Building on Hope 2014: Opportunity Networks
How a New Hampshire community came together to help a worthy cause in need
The term sounds dismissive, even a bit frivolous. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with doing good. It’s just that for some people it’s like an identity. That can be a little off-putting, threatening even. After all, if someone else commits a big part of his or her life helping other people, what does that say about those of us who don’t?
Maybe they are just born that way.
The big photo above was taken just a few weeks ago at the Opportunity Networks offices in Amherst — a facility and a haven for people with disabilities to find work, training, meaning and friendships in their lives. The people in the photo are do-gooders. I know this because that’s me standing with them. I’m the big guy with the beard, leaning against the sign like I belong there. I suppose I earned the right to be there since I’ve been with the Building on Hope organization since the beginning, but of everyone in that photo, I probably had the least to do with the story that photo illustrates.
This year I was just too busy with other things to really help out, but the others don’t mind that I’m there. Do-gooders are generous like that.
The others? I don’t know most of their names. Besides, it would take more room than just this story or even this magazine to go into each of their backgrounds and contributions. Let’s just say that it’s a merry band of adventurers about to set out on an impossible mission to completely transform a dark, sad old building and turn it into a magical place filled with light and color and joy and healing power.
That’s a bit over the top, but not much, as the pictures in this story illustrate.
Some of those people know what’s about to happen, they’ve seen it happen before. Others are there on faith alone.
I’m going to single out a few of those people that I do know as I try to tell the tale of Building on Hope and Opportunity Networks. First, I have to confess that in singling some folks out, I’m breaking a rule. Call it the law of the do-gooders.
Building on Hope was founded with an understanding that it would not be about the individuals doing the work. It would be about the people they were working to help. They don’t hand out special recognition to a select few, even to that select few who tend to do the most work and give the most money. After all, who’s to say who is really giving the most unless you know what each person or organization is going through at that time? Sometimes the person giving just a little is really giving all they’ve got. (And no, this is not my way of rationalizing why I was on the sidelines this year.)
Anyway, all that anyone who signs up to help is promised is that his or her name will be added to the list of those who volunteered on the Building on Hope website.
This is a problem for me as an editor. I know you can’t tell a story without using names. You have to call some people out or an organization is faceless. It’s hard to care about something without a face and people should care about their organizations. Put the right people together in an organization and that’s when the miracles start to happen.
No one knows that better than Rocky Morelli. In the photo, he’s the big guy with the bigger smile in the green sweatshirt off to the right. His whole life is about getting the right people together.
Morelli studied psychology in college and got into human services as soon as he graduated, working for the PLUS Company of Nashua helping developmentally disabled people find jobs. He was so good at it that soon he got an offer to be the executive director of his own company doing that kind of work. That company is now called Opportunity Networks of Amherst, i.e. the sad, old building in the photo. Their clients have disabilities of all types, but they all share one thing. They want to be connected, needed, helpful and creative. ON assists some of their clients with finding jobs. Others need help while on the job. Others are still just trying to connect with the people or the world around them. When asked what he’s good at doing, Morelli chuckles and admits that in the end he’s best at helping other people to succeed.
It’s an ironic twist, but he’s happy, loves to come to work every day, loves the variety of challenges, loves seeing his clients find meaning and purpose in their lives. In 1988, another bit of irony: Morelli was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, adult onset, chronic, scarring his brain and spinal cord. People ask if the disease is why he got into human services and he tells them no, but he adds that it does give him perspective. “It helps me understand what my clients are going through, not getting caught in the traps of feeling sorry for yourself,” he says. It also changed how he looked at work. “I want to get better at what I do, but not make career advancement a goal,” he says. “I know that any week could be my last. Helping other people is where I get my drive.”
He and the ON board had big plans for the organization. They wanted to push the boundaries, to help more people better. The problem was that people in a position to help can only be asked to give so much. Everyone in the non-profit world is asking for the same thing — compassion. It exists. New Hampshire is a generous state, no matter what the demographers say. But when people get tapped so regularly, they get careful, protective. There seems to be a limited supply of compassion, a fatigue in the charitable muscle. What ON needed was a big push. A quantum leap.
Meanwhile, in a boardroom in Manchester, Building on Hope was meeting to discuss their next project. They had successfully performed two “miracles” over the previous three years. Each one a bit like one of those Pennsylvania barn-raisings where the neighbors come and help put up the giant rafters, but in this case the neighbors were hundreds of volunteers, dozens of companies, large and small and a committee of about a dozen organizers pulling it all together.
Their motto is, “Many hands make light work.” (Which doesn’t mean it’s easy.)
At the end of each of those projects, no one could believe how things turned out, that so much could happen in such a short time, that so much money and supplies and labor could just be freely given by so many people, all to make a difference for a community in need.
They were miracles of do-goodery.
First, in 2010, they helped rebuild an intensive treatment facility, making it more of a welcoming home for boys in the Easter Seals NH program. Then, in 2012, they gutted and remodeled the Manchester Girls Inc. headquarters, a home away from home for about a hundred at-risk kids and their families. Calculating the cost of all the volunteer time plus the expert labor, equipment and supplies provided by the participants was hard, but conservatively more than a half a million dollars had gone into those efforts combined.
Now the Building on Hope board members were looking for their next target. They wanted to expand a bit beyond the Manchester area, and were open to a fresh challenge, but when word arrived about Opportunity Networks, they were dubious. It was different. And distant. One trusted member was convinced it was right. Emily Shakra, an interior designer from Bedford, is one of the founders of Building on Hope (in the big photo, she’s the pixie-faced woman to my left behind the sign). She had spent some time at ON, had met the clients, talked with the staff and she just knew that it was the next project.
How was she so sure?
It had been confirmed by angels, she said.
Do-gooders talk to angels, by the way.
The decision still had to be confirmed by the committee, but co-chairs Jonathan Halle, principal of Warrenstreet Architects in Concord and Karen Van Der Beken, chief development officer of Easter Seals NH, couldn’t argue with Shakra’s angels. After a site visit and a vote, the die was cast.
Halle, by the way, is the kind-looking fellow in a jacket and tie on the left in the photo. He looks a bit like a coach and that’s not a bad description since it was his job to keep all the players motivated and in their places throughout the 10-day “build” of the Opportunity Networks project. He’s not a guy with a lot of free time on his hands, but he had already devoted hundreds of hours to the project when this photo was taken and things were really just getting started. In case you can’t tell, he’s already pretty exhausted in this photo, but he knew there was no turning back (not that a do-gooder like him ever would).
Karen Van Der Beken is the professional-looking woman in black behind the sign. As an Easter Seals VP, her profession IS helping people. But that doesn’t explain why she would be spending time, effort and goodwill on another group with a whole different mission. You’d think that after spending a long day with meetings and fund-raising and publicity for Easter Seals she might want to relax by playing tennis or knitting, not by diving into another set of meetings, fund-raising and publicity needs.
Do-gooders are crazy like that.
I should make clear that Karen, Jonathan and Rocky (and Emily) each have a list of people they would rather have named than themselves. That’s why Building on Hope came up with that rule I mentioned. If we went down the path of naming names, a story like this would be nothing but names — a directory of people who care. Not great reading material.
Another thing that makes bad reading material (except maybe to some corporate lawyers and tax accountants) is stories about organizations. The very word suggests a row of green binders in a file drawer. But in the non-profit world, an organization is more like a wagon train being circled to create a defensive perimeter, to protect its cargo of souls and create a safe place to plan the next move.
Opportunity Networks is an organization that has circled its wagons around the hundreds of souls who rely on it as a respite, a training center, a meeting place and a source of inspiration.
Building on Hope, on the other hand, is barely an organization. It has no nonprofit status or business license. It’s really just an idea that a group of people rallied around, becoming friends in the process, collecting more friends and then putting everyone to work on a crazy project every two years.
They collected friends like Greg Rehm, a Bedford contractor who became the foreman of the project spending whole days there during prime building season for his real company. Or the Turnstone Corporation of Milford, a Building on Hope convert that kept the momentum going through the ON project. Or the folks at Wal-Mart who gave more than $10,000 in grants from their stores, a couple of TVs, a shed and provided lunch during the week and food for the Big Reveal Party. Even groups that represent the state’s charitable impulse at the highest level have taken notice, like the NH Charitable Foundation, which contributed for the first time this year.
Halle explains, “The real story here is that this is our third project, with many returning designers and contributors that see the vision and the impact that BOH can and does make for the selected non-profit. Something happens that otherwise would not have happened.” In short, they become do-gooders, or else they have their inner do-gooder channeled onto the project at hand. “There is something great in doing a good thing for someone that cannot pay you back. People see the momentum, they see the unselfish loving embrace that the BOH event creates,” says Halle. “Paying forward is truly a magical event.”
Van Der Beken adds, “People have told me that, when I talk about Building on Hope, I’m smiling from ear to ear. That’s because BOH gives me such a good feeling — first, by helping a non-profit and ultimately its clients achieve something more than they could without our assistance and second, the gratification that BOH provides to volunteers once they have joined us. We are all busy, but a project like this lets you do amazing things for others and somehow you find the time. You juggle your priorities because others are depending on you. Failure is not an option!”
By the way, both Van Der Beken and Halle have agreed to chair Building on Hope again and start the planning for a 2016 project. If you know of a worthy organization, now would be a good time to reach out and let one of them know.
So who have I forgotten? Just about everyone. Literally hundreds of others gave as much as they could without any strings, but I can’t help but feel bad for not mentioning them. Good thing that do-gooders are a forgiving bunch. The complete list is on the last page of this story and on the BuildingonHope.org website if you are curious.
But just because do-gooders are generous to a fault and forgiving doesn’t mean that they aren’t realistic or practical. And it doesn’t mean that they don’t get anything substantial out of helping. They forge connections, learn names, work alongside people they are happy to know and do business with in the future. None of this makes their contributions any less gracious or meaningful.
So, yes. Do-gooders sometimes get a bad rap. They call such people dreamers, consider them idealists who defy the priorities of the “real” world to build castles in the sky. But what if the world has it backwards? What if these dreamers are the realists? What if they simply see what many do not — that in spite of all our differences of color or ability or beliefs, we really are one big thing, one family, one organism of which the individual parts either stand together or stand alone.
And people were not designed to be alone. No more proof of that is needed than to see the smiles on the faces of those in that original photo. It’s a portrait of a group of people who have gathered to reveal the wonders that can only be done by many hands, making light work.
See more photos from the 2014 Building on Hope project.