When New Yorkers began to shelter in place at the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, the city’s homeless became even more vulnerable. One dedicated non-profit organization decided the virus would not stop them from feeding the hungry, nor keep them from providing a sense of hope to those in need.
Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen (HASK) approached OTTO Brand Lab, a long-time partner, for help with a campaign that would help support hunger relief efforts during the pandemic.
We interviewed Sara Pandolfi, President of Sara Pandolfi & Company, about her involvement with what became known as the Operation HopeFULL campaign, as well as the impact COVID has had on HASK. Sara has partnered with OTTO Brand Lab on multiple projects for HASK, including the annual Farm to Tray fundraiser that brings in money to help support the soup kitchen’s summer operations.
How did you get involved with the Operation HopeFULL project?
Sara: I’ve been involved with Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen (HASK) both as a development consultant and as a volunteer for nearly 10 years. I was working on the Farm to Tray sustainable food benefit, which was to be held on May 14, when the pandemic escalated and forced New Yorkers to shelter in place. I immediately redirected my efforts to help HASK with crisis relief management and its efforts to launch Operation HopeFULL to support New York City’s hunger relief efforts. This $1MM campaign rallies support from the broader New York community to ensure those struggling with hunger and hardship have access to food, clothing, toiletries, masks, and other support.
How did COVID-19 affect the operations at Holy Apostle Soup Kitchen?
Sara: Since the early 90s, the soup kitchen has offered a cafeteria-style dining experience inside the landmark sanctuary of the Church of Holy Apostles for its guests. Normally, it relies on 50-60 volunteers to serve 1,000 hot meals every weekday. However, social distancing required it to suspend the volunteer program and move meal distribution outside. The suspension of the volunteer program effectively meant that it lost 90% of their workforce and, at the same time, it saw a daunting increase in need.
I love this organization and knew the potential challenges it would face with this setback, so I decided that the best way to serve my community from home would be to volunteer my services and leverage my network to help HASK. The soup kitchen is a haven and resource for neighbors in need, and in its 38-year history has never closed its doors –– not through 9/11, the church fire or Hurricane Sandy, and we were determined to not let that ever happen, not even during a global pandemic. We’re blessed to have incredible culinary partners who stepped up to help Michael Ottley, the soup kitchen’s COO, and his culinary operations team in modifying services, securing food and PPE donations, preparing food, and serving on the front lines.
We’re also grateful to the staff and a handful of volunteers that help every day because Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen is now serving more meals than it did during the Great Recession of 2008. Before the arrival of COVID-19, the soup kitchen’s pantry program served up to 150 households weekly by providing healthy, non-perishable food for weekend meals when schools and emergency food programs were closed. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has expanded its pantry program by eliminating the cap on households served, adding two additional pantry distribution days, and increasing the amount of food in each pantry bag to provide groceries for a full week’s worth of meals. The pantry program alone has seen a 2,100% increase compared to 2019 averages and many of the guests are first-time visitors or families with children. In addition to that, every weekday HASK provides nearly 1,000 hot meals “grab-and-go” style in the courtyard of the church.
People from all walks of life are coming to the soup kitchen for both the hot meal service and the pantry program. About half of their usual guests still visit HASK every day. These are people who are living on the streets or in shelters or those who may have housing but don’t have the ability to cook for themselves, but it is also seeing a lot of new faces. It is seeing people who are newly unemployed who have never had to visit a soup kitchen or food pantry before, and it seeing a lot of young people who look like they’re in their early 20’s. While a lot of senior citizens are homebound, HASK is still seeing a lot of seniors as well, but the majority of households seeking assistance are families with children.
OTTO: Where did the idea for Operation HopeFULL come from?
Sara Pandolfi: Even before Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency in New York, the HASK leadership team knew it was going to have to transform its operations to not only be in compliance with public health requirements, but to also meet an unprecedented increase in need. The team knew that in order to meet the increased demand through the summer, it was going to have to raise at least $1MM. Normally, the annual Farm to Tray fundraiser that I produce in partnership with OTTO Brand Lab brings in revenue to support the soup kitchen’s summer operations, but since the event had to be postponed, the team had to come up with an alternate fundraising strategy that relied solely on digital means.
That’s when we reached out to OTTO Brand Lab. David Kohler and the creative team at OTTO, having been long-time supporters of the soup kitchen’s work, know first-hand that HASK provides so much more than a meal or access to basic needs. It offers hope and community to everyone who walks through its doors, whether it’s a guest, volunteer, or a passerby. With that in mind, the OTTO team mocked up a few graphics we could use for the fundraising campaign, including a graphic that simply said, “HopeFULL.” The play on words was intentional: when one thinks of how they feel after finishing a hearty meal, they feel “full.” HopeFULL was a creative way to capture the essence of the soup kitchen’s mission.
The team also recognized that a lot of people felt extremely helpless in the early days of COVID. New Yorkers are known for coming together during rough times and, while people knew they were helping by staying home and flattening the curve, a lot of us wanted to do more to help our neighbors.
Operation HopeFULL provided a tangible way to do just that. Thousands of people made donations, both large and small, and raised enough money to ensure the soup kitchen stayed open through the summer months. In a real sense, Operation HopeFULL offered hope, not only to the soup kitchen’s guests, but to everyone who felt paralyzed during the lockdown. They wanted to help but couldn’t leave their homes. By rallying support from the broader New York City community, the campaign offered a meaningful opportunity for people to ensure that the New Yorkers struggling with hunger, homelessness, and hardship had access to food, clothing, toiletries, and masks among many other essentials.
That’s a long way of saying, the idea for Operation HopeFULL was very much a product of teamwork between OTTO and the soup kitchen. We are so grateful, not only for its high-quality branding of our campaign, but for the creative back-and-forth and thought partnership it offered to ensure we were set up for success.
Were there any challenges that came up while working on the Operation HopeFULL campaign?
Sara: The soup kitchen, even though it’s the largest soup kitchen in New York, is extremely grassroots and, even before COVID, it had a very lean operations. Going into the height of the crisis, the soup kitchen’s fundraising team was already short-staffed, with only its Director of Development to manage and oversee all aspects of its fundraising and marketing.
In a way, I’ve always thought of myself as an ambassador and advocate of Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, and I am proud to serve as a skills-based volunteer to consult on the strategy and outreach of Operation HopeFULL. Working with HASK for nearly a decade, I’ve helped its development department cultivate and steward new relationships, including a special partnership with OTTO.
David Kohler has been a long-time friend, colleague and advisor. He has led OTTO Brand Lab to be more than an incredibly talented creative agency; he has led the agency to carrying out its passion through social impact, directly helping important charities sustain their mission. OTTO Brand Lab is one of the founding partners of Farm to Tray, bringing the soup kitchen’s vision of the campaign to life. As a great partner to HASK over the years, without hesitation, OTTO Brand Lab provided pro-bono services for the creation of Operation HopeFULL, setting the soup kitchen up for success. Its branding enabled HASK to embark on a comprehensive press outreach strategy, stewardship strategy, and helped us recruit new partners like RVD Communications and much more!
While this pandemic has devastated the lives of so many, it has also brought a community of compassionate people with special skills and talents together to address the food crisis, and ensure that no matter how bad things get, together we can make a difference.
(We would like to thank Sara Pandolfi, President of Sara Pandolfi & Company, and Nichole Guerra, Director of Development and Communications at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen (HASK), for taking the time to help make this interview possible. A big thank you goes out to everyone at HASK for their hard work feeding the hungry while bringing a sense of hope to those in need during such a difficult time. To learn more about Operation HopeFULL and to make a donation, please click here.)