Jess vs. singing for your supper

I’m not a huge fan of soup, except for tomato, and really only when it’s being delivered on the receiving end of a grilled cheese sandwich. But given the opportunity to cast my vote in a crowd-funding project—designed to select the recipient of much-needed funds from a stable of four worthy, creative and forward-thinking do-good contenders—and there just so happens to be soup on the menu, you can count me in.

Who knew a bowl of soup and $10 could spark community transformation?

I’m not a huge fan of soup, except for tomato, and really only when it’s being delivered on the receiving end of a grilled cheese sandwich. But given the opportunity to cast my vote in a crowd-funding project—designed to select the recipient of much-needed funds from a stable of four worthy, creative and forward-thinking do-good contenders—and there just so happens to be soup on the menu, you can count me in.

Turns out, there was just such an opportunity in late January when the United Way Young Leaders Society hosted the first of three Stark SOUPs. And while we aren’t in the habit of reviewing events very often in About (because who wants to hear about an event if it’s too late to attend?), I wanted to share my experience with readers in the hopes that you will feel compelled to attend one of the upcoming editions. It will be the best $10 you’ve spent in some time.

The recipe is simple: Bring a group of change agents together, ask each person for a modest donation of $10, listen to four proposals on how the donation could fund a worthwhile project, vote for the most-compelling project and award the donation to the top vote-getter.

SPOONS AT THE READY

The inaugural SOUP was served to a sold out crowd of 140 guests at Basil Asian Bistro in downtown Canton. The restaurant was crowded, with a line of eager guests snaking through the bar area to pick up their soup, salad and bread, donated by Basil, Deli Ohio, Hazel and Rye Artisan Baking Company and Fishers Foods.

When I arrived, there was even a small group of people waiting on the sidelines, hoping some last-minute spots would open up. You’ve been warned: Don’t wait to buy your tickets.
The soups included hot and sour, cheddar potato, and chicken and rice. They were good. But the star of the show was what came next—presentations by four individuals, each with unique plans to make the community a better place, each vying for the $1,400 kitty.

THE CONTENDERS

The four finalists—Arrowhead Vintage and Handmade Goods, Better Future Facilitators, Lighthouse Ministries and Vassar Park Neighborhood Association—presented ideas to the crowd that would help Stark County create jobs and income, provide services to the area’s homeless and ignite an entrepreneurial spirit. And in an age of excruciatingly detailed powerpoints, each contender was flying sans visual aid and had just four minutes to convince us that his or her idea deserved the cash.

Arrowhead Vintage and Handmade wanted to use the money to purchase manufacturing equipment that makes souvenir and promotional items, allowing local non-profits, small businesses, artists and musicians the opportunity to create their own sellable merchandise to generate new
revenue streams.

Lighthouse Ministries wanted to use the funding as seed money for their weekly after-school entrepreneurship class, where fourth- and fifth-grade students develop and build small businesses, and to purchase suit jackets to get these students into the entrepreneurial mindset.

Vassar Park Neighborhood Association wanted the grant to create stipends for repair and clean-up work done on the houses in the neighborhood that have fallen into disrepair, offering residents of the neighborhood who are between jobs or in need of extra income the opportunity to improve the neighborhood while earning a little money.

But alas, only one winner could be named. I cast my soup spoon for my friend David Sherrill at Arrowhead, but it was Better Future Facilitators, an organization seeking to offer high potential homeless citizens living in shelters an opportunity to co-create small businesses that they can build and eventually own 100 percent, collected the most spoons and took home a total of $2,400, thanks to a $1,000 matching grant provided by the organizers.

The microgrant funding is earmarked for the purchase of equipment that will be needed for the first business that Better Future Facilitators incubates. The recipients already have been selected through the Refuge of Hope Ministries located in Canton and have begun the rigorous steps to making their business idea become a reality.

Next up is a health-inspired event on Sunday, April 17, (applications for contenders are open now). A third, education-based SOUP will be hosted Sunday, August 14 (applications opens April 25).
The microgrants are an ingenious way to create new income, education and health opportunities in the community. It’s no surprise United Way is behind this. And although the crowd decides who takes home the money, the real prize is the flow of ideas and creative energy that all of the finalists bring collectively to the evening. I can’t wait to see the ideas that spring from the next two events.

Follow United Way of Greater Stark County on Facebook to stay up to date on Stark SOUP and United Way’s Young Leaders Society, or visit uwstark.org.