Jen McGuire had come to Hope Day, a monthly community event in Cleveland’s Clark-Fulton neighborhood, to help distribute produce — but before her volunteer shift was over, she realized something much more powerful had taken place.
Twenty-six weeks pregnant herself, Jen was naturally drawn to a woman carrying her one-month-old baby throughout the event. When it was time to leave, she offered to help the woman pack up and asked where her stroller was. When the young mother replied “I don’t have one,” Jen’s mind immediately jumped to the brand-new stroller in the trunk of her car. Without a moment’s thought or hesitation, she found herself saying “I have a brand new stroller in the box, never been opened, in my car. Can I give it to you?” In return, she received a look of surprise, followed by a hesitant smile and eventually a heartfelt “Yes!” Together, they unpacked the stroller and settled the baby into it — an onlooker would be challenged to say which of the two young mothers felt more blessed by the encounter.
Megan Gallagher, executive director of Cleveland Hope Exchange, loves this story because it captures what she believes is the essence of the volunteer organization she helped to create a year ago. “When you help, you give hope,” she says. “And when you give hope, you get hope. Something will also happen inside you. That’s transformational. We’re redefining what volunteering means.”
Cleveland Hope Exchange was founded on the premise of reducing helplessness and increasing hopefulness. The organization brings this premise to life through activities focused on four key areas: homelessness, hunger, addiction, and human trafficking. All the volunteer activities organized by Cleveland Hope Exchange and its partner organizations are meant to either accelerate the mission of an existing nonprofit or to fill a gap, according to Gallagher.
No matter the crisis people may find themselves in, one factor remains constant: the feeling that nothing can be done to turn their lives around. It’s the feeling of constantly being pulled downward, without a lifeline to help you up, that Cleveland Hope Exchange aims to address. “We can put a roof over people’s heads or bring them food, but we’re missing that one key connection, and that’s to bring life into their situation – to exchange hope. We seek to build hope through relationships.”
To build consistency and forge strong bonds, Cleveland Hope Exchange currently focuses most of its work in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood. Once a month, volunteers with Cleveland Hope Exchange gather to distribute fresh produce as part of Cleveland Hope Exchange’s partnership with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. In addition, volunteers provide information on programs and assistance. They share a potluck meal. Through all these activities, volunteers help to reduce the stigma of poverty by dealing with each other as humans first.
About 125 Clark-Fulton families participate in Cleveland Hope Exchange each month. The goal is to build a sustainable and scalable model to help revitalize the neighborhood, according to Gallagher. As the model takes shape in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood, Cleveland Hope Exchange will gradually expand to other areas of Northeast Ohio.
Beginning August 4, Cleveland Hope Exchange embarks on its first Hope Week: seven days of events ranging from clothes drives and nutrition workshops to childcare at a women’s crisis center and back-to-school haircuts (licensed stylists only, please). “It’s a way for the whole city to come together and bring hope to others,” Gallagher says. And it’s a way for volunteers to experience the hope that comes from helping others.
Gallagher circles back to the story of the pregnant volunteer who gave her stroller to another woman. “She was kind of worried about telling her husband that she’d given away their stroller. But then she reached out to me last week and said, ‘Megan, the same amount of money that the stroller cost has come into our lives unexpectedly.’ It’s just proof that when you bless others, you are also being blessed.”
To learn more about Cleveland Hope Exchange and sign up for Hope Week, visit www.hopeforcle.com.