About that time a friend I had worked with as a movie extra came to me with an idea to start a toy drive similar to "Toys for Tots," mobilizing actors and extras to help the less fortunate. I loved the idea from the start. My all or nothing mentality set in. This cause was ALL IN for me. My mind began to brainstorm on who and how we could make it happen.
After working in several underserved neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago in the past, I wanted to center our efforts there. In the inner city poverty, foreclosures and the jobless rate is double that of the national average. I did much of my work in Englewood where crime rates are high and the pressures of the economic downturn are clearly visible.
I called my church and asked if they could put me in touch with a community support organization on the South Side. They gave me names of worthy local programs and one in Englewood. It was as if God had directed me to the place I wanted so desperately to reach out to. The name of the organization is Urban Youth Outreach (urban7.com), a safehouse for underserved and homeless kids situated in a home at 63d and Union. The fearless man who devotes his life to the kids, and GOD, is Pastor Keith Vosler. I told him what we were trying to do and set up a meeting.
On my first trip to Urban Youth Outreach I was unaware that the home was located in the middle of a powerful gang controlled part of the city. I had been given the address and was looking for a church. I pulled down the street and pulled over waiting for the Pastor to pull up to what was the safehouse. I did not realize I had parked my car in front of a gang leader's home. I was concerned when two cars with blacked out windows began driving past my car repeatedly. I quickly realized that it was not a good situation.
One of the cars began to pull along the side of my car. The window rolled down slowly and the driver was slouched down behind the wheel with just one eye peeking over the door. I knew instantly I was in trouble. My window was rolled down. I prayed and waited for his next move. I have been around the city enough to recognize he was a street soldier positioned to shoot.
He asked if I was in the right place. I looked at the car as I spoke, careful not to show disrespect as I answered his questions. I replied that I was looking for Pastor Vosler. He never sat up, but told me he was in the corner house. I thanked him and breathed a sigh of relief. The car slinked away back to the areas he was protecting.
It wasn't long before a tiny white man pulled up in front of the home. He was all of about 5'7" and had a smile that was infectious. I have to be honest that based on our conversations, and the fact that we were in the middle of a stretch of African American churches, my mental picture was of a Black Minister with a swagger and unshakeable purpose in helping the kids.
I was instantly captivated by the conviction of this man, and the fearlessness that glimmered in his eyes. The house is more of a compound than a church. It truly is a safehouse. The Pastor quickly informed me that the houses down the street where I originally parked were home to street liutenients who commanded over 100,000 soldiers in the city. I thanked GOD again and knew I had chosen the right place for the drive.
During our previous discussions the pastor explained to me that the ministry served more than 200 plus families and several kids living on the streets. The house provided safety, food, games and access to computers, along with words of hope and a message of faith. After our talk I decided to expand the drive to clothes and books along with toys.
I returned home and began to work on a name for our cause. I came up with "Extra Hands of Hope." I drew a basic concept for the logo. It was a peace sign made of hands. A local graphic artist Victor T. brought it to life. The logo was amazing. It far exceeded my rough sketch and wildest dreams.
I immediately began to call the casting companies in Chicago. I contacted both extras casting and principal casting companies. The first on board was Atmosphere Casting owner Jon Kinnas, Joan Philo of JP Casting and Darlene Hunt of Extraordinary Casting. They all agreed to join in the cause. Jon offered to be media contact. Darlene offered field support and Joan said to call if we needed anything else.
I was amazed that the competitive nature of the 3 was cast aside to embrace a worthy cause. The next step was to secure drop box locations for toy, winter clothing and book donations. A plea on Facebook got the ball rolling. As we moved forward I approached the 3 biggest principal casting companies to see if they too would take part in our mission. Simon Casting, Paskal-Rudnicke and O'Connor Casting all said yes. Some have told me it was the first time that all of the cities casting agencies had come together for one common project. I was grateful to all of them and felt GOD was making things happen to make the drive a success.
The logos were printed. Jeffrey H., a Sag insider, offered a donation of 20 drop boxes. Jay D. promised to get the Screen Actors Guild involved. I reached out to several "Ma and Pa" stores and community centers to see if they would allow a drop box at their location. Not one of them said no.
Every day I made impassioned pleas to the Facebook community to join the cause. With well over 100,000 actors in Chicago I knew we couldn't fail. Along thwe way friends began to offer their help. Jeffrey H., Jan and Kera S., Theresa C., The Bolber family, Charmane W. and Randy B. were my elves. After trying to run the show alone I saw that as in most cases reaching out my hand to friends was needed if we were to reach our goals.We also took on two more organizations bringing the total number of families we hoped to serve to 800.
The drive was to run for 30 days between November 17th and December 17th. 16 locations were secured around the city. The casting agencies put notices of the drive on their home pages and Jon Kinnas did a press blast announcing Extra Hands of Hopes' mission. Boxed were put in place and I sat back and waited for them to fill up with everything the families needed to make Christmas extra special.
Yahoo Contributor Patricia B. ran a story on the cause (appendix). I was certain the city would embrace the idea. I was certain that as in "A Field of Dreams," if we built it they would come. I could just sit back and drop off the thousands of donations to Keith back at Urban 7. For the first few weeks things looked shakey.
Everyday I posted what we needed. I was emailing my drop box locations like a man posessed. I felt like a tv preacher trying to get people to "fill them boxes." I waited for the press to jump on the story. The casting agencies devoted more announcements and even pages devoted to the drive. Still there was no media pick up.
For the first 2 weeks dribbles and drabs of items began to come in. Charmane W. recorded a song to encourage people to give. I am confident that it will be a song known to many as we make the event an annual event. We moved from collecting only new items to "gently used." That would be the ticket. My prayer life couldn't be stronger. With every call I made to my satellite elves there was only a couple items in the box or nothing at all. I prayed harder but I can honestly say that I was discouraged. I was concerned about the kids and didn't want to let them down.
Meanwhile Jan S. and Jeffrey H. were making things happen on the North Side. The halfway point came and it looked like we would only be able to help about 25 families. There was no way we could accomodate the original goal of 800. I bought the website extrahandsofhope.org. I was beginning to see that a month was too short of a time frame to collect the amount of resources needed. Jon did another press blast. Paskal-Rudnicke, O'Connor and Simon Casting all had postings. Where had I gone wrong?
As we closed in on the collection date of December 15th I was happy for what we had accomplished to date but disappointed that I had not brought corporate sponsers into the mix. My own disdain for Big Brother got in the way of doing the best for the families. People shared kudos and posts congratulating us on a job well done. I set my goals so high I was having a hard time seeing just how much we had done.
On the the 14th we began to collect items from the boxes. Charmane covered the downtown. Pert cleaners on Irving seemed to be a fountain of giving. Randy had collected several items of his own. As we made our rounds to clear the drop boxes our cars began to fill up. Jen had a warehouse lined up for us. Kids were joining in. Police officers hopped on board. We were beginning to see things shape up at the finish line.
We assembled at the warehouse and were astounded at what we had. Darlene, Jon, Erin and Jess from Girls Gone Casting, Jennifer from Paskal-Rudnicke, Claire Simon all came in at the end with huge personal donations. We were blown away with what we had amassed. I finally felt the beauty and generosity of the actors and agencies around this beautiful city. I had been overwhelmed by the logistics and almost missed the spirit of the Christmas Season.
We counted and sorted. I had rented a truck for the haul down to Urban7. Pastor Vosler had assembled a team at the house and we were ready to rendesvous at 3pm. There were clothes, coats, toys, books, bikes and every conceivable item. The two funniest donations were a can of pumkin filling and a karate outfit. It was all the more encouragement as it was a bitter cold day as we sorted. Theresa was dressed as an elf. We had Santa hats donated to us. We laughed and shivered our way as we organized the booty.
By the time we had finished we had hundreds of coats, shoes, kids outfits, books, jeans, toys, stuffed animals and various odds and ends. We would meet our original goal of helping Urban7's 200 families. I was grateful to have such wonderful friends and supporters of the worthy cause. I imagined the smiling faces of the kids and gratitude of their parents. I felt Christmas joy bubble up inside me. It warmed me to the core.
We made our way to the safehouse. The cube truck I had rented was completely full. As we arrived at Urban Youth Outreach there were small children dancing and singing by the gates excited to see what the truck held inside. The Pastor's army of volunteers began to pur out and move the haul from the truck into the house. A team of missionaries had come in from Arizona to help sort the gifts for distribution to the families during the annual community dinner.
At the last minute we were shocked and amazed that a few groups outside of ours were delivering packages to the center directly. I was extra grateful because I wanted others to see the amazing work the Pastor was doing in the community. It is a place where some kids get their only meal and clothing from. I pictured them with a shiny new toy as they returned to the street. I prayed for them that they would find safety and a home.
As we finished up the drop Pastor Keith explained that he treated a gun shot wound a week at the home. These are mean streets where he had set up the home. The little man with the big heart was fearless. Stories of kids coming to the compound with guns and intentions to shoot other youngsters after losing basketball games left us gasping. Our respect for the Pastor's mission grew. He is truly a miracle worker.
Jeff and I left the outreach feeling blessed that we were making a difference. It was another example in my life that I can't go it alone. So many people stepped up at the end and took us over the finish line. We warmed ourselves in the truck and began talking about Christmas 2012. My plans are to make Extra Hands of Hope a full time charity. This time I will put my feelings aside and approach every store and corporation I can find. A council of elders will be in place to relieve me of the burden of such a massive undertaking. We will start months earlier instead of weeks. I will have a game plan in place.
My wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I thought about her question and couldn't find an answer. I was filled with the joy of giving. My normal practice of self-criticism had been pushed aside. I told her I was grateful for whatever her and the kids chose. As we sat opening gifts on Christmas morning I couldn't help but think of the kids in Englewood. We had made a difference and put some smiles on tiny little faces. Pastor Vosler told me the items were gone within hours and the new gifts were distributed at the dinner.
God gives me all I need and more. It is so easy to forget those underserved and overlooked in our world and city. I get frustrated when people say the folks in the inner city have the same opportunities and resources we have in the suburbs and nicer city neighborhoods. It is just plain not true. I would suggest to those who hold that philosophty to take a ride down to Englewood for an afternoon and come back and chat with me again. I defy anyone to return with the same thoughts about the area.
I am grateful to all those who helped, donated and were drop locations for the first year of Extra Hands of Hope. It will certainly become an annual event. I have the elves in place. They took a simple plan and turned it into a beautiful reality. My worry that the kids would not be served was for naught. God came through working through his people. He always seems to amaze me with his grace when I least expect it. I am humbled by his surprises.