After moving to Seattle for my year of VISTA service, my perspective on the city changed dramatically. It doesn't matter where you are, poverty can be found everywhere. Whether you're in the industrial area or the tourist epicenter of Pike's Place, the city is overwhelmed with people who are struggling. Having previously imagined a perfect city where I would see Bill Gates at a coffee shop, I was shocked. So I began wondering what can I do as a VISTA – with a focus on technology - to help alleviate poverty in this area?
My interaction with North Helpline illustrates how experience can catalyze a change in personal perspective. North Helpline is a food bank in North Seattle that serves a very large client base of people in need. Having met the staff and touring the building with my fellow VISTAs, Jess, Aimy, and I were extremely impressed with the entire organization and staff. Not only do they provide healthy food to people in need, they also provide housing, medical services, and even help their clients find jobs. The only problem - they were approaching the holiday season and were at risk of going under. The holidays are a difficult time for many food banks as the client load increases and staff must work twice as hard to keep operations running smoothly. North Helpline is no exception. Factor in less funding, lack of capacity for writing grants, and an aging computer hardware structure, and you have a serious challenge. So the question arose again: How can we use technology to help alleviate poverty, especially when this food bank needs direct help right now? The answer became clear after working with them for a few weeks.
One of North Helpline’s challenges, along with many other food banks in Seattle, is broadcasting to the community its mission and its needs. One of the reasons for its difficulties during the holidays was that it was incurring all of the stress of the holiday season, but none of the support. There are many people willing to give during the holiday season, so what North Helpline needed was a way of broadcasting themselves in a way that would allow people to find them. That’s where we at HandsOn Tech Seattle came in. We worked with North Helplines' staff to adopt a mass e-mail service known as Mail Chimp. We also advised that they reach out to local news stations to do a story. Both methods were highly successful, bringing in over $125,000 in donations to the food bank. It was a tremendous relief that such an important part of the community would continue to operate. A couple months later North Helpline is doing much better. Having successfully applied for the Google Apps for Nonprofits program and now participating in our technology cohort program - Plan IT! (formerly Deep Dive), things are really looking up for the organization.
This experience is one of many where we've had the opportunity to see how technology can affect people’s lives directly. A lot of the work that we do can seem disconnected from the actual fight against poverty. However, you only need look a little closer at how these nonprofits are utilizing technology to see the value of the program. I am proud to be a part of a team that is actively making a difference in the Seattle nonprofit community.
Read about Executive Director of North Helpline, John Klevins, talking about his food bank in need.
-Written by Alex Green