By Linda Dahlstrom / Starbucks Newsroom
Rev. Steve Stone and his wife were browsing in a Memphis drug store recently when they noticed a Muslim woman wearing a hijab enter the store. They’d never seen her before and she was looking down at the floor as she walked down the aisle. As she passed them, she glanced up, saw the name of Stone’s Christian church emblazoned on his sweatshirt – and everything changed.
“She gave a big smile and we were immediately kinfolk,” he said. “She embraced both of us.”
It wasn’t always like that. For most of his 40-year career as a United Methodist minister, Stone didn’t know many Muslims or much about Islam. “Then I had a big group of Muslims move in across the street,” he said. “It changed my life.”
It’s still changing it, ever since the day he arrived at Heartsong Church, where he was the pastor, to see a sign announcing that the 30 acres across the street were going to be the new home of the Memphis Islamic Center.
What followed from there was an unexpected and deep friendship between the leaders of the two groups – Stone and Dr. Bashar Shala of the Memphis Islamic Center, and an unbreakable bind between their two congregations, which now celebrate Thanksgiving together, jointly host a spring picnic, an annual blood drive and partner to serve meals to the homeless.
Their story, “The Mosque Across the Street,” was featured last year as part of the first season of the Starbucks Upstanders series which showcased 10 stories told in film, written and podcast form about ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things. Now, on the eve of Starbucks launching its second season of Upstanders, 11 stories focused around the theme of courage, we checked back with some of those from the first season to see what’s happened since – and what’s next.
‘I was blown away’
The first season started with a simple premise. “We wanted to inspire and engage and tell stories that centered around positive change,” said Rajiv Chandrasekaran, senior vice president at Starbucks and a former senior editor of the Washington Post. He and Howard Schultz, Starbucks executive chairman, are the writers and producers of the series.
The first season, which launched on Sept. 7, 2016, would have a far larger impact than either of the men ever expected, earning more than 70 million film views, podcasts that were downloaded an average of 1,000 times a day and millions of shares on social media.
“I was blown away. But the response to the first season is a testament to the real appetite that exists to hear about the better angels out there,” said Chandrasekaran. “What has really thrilled me is hearing from Upstanders themselves about how the exposure has helped them grow and scale their good work and how people have been inspired to stand up in their own communities.”
Love, rising above fear and hate
The year since Stone and Shala were featured as Upstanders has been a particularly divisive one for the country. Hate crimes are on the rise and people are more polarized than before. The Memphis Islamic Center has been targeted a few times with threats and trucks coming into the parking lot and people yelling slurs, said Shala.
“But it’s not affecting what we do,” he said. “It’s not going to stop us from making these friendships.”
It seems to have only strengthened their resolve to help people seek out common ground. The two have created the Memphis Friendship Foundation, which seeks to “create opportunities for building friendships based on respect and mutual understanding among people of all races, cultures and faiths.” They are getting ready to launch a capital campaign to raise the $11 million dollars needed to create Friendship Park, an 8-acre park where kids can play, people can come and will be a “monument to friendship,” said Shala.
“We believe building friendships makes the world a safer and more joyful place,” Stone said.
Stone, 65, retired from his role as pastor of Heartsong Church this summer and became the executive director of the Memphis Friendship Foundation. (Heartsong remains deeply involved; the current lead pastor, Chris Eaves, is on the board of the foundation, Stone said.)
Over the years, the relationship between Shala, a 50-year-old cardiologist, and Stone has deepened. “He’s like my brother,” said Shala. “He’s my brother from another mother,” echoes Stone.
The two men go to the theater and concerts together (they have a shared passion for Pink Floyd and recently attended a Roger Waters performance) and travel together. During speaking engagements, they finish each other’s sentences.
This week they are taking another trip together to New York, where they’ll attend the premiere of Upstanders, Season 2, on Monday night. On Tuesday, they’ll be receiving the prestigious Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award. Past winners have included Nelson Mandela, Hillary Clinton, Kofi Annan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Looking back on the unexpected friendship between the two men, Shala said what has been most surprising is how easy it has been. “It wasn’t hard,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to fear someone and hate someone than to really love someone.”
Stone stresses the importance of trying to find common ground, even with people you may seem worlds apart from. “Why on earth would we ever focus on the differences?” he said. “The more we talk about who we are and what we have in common, the less the other stuff matters.”
Mission: No food gets wasted
Maria Rose Belding
There was a rutabaga problem.
A food bank had 250 more pounds of rutabaga than it was going to be able to use. If they couldn’t give it away, all that fresh produce would be wasted. But, after posting an offer of the free surplus on the app MEANS Database, which connects those who have excess food with organizations who need it, a food bank in rural Virginia claimed it.
Those kinds of matches, however obscure they may seem, happen constantly on the website, which was the brainchild of Maria Rose Belding, now a 22-year-old college junior at American University in Washington D.C.
Belding was featured in Season 1 of Upstanders (“The Hunger Hack”) for her work to ensure that no food is wasted that could be eaten by someone in need. Two years ago, Belding was volunteering at her church’s food pantry and noticed that the food that couldn’t be used before it was expired was simply thrown out.
She wanted to give it away first, but there wasn’t a good way to find to do so. Emailing other food banks was unreliable, with responses often coming too late. Phone numbers didn’t always work, or mostly went to voice mail.
So, she set out to change that.
She met a law student named Grant Nelson who knew how to code and the two of them set out to create a database where food banks and others with surplus food could connect with each other.
The two spent every spare moment between their full loads of classes (Belding is a majoring in public health, premed) working on the app and with a small team of volunteers. They launched in February of 2015 and word began to build.
By last year, they had matched several hundred thousand pounds of food with those who needed it. After Belding was featured as an Upstander, “we were lovingly mobbed and the food donation rates went up,” she said. They’ve so far matched 1.5 million pounds of food since they launched.
“There are so many stories behind that number,” she said.
A manufacturing plant with excess milk shared 40,000 gallons with mobile food trucks, delivering them to people in need. There were the rutabagas and, in one case 5,000 pounds of pizza sauce in individual, 1 ounce packets. All of them have been matched with an organization who could use them.
“We’ve cried a lot,” she said, moved at the connections being made.
Belding counts among her highlights this year meeting President Barack Obama, along with several of the other Upstanders, at the White House Rose Garden. She doesn’t recall what he said to her because she “blacked out a little bit in panic and joy and excitement,” she said.
Most days aren’t as glamorous. She’s usually at the MEANS Database office by 8 a.m. where she works until noon. Then she goes to a succession of three classes, which end at 5:30 p.m., then she goes to the gym, eats dinner, does homework and does more work for MEANS. She probably doesn’t sleep as much as she should, she knows, but there is much to do and much need.
Belding knows that no matter how busy she gets, she needs to take time to eat regular meals. Diagnosed at 11 with Type 1 Diabetes, she keeps it in check by eating nutritious food.
It’s one of the things that drives her to do what she can to make sure others have access to healthy food too. “I have the diabetes control I have because I have the nutritional understanding I need to have and growing up, my parents had the income to be able to afford fruits and vegetables,” she said.
Belding plans to eventually become an emergency room physician with an emphasis on psychiatric health, working with low-income communities. “Pretty much what I do now but without the food,” she says.
For now, she’s focused on studying hard and doing all she can to combat hunger. “As an individual, I know I won’t make a big dent on hunger or health care,” she said. “But I want to be able to stand before my god and tell him I did my best.”
‘The autism advantage’
John D’Eri sometimes takes a step back, looks at his two sons and marvels.
“To design a great world, I’d have my two sons working together as part of a mission to have a positive impact on society,” he said. “And I’ve got that.”
D’Eri’s oldest son, Tom, 28, has a degree in finance and is the chief operating officer of the family business. His youngest son, Andrew, pictured above, works with him every day.
Andrew was diagnosed at age 2 with autism. And the family business, Rising Tide Car Wash in Parkland, Fla., was founded by John and Tom D’Eri as a way to create employment opportunities for Andrew and others with autism. They were featured in “Employing the Full Spectrum” in Season 1 of Upstanders.
A year later, they’ve just opened a second Rising Tide Car Wash in Margate, Fla., bringing their total number of employees with autism to 85. And, later this month they will launch Rising Tide U, an online program, called “The Autism Advantage,” to teach others how to build a business to employ others with autism.
Rising Tide U is in direct response to all the families who have reached out to the D’Eris who, like them, wanted to find a way to start a business to help employ their child.
“We wanted to create a blue print and knowledge base for people who want to create a business but don’t know what to do or how to get there,” John D’Eri said.
When he created Rising Tide, there was no blueprint. Instead, the business was born from the spark of an idea he had as he waited for his car to be washed. He saw the potential for a structured atmosphere of a routine and thought about the focus and skill those with autism have and saw a potential career for Andrew.
But the entrepreneur who has worked in software development, consumer service and commercial production knew nothing about running a car wash. He and Tom D’Eri set about learning and talking to corporate disability consultants, car wash experts and more. They launched a pilot program with 15 people on the autism spectrum and spent two months breaking the work down into specific tasks and training them. And then they bought a car wash.
Today, business is good, said Tom D’Eri. They wash about 160,000 cars a year and their staff turnover is far lower than at other car washes.
“Many individuals with autism have a tremendous eye for detail, follow processes and instructions more than typical individuals and most of the time individuals with autism stay at employment significantly longer than others in the same roles,” said Tom D’Eri.
Turnover at a typical car wash may be as high as 200 percent a year, he said. At Rising Tide it’s 20 to 25 percent.
Now, the D’Eris have their eyes on expansion again with perhaps another car wash in the future. And they’re hopeful others will create more employment opportunities for those with autism. While they were piloting the Rising Tide U program last year, they ran a national tour of workshops, visiting 10 cities. Since then, they’ve heard about six other businesses and one other program that have started as a result.
John D’Eri hopes the Rising Tide story will continue to inspire more. “The idea of us being an Upstander is to create other Upstanders and to spread that idea.”