Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On The Road In Appalachia - Part 2 - Ranya the Shoe Lady

Uncle Bernie would have loved Ranya Kelly. Ranya once described herself to me as an ordinary suburban housewife, leading an ordinary life and not making much of a contribution to the world around her when, in 1991, she went to a mall and had what I can only describe as an epiphany. Ranya noticed a dumpster filled to overflowing with hundreds of shoe boxes. The next thing she remembers is dumpster-diving for boxes of what turned out to be new shoes. Ranya asked the shoe store about the shoes and was told that, at the end of a season, the shoe store simply threw out unsold inventory. And, no, they didn't mind at all if Ranya wanted to take their overstock and give it away to poor people. And so, Ranya Kelly, suburban housewife, became Ranya the Shoe Lady.

Ranya began working to develope networks of shoe stores and organizations serving shoeless people. She also discovered that it wasn't just shoes that were being thrown out. As word of her new-found life work spread, Ranya, receiving requests for help from all over, went national. Today, the Redistribution Center, Inc., Ranya Kelly, Founder and President, gathers and distributes millions of dollars worth of food, clothing, building supplies, toys, furniture, household goods, school and office supplies and, of course, shoes (Ranya long ago abandoned all hope of ever going out of the shoe business.)

Somewhere along the line Ranya met the Jews. One of the stereotypes of the Jewish world is that we all know each other and, working through various formal and informal organizations, networks and extended families, provide for the needs of our less-fortunate brethren (while, of course, doing business without much regard for things like borders). While most sterotypes arise from mindless prejudice, this one does have some truth to it. After a couple of centuries of living in ghettoes, exiled from our homeland, we learned to provide for ourselves. The Jews have gotten pretty good at moving money, goods and services around to help one another. But it's more than that. Central to the Jewish tradition are three things - study of Torah, prayer and acts of loving kindness. The latter is ingrained in us from an early age. Everyone, no matter how rich or poor, is obligated to do tzedakah (roughly translated as, "charity"). If you've got nothing yourself, you give a penny or you provide volunteer labor. If you've got a million bucks to spare you may as well ante up now because the Federation will find you. The obligation to do good works goes beyond fellow Jews. We have obligations not just to our brethren but also to to "the stranger within our gates", which is to say anyone in need. In the United States, this tradition has led an affluent community to direct its efforts toward any number of community-based organizations, without regard to religious affiliation.

For Ranya and the Jews, it was love at first sight. She found numerous kindred spirits, to say nothing of more sources of donations and targets for distributions. She also became a sought-after speaker at conferences and synagogue programs, delivering her message that what she does can be replicated in other communities. All you need to do is ask around and be ready for some creative dumpster-diving. Having been adopted by the Jews, Ranya met Naomi Eisenberger

Naomi is the Executive Director of the Good People Fund (having held the same position with a predecessor organization). The Good People Fund raises money for small groups and people in the US and Israel who work, usually on shoe-string budgets using volunteer labor, to do some good in this world. The Fund, which is small by US charitable organization standards, works mostly with community-based organizations for whom a $10,000 grant is a major gift. Naomi's Fund also makes donor-advised gifts to organizations approved by its Board. Naomi runs the Fund out of her New Jersey home with the occasional road trip to vet potential grant recipients or get involved in projects. Naomi has known Ranya for years and both directs cash donations to the Distribution Center and connects Ranya with local groups who could use her help.

Liz recently began to volunteer to help Naomi, handling some administrative tasks and helping to edit communications. The two are kindred spirits in that they have the talent to bring together people who, working together, can make a real difference in the lives of people who could use a break. Yes, dear reader, this is going to be one more tale of my wife doing good while I show up in time to eat.

Naomi has been working with an Appalachia-based organization called Family-to-Family and, through them, was introduced to people from a community center in McRoberts, Kentucky. McRoberts was a coal company town until the 1950s when the industry began to wind down and switch from deep tunnel mining to strip mining. Today any mining in the area involves blowing off the tops of mountains, spewing debris into local streams and creating lakes of sludge from the water and solid waste left over from refining coal. This leaves places like McRoberts with few jobs but lots of polluted drinking water and the occasional flood from a sludge lake. The coal companies and the politicians they own will tell you that all of this is safe. I'm not sure than someone whose land has been covered by a sludge flood would agree.

Economically-speaking, McRoberts is poor. The per capita income is about half that of the state average. Drug abuse is rampant (this is oxycontin country). Lots of people need clothing and basic household goods. These needs only increase in the winter as kerosene heaters burn down the houses they were supposed to just heat. But McRoberts is rich in its sense of community. Rich in people willing to help each other as best they can. People in McRoberts may. like Israelis, know that things can always get worse but, like Israelis, that doesn't stop them from getting on with their lives. And that's what got them onto Naomi's radar screen.

Naomi suggested to community representatives a distribution of needed items trucked in by Ranya the Shoe Lady. Naomi knew this could be done. But Naomi's audience consisted of people who have heard lots of promises from lots of outsiders that were never fulfilled. So when this Jewish lady from New Jersey (and, trust me, this is not a common sight in McRoberts) promised that someone known as Ranya the Shoe Lady from Denver would deliver enough clothing, shoes and hosehold goods to help dozens of families, the locals were understandably skeptical. Nevertheless, they agreed to the distribution, setting a date, lining up a location and identifying volunteers to do the heavy lifting. Naomi called in some of her own regular helpers and asked Liz if we would like to help out. And that's what got me on the road to McRoberts.


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