On the same day last fall, the third-strongest hurricane on record made landfall on the Florida Panhandle and a fleet of specialized disaster-response vehicles and workers deployed from Springfield to help pick up the pieces.
Convoy of Hope’s work is the embodiment of its name. As disaster fleets head to the eye of a storm, onlookers know its mission.
“It’s a bit humbling when you’re driving along and people are honking and waving and giving a thumbs up knowing that you get to go help people,” says Stacy Lamb, the Springfield-based nonprofit’s senior director of U.S. disaster response.
With its $1.7 million fleet of disaster vehicles ranging from a chainsaw trailer to mobile bathrooms and bunkhouses, Convoy representatives arrive self-sufficient and ready to provide aid.
“When we go into somewhere like Marianna, Florida, where no power is available, all we need is a parking lot,” Lamb says.
The faith-based international humanitarian relief organization is perhaps best known for its distribution of emergency supplies following disasters. Last year, Convoy responded to a record 21 disasters nationwide and 17 internationally.
In the months following the October 2018 Category 4 Hurricane Michael, Convoy of Hope gave over 140 tractor-trailers of food and supplies amounting to 4.6 million pounds – and counting – to relief efforts in Florida, Lamb says. The latest truckload arrived Jan. 28.
Combined with its stateside community feeding events and international children’s feeding and business empowerment programs, Convoy of Hope has distributed over $1 billion in food to help over 100 million people in the past 25 years, says spokesman Jeff Nene.
Convoy of Hope was born out of tragedy.
In 1969, Convoy co-founder Hal Donaldson’s father was killed and his mother was injured when a drunken driver collided with their car head on.
The crash led the family to living paycheck to paycheck.
“I can recall days when our shoes had gaping holes in the soles and our cupboards were bare,” Donaldson writes on Convoy’s blog.
Years later as an adult, Donaldson met Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India.
“Hal, what are you doing to help the poor and suffering?” Donaldson says she asked him.
Motivated by the inquiry, Donaldson and his brothers Steve and Dave began distributing food out of a pickup truck, and in 1994, Convoy first opened in Sacramento, California.
The following year, Convoy of Hope held its first large-scale community food distribution event, and shared 700,000 pounds of product with 70,000 people.
In 1996, the nonprofit relocated to Springfield.
Convoy of Hope’s 2019 budget of $169 million is primarily fueled by in-kind donations.
According to its latest audit for 2017, it received $117 million worth of in-kind support and $57 million in monetary contributions.
Nene says gifts-in-kind are up at least 10 percent for 2018.
In August 2018, Convoy received its 15th straight four-star rating from nonprofit evaluator Charity Navigator. The report shows 90.7 percent of its expenses are directly in programs.
Nene says Convoy’s track record has caught the eye of large companies over the years, citing Culligan, The Home Depot, Hormel Foods, Coca-Cola and Bass Pro Shops as examples of major partners.
Bass Pro has been a supporter for 20 years.
“We trust the work that they do,” says Sarah Hough, community affairs manager for Bass Pro.
Bass Pro primarily donates in-kind products, Hough says, such as tents, tarps and beef jerky for disaster relief efforts.
A hand up
While Convoy of Hope got its start hosting events to distribute food to cities around the country, Nene says its mission runs deeper.
“One of the things that’s been really important over the years is to not just be an organization that throws food off the back of the truck,” he says. “It only can accomplish as much as the food you have on that truck.”
Through its Rural Compassion and Community Event initiatives, Nene says Convoy partners with agencies and churches to provide food, supplies and services that not only meet immediate needs but also help communities self-sustain.
“We give out food,” he says, “but we want to do it in a way that we can train and help individuals, families and communities to be able to do a better job of that themselves.”
In 2018, Convoy of Hope hosted 61 one-day community events across the country, including its second-ever in Springfield, Nene says, providing roughly $1 million worth of food and services at each.
Through Rural Compassion, Convoy engaged 1,200 churches and agencies to provide 91,000 pairs of shoes in 2017.
By 2020, Convoy officials aim to feed 200,000 children in 11 developing countries every day, an increase from 177,000 kids at last count. Nene says the nonprofit’s on track to meet the goal early.
It costs Convoy an average of $120 to provide meals for a child for an entire school year.
“A lot of parents are forced to choose: Do they send their children to school or do they send them out to beg for food and sustenance?” he says. “If you send them to school … They’re not only getting food but education. That’s the critical thing if you want to break that cycle of poverty.”
Nene says the program could increase by 100,000 kids today if funds were available.
The work feeding children has spawned its Women’s Empowerment programs, which had 2,788 participants in 2017 and helped supply 655 women with startup capital to open or grow businesses in seven countries.
Nene remembers meeting a Filipino woman who sold chickens for her livelihood. Startup funds from Convoy allowed her to go from selling 25 chicks at market to over 200 today.
“She’s able to support her family,” he says.
Hope on the horizon
When a storm rolls in or disaster strikes, Convoy is an expected response these days.
Lamb says Convoy of Hope is one of 65 members of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.
Hurricane Michael most recently led them to help Jackson County, Florida’s 50,000 residents.
“I lost my home in the storm,” says Rodney Andreasen, director of Jackson County’s emergency management system. “We’re all still in recovery.”
When Convoy volunteers pulled into Marianna to set up home base for recovery efforts, he says they brought hope to the community.
“They’re lifesavers,” Andreasen says. “Every time I turned around it was another semi. Convoy of Hope has a special place in heaven.”
Lamb says Convoy does not only respond to weather-related disasters. For instance, after the public water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Convoy trucked 16 million water bottles to residents over the course of 11 months.
Nene says Convoy has outgrown its facilities, including a 300,000-square-foot warehouse it occupied in 2000 at 330 S. Patterson Ave., an administration building just south of Commercial Street and an 18,000-square-foot rented warehouse in Ozark to house its disaster equipment.
He says the board is discussing options to bring all employees and resources into a centralized headquarters.
In addition, board members are developing a strategy to grow international relief efforts, Nene says. It’s exploring starting sister nonprofits, like Convoy of Hope Philippines, for example.
“We’ve just experienced enough miracles along the way,” Nene says.
He oversees food and beverage at Mueller Co., an international manufacturer with $201 million in annual revenue.
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