Just Ask

Just Ask

From Chicken Soup for the Kid's Soul

Just Ask

Perseverance is a great element of success. If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Not many people have been seated next to Miss America at a dinner, run with the Olympic torch, received an award from First Lady Hillary Clinton or had an article published about them in People magazine. But that’s exactly what has happened to me, just a regular kid. Once I read the article about Stan, I became a “take action” kind of kid.

I probably ought to begin with proper introductions and credits. One day, while reading the paper, my mom came across an article about a man named Stan Curtis. Stan had come up with an idea to feed the hungry at no cost. His plan was to give leftover food from places like restaurants, hospitals and fund-raising dinners to places like soup kitchens and homeless shelters. He started an organization called Harvest to help him with the idea. Mom thought I’d find the article interesting and passed it along to me.

After reading it, I thought about what a good idea it was to do something useful with leftover food. It made sense and was such a simple, logical idea. At the time, I had been thinking about how to fulfill my bar mitzvah project, which, as part of my Jewish religion, required that I show responsibility to my community. Bingo! This might be just what I’ve been looking for, I thought. I decided to become a volunteer at the local chapter of Harvest.

What I found out when I arrived at Harvest is that the volunteers don’t actually feed the hungry. They deliver leftover food to the shelters and kitchens. If I wanted to become a volunteer, I would have to drive. Uhhh, hello! I’m only in the sixth grade! I had hit my first big problem, but I quickly came up with a solution. I volunteered my parents!

They were actually very cool about it and agreed to drive. I’d mostly lift boxes and stuff like that. Becoming a volunteer who helped to get food to hungry people made me feel really good about myself. I was thinking of other places that could donate food when the idea hit me. I bet I could get my school to donate the leftover food from the cafeteria.

The next day, I saw my school principal on campus. I decided it wouldn’t hurt to just ask him if our cafeteria could donate leftover food to the Harvest organization. The principal said that he liked the idea but that there were all kinds of legal problems and complications involved with a project like that. “Besides,” he said, “I don’t have the authority to start such a program.” Fine, I thought. I’ll go to your boss and ask him.

Mom explained that the principal’s boss was actually a group of people who made up the school board. “It would be best to start by writing letters,” she advised me. So I wrote to them and asked if they would allow the cafeteria at my school to give their leftover food (like milk in containers and other untouched food) to the Harvest organization. I included a packet of information about Harvest with each letter. I gave the board members a week to think about it, and then I called and talked to them about what I wanted to do. I had no idea how important these people were. I just knew that I wanted them to say yes, and that meant getting them to listen to me.

Most of them told me that they liked the idea, but that I would need to come before the board at their next meeting and propose the idea in person. So, to prepare for my big presentation, I went ahead of time to check out the room. I was blown away! There were TV cameras, big lights, microphones—totally high-tech looking stuff. It looked like a courtroom that I’d seen on TV. I was impressed. Totally psyched, I rushed home to practice my speech. I was kind of nervous, but I knew that if I really put my heart into it, they wouldn’t be able to turn me down.

At last, the big meeting came. I had practiced so much that I was relaxed. I spoke to the board the way I would talk to my parents. My closing line was, “Today is my twelfth birthday, and saying yes would be the best present that you could give me.” The audience in the room stood up and clapped for a long time. It seemed like forever as the board quietly discussed my proposal. Finally, the chairman announced that the board would approve my request. Since the board represented all the schools in the district, their approval was for 92 of the 155 schools that they represented (some didn’t have their own cafeteria). Ninety-two schools!

After the meeting, it was explained to me that even though the board approved the plan, it could take up to a year to see the program actually begin. They would most likely need to take care of a lot of details and “red tape.” I had no idea what “red tape” meant, but I soon learned that it was when things got sort of tied up or tangled up in the process of getting something done.

The health department wanted the schools to pack food in airtight containers, and neither the school district nor Harvest had any money to pay for them. I thought, No problem. I’ll get people to donate them. So I wrote letters to supermarkets and companies that make containers and plastic bags, and all but one made a donation. It turned out that that wasn’t enough. I was about to try something else when I received a letter from Glad-Lock. The letter was two sentences long: “We appreciate your letter. Your shipment will be arriving in the next couple of days.”

“Shipment?” my mom questioned, her eyebrows raised to their limit. “What do they mean by shipment?

Her question was answered only a few hours later when a UPS truck pulled up in front of our house and the driver delivered not one, not two, but eight cases of containers.

Now that we had containers, I thought that things would finally begin to happen. I contacted the school board again, and was surprised to find out that they thought the program had already started. Wrong! I realized then that if you want something done, even though people say that they’re handling it, you have to stay involved and on top of things until it really does happen.

Finally, the first donation of leftover food from my school was delivered to a shelter, and my mom and I were asked to make the delivery. What I thought would take about three weeks ended up taking almost a year to accomplish. But the program was finally up and running— two days before my thirteenth birthday!

A few weeks later, my bar mitzvah took place. Instead of gifts, I asked that people make donations to the Harvest Organization. Over five hundred pounds of food were donated in my name. A family friend, who had just started college and was not able to afford a gift, volunteered time at a shelter in my honor. It was a really original gift that helped a lot of people in need.

Through my work with Harvest, I had the opportunity to sit next to Miss America one night at a fund-raising dinner. I decided that inviting Miss America to my bar mitzvah would be a fun thing to do. Even though she wasn’t able to come to the party, she actually sent a gift and left a message for me on our answering machine. I popped that tape right out of the machine and played it for all my friends when they came over. I’d tease them by asking, “Did Miss America ever call you? I don’t think so!”

After the success of the school program, I received a call from a local disk jockey who suggested, as he interviewed me, that I take my idea all around the state. I thought, Why not? So far, all I really had to do was make phone calls, write some letters and give a speech or two, and I had seen some amazing results. So I got in touch with one of our local politicians and went to work once again. I had to write a bill for the House of Representatives to vote on, because the law needed to be changed in order for the program to be started statewide. My sister had taken government classes in school, so she helped me. I wanted the bill to encourage restaurants, schools and other places that serve food to donate their leftovers to organizations like Harvest. Too much food was ending up in Dumpsters.

Although the House of Representatives passed the bill, we are still waiting for it to be voted on by the state senate. We’re halfway there. It’s just a matter of time.

I think back on the day when my principal told me that he couldn’t make the project happen. If I had let it go at that, I would have never come this far. I taught myself that you don’t have to be an adult to make a difference. Actually, I think that being a kid can be an advantage. I think that I was more likely to believe that this could work because I hadn’t experienced very many failures in life. I just expected that things would happen if I stayed focused. I learned to just start at the bottom and work my way up until the answer was yes.

I believe so strongly that you should just ask that while receiving an award at the White House, I took the opportunity to ask First Lady Hillary Clinton what she does with her leftovers. I can only imagine what I’d have to do to get the White House on the list of donors. Talk about red tape!

David Levitt, age 16

[EDITORS’ NOTE: If you would like more information on how to start a program
at your school, call 1-800-USA 4 FOOD.]

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