Do you think you can’t change the world?
John van Hengel changed the world despite having severe physical problems and no money. The year was 1967 and the place was Phoenix, Arizona.
Years earlier van Hengel had done well. After graduating from college, he moved to Los Angeles and became what he called a “beach bum,” playing volley ball on Muscle Beach.
A tall handsome man with personality, he played tennis with actors such as Errol Flynn and met his wife, a model, at a Hollywood party, while she was speaking with actor Robert Stack.
Professionally, he rose to vice president of a sporting goods firm and made a very good living.
But In 1960, after a bitter divorce, his former wife took their two boys and returned to her family in Kansas City. Van Hengel returned to his native Wisconsin “…hurt, escaping and so angry that I wanted the worst job I could find.” (L.A. Times 10/9/05)
He found it in a stone quarry, pounding rocks with a sledge hammer.
One day at the quarry, two of his co-workers got into a fight. Van Hengel tried to stop it and was thrown into a pile of boulders, severely injuring his spine. After spinal surgery he was left with a stiff neck, his legs partially paralyzed and his body wracked in pain.
Depressed and seeking relief, he took his Doctor’s advice and moved to Phoenix in the hope that the hot, dry weather would help to relieve his pain.
A lifelong Roman Catholic, van Hengel got a job in St. Vincent de Paul’s soup kitchen, his first job with a non-profit organization. There they fed him and gave him a place to live.
Feeling sorry for himself and hoping to find greater meaning in his life, he participated in a retreat with Franciscan monks. Pat Snyder, his long-time close friend and co-worker, said this is when he found his purpose in life. Living humbly and helping those in need.
For example, when van Hengel and another man would see trees over laden with fruit in people’s front yards, with the homeowner’s permission, they’d pick the excess fruit, put it in an old pickup truck and give it to the homeless. Then they’d find another home, pick more fruit and give it away again.
Wanting to expand this concept, van Hengel went to various charitable groups to help him and was turned away. But when he approached Father Ronald at St. Mary’s Basilica, Father Ronald thought it was a great idea and got the approval of the church council.
Father Ronald gave him the use of an abandoned 5,000 square foot building, $3,000 and a beat up old milk truck. Now van Hengel and his volunteers could offer more food to the homeless.
Then as sudden as a bolt of lighting, a simple event changed the world. While on one of his fruit runs, van Hengel saw a woman dumpster-diving in back of a grocery store.
He struck up a conversation with her and she told him her husband was in prison and this was the only way she could get enough food to feed her six hungry children.
Van Hengel looked and saw dumpsters full of frozen food at or near their expiration dates and old vegetables and bread. Inside the store, he saw food in dented cans also to be thrown in the trash.
This woman said wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a “bank” where food could be deposited and needy people could make a withdrawal when they were hungry. This gave van Hengel a profound idea. On December 1st, 1967 in his old building, he opened the world’s first “food bank.”
Pat Snyder told the story of one food donation to van Hengel. “A guy called him and said, ‘I have a lot of chicken to donate.’ John thought it was packaged chicken. [He] got out there and it turned out they were live chickens.
“He put them into his truck, about 50 chickens. The chickens were clucking and flying all over the place in the back of the truck. The truck’s windows were broken out and so there he was with all those chickens and feathers blowing out everywhere, heading back to the food bank.
“He said he never turned down a food donation. He figured if people were kind enough to donate food, he would find a home for it.”
Van Hengel lived above a garage and later in a tiny studio apartment. He ate from the food bank and his clothing came free from the Goodwill.
How did he look? “One day he went to see the produce manager in a store,” Snyder said. “The man saw John and said ‘get this bum out of the store. He’s scaring away customers.’
“The assistant manager said, ‘No, this is Mr. van Hengel and he’s the founder of St. Mary’s Food Bank. He’s here to see you about a food donation.’ They became fast friends after that and the [produce] manager became a lifelong volunteer of the Food Bank.”
Van Hengel passionately appealed to grocery store managements to donate food and they did. Soon trucks from all over Arizona were delivering excess food to his old building and van Hengel and his volunteers distributed it. That first year 250,000 pounds of food that would have gone into the trash, reached 36 charities!
And the growth never stopped. Last year; St. Mary’s / Westside Food Bank Alliance distributed 60 million pounds of food to 900 charitable agencies.
In 1976, van Hengel left to start America’s Second Harvest, which is today, the largest food bank network in the United States. In 1983, van Hengel left America’s Second Harvest to bring food banking to every continent. In 2004, a year before he passed away at 83, he accomplished this remarkable goal.
“John left a magnificent legacy,” said Chris Rebstock, of America’s Second Harvest. “His efforts have grown from one small feeding program in Phoenix to a global system of food banks with networks operating in at least 25 countries and scores of individual food banks operating in still more countries.
“In the USA alone, 25 million people are fed each year because of the food bank network.”
Success Tip of the Week: If there is a humanitarian goal you hope to accomplish, don’t let your limitations stop you. As John van Hengel showed us his faith guided him and his determination helped him to succeed.
In the next KazanToday: Valuable lessons from an old fashioned bakery that triumphs in today’s competitive, high tech corporate world.