In the early months of COVID-19, many of us faced the classic challenges of lockdown: some were drained by a seemingly endless roster of Zoom calls and others struggled to homeschool their children. All of us, though, grappled with the sudden loss of connection that is so essential to what it means to be human.
What makes humans unique is our ability to imagine and our capacity for compassion. Put simply, we are defined by our need for connection, which is perhaps best exemplified by the uptick in those seeking to give back in the midst of a global pandemic.
These two qualities, imagination and compassion, are arguably the two most important elements when it comes to giving back. All it takes is a spark of hope and the guts to see it through for a small action to turn into a larger community initiative. This was the case for Jim Searles, founder of Feed-A-Hero, whose philanthropic family tradition has snowballed into a large-scale nonprofit in less than a decade. “It was one of those things where it started off as a kind gesture”, he told me, remembering Feed-A-Hero’s early days.
Searles, a retired law enforcement officer, recounts the beginning of Feed-A-Hero in 2013: It all began when he found himself rolling through a supermarket in northern Texas, his children tagging along, and he saw they were selling a $60 complete Christmas dinner. Cue the light-bulb moment: “I said, we should pick up a couple of those and take them down to the fire station…these guys shouldn’t have to cook their own Christmas dinner.”
And so it was: Jim and his children promptly inquired about the store hours on Christmas Eve, and minutes before their close picked up the Christmas dinners and brought them to a Denton fire station. “It was like it was meant to be … they had gone to the same supermarket twice that day and had got called out both times… by the time they got to go back again the supermarket had closed,” he recollects fondly. “[When we got there] they took the kids, put helmets on them, put them up in the fire truck, and let them blow the siren, which they thought was the greatest thing ever.”
As the Searles family left with full-hearts, they’d already agreed to do it again the following year. “We immediately started planning, and so the following year we did all six fire stations there in the city and just duplicated that process six times… And it was literally six times the blessing, right?” Searles exclaimed. “Of course, my kids suggested helping other cities, and I said okay, but we’re going to need help.”
Engaging family and friends, Jim and his kids began to lay out how they wanted to move forward, and so what began with store-bought Christmas dinners became beautiful home-cooked meals that were delivered house to house. “That year it was maybe 120, then the next year we did 450, then 1,500… it was one of those things when you think you’ve kind of reached your goal,” Searles recalls, “then all of a sudden here comes some resource that says no, you can do more!”, he laughs. “Every single year, the process gets refined and we figure out where we want to go with it. We literally went from 6 to 6,800 mouths to feed in a span of eight years.”
That year it was maybe 120, then the next year we did 450, then 1,500… it was one of those things when you think you’ve kind of reached your goal,” Searles recalls, “then all of a sudden here comes some resource that says no, you can do more!”, he laughs.
The success of Feed-A-Hero, though, was no easy feat. While new resources take it to the next level each year, their mission isn’t possible without those who volunteer their time and effort. And herein lies the crux: it is the addicting act of giving that keeps people coming back, that fosters this inspiring sense of connection. “People see the story and it’s a feel-good story, you know?”, Searles says. “I think people genuinely show up and they think to themselves ‘I’m going to go out and bless me some police officers or some firefighters and when they walk away from the experience they’re the ones who actually ended up being blessed.”
And even though it is Jim’s generous spirit that informs the work of Feed-A-Hero, he is humbled by the work of those around him. “I’m just the knucklehead that was dumb enough to put this all together, right?!,” he chuckled, “but I know people and so over the years we’ve found incredible resources: we have a franchisee person that owns all the Rudy’s Texas BBQ here in the DFW, we have a marketing person and she is incredible. I’m the rough knife… the one that goes in and just goes and tears everything up and makes the relationships.”
But even as a self-proclaimed rough knife, Searles is truly the heart, soul, and brain of Feed-A-Hero, which, with its ever-growing volunteers and scope, is no easy thing to manage. “Where PlanHero® came into it was that we were looking for something that we could have as a signup tool that wasn’t like some of the other competitors… We have no paid employees – everybody is 100% volunteer. Every dollar goes back into the organization [and] we didn’t mind paying for a tool that’s going to work very well for us. Julie (PlanHero® Founder) worked with us as far as putting together a package that worked well for us! It’s a really easy tool to use and I don’t have to be the greatest organizer in the world when I have tools like that.”
We were looking for something that we could have as a signup tool that wasn’t like some of the other competitors that are out there … we didn’t mind paying for a tool that’s going to work very well for us … It’s a really easy tool to use and I don’t have to be the greatest organizer in the world when I have tools like that.
When asked what advice he’d give to others who are interested in giving back to their local communities, but may not know where to start, “Run,” Jim laughed in response. “It’s incredibly addicting… one day I hope to figure out how to do this for a living and to actually be able to do this full time.”
If you ever find yourself in Texas and are looking to lend a hand, “It’s never too late … we do a few events throughout the year. Any time an agency needs assistance they’re able to call us, so we’re always doing things. Our next event coming up is our car show on May 14th, and that’ll be at Music City Mall and Lewisville.” And for those outside of Texas looking to support Feed-A-Hero, donations are always welcome.