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Build the Model, then Give it Away

mobile clothing boutique free clothing

To be in awe. To stand in amazement. In the case of White Pony Express, a food rescue organization in Contra Costa County, the generosity of (donor) vendors and volunteers inspires awe. We pick up our conversation (begun here) with Erica Brooks and Vincent d’Assis, with the group’s core value of delivering with love.

The Free General Store

Erica: Presentation of our items, whether they’re food or clothing, is really important. That’s a big part of our Free General Store, too. We could just have people come in here and pick out clothes, like in any thrift store. The important thing is how we present things. When people come to a mobile boutique to get clothes or toys, we would never want to give something that we wouldn’t give one of our family members. This is something our founder was huge on. And the food is the same way.

We have volunteer personal shoppers that help people pick out and try on, they’re stylists! We take the clothes where people are. We rent these 14 foot box vans for the bigger boutiques (like the one in San Pablo, photo below).

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Air Traffic Control

Erica: Our two biggest needs are a bigger space and an IT system. We need someone to build a large software system, because right now we’re running a mix of different systems. We need something more cohesive and it needs to have a user-friendly interface for our volunteer base. And we are always looking for more volunteers!

Vincent: We started out with about twelve runs a day. Everyday we look at the volunteers we have, the donors and the recipients. We create a plan for matching those up, whose going to be driving what vehicle. We might need this vehicle to pick something up because it’s refrigerated and it’s big enough.

They create these two or three days ahead of time and send it out to volunteers (things may change). By and large our volunteers are weekly, meaning they come at the same time every week. So we have them on the same runs, so they get to know their route very well. However, there are nuances and little changes.

We got our coordinators and dispatchers, the team that’s here at the market and so the runners can see who they’re in contact with when they’re going out. And volunteers can retrieve their assignments online on their tablets or phones. Then we have backups in case people fall sick or we get extra calls. Which happens a lot, because we always say yes, and we are always dedicated to picking something up.

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Efficiencies and the Cost of Running Runners

The gas is one of the bigger expenses, and the vehicles, because we are a delivery service there’s insurance, maintenance (several of the vehicles, particularly early on were donated by supporters).

We’re able to deliver 11 pounds (sometimes more) of food per 1 dollar that we spend on the food rescue program. If you were to buy groceries for a family, you can’t buy 11 pounds of food for a dollar.

A lot of the original team and board members are very much still involved in the management of the program. I’m a teacher, so during the school year I’m working 8-5 and I call this my every other hour’s job. I see the impact it makes in the county.

Erica: And collaboration. If you can find a way to do collaboration really well, you can find a way to make time. If everyone does a little, you have a lot. And being flexible, if someone’s time is limited, fine, we can make it work. This person might not be able to give time, but can give a car, we’ve built the organization so that every person can find a way to chip in.

We have an executive (a volunteer) who works at Dow in Pittsburg and he drives out there every morning. So he was interested in helping. He comes over here fills up his car full of asparagus or whatever, and on the way to work, stops by the shelter and drops that off.

Vince: And because we did that, now at Dow their GLAD (Gay/Lesbian Alliance) group wants to volunteer with us. Because he’s helping out, now others want to help out at his company.

Erica: This is a really sweet volunteer gig. You get to be part of impact, you get to experience it, it’s not like going someplace and stuffing envelops or working on helping administration of a program.

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Vince: A man in Oakland contacted us. He wants to do this and asked us to help him. The Urban Farmers, based in Lafayette, is another place. They were one of our first donors while we were training our dispatchers on how to pick up a donation. I was about to make a fake call into the donor hotline (part of training) when up pops a 500 pound donation of apples.   Their head Siyamak started out picking backyard fruit trees, he’s taking that fruit and delivering it out. And he came along and says, “I’m going to give it all to you and you can distribute it out to shelters, it won’t be held for days at a time.” And, then when he saw how much we were able to deliver, he decided to expand his operations, so he started a new chapter in Brentwood.

Erica: Yes, this was a partnership in efficiency when we were both starting out, and we made that link. And his Brentwood agency, knowing then all the places we deliver to, is now going straight to them. So they’re making a community of food rescue out there.

Vince: It’s happening with another organization, First Generation Farmers, they grow huge amounts of food. They’re now delivering to our recipients out there. Loaves and Fishes is another one.

Erica: And when you do it this way, people want to be a part of it. We’re building a model. Part of the reason we want a new software system is not just so we don’t go insane. It’s that we want to build a manual and package that any community can adopt. Our executive director (Gary Conner) was just in DC where he was asked to speak at a national conference on ending poverty, and part of his message is that anybody can do this.

Our goal is to build a model, work the kinks out, and give it away. (Photos featuring boutique customers courtesy White Pony Express)

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