Luxsanaree Limvarapuss, an MBA student at John F. Kennedy University, gets sad and frustrated when she sees people suffering from homelessness. She says, “some of them just lost their jobs or have been chronically unemployed. Kids are also impacted by parents who don’t have jobs and don’t have sufficient money to take care of their families. Some homeless people wear old clothes and eat food from the garbage. Many of them don’t have enough money to purchase nutritious foods for their everyday lives.”
Driven by her concern for the problem of homelessness in her community, Luxsanaree used her service learning project as an opportunity to do something about it. She volunteered with White Pony Express (WPE), a nonprofit organization based in Pleasant Hill, California, that helps eliminate hunger and poverty in Contra Costa County by redistributing surplus food, toys and clothing to those in need. “I chose WPE because they give away new and like new items; unlike Goodwill, everything is free,” she says.
WPE founder Dr. Carol Weyland Conner describes the need for WPE by explaining that we live in a very affluent community. But at the same time, people who don’t have opportunities are facing hunger. In a community with extremes of rich and poor, rich people have choices, poor people don’t have the opportunity to choose what they want to eat and wear. “When you have money, you have choices,” emphasizes Luxsanaree. Luxsanaree witnessed first-hand the reality that people in need have few choices. She says, “nobody chooses to be homeless. WPE provides not only food and clothing resources, it offers choices to those with limited opportunities. And, choice is empowering.”
White Pony Express offers low-income families and homeless in the community two programs – 1) Food Rescue and 2) Free General Store. Food Rescue picks up high-quality food from about 100 donors, including supermarkets, farmers markets and restaurants, then delivers it to community shelters and kitchens that feed the hungry. Luxsanaree notes, “this is healthy and nutritious food that would ordinarily be thrown away simply because it is surplus or has narrowly passed its sell-by date.” WPE offers people quality food to eat.
WPE’s Free General Store receives new and gently used items as donations. Volunteers sort and make the items like new again by cleaning, repairing and ironing them. About every three months, close to 100 volunteers truck thousands of articles of clothing, toys, and books to a host site in an underserved neighborhood. There, WPE creates the atmosphere of a store where people shop to find clothes they like that are properly sized, pressed, and hanging on racks or folded neatly on tables. Recipients shop just like they are in a real store, something that low-income people can’t ordinarily do. Luxsanaree says, “the store has departments for men, women, girls, and boys and separate areas for children’s toys and books. WPE even offers personal assistants to help shoppers put together flattering wardrobes. You can choose whatever you want and it is all free!” She adds, “working in the General Store taught me that when you give an item, you should think about whether you would be happy to receive it. I only give items that are in good shape to show the recipient dignity and respect.”
“One of my roles at WPE was to research where and how to find more volunteers,” Luxsanaree explains. She continues, “this experience helped me to understand how nonprofit organizations that provide key services to the community are challenged to find enough dedicated volunteers; ones who really care about doing a good job.” WPE has many volunteers but still needs more to support all of their activities that serve the needs of our community. Many volunteers come to WPE because of a mandatory community service requirement. “They just want to get their hours completed and go home. I think anyone who volunteers should give of their time and talents from their hearts,” notes Luxsanaree.
As a business person, “I know that every business must focus on social responsibility so I want to pay more attention to that and dedicate more of my resources to my community; I need to understand what the community I am part of really wants and needs,” she says. According to Mandy Nakaya, Volunteer Coordinator at WPE, “from the beginning, Luxsanaree understood the broader implications of this service to the wider community.” Underscoring the importance of volunteering, Luxsanaree says “we will never know how many people are suffering in our society if we don’t expose ourselves to our community.” She adds, “when we volunteer, the help we give is meaningful for those in need; even a small help can make a real difference for our community. Devoting my time to community service at WPE not only increased my friendships and professional network, it allowed me to practice important communication, problem-solving and project management skills before working in my future career.”