Tuesday, June 8, 2010

One Box After Another.

When the THV Summer Cereal Drive started, we couldn’t have imagined just how far it would go.

I saw a thing on Twitter the other day that stirred my mind. It was a message from the Arkansas Foodbank Network, celebrating the 10th year of the of the THV Summer Cereal Drive. I did a little counting on my fingers and realized that yes, it had been that long.

It started out as such a small affair. I was producing the morning show back then, spring of 2001, and Theba Lolley brought the idea to my desk. Robin Henson was over at the Foodbank at that point, and Tom (Brannon, that is, I just assume everyone knows that’s who I’m talking about when I invoke that name) took ahold of it and ran with it.

The idea was a simple one, but it addressed something that needed attention. Each year thousands of Arkansas school children receive reduced or free breakfasts and lunches at their school. What happens to those kids during the summer? A traditional food drive wasn’t the answer -- whatever went to the kids had to be something portable, something they could have in a backpack or stick back in a closet or whatever. Cereal was ideal. It could be eaten with or without milk, and it was associated with breakfast, the most important meal of the day. We set out to collect cereal so the Foodbank could distribute it across the station.

I remember that first year we had a collection bin for the drive up front, and each morning one of us, usually Badi Galinkin or sometimes Robert Settles, would go drag that box out to the Weather Garden and we’d stack cereal boxes on the picnic table, a big prop for Tom to mention and point out. There was some limited participation that year -- it hadn’t caught on like gangbusters but we still did pretty well, with viewers bringing in 23,405 boxes.

There were glitches… James Staats, his heart’s as big as his head, you know -- he donated vouchers for meals at Golden Corral to give out to people who brought cereal boxes to the station. Thing is, early on we didn’t set any sort of standards. There was this one lady, bless her little pointed heart, who went to the store and bought several of those multi-packs and broke them up -- and wanted a voucher for each and every one. I think we ended up passing along several and were on the air the next morning explaining that… well, c’mon people, a voucher in exchange for a 50 cent tiny individual box of cereal was ridiculous and besides, it was all about the kids.

There were up years and down years, but we saw a pretty steady increase of cereal coming in year after year. We’d have big power hitters like Middleton Heating and Air and Southwest Hospital and the one woman wrecking crew that was Wanda Bateman with Margland Bed and Breakfast, each a team in our competition. It was a load of fun. I believe we struck somewhere around the 40,000 box mark in 2005.

That next year, 2006... that was something. It’s the year the drive really came into its own. The school competition got underway, and we had all sorts of classes competing against each other through that April and May. Then Tom issued this challenge one morning… it was such a casual thing at the time, but it changed everything. He challenged the evening side folks to get involved -- and boy, they did. Liz Massey and Craig O’Neill dove right into it, setting up live shots and doing all sorts of crazy things. We were doing our own, getting out all over Arkansas with live shots, meeting people, encouraging them to come out with doughnuts and coffee and smiles. A little chance to be on TV in exchange for a box of cereal for a hungry kid. For us, it was a good tradeoff.

And it was crazy and time consuming and sometimes people scratched their heads at us about it. There were many late mornings I’d be ready to finally go home and turn to see Tom still making calls at his desk. He worked very hard on it.

That year, we nearly hit 150,000 boxes. It was incredible. All those individuals and companies had come together and done something extraordinary. It was nice to be a part of something like that.

The 2007 Summer Cereal Drive was the last big project I undertook while working for Today’s THV. I remember mornings that were already a little too warm when we’d leave the station and head to our remote location to set up. I remember the quiet hanging over the parking lots where our live truck had set up, how empty it was at five in the morning and how by the time we broke down at nine how it would all snowball, an impromptu carnival of regular folks doing their part, smiling and challenging others to do more. It was one of my favorite times.

Last year’s drive brought in 185,198 boxes for the cause. Earlier this year, Feeding America recognized the Arkansas Foodbank Network by recognizing it with a Hunger’s Hope Award for Fundraising Program of the Year for the Summer Cereal Drive. Sarah Cowan with the Foodbank says this could be the year that lofty achievement of one million total boxes could be reached. It is a big deal.

So do something for me… or better yet, go do it for the kids. Be a part of the community drive June 15th-25th. Go find out more about the THV Summer Cereal Drive at www.todaysthv.com. Go click on news and select THV This Morning and click on the Cereal Drive banner. Find out what’s going on and do something. Send money. Send cereal. Show up at a liveshot and give Tom a little good-natured hell. It’s all for a good cause. I’m so glad I got to see that little seed of an idea get planted and still amazed how it’s grown.

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