Dropping off drawers: Why business leaders collected 7,500 pair of underwear

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You wouldn’t expect to see 40 business leaders spending their time gathering 7,500 pair of underwear. I would have been surprised as well if I weren’t part of the 2014 Leadership Pinellas fundraiser.

“Drop Off Your Drawers” benefited Clothes to Kids, which collects clothing for needy and in-crisis children in Pinellas County. All clothing is free to the recipients, but underwear must be new. During a tour of their facility, I learned that underwear donations are like money in the bank to them.

Imagine an elementary student walking into Clothes to Kids without shoes on and leaving with a full wardrobe of school and after-school clothes — for free. Their faces light up.

One teen girl clearly looked like she didn’t want to be there. Within a few minutes, she discovered Aeropostale and other name brand jeans. Time after time, Executive Director Patti Hanks and her staff witness attitude changes as teens finish shopping.

Teens can be paranoid about wearing clothes that are old or out of style. Clothes to Kids solves that problem so teens aren’t distracted in school and can focus on learning.

The connection between staff and children is amazing. The reaction on children’s faces made the decision for our 40-member class to rally around the fundraiser a no-brainer.

In less than a month, we collected three times the largest donation of underwear the organization had ever received. That number grew even more with a party at the Clear Sky Beachside Café. The cost of admission? One pair of new underwear.

Making time for charity

For busy people, it can be difficult to make time for charity. As the owner of a technology company for 17 years, I’ve witnessed my spare time get squeezed. Yet I’ve seen incredible charity in the people of Pinellas County giving their time, talent and treasure.

We all know people who don’t give or who give for the wrong reason. What interests me are people who give, not for praise, position or power, but without expecting anything in return.

A highlight of my family’s 11,518-mile vacation through 25 states last summer was spending time with my father, a retired school superintendent in Idaho. During a lull in conversation, I asked a serious question, “What was the most important life lesson you were taught by your dad?”

His answer wasn’t surprising: “Always return something in better shape than it was when you borrowed it.” That was something I heard countless times growing up.

The reason busy people devote their time, talent and treasure to charity is an intrinsic desire to make the world a better place.

People I’ve met in Leadership Pinellas, which has a mission to develop and enhance community leadership, are a prime example of this philosophy. I’ve met members who serve in shelters for at-risk teenagers, helped finance or build a free dental clinic and volunteer to train youth leaders.

One member of the 2014 class, Johnny Johnson, has essentially devoted all his working hours to giving his talent, time and treasure. When you talk with him, the excitement he feels is contagious.

In the past two months I’ve witnessed incredible examples of people returning things in better shape than when they were found. Homeless people are fed and sheltered at Religious Community Services. Veterans are given lodging, career training and even computer lessons at Homeless Emergency Project. Homeless people can find work, dignity and a sense of worth at Pinellas Hope.

I’ve been part of the UPARC Foundation, which raised $700,000 to provide for special needs children and adults. This was especially meaningful to me because it was for people who can’t help themselves.

These are just a few examples of the outstanding charities in Pinellas County. We have a lot of people with tremendous needs. It’s exciting to see so many organizations and people with passion to solve some of those needs.

Bill Sedey, a Leadership Pinellas class member, described why we give: “Aside from being the right thing to do for the community, leaders need to be out in front setting an example for their organizations, for those who work under them.”

Charity is its own reward

Returning things in better shape is helpful for setting an example. It inspires taking responsibility. The example lights a fire that can spread.

But be careful. Giving can accidentally or purposefully become a motivation to get something in return. I ask myself, why am I doing this? The answer needs to be right on target with the focus of returning something in better shape than when you found it. The answer helps keep motives pure. It’s a great question to ask.

Of course, there are fringe benefits to giving time, talent and treasure. It’s fun. It also enables fulfilling experiences with people in a way that encourages stronger friendships.

Our school encourages, “If you want to know other families, volunteer.”

Karla Jo Helms, one of our class officers, had an unexpected fringe benefit in her company, JoTo PR. As a co-owner, she discovered empirical evidence that proved that her increase in community service had a direct correlation to an increased number of leads, revenue and consequently, number of employees.

Only a few minutes with Helms proves that she is not doing community service to increase her bottom line. It’s just an added benefit.

My family experienced a different fringe benefit when I was 11 years old. I’ll never forget walking out to our driveway to play basketball that Saturday morning.

My dad was talking with one of our neighbors who had been asked by my grandmother to deliver the difficult news that my dad’s father had passed away. It was the first time I had ever seen my dad cry. I remember just standing there, unable to walk.

That morning began a 14-hour, heroic effort by our neighbors to get our family moved off the farm and into our other house 20 miles away.

The move had to happen despite the terrible timing, but over 12 neighbors came with food, boxes, trucks and incredible love on likely the hardest day of my father’s life. They even packed for us. You know who your friends are when they help you move.

That day, 12 people came to our farm, mourned with us and moved us. They returned our lives in better shape than they found us that morning. I’ll never forget it.

May we do the same.

Nate Freeman is president and founder of Network People Inc.

Learn more about Leadership Pinellas at:

Facebook: www.facebook.com/LeadershipPinellas

How to reach: Leadership Pinellas, (727) 585-8889 or www.leadershippinellas.com