September 8th was a big day for Maria Rose Belding.
It was her 21st birthday. Early in the day, she attended a Starbucks open forum with partners (employees) in Harlem, New York, as a special guest of company chairman and chief executive officer Howard Schultz. Later, she watched Schultz at a live taping of “The Daily Show” where he discussed “Upstanders,” the original series he’d written and produced with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, senior vice president, Starbucks Public Affairs.
The series of 10 stories was designed to call attention to ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the U.S. to create positive change. MEANS Database, the service Belding created to catalog excess food and make it available to food banks, was the subject of an Upstanders episode called “The Hunger Hack.” Belding received recognition as one of those extraordinary people.
All that was overwhelming for a college junior from Pella, Iowa. But that’s not all. Before the day was done, Rose was singled out in the audience by “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, who called her “absolutely amazing!” After that, Belding and her team at MEANS watched as Facebook traffic to their page increased 500 percent and 24 new foodbanks joined the surplus food-tracking network in one day.
“It was the biggest spike I’ve ever seen,” said Belding. “There was a spectacular group text message going on between our team with so many exclamation points and all-caps. I don’t think we used a lowercase letter for the rest of the week, we were so psyched.”
The Upstanders short films, essays and podcasts unveiled in September shine a light on those who remind us that we all have the power to make a difference.
For MEANS, the impact of Upstanders is demonstrated by the number of food banks and pantries around the nation that reach out to find or offer free food to alleviate hunger, as well as the number and skillset of volunteers who offer their services.
“We’ve added, in the last three months, at least 500 new partners,” Belding said. “Prior to Upstanders, the number of new foodbanks would ebb and flow. They would come in little bursts when we’d do outreach projects. We’d maybe see 20 new partners, but nothing like with Upstanders.”
The exposure has also helped the group enlist volunteers with the technical expertise that will help expand its services.
“This has shown us how much interest there is in what we do, and how many people are really thinking about food waste and hunger, but just aren’t sure what to do about it,” she said. “All the responses after Upstanders – all the emails and all the phone calls – really showed us how much a public issue this is, and how many Americans really care about it.”
The Way to Friendship Park
Pastor Steve Stone laughed as he listed all the broadcast, print and podcast attention he’s received since the release of “The Mosque Across the Street” Upstanders episode. “I was named Hip-Hop Hero of the Week,” he added. The unexpected honor was extended to him by a nonprofit group that teaches humanity through hip-hop music.
“The Mosque Across the Street” chronicles the friendship that’s developed between Stone and his congregation at Heartsong Church in Cordova, Tennessee, and Bashar Shala, chairman of the board of trustees for the Memphis Islamic Center, and worshipers at the mosque the group built across the street from Heartsong.
The film, which won in one category and was co-winner in another at the 2016 My Hero International Film Festival (another Upstanders production, “The Kids Who Killed an Incinerator,” took first in another category), earned Stone’s praise for accurately portraying the special relationship the two seemingly disparate groups have forged.
“I think it captured our genuine love and respect for one another – how it’s not just an ecumenical, nice reach-out thing,” he said. “There’s a genuine friendship here. We really enjoy being with one another.”
The two groups are now focused on creating Friendship Park on eight acres of land they share. Upstanders has helped call attention to the $11 million project, which Stone hopes will be completed in two years.
“One of the things we want to do with the park is make it something that will be for all races and cultures and faiths,” said Stone. “The original story is about friendship between some Christians and some Muslims, but everybody who’s heard about it and responds to us wants it to be their story, too. Whether they’re atheist or Wiccan or Jewish or whatever. We understand that it’s a universal human hunger to just be nice and get along. The fear and prejudice that gets so much attention these days comes from a minority of people.”
For David Vobora, the impact of Upstanders can be gauged in the flood of emails and calls that followed “A Warrior’s Workout,” which explores the bond the former professional football player has established with disabled veterans and civilians through personalized physical training sessions conducted at the nonprofit Adaptive Training Foundation in Dallas.
“It’s been amazing for us. We’ve received millions of views and heard from people who’ve understood the message,” said Vobora following a special boot camp he conducted last month at the Starbucks Support Center (headquarters) in Seattle.
Vobora believes the added exposure from Upstanders and other media outlets will allow the Adaptive Training Foundation model to expand its reach.
“There are 10 million Americans with a physical disability,” he said. “I can’t answer for all of them, but I can create disciplines. In the future, I see us saving more lives, transforming more lives, and offering adaptive training to anyone with a disability from the East Coast to the West Coast.”