Filling a Need Near or Far
- REALTOR® Heather Griesser LaPierre’s commitment to alleviating hunger and food insecurity in her region and around the world began seven years ago when she started Kids Against Hunger Philadelphia and assembled meal packs in her home.
- When school meals were halted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she and a few key volunteers worked day and night to increase their production and pack up to 350,000 meals per month.
- Ever on the look out for emergency food relief needs around the world, they packed close to 200,000 meals for Ukrainian refugees in Poland who fled their homes after the Russian invasion in February.
The 250-mile journey through the snow in a heavily laden 26-foot truck from Philadelphia to Skaneateles, N.Y., in February 2020 was arduous, recalls REALTOR® Heather Griesser LaPierre, founder of Kids Against Hunger Philadelphia.
But skipping the trip would never even cross her mind.
When Griesser, who uses that name professionally, and another volunteer finally arrived and began to unload the boxes of food that would soon be distributed by a church to local families in need, a husband and wife who had come to assist the effort excitedly approached Griesser. Recent arrivals from Haiti, they instantly recognized the distinctive red, blue and green logos on the boxes as the same ones on the shipments that helped their family survive before they got to the U.S.
"Your food saved my life," the man told her. "In Haiti, we didn't have much to eat at all. Every couple of months, these boxes would arrive and we knew that somebody, somewhere, cared about us and that we would be okay."
Fighting Against Hunger at Home and Abroad
Caring for people around the world, around the corner, or anywhere in between is what led Griesser, a sales associate with RE/MAX Preferred, REALTORS®, in Newtown Square, Pa., to create Kids Against Hunger Philadelphia in 2015. Her group is part of a network of more than 50 KAH organizations around the U.S. and Canada.
"Real estate allows us the opportunity to help so many people on so many different levels. It’s a solid foundation for helping people. Real estate professionals and everybody, really, everybody needs to give back. It does something to you to give back to others and know that you're making a difference in the world. Find your passion, start out small and go after it, and who knows where that will land you." —Heather Griesser LaPierre
Belonging to a thriving real estate team with her parents, Harry and Marie Griesser, she felt a responsibility to support the community that supports her business. "The hunger problem really resonated with me," she says, "and in my mind, I truly felt that selling real estate could enable us to help solve hunger."
Every day, thousands of children die of starvation and malnutrition worldwide. In Philadelphia and the surrounding counties alone, food insecurity affects between 10% and 31% of children under 18, according to Feeding America.
Kids Against Hunger Philadelphia distributes meals to food banks, churches, schools and other organizations in the Philadelphia area and Mid-Atlantic region. "You often don’t realize just how many families and children in our own communities are not able to get enough to eat," says KAH Philadelphia board president Sarah Colucci. "Our focus is on filling the shelves at local community food banks and making sure that people are fed."
But its mission is broader. The organization also assists in emergency relief efforts around the world. After Russia invaded Ukraine last February, KAH Philadelphia shifted gears to provide 200,000 meals for Ukrainian refugees in Poland. They also have contributed to recent relief efforts in Malawi, Greece, Puerto Rico, Haiti and other countries. "Wherever there's a need and someone asks for food, we do anything we can to fulfill that need," Griesser says.
Feeding Two Types of Hunger
The organization initially operated out of Griesser’s home, and right away became a family venture. Trucks would deliver pallets of food to the house, and her family—her husband, Bernie, and their children, Wesley (20), Jacob (16) and Caitlyn (13)—would bring the 50-pound bags of rice and other supplies to the basement. "My kids would have friends over, and if they wanted to watch a movie or something, we would put a sheet on top of the rice and that's where they'd sit," she recalls. "The charity took over our whole house."
As demand for KAH Philadelphia's meals grew, it moved to more appropriate locations, eventually landing in its current home, a 5,000-square-foot warehouse with its own loading dock. With the amount of food and volunteers required to make it all work, they need every inch.
"We pack 350,000 meals every month, all with the help of two or three shifts of volunteers daily, seven days a week," explains Griesser. "It’s all dry ingredients, and we pack four different meals: a rice and veggie meal, a fiesta rice meal, a cheesy rice meal, and an apple-cinnamon oatmeal."
The food distributed by KAH Philadelphia is supplied by Kids Against Hunger's national organization in Springfield, Mo., at a cost of $0.30 per meal. Many of the volunteers who participate in the group's packing events also contribute funds to buy the food required to keep KAH Philadelphia’s programs going. Griesser herself has raised over $2.5 million in donations from individuals and corporate fundraisers since the organization’s launch seven years ago and donates a portion of the commission from each sale her real estate team makes.
"She doesn’t like the spotlight; she doesn’t want to take credit, but Heather just amazes me. She can juggle her business, her family, and the nonprofit with ease." —Sarah Colucci
Griesser has recruited and organized thousands of volunteers to assist in the packing events. Each shift requires 25 to 35 people to handle tasks such as moving the bags of food, measuring out each portion and sealing the boxes of assembled meals.
"When our volunteers come in to pack with us, they're feeding two types of hunger," she says. "They're feeding the very real hunger of the families that receive our food, and they're feeding the hunger within each of us to want to help others."
"One of my favorite parts of the packing event is the very end, when everyone is scrambling to finish packing the last meals and working their hardest," says Matthew Dickerson, a student at Villanova University and long-time KAH Philadelphia volunteer. "Ms. Griesser will announce the total number of meals we prepared during that session, and it's always in the thousands. It really drives home what we've accomplished together in those couple of hours. We've made a vital contribution to people's lives."
A Calming Effect
Griesser considers herself blessed to have a core group of volunteers who can take the reins at KAH Philadelphia when she’s called on to show a house or attend a closing. When her father and business partner, Harry, passed away unexpectedly in 2021, KAH Philadelphia’s volunteers immediately jumped in to support her family and keep the charity running.
During the COVID-19 shutdown, her family and 10 of the volunteers partnered with the organization Philabundance to provide food for Philadelphia schoolchildren who were not getting the meals they normally would. At night, local suburban police pitched in to pack meals as well to meet the escalating demand, which grew from 200,000 to 350,000 meals per month during that time, where it remains today.
"I absolutely love this charity and all the people in it. I truly mean it when I say to our volunteers that you come in as strangers and leave as friends." —Heather Griesser LaPierre
"Heather’s devotion to end hunger one meal at a time has inspired me and so many others to become more involved and share our talents to make a positive impact in the world," says Colucci. "I’m merely one of the lives she’s influenced each day while packing meals."
Balancing the demands of her business, her nonprofit and her family can be challenging, but it’s the constant activity at Kids Against Hunger Philadelphia that keeps Griesser grounded.
"350,000 meals is a lot to do every month, plus getting the volunteers, the shipping and receiving, coordinating the shifts, making sure everything is done on time—it's not easy at all," she admits. "But somehow, whenever I walk through those doors, it all has such a calming effect on me because it's not about me; it's about the people who depend on us for food. I’ve found my passion, and that’s what helps me get through the days."