Serving Up Hope: Innovative Nonprofits Responding to Growth and Nourishing Our Community

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How are nonprofits dealing with growth in Greenville? In this episode, we sit down Tobin Simpson of Project Host and Catriona Carlisle of Meals on Wheels to learn how these leaders are rising to the occasion with creativity and collaboration. Discover the secrets behind their innovative approaches to fighting hunger, from serving up hot meals and social connections to empowering unemployed individuals with culinary training and how you can get involved

Links:

Meals on Wheels Greenville

Project Host

Transcript

Katy Smith:

Greenville’s economy is booming. Our bustling tourism, thousands of new residents and businesses moving here, and new homes being built every day can make it seem as if everything’s fine for everyone. But those nonprofit organizations working with our most vulnerable residents know that’s not the case. I’m Katy Smith with GGG, and on this episode of Simple Civics: Greenville County, we’ll talk with two seasoned nonprofit CEOs about the challenges their clients are up against and the innovative ways their organizations are helping in light of these pressures.

Meals on wheels serves the homebound and seniors all throughout Greenville County with a daily meal and personal interaction to help those that we’re serving stay in their homes with independence and dignity. The meal opens the door for a caring relationship that includes safety checks, birthday cakes, pet food, shelf stable meals in case of an emergency, and so much beyond nutrition. WE’re joined on this episode by Catriona Carlisle who has been the executive director of Meals on Wheels for 15 years. 

Project Host is well known for its soup kitchen in downtown Greenville which has operated for more than 40 years, serving hot meals six days a week. But it is so much more than a soup kitchen. They have a cooking for kids program, a culinary school for unemployed and underemployed individuals, an internship program, social enterprises in a bakery and a good truck to further train their graduates to be more marketable employees. And they have a garden onsite to support all of this great food. We’ll talk with Tobin Simpson who has been CEO at Project Host for 12 years. 

We’ll discuss the ways both Meals on Wheels and Project Host are responding to the growth and demographic shifts of our community and the really clever ways they are rising to the challenges that our growth is presenting. 

Katy Smith:

I am so privileged to be here today with two of my favorite non-profit CEOs in Greenville County who are doing really innovative work.

What I love about both of your organizations and you as leaders is you are demonstrating such innovation.

I mean, because really, in some respects, people might say, oh, I know that organization. That’s a soup kitchen.

Or I know that organization, they deliver meals to old people.

You have both looked at the heart of what kind of change you’re trying to make and just taken it to the nth degree with saying, how do we help people not have to come to the soup kitchen by teaching them a trade that they can have out in the real world and make a good wage?

Or how do we really look at the whole experience of anyone who needs a meal delivered to their home and address their whole person.

So you’re just to me the epitome of innovation and really getting to the heart of mission.

What I want to hear from you about is in the midst of all this innovation that you’ve done, there are some really big challenges outside of your control with some of the macroeconomics of our community and growth.

Greenville’s growing like crazy. You’ve been here for decades.

Things are different now.

Catriona Carlisle:

Things are different, I think. And we all love the growth of Greenville because it has brought new companies, new volunteers, new stakeholders and supporters to our mission.

So that’s the great side of the growth. I think the hard part about the growth that we’ve seen is it’s not allowed some of our clients to stay in their home.

The growth has, you know, pushed out of the limits where we really have served and becoming very rural in comparison.

So we serve all of Greenville County, which is about 805 square miles.

We’re seeing tremendous growth in the Simpsonville area, going down Augusta Road towards Donaldson.

So those areas where it’s a little bit harder to find volunteers, much harder for the resources that some of them maybe are trying to utilize.

And so organizationally, we’re having to look at how we serve and adapt in that innovative piece.

And so I think one of the hardest things is we’ve been serving for over 55 years and people do know what Meals on Wheels does, but we’re having to change how we do it.

And so how do we bring our supporters along to say, say, look, if we don’t adapt and change our business or how we do it, our core mission is to support our clients. We have to do it to make sure we’re here.

Katy Smith:

What’s coming to my mind is all of the trends that we’re seeing nationwide and here in Greenville, there’s both the tremendous growth that’s happening right now that is making housing less affordable in urban areas, which if that’s where your headquarters is located, which it is right now in the heart of the city of Greenville, then you have much longer routes.

And then I suppose it’s also coupled with those trends of people who moved to the suburbs in the 80s, 90s, early 2000s with their young families are now those very older adults that are living far out from that urban core.

Catriona Carlisle:

It’s an interesting, I mean, you, I would say, especially in the last two to three years, we’ve probably seen a decrease in the routes around where our office is right off Augusta Road.

Could be 10, 15%. But the increase in those other areas, which we have drop sites all over Greenville County.

So right now we’re looking at adding possibly two to three drop sites in areas that we’re seeing significant growth.

And that means we need more vehicles, more pay drivers for our drop-off sites.

And so how do we financially support that growth that’s impacting the organization?

But we always want to go back to our mission while we’re here and, um, we’ve done, I think, a really good job changing to make business decisions, which a lot of times in nonprofit, we don’t like to talk about the business side because we’re the heart piece is why we’re here in our mission.

But we say a lot, if we don’t make good business decisions, we’re not going to be in business to take care of our clients.

Katy Smith:

That’s well said. So, Tobin, I know Project Host is also in the heart of the city, very close to downtown.

And I’m sure that is by necessity because you want to be where folks on foot can get to you who may be experiencing homelessness or real severe economic challenges.

But we’ve seen Greenville change. So what is that looking like for you guys?

Tobin Simpson:

Yeah, that was a question that the board and myself had struggled with for a while.

It was we’re seeing our neighborhood change drastically.

And the question was always, will we still be needed where we are currently?

But the numbers show that we still are needed where we are.

So in 2022, we served 22,278 meals in the soup kitchen.

And then in 23, it was 31,583.

So that’s contrary to the thought process of us not being needed.

But one of the things that we did know was that there were outlying areas that could use our services as well, where foot traffic was not going to make it to our brick-and-mortar on South Academy.

So that’s kind of the twofold part of the food truck, right?

We’ve got the social enterprise, but then we’ve got the ability to take food to where it’s needed in neighborhoods.

And if there is one silver lining to COVID, it was that it expedited those relationships that we needed to build so that we had the trust with the neighborhoods.

When we brought a food truck out, people knew why we were there.

So I can share those statistics as well. So in 22, we had 5,694 meals delivered to evening meal partners and 17,822 free lunches served off of our host mobile food truck.

And then in 23, we served 9,825 to our evening meal partners and 18,915 off of the food truck.

So it almost doubled with our evening partners.

And those are just, you know, churches, anybody basically that has a kitchen and volunteer staff that can take casseroles, heat them up, and basically be a mobile soup kitchen for us.

We’re happy to have those partnerships, but it shows that the need is moving farther and farther away from where we are in downtown as well.

Katy Smith:

Those statistics are really striking because the need is both moving farther and growing right where you are.

I mean, that’s a dramatic change in one year.

As you might think, oh, people are, you know, there’s not as many encampments or folks who are experiencing homelessness right in downtown.

What do you attribute that dramatic downtown increase to?

Tobin Simpson:

The population of our guests in the soup kitchen has changed drastically.

Like, so we might be doing more meals, but before we pretty much knew who our guests were going to be on a daily basis.

We had that first-name basis relationship with our guests.

And I would say that more than 50% of the population that are guests in our soup kitchen now are people that maybe we’ve only seen once or twice or a handful of times.

It’s a more transient population that’s coming through.

I think it’s kind of indicative of bigger cities. Just because there’s growth and real estate prices go up, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there are not people in the heart of a city that still need that assistance.

I think the more telling thing, though, is the outlying areas, the greater need there, the doubling of meals served.

And we’re nowhere near capacity in that regard.

Katy Smith:

Wow. So we’re talking about the soup kitchen, which is where people who are really experiencing severe poverty come.

And it’s so wonderful that you can provide some food security in that sense.

But then the culinary training program is an awesome opportunity to create new economic pathways for folks.

Even in that bright spot, though, you’re running into some serious roadblocks.

Can you talk about what those are?

Tobin Simpson:

Sure. So, I mean, I’ve been with Project Host long enough to see this take place.

Back when I first started, we would have graduates of the culinary school.

We would place them with restaurants throughout Greenville, safe restaurants where I knew they would thrive in the kitchen.

But also part of their graduation process was the case management aspect.

We understand that there are barriers to employment. And a lot of times that comes in the form of housing.

So we were able to help our graduates find housing that was going to be closer to a potential job that they were taking.

Fast forward 10 years, 12 years, and now I have graduates that I hope that they’re housed.

When they come to us through the culinary school, I hope that they have secure housing.

Recently, at the end of last year, we had somebody come and start our program.

She lived in a tent. We were aware of that.

She got to the end of the six-week program. She had given 100%.

She was overcoming some serious barriers that were in front of her, some health issues that she really went above and beyond that she handled.

But it was heartbreaking because you get to the end of six weeks and she has really proven herself to be interested in initiating that change in her life.

And basically, there’s nothing we can do. As far as the housing goes, she will continue to live in a tent because there’s just nowhere that would be even close to affordable for her to work in downtown Greenville.

Katy Smith:

It breaks my heart. I have heard similar stories from the rescue mission who have gentlemen who are staying in the shelter. They are doing all the things.

They’re getting their lives together.

They’re working through programs. They are finding employment.

They get that employment and they are able to buy a scooter and live in a trailer somewhere far from work or, you know, not in great condition car.

And then one thing happens, flat tire, something wrong with the engine, and the whole cycle starts over again because they can’t get to that downtown job, which is where food service primarily is.

Tobin Simpson:

And that’s what we see. I mean, we’re maintaining communication, you know, three-month and six-month and 12-month intervals with graduates of the culinary school.

But more importantly, it’s about that real relationship that we have.

Obviously, we love it when a graduate comes back and tells us about a success story where they’ve been promoted or they’re making more money.

That fuels us as employees to continue to move forward. But the more important stories are the ones where there is that setback and how we can help address that.

It’s just, it’s such a shame that housing is one of those where we feel helpless.

Katy Smith:

Cat, what about for you all and some of the growth and the impact it’s having?

Catriona Carlisle:

I think what we’re seeing is kind of going back the increase in the financial barriers that some of our clients are seeing, really having to make some hard choices between, you know, some weeks or months, it could be medication or meals.

And so how can we expand what we’re doing I mean one meal for a client some that could be their only meal, some may get a frozen meal but we have started to expand and do more than meal quarterly bags. For our clients many of them the fresh produce is something they just don’t get a lot of and so it’s working with partners and providing each quarter a bag that has educational materials on resources available.

A lot of our clients, scammers and seniors is one thing.

So how do we help protect them from, you know, not just living in their home, but people trying to call them or contact them?

So the piece on the safety is really important to us.

And even that innovative piece that you talked about earlier, technology, our world is really in that technology piece, and so how can we bring that into our work?

And we’ve done a pilot program called Companion Charlie, where clients are given a tablet for a year.

And it’s just another way that we connect with them, not just for us, but can connect them to family and friends.

And so it’s really, you know, you never know when you try a new program what it’s going to be.

One of the neatest things we saw is we had a client that was being, you know, served.

Her sister was her caretaker and then the sister became ill and she wasn’t able to see him and I don’t think they had not not seen each other every day for years. And so we gave them each a tablet where they can video call and you know one just was so emotional talking about still had that connection and so as we look at you know the growth and what that means… How can we keep that connection to our mission and for what it means just to people to know that someone’s out there for them?

Katy Smith:

That’s really dear. So it’s clear that your two organizations, along with many others in the community, are doing really innovative work.

You are stretching beyond what people would expect for a service provider like each of you is.

You’re partnering, you’re operating like a business, all the things that we hope for from the best of nonprofits. But there are still some constraints culturally and economically.

So I wonder first what you might say to folks in the community about the way they perceive the people you serve and kind of shifting mindset. Catriona, can you start?

Catriona Carlisle:

Yeah, I’d be glad to. I think what I would want everyone is to look beyond the perception you have of that person.

I mean, those that we serve, whether it’s Project Host or Meals on Wheels, they’re human beings.

They deserve the grace and compassion and the dignity that every other Greenville County resident does.

So I think until you really can understand what someone is, you know, going through on their end, walk through their shoes, I think some of the beautiful things that we do allows us to see people in another light.

I mean, the work that Tobin and his team does, I’ve been fortunate with my family to see it on the other side, volunteering.

And it’s a gift that Project Host has given to my kids when they’re, you know, just being involved, just able to talk to people and really have the gift of compassion.

Katy Smith:

Tobin, what would you add?

Tobin Simpson:

I would echo that as well. There’s so many misconceptions.

Like Catriona said, people think they understand who we serve.

And I’m sorry, but until you’ve come in and you’ve volunteered and you’ve looked somebody in the eye and you’ve handed them a meal and you understand a snippet of their background and what they’re going through, you just have no idea what that person is facing.

I think a lot of people think that in the soup kitchen, we just feed a homeless population.

That is not the case. We feed the working poor. We feed people that are dealing with mental health struggles.

I mean, directly across the street from us is a mental health housing facility.

Spend 10 minutes with one of those individuals as a guest in our soup kitchen and tell me that they can hold down a 40-hour-a-week job and pay their bills.

It gets me fired up.

Katy Smith:

Yeah.

Catriona Carlisle:

Way to go, Tobin.

Katy Smith:

Well, speaking of fired up, I mean, like I said, you all are innovating to beyond what your capacity might be.

But these challenges are bigger than what you can do economically, right? Not just culturally, which y’all have just addressed.

What comes to your mind when you think of the thing that keeps that woman who’s completed the whole program living in a tent when she’s ready for more?

Tobin Simpson:

It’s, it’s, it’s hard to sell that. To be perfectly honest, the culinary industry is, is difficult.

You really need to have a passion for it. If you’re going to get in there and you’re going to thrive, if you’re going to do well, there needs to be that passion.

Because if you don’t have that, the fact of the matter is it is long hours. It is nights, it’s weekends, it’s holidays.

It’s every time when everybody else is off and celebrating together, that’s when you’re you’re working your hardest.

So if we don’t have affordable housing, if an individual who works in the kitchen is not able to pay their bills and live close enough to where they work, what is the draw to work in a restaurant?

Katy Smith:

And someone might listen and say, well, they should choose another path, which, okay, fine, if they do.

Tobin Simpson:

If you don’t like eating out.

Katy Smith:

Who’s going to serve you when you go to the restaurant that you’re so excited about.

Tobin Simpson:

That’s right.

Katy Smith:

Yeah. What about you, Catriona?

Catriona Carlisle:

I think for Meals on Wheels, one of the biggest challenges we have is no one really likes to talk about seniors.

I mean, if we’re really all honest, we don’t want to talk about getting older.

We don’t, what does that look like? Or are you financially ready?

So that’s a big challenge for us because in Greenville, they’re really just two agencies that primarily work with seniors.

And so how do we be a stronger voice, not just in our community, but as we hope to take a bigger role in some things across the upstate or the state to really keep a focus on seniors, the funding, wherever that is coming from, because for many of them, very similar to those that Tobin and his team serve, they don’t have the ability to get a job.

I mean, they are possibly living on Medicare that may be getting $900 to $1,100 a month.

So after they pay rent, they don’t have much left. And so there’s not a place for them to go.

So how do we keep, whether it’s a policymaker, local at the state level, making sure they’re always in their thought process?

And how do we make sure they’re taken care of?

Because many of them have served our community. We have clients that we’re serving now that were volunteers.

They’ve served our country. We serve right now, I think, over 170 veterans.

And so they, like all of our clients, deserve that respect.

Katy Smith:

Your point about people not wanting to talk about seniors, I believe people think there are more resources for seniors than there are.

People know there’s Medicare and Social Security.

And if you’re young, you’re like, well, that’ll cover it.

And it will not. It will not. And especially if you need help with activities of daily living or if you need nursing home care.

Catriona Carlisle:

It’s just not there. We have a great partnership with the Appalachian Council of Governments, and they provide, could be transportation and partnership with senior action, but there’s not a lot of funding.

And so if you’re looking at medical transportation or transportation to one of the senior centers, there’s a long waiting list for those.

And so where I think Meals on Wheels Greenville has really done a good job, they are taking care, they’re providing meals that there’s not funding through the state level.

And so when we look at what’s our role, last year we did over 382,000 meals.

That’s a lot of meals, especially when there’s not any other funding for those that are on Medicare and disability and are on a very limited income.

Katy Smith:

I alluded earlier to partnerships and collaboration and innovation.

You two are working together on a super interesting partnership.

I wonder if you could talk a little bit about.

Catriona Carlisle:

I think it really, if there was one good thing, if you can say that, that came out of the COVID pandemic, is it really elevated those that are working in the food insecurity.

We had talked a lot about working together in collaboration, but we finally had to say, OK, let’s stop the lip service. Let’s put the boots to the ground.

And I think great example, our community has great resources for food, but the access to food is a real barrier for some in our community, whether it’s the timing of when the agency is open, transportation is a barrier.

And so we’re in our third year now of, as Tobin mentioned, Project Host does great work with afterschool and summer programs for kids.

But I think there was a challenge, whether it was staffing for the sites to come pick up the meals.

And so we just, when Summer said, let’s kind of try a pilot program and see what this could look like.

So Meals on Wheels is a delivery mechanism. Now, partnering with Project Host, and it’s five or six sites that we go pick up the meals, deliver them to the sites each day.

And so it’s really, it’s worked great.

I think for us, it’s allowed to take another role in supporting food insecurity while still always having our core mission.

And I think anytime that we can partner with other agencies, especially doing food, really the community and our clients are going to be the ones to win.

Katy Smith:

What I think is especially cool about this is when you think that you started Catriona as an organization that delivers meals to seniors and senior nutrition, and you, Tobin, started as a soup kitchen for people who are economically insecure.

And you found this natural expansion of your missions to do training and culinary arts, and then how to use that to prepare food for kids.

And then Catriona, you took Meals on Wheels literally to take those meals to new places. It’s just such a cool like, third new organization almost that the partnership has created.

It’s so great.

Catriona Carlisle:

And I think it gets where I’ve gotten to know Tobin much better.

And I think the neat thing about our nonprofit world here in Greenville is while we all work together, really have great friends.

And I mean, Tobin is definitely at the top of the list, a high level of respect for what he does. And it’s just really nice to be able to work together.

Katy Smith:

We really are fun people.

Catriona Carlisle:

We are fun. That’s right.

Tobin Simpson:

And that respect is mutual for you and your family. I enjoy our Thanksgivings together. It’s been great.

Katy Smith:

I love it. Hopefully, people feel called to get involved at the policy level and advocate for things that will make housing more affordable and the like.

But in your organizations, how could people plug in and support the work that you do? Tobin, how about at Project Host?

Tobin Simpson:

Sure. I would say first thing to do would be to go to our website at projecthost.org.

It’s going to give you a wealth of information about all of our programs.

If you feel called to volunteer, there’s an easy way for you to get involved.

It’s at the top of the webpage.

If you want to reach out and go for a tour of the organization and get a better feel and understanding for what we do, just send us an email at info@projecthost.org. It’s easy.

Katy Smith:

Great. Catriona?

Catriona Carlisle:

We’re the same. I think go to our website, mealsonwheelsgreenville.org.

We’re always looking for volunteers. We do volunteer orientation every Thursday at 9:30 via Zoom.

But if you’re interested in delivering, you know, people can ride with me or someone else just to see if it’s something you’re interested in.

We’re always looking for people to get involved, whether it’s events or donating.

So I think if anything, just take that first step to learn more about our organizations on the website.

Katy Smith:

Fabulous. Well, I appreciate you both so much, the work that you do.

And I appreciate you both as colleagues in this work and really hope that we can make things easier for you and the people you serve.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

Image via Sean Pavone from Getty Images on Canva.

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