Harry Chapin and I co-founded WhyHunger in 1975. From the beginning we were very attracted to the work of grassroots or community based hunger and poverty organizations that were on the fron
Harry Chapin and I co-founded WhyHunger in 1975. From the beginning we were very attracted to the work of grassroots or community based hunger and poverty organizations that were on the front lines of combating hunger. We immediately realized that there was no silver bullet solution to hunger and that all the sectors of society, including government, business, academia, media, and non- profit organizations must come to the table so that everyone can eat at the table of plenty. We soon learned that much of the most effective and innovative work was being done by grassroots organizations that were often over worked and under- funded. Within six years we had created three such organizations: The Center for Food Action in New Jersey, the New York City Hunger Hotline and Long Island Cares, now known as the Harry Chapin Food Bank.
After Harry died in July of 1981 in a car accident we almost lost the organization but we bounced back with the help of the artists such as Kenny Rogers, Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom and Steve Chapin and the Harry Chapin band. Sandy Chapin, Harry’s widow, came up with a brilliant idea in1984. She said that we were on target working with grassroots organizations but there were thousands out there and we knew few. She suggested that we create a set of awards to honor and fund the most innovative and effective grassroots organizations in America and in 1985 we gave out the first Harry Chapin Self-Reliance Award to the Hartford Food System. Since then we have awarded $920,000 to 175 grassroots organizations.
In the first years of the awards we had only three staff so I had to read and evaluate all the submissions, usually between 100 and 200. At first, almost all the applications were from emergency food providers but a few were from organizations that were doing more, helping people get out of poverty by offering services that went beyond the charity of a free meal or place to stay. They helped people to find jobs or housing, child care, health care, transportation and community economic development and each of the winners had one or two outstanding model programs that were innovative and successful. We visited many of them and tried to connect them to additional resources. That led to the creation of one of our most successful programs Reinvesting in America, which has since transformed into our Grassroots Action Network. We visited every state, most large cities, and poor rural areas. We gradually grew a list of hundreds and then thousands of organizations.
Today, we connect these organizations to resources: funders, media, government agencies, artists and to other organizations that share common interests, needed information and model programs. Recently, we have created several Community Learning Projects matching two or more organizations in a facilitated peer-to-peer mentoring program for a year of relationship and skill building, knowledge, and networking. All of this has its roots in the Harry Chapin Self-Reliance Awards (HCSRA). Each year we honor winners at our annual dinner and begin the long term process of partnering with them. This year’s strong pool of applicants made it a tough decision—and is an inspiring sign of all the action and change that’s happening in communities across the US. We can’t wait to honor the 2013 awardees, and hope you will join us in celebrating on June 3rd.
Peace, Bill Ayres
Co-Founder and Executive Director WhyHunger