a new pair that fit him perfectly, and put them on right away, walking out proudly wearing his new shoes! He no longer needed the old ones. One of our partners reached out last week to offer a shipment of coats, shoes, and socks to support survivors of the Kincade fire up North. When we called the partner agencies in that area, one of them told us that their warehouse had just been broken into and all of the recently donated coats had been stolen. The coats we will be bringing up this month will get to our neighbors up North, right in time for the cold. This kind of thing happens all the time. As a highly mobile organization with 10 vehicles on the road, we have been uniquely able to help support our neighbors during the wildfires over the past two years. One partner refers to us as the “FedEx of food and clothing rescue.”
Alongside other service agencies, White Pony Express has seen a dramatic increase in the number of homeless individuals in the Bay Area. The housing crisis plays a big part, but the issues are complicated. The situation has been exacerbated by the unhealthy outdoor conditions of the recent wildfires. As far as shelter, an issue we were recently made aware of by one of our partners, is the difficulty for single fathers who experience homelessness. Many shelters offer arrangements for group accommodations for mothers and their children, and they can often stay together. Men are rarely allowed in these group settings, for understandable reasons, so rooms and support for single men and their children without shelter pose a particular challenge.
Regarding solutions that are trending, we believe that partnership and collaboration among the many stakeholders in our community are key. We must work together to take care of each other. Nonprofits face incredible resource and funding challenges which can feed into agencies working solo, disconnected from each other, and in competition for community support. The smartest thing we can do is create a sense of family among the service groups, so we can lift each other, and work more efficiently. WPE has a matrix of 350 donor and partner agencies, and we are always looking to make helpful connections and stay on the pulse of community needs. By engaging in conversation with our partners, we can help facilitate needs. For example, one of our food agency partners was looking for dining space to rent for an event. Another partner had such a dining space that was only used certain times of day, so we were able to connect the two and save one from having to rent space. Another example was with our new partner, Help A Mother Out. We were receiving increasing requests for diapers, one from a recent immigrant family who unexpectedly had quadruplets! We recently had been educated on the painful issues surrounding “diaper dignity,” and through this new partner we will be able to distribute thousands of diapers to our community. Clean diapers mean happier, healthier, and less stressed babies and parents.
“During a recent interview with one of our partners, they told us that the MOST POWERFUL WAY they’ve seen to help people LIFT THEMSELVES out of poverty, is to INCREASE their clients’ DIGNITY.”
At WPE, we are focused on aiding the homelessness crisis by continuing to provide our partner agencies with free food and clothing so they can focus their funds and energy on their own services (i.e. providing resource support, shelter, classes, etc.). For many of our partners, we are their primary source of food, saving them thousands in spending from their limited budgets. WPE is a game-changer for Richmond’s Brookside Shelter, Arturo Castillo the Adult Homeless Program Manager says, “We have no stovetop kitchen, so we take pre-prepared food and meals from White Pony Express, which is very helpful when you have no stove.” Neighbors in need may be aware of the availability of resources and supporting services, but if they don’t have a clean shirt to wear, a clean diaper for their baby, a well-fed happy child, or even a belt for their pants, they often feel ashamed or unmotivated to engage and proactively seek social services. Sometimes filling these simple daily needs can make all the difference. Our aim is always providing our services in an uplifting and respectful manner, delivering a sense of hope with love, and pivoting from what the recipients’ true needs are. During a recent interview with one of our partners, they told us that the most powerful way they’ve seen to help people lift themselves out of poverty, is to increase their clients’ dignity. Providing people what they truly need and offering them the power of choice are two of the best ways to do this. When you choose, you build agency in your life. When you have agency to rely on, your world gets just a little bit bigger, and more open to possibility. For food rescue, this may require calling every recipient in the morning before we deliver, so our volunteers can freely “shop” for them from our morning food donations, allowing us to bring them the exact kinds of foods they need. For example, a cake can be provided if it’s someone at the shelter’s birthday. For our White Pony General Store program, this means creating “pop-up” Mobile Boutiques in the heart of communities in need, and creating a positive, personalized “store-like” atmosphere. Having a volunteer offer style options for an outfit and having guests pick out what they think looks good on them is a key element of our events, along with including uplifting elements of real stores, such as full-length mirrors, and restocking the store every hour so each guest can have a wide variety of items to choose from.
This past year, our team published our 2019-2021 Strategic Plan, including the addition of our new tagline “All of Us Taking Care of All of Us.” White Pony Express is in the exciting transition from being an all-volunteer project, to a large, broad-based community organization, with whom hundreds of agencies and thousands of people engage and depend. We have a paid staff of 15 (many of whom are driver/coordinators), and we will be adding several needed staff positions this year to help build the organization’s infrastructure and support our skyrocketing growth. In addition to staffing, we also incur the costs of being a primarily mobile organization, with associated vehicle expenses such as insurance, maintenance, etc. as well as the rent and related costs of running our distribution center, with hundreds of community volunteers dropping off donations, sorting, cleaning, and making deliveries every day. We are actively seeking a fuel sponsor to cover our growing fuel costs as we deliver much-needed goods across the Bay Area, and relationships with large scale food and clothing distributors who can donate their surplus. Another major 2020 goal is the expansion of our School Pantry program, to support families in need beyond the free lunch program many participate in. This has been one of the most effective ways we’ve found to reach families in neighborhoods of need. Ultimately, we would love to open a school pantry in every qualifying school in Contra Costa County.
We are currently running an End-of-Year Campaign, with a goal of raising $500,000 by December 31st, and we have just launched an exciting major gift membership program called The Catalyst. Our primary obstacles are acquiring enough funding and adequately supplying infrastructure needs, in order to meet and sustain our services. We have a growing number of amazing food and clothing partners, and an ever-growing list of agencies and schools we serve. We do not charge a fee to any of our recipient agencies or people we serve and are fueled primarily by private donations. Our goal is to create a replicable “circle of giving” model that can be customized and adapted to any community, anywhere. We believe that in our resource-rich area, we are well-positioned to do this, to show that Contra Costa cares, and to lead by example.