No. 7: Phoebe’s Food Bank

The catalyst: Five-year-olds ask a lot of questions. One that Phoebe Russell asked her mother was, Why do the homeless live that way?

It’s a question that seemed unanswerable. In Phoebe’s city, San Francisco, the homeless population ranges between 6,200 and 15,000, depending on which source you consult. There may be disagreement about the numbers, but the homeless are highly visible in the city that only measures 7 miles by 7 miles.

Phoebe’s mother, Kathy Russell, explained about hunger and homelessness. That led to another question: “It makes me sad. Who helps them?”

Phoebe also took this question to her preschool teacher, Kathleen Albert. “She asked me about the people she would see with the signs, why they were hungry. I explained to her some people don’t have homes and jobs; some people have really bad things happen to them,” Albert recalled.

Phoebe was determined to help. If you ask her why, she’ll tell you, “To feed hungry people; they have no food and shelter.” Her family would often take cans to the grocery store and recycle them for cash. She asked her parents, “We collect cans at home — can we do that for the food bank?” Her goal: $1,000 in two months when the school year ended. She decided all proceeds would go to the San Francisco Food Bank.

Phoebe also recruited her preschool class in her new philanthropic project. Albert didn’t think it could be done. “I thought ‘Five cents a can, one thousand dollars?’ It was unrealistic. But Phoebe was adamant about it.”

The act: Albert and the classmates were onboard. Phoebe spent her recess crafting a handwritten letter and sent them to 150 friends and family members. In neatly written, oversized letters, she wrote: “My charity project is to raise lots of money for the food bank. They need money. Please give me your soda cans.”

Phoebe’s enthusiasm was infectious. People dropped off checks, cash, and cans at Phoebe’s classroom door. The first couple of weeks, a few bags filled with cans showed up. Over the next few weeks, thousands of cans poured in.

Once a week for two months, Phoebe counted every single bill and coin herself. She stowed the cash in a box she decorated with shiny star stickers and hand-drawn flowers, dollar signs, and the words: “Phoebe’s Project. SF Food Bank.” A local columnist got wind of the project and wrote about her effort. Word of mouth also carried her message.

“I’ve never seen so many cans in my life,” Albert said. “People would leave them at the preschool door; others put cash in the mailbox. I thought it was great, opening the mailbox full of cash!”

The ripple: By the two-month deadline, just before summer break, Phoebe nearly quadrupled her goal, raising more than $3,700, equaling 18,000 meals. A social networking site devoted to inspiring stories posted an online video about Phoebe’s project, and it went viral. Viewers from almost every continent posted comments, including a note of encouragement from first lady Michelle Obama. Churches, teachers, and community leaders shared Phoebe’s story, and so did daytime talk shows.

Six months later, the total reached $20,202, or about 80,000 meals. The video was submitted to Tyson Foods’ Hunger Relief Challenge, which led to a donation of 15 tons of chicken, enough to bring the total up to 120,000 meals.

Albert said many of the students’ parents were rooting for Obama, so the class voted to adopt the campaign slogan. Thus, Phoebe’s determination to feed the hungry created a “Yes, we can” preschool campaign.

Phoebe, now 7, is in first grade, and her family and friends volunteer at the San Francisco Food Bank. Perhaps more importantly, she inspires her preschool proteges and fellow classmates to pay it forward. Three students at her former preschool raised more than $5,300. That makes a total of more than 135,000 meals served in her community. “It makes me feel good,” she says politely.

Her first question — “Why do the homeless live that way?” — may never have a good answer. That second one — “Who helps them?” — she answered on her own.

Donate to the San Francisco Food Bank.

–Toan Lam