Tuesday Nov 15, 2022
92130 Cares, Cheryl Hsu - The journey from identifying a need in her community to creating a non-profit
In this episode of The Business of Non-Profits, we speak with Cheryl Hsu, founder of 92130 Cares about their journey from identifying the needs in her area to creating a non-profit and beyond.
92130 Cares, Donate a Thanksgiving meal for a family in need
Hi, everyone. You're listening to the business of nonprofits. We're talking to 92130 Cares, an organization serving the needs of the 92130 community by sharing resources, making meaningful connections, and spreading neighborly love. With me today is founder Cheryl Sue. Cheryl, thanks so much for joining us today.
Thanks for having me.
Why don't you take a couple of minutes and introduce yourself, the organization and mission and your role at 92130 Cares.
Great. I never thought that I would ever start a nonprofit organization. At the beginning of the pandemic, it became pretty clear to me that there were a lot of people who were hit harder by the pandemic, either the economic effects or the social effects. And I just felt compelled to do something. So it really started in September of 2020 when my family and I, we try to do some kind of volunteer work relating to Thanksgiving dinner. I had called all the usual organizations, and no one was offering anything because of the pandemic. So I went out on next door, made a post, and asked, hey, if anyone knows of a place where I can volunteer or sponsor a family, let me know. I'd love to do something with my family this year. A woman reached out to me privately and said, hey, I live in the community. We are really struggling right now, and we can't find a place to have Thanksgiving dinner. Would you consider sponsoring us? I responded and said, definitely, I would love to sponsor you. And, do you know of others who are struggling right now? She wrote back and said, I know many families in the community who are struggling. So that initial conversation with her really created this huge effort. She started connecting me and sending me names of 20 families that she knew of who either lived-in low-income housing or just lost a job or a parent was required to stay home to help with kids. And it started with me texting my book club group first and saying, listen, I've got a bunch of families. Would you like to sponsor a family, a local family for Thanksgiving? So everyone said yes. And that's when I started doing a bit of more research, and I found that there are actually over a thousand units in Carmel Valley that are considered low income rent units. And to get into those units you have to prove that your income is, around half of what the median income is. It was a real effort to sort of get out there, learn more about my community. I had, at the time, lived in this community for eight years, and I never knew the economic diversity that was here. I created a Facebook group, and it quickly grew to a thousand members. I reached out to see if anyone wanted to come door-knocking with me to sign up more people for Thanksgiving. And that first Thanksgiving in 2020, we had 150 families signed up. And on the other side, we were able to find private sponsors. So my neighbors, my friends, anyone in our Facebook group signed up to sponsor these families directly. And it was by whichever the recipient sort of felt would be most helpful. So it was either a grocery store gift card, a groceries, a precooked meal, or a restaurant gift card. During the height of the pandemic, when people were required to stay home and give up all of their regular social activities or going out or being in the community, that was a time when we were creating this thing where people were reaching out to each other in a way that we had never done before in our community. So it was cross cultures, cross economic differences. It was just really, really cool. So that's sort of the genesis. The very first project that we took on as 92130 Cares, we’re rolling it out again right now for 2022, so it will be our third annual sponsorship. We've done other projects with December holiday dinner sponsorship. We've done one for kids backpacks and school supplies where we have any family who needed help with a school backpack could sign up. And then we had sponsor families sign up to deliver sort of some school supplies to a family directly. And then our ongoing project right now is a farmers’ market. This has really taken on a life of its own. We run a free farmers market every single Sunday for the last year and a half. And we have partnerships with Whole Foods, Jimbo’s, Trader Joe's, where they donate their slightly cosmetically damaged foods or any food that they can't sell. So often it'll be a ripped packaging or crumpled box or produce with some bruised eggs. If there's a dozen eggs, one is cracked. They actually are not allowed to remove the cracked eggs, so the entire carton gets tossed. So we're happy to take those eggs and then put it out for a free farmer's market and invite the community to come shop for fresh produce for free. So we've had over 80 consecutive weeks of this farmers market, and it's become a real source of food for a lot of people in our community, especially since there is no public transportation, no food banks, no food pantries in our entire zip code. So, yeah, it's just been a great way to engage the community, make connections, and also rescue food.
I love everything about that story, but let's unpack it a little. First of all, you have a full-time job.
Yes, I'm a consultant, so I do have some control over my hours, but I do work.
92130 Cares, for the listeners who don’t know what that is, that’s Carmel Valley San Diego. It’s an upscale community. Higher-income than median. And I would say everyone is very busy. But, I want to point that out because, those of us are in the pandemic who were, neighbors, helping neighbors, on your local buy nothing, donating to a food pantry, or you're actually getting food from a food pantry. The idea that you were like, let me help a family, let me help 150 families. So, making the decision to actually. Start the business steps, did a friend say to you, “You know what? I think this is bigger than both of us. You need to be a 501”. Because I know, I mean, you're a lawyer, so you were just like, I need some protection here. Let me do this. Or was it more like 150 families. That's a lot. Let's do some more good. Take the next step.
Well, we were actually finding that there were some hurdles. If you're not a 501 (c)(3), it's harder for grocery stores to partner with you. People donating often want a tax receipt. So that was a very sort of logical step for us once we sort of completed our first project. And, I mean, I know nothing about nonprofits, and so I give so much credit to the seven other women who are helping me, and they've been the source of knowledge and drawing from their own experiences. Many of them are also working women. They're all moms, and they found time to help me in all of this in really big way. So I can't say that I've done this alone for sure. We've had a lot of help along the way.
So talk to me a little bit about let's fast forward, right? You had this sort of organic growth, including this tremendous farmers market, which helps I think you had said in a previous conversation, like, 80 to 100 families every weekend.
It's for around 40 to 50 families every weekend, but we do it every single week. And we have lots of different families. We rotate among four low-income communities in the zip code. So we kind of go in a big geographical circle and we rotate every Sunday. And then we need around 30 to 40 volunteers to come in and help run the market every week.
I think you would say that you would consider that your core program now because it's helping so many people and it's been so consistent that you don't want that to drop off. So talk to me now about post COVID. Right. So how has that been? Are you seeing the same level of engagement from your neighbors?
Yeah, everyone coming out of the pandemic has actually been a bit of a challenge for all of us, myself included. My kids went from zero activities during the pandemic and being home all the time to now activities every day with dance and running and hockey. So, I think everyone's capacity for sort of giving of their time has really shifted. Our core group of volunteers are this incredible group of women, and we're all just trying to do our best, and we all just also understand that life is just getting very busy again, but the need is still there. So, the way, you know, the way I'm approaching this is very realistic. I mean, people have approached us and said, you need to franchise this and grow into other zip codes and create this model in other places in the city and kind of grow and expand. And first of all, that's not our mandate. Our mandate is a group of neighbors supporting neighbors in our zip code. But instead of expanding and doing more programs, I just want to make sure that we do our programs that we currently have, that we run them really well. And, you know, I don't drop the ball by not having enough volunteers on a Sunday and then not being able to deliver the food and set it up and distribute it on a Sunday when there are 40 to 50 families sort of relying on that food for their week. So, you know, that's sort of what keeps me up at night, is just ensuring that with our more limited resources that we can still run our programs. Which is why, like, right now, we're in the middle of sort of launching this Thanksgiving sponsorship for this Thanksgiving. And so we're focusing on that and focusing on our every week farmers market.
Are you using any business apps? And you don't have to be specific about which ones if you don't want to, right. We're not here to plug tech, but ultimately, in order to get that feeling of, oh, I'm awake every 03:00 AM. How are you counteracting that? What are you using to combat that?
So you will laugh because the very first Thanksgiving when we were signing up families, I was using paper forms.. We had it translated into Farsi, Spanish and Russian because that's the languages of our community. And I would take these paper forms, have people fill out their name, tick off their dietary preferences, provide their contact information on a paper form, and I would take them. And at night, I would manually input these into a spreadsheet so that we could connect people. I can't even tell you how many hours I spent doing like 150 of these forms. So, this is where I leaned a lot on sort of our core members. There's this woman, Alia, who is our tech guru. She kind of likes to stay behind the scenes, but she's the one and I always tell her this every day, that she's the one who makes our programs possible in terms of the breadth and scope. So after that first year, she immediately took us over, and she's like, no, no, we're not doing these paper handouts anymore. We have a database of previous recipients. Let's email them out. And it was as simple as a Google form. But having someone already put in their information, having the Google form then spit out the data into a nice excel spreadsheet, that changes a lot for us. It gives me more time to make sure other parts of our programs are working. At this point, I would say we probably had 1000 volunteers because of all the groups that have come in. We have Girl Scout groups, youth volunteer groups, there's a group TVIA, there's another one called NCL. Lots of different groups come in and volunteer on Sundays. So just managing that workforce and making sure I have enough volunteers has been important. So, we initially used sign-up Genius. But quickly we found that just didn't have enough of the functions that we needed to manage our volunteers and message them with volunteer information where they have to go. So, then we finally went to a different platform that has more functionalities, and we actually had to pay for it now. And then Alia has signed up for a bunch of Google suite things that are specifically I think she was able to get us things that once you're a 501(c)(3), you kind of get access to a lot more, I don't know, technology. I mean, this is just to show how little I know about technology and why I rely on people who are much smarter than me to help us run these things. But yes, we definitely rely on a lot of technology and apps. And, the other thing that we rely a lot on is social media, and that is so people know what we're doing. It helps us engage the community to volunteer or donate or sponsor. It also helps us reach out to those who might need to know where our farmers market is or would like to sign up for our Thanksgiving program. So, honestly, without technology and social media, I just don't think that we would exist, to be honest.
That's awesome. And I know we've heard this is kind of a theme, ask for help, which you certainly have. You have your board of directors look for the technology or efficiency junkies amongst us to try to make life better and faster and stronger. But I really can't say enough how more and more we just keep hearing digital transformation isn't about digital at all. It's about the people at the end of it, right? The bigger the reach. If it's 150 who have Thanksgiving dinner next year, hopefully, it's 300. If it helps you to justify an additional program or get better backpacks filled earlier or get a grant or something, these are ways that we can continue to further the reach. And I think that's tremendous. Just from took what was a moment for you, just a moment of wanting to help, and it's blossomed into this beautiful thing if you were going to give advice, right? So all those people who want you to franchise, because clearly, you're not if one of the neighbors listening is a neighbor like you, what's the piece of advice or negative wisdom you would share?
I think that one thing that I've learned through this whole process is to ask questions. And it was from the very beginning where I just asked the question, where can I help during Thanksgiving? And in response to that, I got another question, “Can you help me”? This one woman, a fellow Carmel Valley mom, reached out and said, “Can you help me”? And all of the great things that have come out of 92130 Cares, it started with someone asking a question. So, even the food market started because one of our volunteers, Miriam, was sort of thinking, wow, 150 families couldn't really afford Thanksgiving dinner in our community. What does that look like for their day-to-day? They probably are struggling with their groceries and there is no access to any food banks. So she asked a question. She called up Whole Foods and asked them, “Hey, what do you do with your food that you can't sell, and would you donate it to us”? And they said, “Yes”. So that question led to this farmers market and every single one of our board members or our core members got involved because they asked a question, “Can I help? Or is there anything you need? Or can I help drop off flyers?
I don't want to minimize how powerful a question is and just like putting yourself out there and asking if someone needs help or asking how you can help. There's so many beautiful stories that come out of our farmers market, but one of them is, there's a nurse practitioner in our community. And one day she reached out to me and she said, hey, do you think that there would be a need for feminine hygiene packs in the community? And I said, yeah, definitely. So, she made dozens and dozens of these little she called them, like period packs. She collected little cosmetic bags from friends and samples that you might get from Clinique or whatever cosmetic companies, and she filled them with feminine hygiene products, and she would drop them off for me before a Sunday event and she had it labeled and everything. And we would put them out and people would take one. That whole project was on her. And she just asked if there was a need. So yeah, I mean, sorry, that's a long-winded answer, but the advice I would give is just like to ask the question. Even if you think it's obvious or you're afraid to ask it, just ask it.
I really like that. And I don't think it's long-winded because you have such a great feel for your own community, right? And two years ago, I think you thought you knew your community, but maybe you didn't as well as you do now. And that comes back to in business, you would do focus groups, you would do customer surveys. Right. In so many ways, you're doing those things. You're looking at the needs of your customer base, which is your community, and you're saying, what are the needs? Maybe that I'm not filling or are gaps that no one is filling, and you're coming up with solutions for them. So that, I think is huge.
And the other thing I think that you really harnessed is this kind of micro marketing, right? You relied on your network, which is so clear that you're a connector, and it's so clear that you know connectors. And I am so not a connector. But I think it just keeps coming back to whoever came up with the idea of let's do a Facebook group, grassroots it, and at least tell people where we're going to be and not have it just be word of mouth. Like, you really harnessed this power of micro-marketing to get that word out. Right. If that first person who responded to you and said, how about my family? Had not taken it to the next level with you, maybe it would have gone nowhere. So, it's super important. And I can't stress enough that not only asking the questions, listening to the answers, and then taking that data or that information and doing something with it, it's tremendous. And you've certainly moved the needle in your community. And obviously, clearly, people want to do it in their areas as well, or they would not be asking you to, like, here's my area code, go make your magic happen, which I love. And I guess it's a compliment, right? So, I worked for a boss who used to talk about protecting the core, but the strategy for him was always in a time of economic downturn, which I feel like we're in. And clearly, you have a need in your community for your services, focusing on the core, which is your farmer’s market. What's next for you there?
Well, I gotta tell you, our farmers market is pretty amazing. We actually get flowers donated from Trader Joe's. So, I mean, it's really legit with our fresh flowers. Whole Foods will give us their artisanal bread, so they are whole loaves of sourdough and really grainy European loaves.
I guess just as I mentioned before, just finding ways to improve what we already have instead of spreading ourselves too thin and just staying aware of our limited capacity, especially these days. Last Sunday, we decided instead of showcasing the flowers at the front of the line when people start their shopping, we have to now put it in the back because the flowers are getting crushed, or people were putting it off to the side and then they'd go missing. Just little improvements like that.
But also, having more awareness of our group and letting people know that we are a resource for them if they've fallen on hard times, that there is a place that they can go to get their weekly groceries. And even just developing our relationships with our grocery store partners as well. I'm on a text message basis with my contact at Jimbo’s today. She donated 17 gigantic pumpkins. They are organic 15-pound pumpkins. And one of our lovely volunteers volunteered to pick them up just a few hours ago and drop them off at my house. And we posted that there are beautiful organic pumpkins from Jimbo’s. Message me if you would like one. So, these relationships that we have with the grocery stores allow us to bring some joy into the community and provide these nice extras for families. So improving our core programs and continuing to develop relationships in the community.
It's so remarkable. I think you should franchise, but that's just me.
Well, I'll recruit you to help.
Absolutely. I want to make every listener go check out your webpage, because the thing I find so remarkable about it is your about section, literally is a group of women. You're all coolly decked out in your gear, but it's a board of advisors. There's literally no hierarchy. And I think that is super cool. It's very grassroots, right? It feels very organic, much like your programs do. So absolutely check out 92130 cares.org. I highly recommend it. It's actually a really nice website. Anyway, where can we go on Facebook to find you?
Yeah, so our Facebook name is just 92130 Cares. I think we're pretty easy to find. And then our website is 92130 cares.org and we are currently fundraising for a turkey fund. And this is part of the shift in post-pandemic life and us realizing that there's not there's many people who will be away for Thanksgiving this year as opposed to two years ago or people who are just way too busy to actually sit down and sponsor another family. So, we have opened up a fund where you can donate, and our volunteers will purchase gift cards or groceries and drop it off for a family in the community. So that makes it so much easier for people to get involved.
Absolutely. Cheryl, thank you so much for joining us. And thank you for the tremendous work you're doing in your community. For those of you listening, we really hope you enjoyed listening and hearing about 92130 Cares. Be sure to subscribe or leave us a review. And if you have a suggestion or would like to be a guest, or if you'd like to reach out to Cheryl, she’d love to get some advice and or get some additional help or partners. So please, if you know someone, feel free to get your information to us please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And on behalf of my producer Samm and I, we will see you next time.
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