How the Founder of Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream Plans to Make 2017 the Best Year Yet
For more than 20 years, Jeni Britton Bauer has immersed herself in all things ice cream, weaving her love of decadent scents and passion for unique flavors into delicious, one-of-a-kind emulsions.
Today, as the owner of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, many would argue that Bauer has paved the way for today’s artisan ice cream scene, and her creative vision has served as the blueprint for many newcomers on the block that have followed in her footsteps (with flavors like juniper and lemon curd, Thai curry pumpkin and wildberry lavender, it’s easy to see why). As a New York Times best-selling and James Beard Award-winning author, Bauer is not only an emerging authority on homemade ice cream, but an inspiring force to be reckoned with, too. And, with more than 20 Jeni’s locations in the U.S. and counting, one thing is clear—Bauer’s business prowess and knack for flavor runs much deeper than just a perfectly packaged pint.
That’s because the 43-year-old entrepreneur has devoted nearly half her life to the art of ice cream. At the age of 21, Bauer was studying art history and fine arts at Ohio State University. But where she found her true passion was in natural perfuming, and she often spent her free time blending expensive and inexpensive oils into new and exciting scents. Then, one day, she decided to mash cayenne essential oil into chocolate ice cream. The first bite was cold, sweet and decadent, tasting like rich chocolate. Then, the flavor seemingly burst in flames, filling her mouth with a contrasting warmness. It was the best thing she had ever tasted.
“I quit art school almost immediately after that experience. All I could think about was ice cream. I left all of my art materials in a figure drawing class. I opened my first business six months later,” Bauer told 1851 Magazine.
That was in 1996, and it was called Scream Ice Cream—a little shop in Columbus, Ohio’s public market. The business venture was a failure—except for the ice cream. Bauer decided to go back to the drawing board and start again. Jeni’s Ice Cream was later born in 2002. Today, she boasts shops in eight cities—all of which serve as many as 30 unique flavors on any given day.
Fueling her business is a fairly simple belief—Bauer is committed to making better ice cream and bringing people together. She’s tackled this head-on by using super-fresh dairy from grass-pastured, Ohio cows—sourced by Smith’s, a 110-year-old dairy in Orrville—and by sourcing whole ingredients that are often grown specifically for Jeni’s. Being better in every way also meant that Bauer practiced responsible sourcing and worked with small local farms; she wanted a premium product that didn’t rely on emulsifiers and stabilizers like other ice creams on the market. The company was also structured so that it could secure certified B Corporation status, meaning it meets certain social, employment, and environmental standards.
“We want to get a little bit better every single day, because we think it’s fun. And when we make great ice cream, we bring growers together with ice cream makers, grandparents together with grandchildren, and we help create lasting, loving relationships over ice cream cones,” Bauer added.
But Bauer admits that building a superior ice cream product is no easy feat. In the beginning, when such unique flavor profiles were nearly unheard of, people would scoff at her ideas and recipes. Those nay-sayers have taught Bauer a lesson that she still applies to her business every single day.
“As an entrepreneur, you’ll be the only one who ‘gets’ your idea. You’re always going to convince others of your vision—nobody will get it as deeply as you do and very few will think you’re on to something in the beginning. The first thing they’ll do is tell you what you’re doing wrong,” Bauer said. “But here’s the thing—once you have that vision, you will dream about it every single night. It will not let you go. It’s already written in the stars that you’re doing it. What helped me turn that dream into a business is the idea of thinking inside the box. Get to know every boundary, every corner of your idea. A creative entrepreneur sees opportunity using the same set of resources and demands as everyone else. So work your ass off to make it happen.”
Today, Bauer’s ongoing pursuit to create the world’s greatest ice cream has also presented a new set of challenges. Her goal isn’t to be better than the next best brand, but to be better than her own best. Over the years, this has meant working with six different dairy companies, eight chocolate makers and using vanilla beans from five countries; she’s used white sugar, dark brown sugar, light brown sugar and beet and cane sugars to make Jeni’s infamous Salty Caramel ice cream; she’s used seven varieties of pumpkins, five brands of yogurts, six varieties of fresh mint and four varieties of cinnamon; and her base recipe has been reworked and recalibrated at least 20 times. Put simply, the search to be better isn’t always easy—in fact, it’s a never-ending work in progress. And Bauer wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The challenge now is that our pursuit to be the best is an extraordinarily elusive target. The only way we will ever get there is by tweaking our ice creams constantly,” Bauer said. “It can be really hard some times. But it’s so important to always be open to what’s possible—to identify the opportunities that are in front of you and to not be afraid to go after them, even if it means taking a risk or making a change.”
Bauer faced those risks head on in late 2015, when she had to completely halt her company’s ice cream production due to claims of a Listeria contamination. Nearly six months of ice cream was voluntarily recalled, and in that moment, Jeni’s Ice Cream was suddenly left in ashes. What they later found was that no outbreak of Listeria was ever tied to their ice cream, but the idea of waiting 72 hours for test results—and putting people at risk—was a far scarier scenario than temporarily putting her business at a standstill.
“Through that experience, we learned that we have to work together as a team. With 20 of our stores shut down, we worked around the clock for weeks on end to survive. Above all else, we had to maintain our values and our quality,” Bauer said. “It took us a long time to get back on our feet. It wasn’t easy. We rewrote every single process that we created over all of those years in less than one year. And through it all, I’m proud to say that we didn’t lay off a single person. It was a Herculean feat—and something I can look back on now as an important lesson.”
Today, Bauer is pleased to say that 2016 was an incredible year—both personally and professionally. She’s opened new stores in new cities as far reaching as the West Coast; she received her honorary doctorate from Ohio State University; she went on a nationwide tour to promote her ice cream; Jeni’s reached an important milestone by sourcing a majority of its ingredients from Ohio agriculture; and she even spent 40 minutes chatting up Joe Biden. Now, as Bauer’s rapidly expanding business enters 2017 with even more growth, innovation and delicious flavors on the horizon, her goal is to continually inspire—and ultimately shift—the industry in a more advanced direction.
“We live in the 21st century. None of the old rules apply. We are free to break things apart and put them back together in ways that we couldn’t do before. Transportation, communication, and equipment are better now than we ever could have imagined. It is still true: nobody else can make our ice cream but us. But our company is not just one ice cream production kitchen. Our company is a growing community of people devoted to making better ice creams and bringing people together, and we are achieving that mission better today than ever,” Bauer said.
How Whitney Wolfe Redefined a Male-Dominated Industry with Bumble
It’s pretty hard not to admire Whitney Wolfe.
In just a single year, she went from a high-level, high-profile job at the hugely popular dating app Tinder to filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against her former bosses. But yet, despite the near debilitating setback, Wolfe was on a mission. That's because her story painted a much larger picture to the public—that the tech culture is toxic to women, that dating apps like Tinder are misogynist, and that she was hell-bent on doing something about it.
Post-Tinder, as the dust settled, she set out into the tech industry once again—this time on her own. She decided to found her own dating app and named it Bumble. Today, the app is widely described as like Tinder, except women have the power. And her small—but fast-growing—company is gearing up to celebrate its second anniversary. The app is also global, with more than 1 million active users and has facilitated more than 150 million matches.
And the best part of it all? Wolfe is just 27.
What makes Bumble unique is that it's all about quality—not quantity—of matches. While apps like Tinder have seemingly conquered the digital dating space by turning the complicated business of meeting people into an uncomfortable real-life game of "hot or not," Bumble is aimed at sparking more meaningful (and less shallow) connections. When two users "match" on Bumble—meaning they've approved each other's pictures—they have 24 hours to start a conversation. But what's different is that the responsibility lies with the woman to make the first move.
"I wanted to do something that was more female-focused," Wolfe said. "Apps like Tinder have done a phenomenal job of connecting people and game-ifying it. But then what would happen is that guys would completely bombard the women with something as mundane as 'hey' or even something offensive, so the women would be inundated. I want it to be the place for people not only to match with one another but to actually have a real connection. I want real relationships."
For Wolfe, that key difference is about “redefining the landscape” of online dating by putting women in control of the experience.
Wolfe's way of thinking goes a little bit like this: Right now, women feel that society judges them for making the first move even though it’s an obvious desire for both sexes. This has created an unfair disconnect, and it skews the power and the control in the favor of the man. And that, Wolfe believes, is a dynamic that's really hard to change.
But Bumble is different. It's striving to empower women to make themselves equal to men in the dating world. By doing so, Wolfe is also helping to take some pressure off of the man, letting him know that it’s OK not to be highly aggressive in the dating space. It’s a small change that can have a huge influence on the way society views both men's and women's roles in the dating space.
"For the first time in the tech space, the woman has been encouraged to be on an even playing field. In terms of how these conversations play out, how women feel on the app and how they feel about themselves on the dates, it’s really crazy the level of respect they’ve garnered from the men, and the way the men behave in such a different way," Wolfe said. "That one little shift, that one little change, makes all the difference. It guides the conversation in a very different way, and that sets the tone for that conversation, that relationship, that friendship, whatever that is, to be a confident one."
Prior to Bumble, Wolfe was a co-founder at Tinder. She was fired in the midst of a breakup with Justin Mateen, the service’s chief marketer. In 2014, she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the company, alleging that Mateen had publicly defamed her, that then-CEO Sean Rad had dismissed her complaints as “dramatic,” and that her male colleagues stripped her of her co-founder title because they said that having a woman on the founding team would “make the company seem like a joke.”
Today, Wolfe doesn't like to discuss the lawsuit, but she will say that anyone who expected her to disappear afterwards severely underestimated her dedication, her passion and her drive. But most importantly, that entire messy incident has come to illustrate a much bigger issue, and that's the challenges women face in a notoriously male-friendly tech culture. Wolfe believes that it's still not socially acceptable for women to enter into the tech world. And to that, Wolfe is not afraid to call bullshit.
That’s why, Wolfe’s goal has long been to even the playing field—to put women in control by giving them a powerful, uplifting option in a crowded marketplace where men often had the control. It’s a mission that’s come a long way in just one short year. But the most incredible aspect of Wolfe is her shining character. Perhaps part of why she’s so successful is that she has an unfailing belief in herself and her ideas. And that is what it ultimately takes to truly make it—even when the odds are against you.
"It's validating to see the success of Bumble in such a short period of time. But what's truly rewarding is knowing that I believed in my idea from the start. Being able to put your blinders on, ignore negative opinions, and follow your strong intuition is what's validating to me. It's a great feeling to know you can trust your gut," Wolfe said.
Story originally appeared on 1851 Franchise.
Around 6 p.m. on February 8th, 2011, Elizabeth Solomonson's quiet Friday evening at home was disturbed by a knock on the door. A police officer was standing on her front porch. At 4:19 p.m., that afternoon, the department had been notified of a deceased white female, and he wanted to know if Solomonson was the mother of a young woman named Raven. She interrupted the officer before he could finish. Raven was out of town undergoing treatment at a drug facility, so this had to be a mistake. There was no way it could be her daughter. But the officer confirmed the worst: At age 20, Raven had died from a heroin overdose.
That night, an ice storm swept through the small town of Tecumseh, Michigan, knocking out phone lines and power. The officer stayed with Solomonson as she tried to get ahold of her husband. He was out of town on a fishing trip. They both thought they had a reprieve now that Raven was in rehab after a three-year battle with heroin.
Raven’s overdose in 2011, at age 20, was one of several in Tecumseh that year. Over the next four years, heroin-related incidents began siphoning more of the local police department’s resources.
“Once we realized we had a heroin problem, we had to play catch-up,” says Lenawee County Sheriff Jack Welsh, whose team monitors heroin-related cases. “Nobody is protected from this addiction. It’s hitting every age group, every economic group.” In 2014, six heroin-related deaths occurred in Tecumseh – the highest number ever recorded in the community of 8,500. As of June, the Lenawee County medical examiner had reported four more heroin-related deaths in the town in 2015.
East of Tecumseh, Monroe County has a similar story. In April 2015, three people died of heroin overdoses in 24 hours. With about 40 deaths attributed to drug overdose just last year –15 of them related to heroin – Monroe County health officials say the area is facing a heroin epidemic.
Michigan is only one part of a larger story. In the United States, fatal heroin overdoses nearly tripled between 2010 and 2013, from 3,036 to 8,257, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vermont has seen a more than 770 percent increase in people receiving treatment for opiate addiction since 2000. During one week in 2014, 22 people died in Pennsylvania after injecting heroin laced with fentanyl, a drug that can be 100 times stronger than morphine.
When Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a toxic combination of heroin and other drugs in 2014, reports on the country’s growing heroin problem made headlines. President Barack Obama’s “drug czar” at the time, Gil Kerlikowske, warned the public of a nationwide resurgence of heroin and noted a gateway drug: prescription painkillers.
Between 1999 and 2010, U.S. sales of opioids such as Percocet, Vicodin, and OxyContin quadrupled. Makers downplayed the risk of dependency, and the drugs were relatively easy to obtain through a prescription – or from a friend or relative. In 2010, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that 8.76 million Americans were abusing prescription medicine, with 5.1 million misusing painkillers.
“Too often, opioid painkillers were prescribed to excess,” wrote Sam Quinones, author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” in the New York Times in April. “After I had my appendix removed a few years back, I received 60 Vicodin, when four might have been enough.”
In response to prescription painkiller abuse, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began shutting down “pill mills” – clinics where doctors prescribe narcotics inappropriately. Those arrested faced criminal charges, including conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance. Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, redesigned its pills, encasing them in a stronger shell so they would be more difficult to misuse by crushing, chewing, or snorting. The DEA also tightened control on major national pharmacies by regulating the amount of OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin they were allowed to sell. The combined efforts led to a sharp decline in availability.
The cost of black-market painkillers soared, and some addicts turned to heroin, which was available at one-tenth of the price. Heroin, a derivative of opium, has a chemical effect similar to that of opioid painkillers. A CDC study found that three out of four new heroin users report previous abuse of narcotic painkillers.
“If these [overdose] deaths are the measure, we are arguably in the middle of our worst drug plague ever,” Quinones wrote. “Prescription pain pills have created a new home for heroin in rural and suburban middle America.”
Raven’s family first suspected something was wrong when her grandmother, Janet von Kaler, noticed that painkillers she had been prescribed were disappearing from her medicine cabinet in large amounts. Raven was about 16 then. The von Kalers believe that around the same time, Raven’s boyfriend introduced her to heroin at a graduation party. By the time she turned 17, the family says, she was using regularly.
“I talked to her about marijuana and drinking – everything but heroin, because I thought it was a big-city problem,” her grandmother recalls. “I said, anyone who offers you drugs, don’t do it. But when they are that age, and at a party, they do it.”
After Raven died, her grandfather, Roland von Kaler, a member of the Rotary Club of Tecumseh, Michigan, needed a way to cope with his grief. So he decided to take a closer look at the drug problem in the community. He researched death certificates in Lenawee County and found that, in an 18-month period, heroin and opioids caused more overdoses than cocaine or methamphetamines. He also learned that abuse of these drugs was the leading cause of hospital admissions for overdoses in Lenawee County. “I knew our town had a growing heroin problem, and my research and personal experience with Raven led me to believe that prescription painkillers were the gateway,” von Kaler says.
To keep kids from taking pills out of medicine cabinets, von Kaler, a retired engineer, came up with the idea of building a drug locker – a lockable plastic box large enough to hold three or four pill bottles, where families could safely store their medications. He brought the concept to his Rotary club.
After hearing von Kaler’s proposal, the Tecumseh club started the Raven Project, and began collecting donations to cover the $14,000 cost of making the custom mold needed to produce the plastic lockbox. They raised enough money for 50 boxes, which were distributed to local pharmacies and schools. But three years after the effort started, the free boxes were sitting unused. People didn’t grasp why they needed to lock up their prescription medications.
“After a few years of working on this project, I realized people didn’t understand how heroin addiction starts,” von Kaler says. So he began a campaign to inform community members that it often traces back to prescription medication. Working with the Tecumseh school district, city hall, and community organizations including his Rotary club, von Kaler helped form the Tecumseh Coalition for Youth. Its members meet monthly and work with medical professionals to distribute information on prescription drug abuse at school and community events.
Their pamphlets are available in doctors’ waiting rooms and accompany prescriptions filled at local pharmacies. The coalition also focuses on the Michigan Automated Prescription System (MAPS), a program created to track prescriptions. April Demers, a regional prevention coordinator for the group, is working with Michigan State Senator Dale Zorn and Representative Jason Sheppard to draft a bill that will require doctors and pharmacists to register to use MAPS when prescribing or filling medications. This will make it easier to track prescription medication misuse.
Despite their efforts, progress is slow and frustrating, von Kaler says, noting that he wishes people realized how vulnerable they are. He says he still gets angry when people don’t pay attention to the drug problem until it hits their own family and they find out the pain firsthand. “We need more public awareness,” he says.
Quinones believes the community must play a role in dealing with addiction. “One thing families of addicts say is that when someone has cancer, neighbors bring casseroles,” he notes. “When someone has an addict in the family, the family is ostracized.”
After losing her daughter, Elizabeth Solomonson started operating a booth at Tecumseh’s summer festival and other street fairs. She hangs up a banner that reads “Raising H.E.L.L. for R.A.V.E.N.,” the name of the nonprofit she started in Raven’s honor. For hours, Solomonson hands out brochures and speaks to passersby about drug addiction. In October, she’ll march with others in Washington, D.C., as part of “FED UP!,” a rally demanding a federal response to the country’s opioid epidemic. Retelling Raven’s story isn’t easy for Solomonson, but she does it to educate others that nobody is immune to addiction, she explains: “You have to put a face on this epidemic to get people to connect the dots. Everyone thinks heroin users are scumballs, and Raven was this great, beautiful kid. She was a musician, loved animals, and was so kind and warm. She hated being an addict.
“I remember after Raven died, the funeral director politely asked, ‘What do you want to tell people?’” Solomonson recalls. “I told him that I want to tell the truth. I am not ashamed of my daughter. I have never been ashamed of her, and I’m not going to start now.”
The Rotarian Conversation: Jeff Bridges & Billy Shore
Thirty years ago, Billy Shore sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic in Washington, D.C., honking his horn. Shore, a young political operative, was in a hurry to save, or at least improve, the world. He hoped to help his boss, the idealistic Colorado senator Gary Hart, become the next president. His mission would fizzle when the press caught Hart monkeying around extramaritally, but that traffic jam helped improve the world anyway.
While stuck on the road, Shore glanced at that day’s Washington Post. A front-page story told of a famine in Africa and how it had inspired Band Aid, a supergroup of pop stars, to record “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Eventually, that song would raise $24 million for famine relief and the stars would move on, taking the world’s spotlight with them. By the time Shore finished the article, however, he would be dedicated to blowing the horn on hunger.
He and his sister Debbie launched a charity, Share Our Strength, in 1984 with a $2,000 cash advance on Shore’s credit card. They cold-called senators, CEOs, and celebrities from a basement office on Capitol Hill. Writer Stephen King donated seed money. The siblings raised funds for food banks and other charities worldwide, but soon realized they were getting nowhere. “Our approach was clear, simple, and wrong,” Shore recalls.
The trouble was that hunger is a symptom of a larger problem: poverty. Handing out food is like putting a Band-Aid on a wound that won’t heal, Shore says. So he and his sister changed their approach. Convinced that a smart fighter “picks battles that are winnable,” Shore, the charity’s CEO, narrowed its focus to child hunger in America.
Since then, Share Our Strength has raised and invested more than $400 million in food-related anti-poverty efforts across the United States. U.S. News & World Report named Shore one of America’s best leaders – and that was before his group’s revenues jumped from $13 million in 2007 to over $40 million in 2013. Shore compares his mission to a football game: Keep gaining ground, and you’ll win in the end.
His biggest play so far was signing Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges to quarterback No Kid Hungry, a campaign that has helped feed millions of schoolchildren. The genial Bridges has dispensed breakfasts and hugs in elementary schools – and he has taken some flak for it too. Critics have called him unpatriotic for drawing attention to inequality in the United States. “That’s wrong,” says Bridges, who insists that his work is “very patriotic. Having one in five American children struggle with hunger, that’s unpatriotic.”
Bridges and Shore shared their hopes for No Kid Hungry.
THE ROTARIAN: How did you two join forces?
BRIDGES: Billy and I met five years ago, when I was part of a national hunger coalition. We were in Goleta, Calif., near my hometown of Santa Barbara, at a summer meals site [where kids can receive free meals when school’s not in session]. We started talking about how that program connected hungry kids to healthy meals, and we connected over the idea that childhood hunger is a solvable problem. Billy’s organization was just about to launch the No Kid Hungry campaign to end childhood hunger in America. We realized this was the time to team up.
TR: Of all the world’s problems and good causes, what drew you to this one?
SHORE: When my sister Debbie and I started Share Our Strength and began raising money in the mid-1980s, we invested it in nonprofits working to fight hunger. Pretty soon we had a powerful realization: Though our efforts were making a difference, we could be making a bigger, more transformational change. With the right strategy, we believed we could end childhood hunger in America. We have enough food in this country. All we needed was a plan to connect kids in need to the meals they need. That’s how No Kid Hungry was born.
BRIDGES: I’ve been advocating for children for more than 30 years. In 1984, I founded the End Hunger Network, a nonprofit dedicated to feeding children around the world. We produced the End Hunger Televent, a live TV broadcast focused on world hunger, with Gregory Peck, Jack Lemmon, Burt Lancaster, Bob Newhart, Kenny Loggins, and other stars. And I produced a film about hunger, Hidden in America, starring my brother, Beau. Then, around 2008, when things were getting tough here with the recession, I really focused on hunger in our own backyard. I couldn’t fathom that millions of kids in this rich country of ours can’t get enough to eat.
TR: When Americans think of hunger, they tend to think of starving people in the developing world. What is the face of child hunger in the United States?
SHORE: It’s a familiar face. It’s the little boy who sits near your son in homeroom. It’s the little girl on your daughter’s soccer team. It’s the family a few pews over from you in church. In the past, poverty was concentrated in specific neighborhoods. Today, poverty and hunger are spread across most American communities – suburbs and country towns as well as cities.
BRIDGES: The kids we’re trying to help may be in need, but they’ve got the same dreams as any child. They tell me they want to be doctors, architects, sportscasters, even president. That’s why it’s crucial that they get healthy meals every day – to compete with other kids and fulfill those dreams.
In a land of abundance, how can a child go hungry? We examined some of the numbers to deconstruct the issue. Read more.
TR: What are the biggest hurdles ahead?
SHORE: People see childhood hunger either as a nonexistent issue or as one that’s so large and intractable that it could never be solved. Over the past few years, there has been more awareness of the problem. It’s time to accelerate our work so that every boy or girl, no matter where they live in this nation, gets enough healthy food every single day. We need to build a network of business leaders, elected officials, school administrators, parents and caregivers, nonprofits and concerned citizens, dedicated to making real change.
TR: What encourages you about the near future?
SHORE: There’s momentum all across the country. Since 2010, more than two million kids have been added to the School Breakfast Program. Now, more than half the kids from low-income families are getting this critical meal before every school day. Kids often have a harder time getting the meals they need when school’s out for the summer, so we’re working with Congress on new policies to feed kids all summer.
BRIDGES: Look at Los Angeles: Three years ago, the city’s school district rolled out a plan to move school breakfast out of the cafeteria and serve it in the classroom in the first few minutes of the school day – one small change to make it easier for kids to get nutrition in the morning. When it started, only about 29 percent of kids from low-income families were eating breakfast in L.A. schools. By the end of this year, 9 out of 10 kids will be getting school breakfast. From 29 percent to 90 percent – that’s huge progress from one simple decision.
TR: How much difference can a school breakfast make?
BRIDGES: It’s true that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. We’re talking about brain food, man! I’ve heard so many stories about kids coming to school and the last food they ate was a school lunch the day before. When kids are focused on how much their stomachs are growling, how can they focus on algebra? Teachers tell us that when kids haven’t eaten, they have trouble settling down and behaving, or they get stomachaches or headaches and go to the nurse’s office. Add it all up: If you come to school hungry, you won’t learn as much.
The way I see it, making sure kids eat breakfast is an investment in our country’s future. When kids get enough to eat, they feel better. They learn more. They grow up stronger and smarter. The No. 1 thing we can do right now is make breakfast a part of the school day in low-income schools. Not before school, but after the first-period bell. That way, kids don’t have to worry about getting to school early. They don’t get picked on for being “the poor kid” eating a free breakfast in the cafeteria. Everyone gets something to eat at the start of homeroom or first period.
SHORE: There’s another benefit: What we’re doing is good for the nation’s whole political system. Our successes can help reverse people’s plunging confidence in government. When our leaders help us reach America’s most vulnerable children, it shows we have a shot at restoring a key ingredient of the American dream: the idea that the next generation will be better off than our own.
TR: Which moments in your anti-hunger work stand out to you?
BRIDGES: Last year, I met with a group of school superintendents in Arkansas. I challenged them to look for innovative ways to help hungry students get the nutrition they need. As a result of our meeting, the Arkansas No Kid Hungry campaign has led more than 400 schools to serve breakfast after the official start of the school day. Thousands more kids in that state are getting the breakfasts they need.
I’ve also been moved by the work we’re doing in Santa Barbara, where I live. Nearly a quarter of the kids in my hometown struggle with getting enough to eat when school is out. We’ve been putting on a series of concerts by local youth bands at summer meals sites there to build awareness of the program.
TR: Jeff, plenty of celebrities lend their voices and names to worthy causes. But you’ve criss-crossed the country, meeting with school superintendents, mayors, and governors to talk to them about school breakfasts.
BRIDGES: Well, I didn’t want to dabble. I wanted to help start a movement. To do that, I had to figure out what would be the best use of my time. I have a platform – I’m always talking to the media – so why not use that platform to motivate and educate people? And I’ve found that school administrators, mayors, and governors want to hear what I have to say. When Billy Shore and I meet with them, they’re amazed by the progress we are making in other cities and states, and they don’t want to be left behind. I’ve met with the governors of Montana, Colorado, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and Arkansas. I hope to meet with California Governor Jerry Brown and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City to encourage them to bring our Breakfast in the Classroom program to their communities.
TR: Billy, is there more to ending hunger than feeding people?
SHORE: Yes, it’s a question of sustainability. Feeding people ends their hunger for the course of a meal or a day. Ending hunger means putting a system in place to ensure that all children get the three meals they need every day. It’s the difference between a Band-Aid and a cure.
TR: How can people help you?
SHORE: They can go to nokidhungry.org to join the No Kid Hungry network. They can take our No Kid Hungry pledge, support our work, and bring new awareness of the issue to their hometowns. We hope they will.
Originally appeared in The Rotarian magazine on May 2015.
Finding Safe Haven
After the sun sets on a crime-ridden strip of Howard Street on Chicago’s Far North Side, Angalia Bianca heads to work. As a worker for a local anti-violence group, Bianca spends the nighttime hours steering local youth away from drugs, gangs, and bloodshed. She’s acquainted with all three, and often recounts her own troubled history by the numbers that defined it: 36 years as a heroin user, more than 120 arrests, and 26 felony convictions. She relies heavily on her experience when mediating conflict.
For years, Bianca had slept in abandoned buildings. She stole. She did drugs. She spent time in and out of jail for forgery, theft, trespassing, and possession of narcotics. Eventually she lost custody of her children. But after she landed in prison for the seventh time, something changed – Bianca knew she wanted a better life. She just didn’t know how to make it happen.
After serving her time, Bianca sought help from a local homeless organization, A Safe Haven, and moved to its shelter in the Rogers Park neighborhood. Bianca followed the program closely – she attended all the required meetings, passed drug tests, and volunteered at every opportunity. She learned how to plan her time and maintain a budget. She signed a lease on an apartment. She even opened a bank account, her first in over 20 years. “They taught me basic life skills. I didn’t know how to get up in the morning, or how to clean the kitchen. They showed me how to do little things that most people take for granted, ” she says.
A Safe Haven is a network of shelters that address the causes of chronic homelessness and teach residents how to relearn a life without drugs and alcohol. Neli Vazquez-Rowland, a member of the Rotary Club of Chicago, and her husband, Brian Rowland, founded the organization 20 years ago. Under Vazquez-Rowland’s guidance, more than 50,000 clients have followed a program that includes treatment, education, health care, job training, and job placement. Seventy percent of those who complete it remain clean and sober – a rate more than five times the national average for those who finish similar programs. And with an annual $16 million budget, A Safe Haven has become one of the largest organizations serving the homeless in the United States.
In early 2013, the White House recognized Vazquez-Rowland as a Champion of Change for creating one of the most successful organizations addressing homelessness, unemployment, and addiction. She has also won praise locally. Illinois honored her with the Humanitarian Achievement Award during the state’s annual National Hispanic Heritage Month celebration in September. And Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, applauds her dedication: “Neli is a vibrant, tireless, and passionate advocate for vulnerable residents in the City of Chicago, ” he says. “The city is grateful to have her and A Safe Haven as partners in helping Chicagoans turn their lives around. ”
Neither Vazquez-Rowland nor her husband had a traditional social service background, but they did have personal motivation to start A Safe Haven. In the early 1990s, both were flourishing in the financial field. She was a financial adviser, managing large portfolios. Rowland did index arbitrage at the Chicago Board of Trade, profiting from market inefficiencies. However, their lives took an abrupt turn when Rowland developed an addiction to alcohol. They could afford the pricey rehab but quickly realized that only their personal wealth separated them from the addicts who ended up on the streets or in jail.
“We realized how grateful we were that we had resources to get the help we needed and could pay for the best treatment that money could buy, ” Vazquez-Rowland says. “That helped me understand the disparities between people with resources and people without resources and where their paths lead them. If you have money, you have access to treatment, you have access to legal representation, and you have the ability to get back on your feet and not lose your job. But if it happens in the poor communities, you get arrested and you end up in jail. ”
As Rowland got sober, the couple discovered the paucity of services for people in recovery, especially for those with little money or family support. Government agencies weren’t meeting the needs of people they encountered who were struggling to get their lives back on track. So in 1994, Vazquez-Rowland and her husband bought and rehabbed an abandoned apartment building in Logan Square. Their plan was to rent out the building for a year to people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, and when the market recovered, sell it for a profit. But as more people showed up seeking their services, Vazquez-Rowland realized she and her husband could help transform their lives.
So the couple established A Safe Haven Foundation, developing a comprehensive program to serve those in recovery. Vazquez-Rowland personally subsidized care for thousands as she continued to work in the investment business. But after five years, she and Rowland saw that this wasn’t a sustainable course. In 1999, armed with a study conducted by Northwestern University researchers that provided the hard data they needed to seek outside funding, they landed their first contract, with the Illinois Department of Corrections, to provide transitional housing for nonviolent ex-offenders.
Around that time, Vazquez-Rowland also decided to give up her career, leaving a job that had provided her family of four with a comfortable life. “We had this moment of truth, ” she says. “We asked each other: ‘What are we doing? Are we in the business of finance or are we in the business of helping people?’”
The decision wasn’t easy. Having grown up in a poor Chicago neighborhood, Vazquez-Rowland had lacked the resources that helped many others succeed in a business that wasn’t quick to hire women, especially women of color. When she finally landed her first job, some of her colleagues made bets that she wouldn’t last three months. Thirteen years later, she had become an industry success story.
“This was a leap of faith, to go into something that may or may not work – that may or may not be funded, ” she says. “But it got me thinking about the conversation my kids might have with me when they’re at a crossroads in their life. Do they do the right thing or do they do what they know is good for them right now? I wanted to be able to give them the right answer. ”
After 20 years, A Safe Haven has 28 locations throughout Chicago, housed in once-abandoned buildings the couple bought in the South Shore, Englewood, and North Lawndale neighborhoods – areas that other developers might shun.
Vazquez-Rowland has learned that there is no single approach to homeless services, nor is the homeless population homogeneous. Some clients were ready to move on to their own apartments but were shut out of the market because of bad credit or a criminal background. Some had difficulty finding a job after being released from prison. Others were families coming to the shelter for the first time because they’d lost their home to foreclosure after a job loss and needed beds and three meals a day while they planned their next steps.
In response, A Safe Haven developed social enterprise businesses to employ its graduates. These include a call center and box-lunch catering, landscaping, and pest-control ventures. And since 2007, 60 residents annually receive food-service and culinary-arts training, leading to city and state certification.
Vazquez-Rowland is proudest of the landscaping service. Though tens of thousands of visitors enjoy the sight of tulips blooming along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue medians every spring, few of them realize that the bulbs were planted by people who were formerly homeless or incarcerated, and got paid to plant them.
“The services of A Safe Haven are free, but its clients commit to becoming self-sufficient. The reason it’s so powerful here is there are so many people in different stages of their development, ” Vazquez-Rowland says. “They’re getting that pride back in their eyes, and the enthusiasm to take care of themselves. They’re leaving here with keys to their own apartment and with jobs that can support them. ”
Vazquez-Rowland often talks about the importance of return on investment. Citing the number of individuals who’ve been through the organization’s programs isn’t enough for her. She looks for outcomes – the number of people who have completed drug treatment or job training that led to employment and housing.
“With our background as investment bankers, we know how to measure what we do, ” Vazquez-Rowland says. “The government can lock people up for $100 a day or put kids in foster care at $30,000 a year. Our average cost is $80 a day. ”
The couple’s biggest challenge is trying to change the way the entire country deals with poverty. Vazquez-Rowland firmly believes that the emphasis has to be on solving the problem rather than using quick fixes to address the consequences of poverty.
“Right now, headlines are all about the people on public assistance, Chicago’s violence and crime, the overcrowded prison system. So the reaction is: We must hire more police and we must build more prisons, as opposed to looking at it at the root level, ” Vazquez-Rowland says. “We need to instead ask ourselves what is this ecosystem that’s out there causing these problems? Then we can resolve them with our model, anchored in almost 20 years of success. ”
While continuing to run A Safe Haven, Vazquez-Rowland spends three or four days a month at an office in Washington, D.C., meeting with leaders in government, business, and academia to promote her model nationally.
“We all want the same thing. We just don’t agree on how to achieve it, ” she says.
In North Lawndale, one of Chicago’s most poverty-stricken neighborhoods, A Safe Haven’s headquarters serves as an oasis. Inside the building, a teenager explains how the organization helped reunite him with his father. An older woman who has finished the program says goodbye to the friends she’s made at the shelter as she leaves for her first apartment. A young man approaches Vazquez-Rowland in the cafeteria to thank her for saving his life. She is a commanding figure, with her stiletto heels and tailored pencil skirt striking a glamorous note in this shelter tucked between a currency exchange and vacant industrial buildings. But her friendliness puts people at ease. She can’t walk from one side of the building to the other without someone calling out her name and waving a greeting. She knows everyone by first name too.
“This is the most rewarding work in the world, ” Vazquez-Rowland says. “We’re saving lives.”
Originally appeared in The Rotarian magazine on February 2014.
Syria's Other War
Inside the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp in northwestern Jordan, near the Syrian border, a biting wind whips around homes cobbled together from tents, cinder blocks, and shipping containers. In this desert labyrinth, a gritty layer of sand covers everything. Syrian families began arriving here two years ago, fleeing war and persecution. Over two weeks, the United Nations set up a refugee camp. What started as a few tents has become a temporary home to nearly 100,000 people. The residents have made Zaatari an informal city, selling whatever they can – fruit, falafel, electronics, wedding gowns – along a makeshift shopping district nicknamed the Champs-Élysées.
Only a few miles away from Zaatari, the violence in Syria rages on. As the uprising-turned-civil-war enters its fourth year, three million Syrians have escaped to neighboring countries. More than half are children. The conflict in Syria has become one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st century.
In late 2013, 35 cases of polio were confirmed in the country, which had been polio-free for 14 years. Health authorities confirmed the virus was imported from Pakistan. In camps like Zaatari, where thousands of people live in congested conditions, stopping an outbreak of disease is critical, and the flare-up triggered an urgent response from aid groups. To immunize children as quickly as possible, Rotary and its partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, along with local health authorities, conducted large-scale campaigns throughout 1,200 fixed sites, such as health clinics and schools. Three hundred mobile teams targeted hard-to-reach areas, which involved vaccinators entering Syria and the refugee camps just outside the country’s borders. In three days, 19,000 children received drops of polio vaccine.
Photographer Jean-Marc Giboux traveled to Jordan and made his way into the Zaatari camp, where he documented the immunization campaign. “There’s so much emotion within the walls of this camp. These people have been going through hell, and when something like polio reemerges, it’s a new wave of mayhem.”
Originally appeared in The Rotarian magazine on November 2014.
Photography by Jean-Marc Giboux.
A mobile vaccination team visits an isolated Bedouin camp in Jordan.
Most polio cases in Syria have occurred in children under two years old, who were born there after the war started and missed their regular vaccinations. Disruption of routine immunizations, damage to health infrastructure, and a displaced population have contributed to the return of polio.
While facing challenging conditions in the Zaatari camp, volunteers have immunized more than 14,000 children.
Despite the threat of rebel fighters, shelling, and airstrikes, aid groups have organized thousands of volunteers to administer vaccine. According to UNICEF, this effort is part of the biggest immunization campaign in Middle Eastern history — one that has reached 25 million children in seven countries in 37 rounds.
At the Zaatari camp, vaccinators visit every makeshift home in pairs. One volunteer handles the vaccinations, and the other serves as the recordkeeper.
Rotary provided a US$500,000 emergency response grant to support efforts to stop the polio outbreak in Syria - the first given to the World Health Organization in direct support of a Global Polio Eradication Initiative plan to conduct large-scale immunization campaigns in the Middle East.
Children walk through the Zaatari refugee camp, where polio vaccination teams go door to door as part of the mass immunization campaign taking place throughout Syria and its bordering countries — Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey.
The Faces of Resilience
Along the water’s edge in Rikuzentakata, on the coastline of northeastern Japan, stands a single pine tree, its bark scarred by tsunami waves. The area, once home to 23,000 people, is otherwise a barren landscape of splintered two-by-fours and tangled debris. Little else remains of this resort community that was renowned for its beautiful white sand beach.
On 11 March 2011, 30-foot swells swept away the city and many others like it. In Rikuzentakata, the tsunami left behind only a few large, gutted structures and destroyed 70,000 trees along the coastal pine forest, which had protected the rice paddies from the sand. Nearly 2,000 residents died, making it one of the hardest-hit communities. In all, almost 16,000 people lost their lives that day.
With the details of the devastation still emerging, members of the Rotary Club of Ardmore, Pa., USA, began exchanging emails to organize help for the victims. They established the Ardmore Rotary Japan Relief Fund and in a few weeks raised $54,000. They forwarded the funds to the Rotary Club of Tokyo, whose members had raised nearly $255,000. With the money, they planned to rebuild a child care center that had been washed away by the tsunami, giving the dozens of area children who had lost their homes, schools, and in some cases their parents a chance to start again. Completed in 2012, the center is called Ayukko, a name derived from the abundant ayu (sweetfish) living in the Kesen River.
Ayukko has become a place where mothers and children in the community, many of whom still live in temporary homes, can reconnect, share their experiences, and support one another. Psychological care is important here, and kodomo no kokoro no care, which translates to “care for children’s hearts,” is at the core of Ayukko’s philosophy.
“The effects of the earthquake and tsunami continue to take a psychological toll on the residents of this area,” says Doug Klepfer, past president of the Ardmore club. While the center offers mental health workshops, it also operates under the belief that the best form of therapy lies in reestablishing a sense of community. The disaster demolished not only the city’s infrastructure but also the human bonds that connected the people who lived there. “The people cannot live without a certain mechanism of community support for each other,” says Yoshio Okazaki, past president of the Tokyo club.
In the yard surrounding the center, dogwood trees begin to blossom as the changing season brings warmer air. Young mothers gather to share their stories while children nap in the corner library. Two-year-old Saku comes to Ayukko twice a week, and her mother believes this is helping her learn how to play with other kids. Now in its second year, the rebuilt Ayukko has proved that a warm and stable environment can help a community in recovery.
“We felt it was best to help our younger generations suffering from bad circumstances and to maintain a safe center to raise them over the next 10 years,” says Akira Gemma, who served as president of the Tokyo club when the project began. “The most important part is to look after young generations.”
Originally appeared in The Rotarian magazine on April 2014.
Photography by Allison Kwesell.
The Ayukko child care center first opened in September 2005. In 2011, when staff members heard the tsunami warning, they carried the children to higher ground. They hiked for almost 2 miles until they found shelter in a Buddhist temple, where they spent the night. The tsunami destroyed the center. From mid-March to May, staff traveled by foot to find out whether Ayukko’s children and their families were safe.
Shortly after the disaster, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that Japan always had been quick to help other nations in the wake of catastrophe. “Now it is Japan’s turn to receive support, and the Rotary Club of Ardmore, Pa., and the clubs of District 7450 stand out for their ongoing help,” says Rick Dyck, a member of the Tokyo club. “By the doorway at Ayukko, a plaque from the Ardmore club is seen by mothers and children every day, giving them the reassurance that others in distant communities care.”
Ayukko offers mental health care, including counseling for mothers with post-traumatic stress disorder, and serves as a meeting place for surviving parents and grandparents. Mikiko Sugawara, a child care consultant whose own father was killed in the tsunami, recalls that she and her colleagues went back to work soon after the disaster: “We reopened Ayukko as a traveling play space. We borrowed room from elementary schools, public facilities, and homes for the elderly. We all rejoiced at our reunion. I am determined to do my best every single day to make Rikuzentakata the best town for raising a child.”
A Chance for Education Where Girls Didn't Count
In 2005, Razia Jan came up with a dangerous idea: to start a free private school for girls in her native Afghanistan. The Taliban were using extreme violence to keep girls from learning. In 2008, the year she opened the school, terrorists in the country – armed with bombs, poison gas, guns, grenades, and acid – killed 149 teachers, students, and employees in Afghan schools.
But Jan – who left Afghanistan in 1970 to study in the United States and couldn’t return after the Soviet invasion in 1979 – did not intend to let terrorists stop her. She approached Afghan Ministry of Education officials and persuaded them to donate a piece of land in a village 30 miles outside Kabul. Today, the Zabuli Education Center is in its sixth year and has a roster of more than 400 girls in kindergarten through ninth grade.
Without the school, many of the students never would have had the chance to receive an education. “I can feel a change happening in these girls and in this community,” says Jan, who moved back to Afghanistan after building a successful tailoring business in Duxbury, Mass. “Knowledge is something nobody can steal from them.”
THE ROTARIAN: What made you return to Afghanistan to start a school for girls?
JAN: I had seen the conditions and how badly the girls were treated. I had to do something. I thought, “There are no schools for girls here. Why not build one?” At that time I was the president of the Rotary Club of Duxbury, and we decided to hold a fundraiser. We raised $65,000 in one night. This was in 2005. In 2008, we held two events featuring Khaled Hosseini, author of the novels The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, which helped us raise more than $120,000. The place where we decided to build the school was a community of seven villages, a poor area, and the people had never seen a girls’ school. My hope was that this school could help break the cycle of poverty.
TR: Did you encounter any resistance there?
JAN: When I first came to this community, a man came up to me and stared at me strangely. He said, “Sister, why are you standing here? Please go inside and sit with our women and have a cup of tea.” I replied, “I’m going to build this school. And I’m going to be standing here to build it. You have to get used to it. I don’t think I’m going to sit inside.” That was one of the first times a woman had challenged these men. The day before we opened the school, more men approached me. This time there were four of them. “I hope you realize you still have a chance to change this school into a boys’ school,” they said to me. “Boys are the backbone of our community.” I replied, “Unfortunately, you are all blind. I want to give you some sight.” They turned around, and I never saw them again.
TR: What changes has your school brought about in the girls and in the community?
JAN: One of the first things we do is to teach the girls how to write their father’s name. Then they take it home to show their parents. The fathers have come up to me, crying: “My daughter can write my name, and I can’t.” That is a big moment. I have proved to the men of these seven villages that this is the best thing that’s happened for their daughters – to become educated. The girls are more independent. They can talk to their father or talk to their mother and share their opinions. They can speak for themselves now. We were having a discussion in class one day and one of them stood up and said, “You shouldn’t worry about what the world thinks.” They couldn’t say this before.
TR: What does the future look like for these girls?
JAN: I don’t want their education to end here. I would like them to go to college, but I see the difficulty in that. Next year, when the oldest girls reach 10th grade, I want to have a plan to extend their education by building a computer science center or a nursing facility. I will bring education to them if they can’t attend college. I will continue to give them as much freedom as I can, and a place in society where they can speak out. Gently but surely, we will give them a more promising future.
Originally appeared in The Rotarian magazine on January 2015.