Being Struck By Lightning Helped Lighten Their Loads

The Prompt: Tell us about a time you’d been trying to solve a knotty problem — maybe it was an interpersonal problem, a life problem, a big ol’ problem — and you had a moment of clarity when the solution appeared to you, as though you were struck by lightening.

OK, so first I have to point out that the Daily Prompt folks are unintentionally hilarious – being struck by “lightning” is an age-old metaphor for inspiration. Being struck by “lightening” would mean someone unexpectedly unburdened you or perhaps covered you with miniblinds and lights. And given a situation where a knotty problem is solved, one would feel unburdened, right? Ah … onto the real content now.

Once upon a time, I was standing at Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. It was July 2009 and I was the driven for a group of clients and neighbors to the agency where I worked. This was an “extra” distribution added to their usual events because of the harsh economic times.

I had been to the Food Bank, I had even run a food pantry in another state (in another decade.) But I was struck by the “problem” of people trying to transport 50 lbs of bulky food in thin, small plastic bags and paper shopping bags intended for clothing, not 50 lbs of produce. At the time, I thought the bags were donated (because they were obviously from retail stores) so it just occurred to me that donating reusable shopping bags – tote bags – would be a better choice. Here’s a dramatic retelling of the story courtesy of The Pittsburgh Foundation.

Give Me Hope – Sue’s Story from The Pittsburgh Foundation on Vimeo.

I started putting this idea out and collected a few hundred bags. In January 2011, my partner and I began a full-time effort that last for approximately two years. It was all volunteer and in that time, we established over two dozen drop-off locations and collected more than 30,000 bags plus thousands of other types of swag (travel mugs, pens, umbrellas, etc.) The Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project flourished! tote bags food bank

Unfortunately, we could not find a fiscal sponsor to offer us the organizational support necessary to continue the project so it has been shuttered. It was ultimately a victim of its own success – we simply could not as a group of volunteers manage the sheer volume of donations.

But it still counts as a moment when inspiration struck and proof that the inspiration worked. I could share a dozen stories of feedback from the Food Bank and the food pantries and random people in the community. It is a sustainable project that addresses multiple concerns – hunger, client dignity, transportation barriers, poverty, environmental issues, etc. But as with many projects, it created new barriers (mostly storage and distribution.)

In closing, please consider making donations in tote bags. Almost any type of agency can use them for something.  I really treasure that moment of lighting (and lightening the loads of the clients – see how I did that?) and feel sad that it wasn’t meant to be. Perhaps somewhere down the line, we’ll have another chance to try again.


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