Serving the Masses

1195

The gospel story about loaves and fishes could be interpreted as a metaphor for how good deeds multiply themselves – propelled by some effective preaching.

Brenda Thompson knows all about that power of communication. Her public relations work for the local organization Mobile Loaves & Fishes has been a crucial part of the group’s spectacular growth over the past five years.

The aim of Mobile Loaves & Fishes is to provide food and items like the new socks to the homeless and working poor population of Austin.

As Alan Graham, the group’s president, puts it, “For over five years Brenda has adroitly guided our public relations efforts to the point that Mobile Loaves & Fishes is considered by the public as one of the most respected nonprofit organizations in the city. We have had press from National Public Radio to the New York Times to multiple front page stories in the Statesman and all points in between. She is a big wow! for me.”

Thinking back to when she first met Alan, Thompson smiles and says, “We ran into each other in Leadership Austin in August 1994. He was a successful real estate developer – a very conservative guy in three-piece suits.” (She fondly recalls demanding that the burly-framed Graham be one of the guys assigned to catch her when she threw herself backwards from the top of some bleachers in one of the group’s trust exercises.)

Ten years later, their paths crossed again when a professional acquaintance suggested that Thompson talk to Graham about handling PR for Mobile Loaves & Fishes.

When she saw him again, she did a double take. “I thought that this couldn’t be the same guy! But sure enough, it was – I just didn’t recognize him.” Gone was the three-piece suit. Now he was wearing shorts and tennis shoes – and he had a gray beard.

“One of my first thoughts was that he isn’t going to hire me to do his public relations – it was such a small organization,” says Thompson. “Basically, it was just Alan and a few others plus hundreds of volunteers.” But he did engage her services and she has played a significant part in their growth.

For Graham, the idea to start Mobile Loaves & Fishes came one day when he, his wife, and some friends were having lunch at a local restaurant. There they heard about a ministry in Corpus Christi that was delivering hot coffee and blankets to the homeless on cold nights.

Inspired by that story, Graham and some friends made their first foray onto the streets in 1999 with sandwiches they had prepared at home. That initial run was a serious learning experience. At that point, they knew then they would need decent equipment, a central preparation point and an efficient way to coordinate volunteers.

Now, 10 years later, the organization operates in five cities – besides Austin, they are in San Antonio, Nashville, Providence, and New Orleans. Soon, they will be in Minneapolis, too. All told, they have 12,000 volunteers, 12 trucks, and operate on a budget of nearly $2 million. “In 2007, we served our millionth meal,” Thompson says. The group, which keeps a running meal count total on its Web site, was up to 1,730,637 meals by mid-May.

Because they are a unique organization with a compelling story to tell, Thompson was able to help them become well-known in Austin almost immediately through a constant drumbeat of local television and newspaper coverage.

She says, “When they went on their first disaster relief trip after Hurricane Katrina, I pitched the Statesman to go along, with a reporter and a photographer. It resulted in a front-page story with two full pages inside and many photographs taken over several days of the trip.”

After a story appeared on KXAN-TV that showed volunteers on a truck plus an interview with Alan, a check from $22,000 arrived from someone who’d never heard of the organization before.

The story she generated on National Pubic Radio was a bonanza. “They got calls from all over the country after that story ran, from people saying that they wanted a Mobile Loaves & Fishes in their town – asking ‘how can we make that happen?’” The value of the publicity generated from 2006-2008 was over $250,000.

Thompson also helped them get involved in social media. For example, hundreds belong to their “cause” on Facebook. They have more than 1,200 followers on Twitter and the blog she helped them start gets a great deal of readership and comments. These forms of social media have become a significant part of how they communicate with their 12,000 volunteers and thousands of others around the world who are interested in homelessness issues.

Over the years, Thompson has moved beyond strategizing and media relations for the nonprofit. She has ridden out on the trucks many times, often with celebrities, media or special guests, helping to distribute food and socks. She was apprehensive on her first trip, but her preconceptions about the people she would encounter proved to be false.

“It turns out that a lot of the people on the streets are like people you would meet in any other place in your life. It’s not scary at all – it’s an enlightening and humbling experience to come face to face with people who happen to be homeless or working poor and hungry.”

She says that her favorite celebrity story is when they took former Governor Ann Richards on the truck. “I knew Ann from the trip to Africa I took with her, and asked her to spend an hour feeding homeless people with Mobile Loaves & Fishes downtown. “When I picked her up at the Nokonah she asked me, ‘Why am I doing this again?’ or words to that effect. She was clearly doing it as a favor to me, but she ended up having an amazing time and becoming an advocate for Mobile Loaves & Fishes.” Reporters from every TV station in Austin and other media outlets showed up and many of the homeless were thrilled to see her serving hot dogs and pouring coffee. Several people wanted to talk to her about her recovery from alcoholism. One man told her that he remembered hearing her speak at the prison where he was incarcerated when she was governor. “It was very touching for everyone involved,” Thompson says.

During that experience, Richards said, “It’s just wrong that in Austin, Texas there should be this many people lined up to get a hot dog and a cup of coffee.”
Thompson adds, “We have taken other celebrities along, too. Sandra Bullock has been a big supporter as have musicians Patty Griffin and Sara Hickman.”

Her work with Mobile Loaves & Fishes has also included connecting them with people and organizations in mutually beneficial relationships – ranging from Capital Area Food Bank to GSD&M to major donors and companies that have become deeply involved and committed to the group – beyond just donating money.
For instance, GSD&M’s CEO Roy Spence featured Graham in his book “Amazing Faith of Texas” about people who do good things. “And one year, GSD&M selected Mobile Loaves & Fishes to be the beneficiary of their Christmas party.”

Speaking to the inclusive nature of the group, she says that everyone is welcome and accepted in the Mobile Loaves & Fishes family – no matter what their religion or sexual orientation.
 To underscore that point, everyone connected with the organization has been working to create a village of used trailers and recreational vehicles for people in need of housing. Many support services will be offered for its residents. It will be named the Jennifer Gale Village, for the transgendered individual and perennial political candidate who died homeless outside a University of Texas area church last December.

For Thompson, who started her communications career as a reporter for UT’s The Daily Texan, the creative road has introduced her to many wonderful people and helped her build a prolific professional life.

“And it’s clients like Mobile Loaves & Fishes that make me feel like I’m doing something good for the world.”

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