Status: Partner with Sandy Sommers, Secretary/Treasurer of Elephant Talk
Family: Randy and Sandy are the proud ‘parents’ of one cat
Title: Feeding the Hungry - Two Can Do It!
Story by: Anne Vickstrom
Randy Harris has packed in a multitude of experiences into his life which has culminated into feeding thousands of Colorado’s hungry. Today he is the Executive Director of Elephant Talk, a non-profit organization that provides food to Colorado food banks.
After attending college in North Carolina, Randy found himself “a little bored frankly.” He went on to run a research and analysis firm for 25 years. He and his partner (in both Elephant Talk and life) Sandy Sommers found themselves doing work for the likes of 25 different Fortune 500 firms, NASA, the United States Postal Service and Sun Microsystems. He has been published by the Harvard Business Review and has lectured over 200 times around the world.
Despite the success they created, Randy “felt burned out. I hated what I was doing. We produced excellent work, but found much of what we recommended wasn’t being implemented properly. It became discouraging.” Their success resulted in companies doubling growth in twelve months, yet it still didn’t feel like it was enough.
That led to a major decision by both Randy and Sandy, to begin a non-profit organization that would gather food that would otherwise have been disposed of, and deliver it to existing food banks around Colorado. These two determined and quite frankly, exhausted souls have single-handedly grown Elephant Talk to providing about 50,000 pounds of healthy, nutritious food to hungry families per week, that is well over 2 million pounds for 2009! What is incredible is how they have done it.
“We have one mid-sized truck and one van, both donated to us.” Through telephone calls they receive through their cell phones, they drive to primarily retail locations that have an abundance of food. An example is a grocery store that allows a vegetable to remain on the shelf for only a certain amount of time. Although the vegetable is still in good condition, the store has standards that take it off the shelf and would normally toss it into a dumpster. Through Elephant Talk, the store now calls Randy, who drives to the store, gathers it and other boxes of unwanted food and immediately delivers it all to food banks. The food is normally collected by those in need within 24 hours.
When Randy through Elephant Talk met a director of one Denver-based food bank that is located at a church which had difficulty keeping their shelves stocked, the director was hesitant to work with other food banks, fearing that he wouldn’t have enough to take care of their own needs. Randy asked him, “Do you want less food, only enough for your needs, or do you want more, that can benefit others? Give it away and I’ll provide more. He trusted me and they did support about five others smaller food banks.” What is more, is that the activity through the food bank brought people to that church.
“One morning about 5:00 a.m.,” Randy shared, “while we were unloading food, I saw a man staring at us. He stood and watched us for the longest time, and then finally came over and approached me. He told me that other groups had come and gone, had made empty promises, had provided food, but then eventually didn’t return. He told me that since Elephant Talk had been helping the food bank that people attend church, kids play together in the community, and that people come into the food bank with hope and a feeling of community.”
I asked Randy what Elephant Talk does differently from the others. “For one thing, we provide the food free of charge to the food banks.” Others charge the food banks in order to cover overhead costs. “Secondly, we come in with huge hearts. We do this full-time (up to 16 hours a day, full-time). We researched food bank systems and have learned how to get the food at no cost, and how to get it to the food banks while it is still fresh and nutritious.”
There is one glitch to the system, however. Because Randy and Sandy refuse to put a financial burden on the food banks, they have basically financed the program independently. Unfortunately, they do not have endless resources, and now look to individual support to keep their cell phone bill paid, gas in their truck and van and tires on the vehicles.
After having established Elephant Talk as a reliable source of food distribution, and after establishing relationships with both retail establishments and food banks, Elephant Talk now looks toward next spring to begin working directly with food producers such as ranchers, dairies and farmers. Randy explained, “When fewer people walk into a retail store, due to economic difficulty, the demand for food appears to drop. In fact, the demand for food remains a constant, or even increases, it only means than people are unable to purchase the food. By working directly with growers and manufacturers, we can continue to produce the needed food for families.
What is your idea of perfect happiness? Most of us are too busy looking for happiness – at any level – outside of our self. Yet true happiness must come from within whether we’re talking relationships, jobs – or anything. The practical realization of that and learning to live that practice is the beginning of real happiness – at least for me. Sharing that level of loving happiness starts to approach the best example of perfect happiness I have known.
What is your greatest fear? Falling into the trap of believing in fear. I’ve found few things worth the wasted effort and brain damage associated with lamenting on possible outcomes. If they’re going to happen anyway, then why spend time worrying about the inevitable? For most people, fear is an emotion that placates or supports the ego by convincing us of our importance and need to prevent an undesirable outcome – most of which don’t happen, or at least as badly as we have imagined. Also, refusing to accept fear drives your distracters crazy.
What is the trait you most admire in others? Compassionate and non-judgmental love for others. Some great philosophers believe that this is the only non-illusion, non-man-made reality. I agree. Even if I’m wrong, it’s a great life practice that has huge rewards every day.
Which living person do you most admire? Which finger on your hand or hair on your head do you like the most? Every person I’ve met has so much to offer – despite their own dramas, real or imagined. Each one is unique and has taught me volumes about life and myself. Some of my greatest teachers have been very average people with an inexplicable ability to turn misfortune into fortune, hatred into love, and fear into optimism.
What is your greatest extravagance? Clearing the “clutter” created by extravagance. It’s a vicious cycle. We seek happiness through “things” – but we’re rarely, if ever, satisfied so we work ridiculous hours to pay for other things – things that also fail to bring us happiness. Then we’re in a spiral of working long hours – which makes us unhappy – to pay for things that have failed to make us happy. What an insane cycle. Some years ago, my wife and I agreed to simplify our lives. That was an extravagance that we continue to enjoy to this day. Occasionally we see something that looks fun but our decision process is very different today than in the past.
What is your greatest trait? Faith in the inexplicable.
What is the quality you most like in a man? There is an ancient Zen saying, “When you seek it, you cannot find it.” In “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” Morris West stated, “It costs so much to be a full human being…One has to abandon altogether the search for security, reach out to the risk of living with both arms…one has to court doubt and darkness as the cost of knowing.”
Anyone – man or woman – that abandons traditional values to find truths that serve all people are those that I most admire – but ironically, they are the ones that least need my admiration because they have found an understanding and happiness beyond what most can even imagine.
What is the quality you most like in a woman? See Above
When and where were you happiest? Right now, right here. Now is all we have.
Who are your favorite public figures? I’m still looking for one. I’ll get back to you on that.
Who are your real-life heroes? Mahatma Gandhi in his statement, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
What do you consider your greatest achievement? Living with and learning from all the mistakes of my past. I’m still working on that. It’s not an easy chore, but I could be wrong – and hence the cycle starts again.
Where would you like to live? For me the question isn’t “where” but rather “how much.” My answer is “a lot.” I once heard someone say that when death comes, they want to go like a baseball player stealing home – sliding in at full speed, dust flying and laughing with every step. That’s a plan worth living and anywhere is just fine.
What is your most treasured possession? Possession implies ownership and therein is a paradox. We don’t own people – just ask your partner. We don’t really own “things” (just see how much you “take with you”) – but they can own you today. But, the greatest treasures in my life are my wife and partner, Sandy, our cat “Sugar” and many, many friends.
Looking deeper, one of the food banks in our network is in a distressed part of Denver – really was a rough neighborhood, but changing today thanks to this food bank ministry. The food bank is run by a group of “street wise” guys – all of which have had difficult lives and many of which have served time in a state or federal penitentiary. Today, they are all in a serious search for answers and values. Some of our most heartfelt and deepest discussions around the meaning of life come from this rough looking bunch. Wow! What an incredible treasure from the most unlikely group of people. They have so much love to offer and they’re just looking to share it with someone – anyone – that will accept it.
What do you most value in your friends? I’ve come to understand that what we see in others that creates judgment or anger is a direct reflection of our own issues. So, when I see someone that can interact without judgment or anger – there is someone that has resolved a lot of conflict in their own life and someone that I want to know, learn from and bring into my inner circle of friends.
What is it that you most dislike? Alright, the truth is that I still don’t like liver – but please don’t tell anyone.
What is your greatest regret? Having regrets. But I’m working on that. Having regrets implies lost value or opportunity but everything has the potential for being a life-changing lesson. Why would I regret that?
A common phrase with younger people today is, “Everything’s good!” I love that phrase. How true it is!
What is your motto? Our business motto at Elephant Talk is, “Have you seen the face of hunger?” It suggests that hunger is far more prevalent that we could possibly imagine – and it truly is! But it goes further than that. We have a social hunger for values and guiding principles that seem to have been lost along the way and many are looking for direction. They may need food but they likely also need a compassionate, loving hand-up. We will continue providing both as best we can – not through theology but rather through a ministry of compassion, understanding, and non-judgment – along with enough food to resolve hunger.