Elon students fight hunger with HOPE

What started as an academic exercise in a service learning class has transformed into a student-led community organization that has raised thousands of pounds of food for the hungry in Alamance County in just its first two months.

When Jensen Roll put hours worth of work into a 12-page research paper for one of his service learning classes freshman year, he never imagined it would somehow result in many more weeks and months of toil and effort that would eventually become a new non-profit community organization called Helping Other People Eat – or HOPE for short.

But in the time since Roll, now a sophomore, wrote that paper, HOPE has transformed from an idea to an award-winning innovation: a team of more than a dozen Elon students who have partnered with local restaurants to raise money that buys food for an estimated 25,000 people who are “food insecure” in Alamance County.

“I think HOPE would have stayed on paper if I didn’t share it with people,” Roll recalls. “People said, ‘You better do this.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m a student, I’ve got a job – and another job. So I don’t really have the time for it.’ And they said, ‘No, Loaves and Fishes just closed and you came up with this idea that fits that niche. You need to do it and we want to help you do it.’”

As Roll heard more and more feedback, it became clear his idea was both novel and a necessity. Local food pantry Loaves and Fishes had abruptly closed and left an organization dedicated to helping homeless people, Allied Churches of Alamance County, scrambling to start a pantry of its own. Allied Churches needed help – and Roll had come up with something in his research paper that could make a difference.

The premise was simple: at the end of every meal at participating local restaurants, diners would be presented with the opportunity to donate a couple bucks to help feed the hungry – much the same way people who pay with debit or credit cards can add a tip to their checks. The money would then go to Allied Churches, which can buy five pounds of food with each dollar.

“What I’m trying to do is transform the community through the way people interact on a daily basis,” Roll says. “So every time somebody goes out to eat, instead of only thinking about themselves and who they’re with and creating that sustenance for themselves, they’re also impacting somebody else around them. It’s bigger than the restaurant, it’s bigger than the person going to the restaurant – it’s a community effort every time you go out to eat. And it transforms a community through that.”

While the Bloomington, Illinois, native initially thought about letting the idea go no further than that research paper, he says his professor, Associate Dean of Elon College Angela Lewellyn Jones, “wasn’t going to let me get away with sitting on it.”

So Roll began to enlist the help of classmates and friends in a campus Bible study. This past October, when the Doherty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership in Elon’s Love School of Business held a competition that asked students to present solutions to social problems they saw on campus or in the broader community, Roll and fellow sophomores Greg Stone, Drew Dimos, Steven Cobb, and Chris Coble pitched HOPE.

They won first place.

Their prize was lunch with President Leo M. Lambert, whose wife Laurie is on the Board of Directors at Allied Churches. The Lamberts offered their support, as did other Elon administrators and the faculty at the Doherty Center.

Roll says their collective backing – both in time and resources – along with help from Elon’s Civic Engagement Scholars and the Leadership Fellows program is “the biggest reason that everything is working the way it is.”

Officially launched in March, HOPE currently operates within Allied Churches as a fundraiser. The students who make up the organization produce their own marketing materials and work to secure partnerships with local eateries. Roll is quick to point out that while it all might’ve started with his idea, there are a number of other people who make HOPE possible.

“This is a team of 15 students who are extremely involved,” he says.

So far, they’ve gotten six Alamance County restaurants to sign on and collect donations through slips of paper distributed with diners’ bills or via tip jars. Two other eateries will soon join in.

Roll was initially fearful that restaurants wouldn’t take a college student seriously when he would approach them about partnering up. For the most part, that hasn’t been an issue.

“That didn’t even phase me, the fact that he’s young and a college student,” says Michelle Gibson, owner of Cork & Cow. Her wine and cheese bistro was one of the pilot restaurants to take part in the effort.

“I want to do great things [to support the community],” she says. “So anybody who wants to do something great, I’m going to support them.”

Her willingness, along with that of the other restaurant owners and their customers, has helped HOPE raise more than $1,000 since it officially launched in March. At five pounds of food per dollar, that money is already having a real impact.

“Several hundred dollars is several thousand pounds of food,” says Kim Crawford, executive director of Allied Churches. “The more money that they can bring in for the area of food, it frees up our general operating fund and then it allows us to be able to purchase other things that we need like metal bunk beds, a new van, a lawn mower, sheets, pillows and pillow cases for our shelter.”

Crawford’s organization looks to donors and volunteers all over Alamance County to help it sustain its daily impact on the community. She says it’s no surprise that students from Elon have found an innovative way to make a difference.

“For us, it’s been a privilege and an honor to work with them. They are very impressive young people,” she says. “What I appreciate is that they’re wanting to work in their own backyard and fix it.”

Eventually, Roll hopes the backyard will get bigger.

“I wouldn’t say that HOPE is a success yet. I’d say we’re still in the beginning stages and we still have a lot of room to grow,” he says. “Once we expand into some other communities like Greensboro, Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, I think that’s when we can start to say that we are really impacting communities and doing some great things.”

If that sounds ambitious, it is. But Roll is driven and committed. He’s a Leadership Fellow, a Civic Engagement Scholar, a Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life intern, a resident assistant and a member of the Peace Corps Prep Program. He’s even working to create his own major – social entrepreneurship. Founding businesses that make a difference, like HOPE, is his passion. In high school, he came up with an organization that connected community groups that needed help with students ready to offer it.

And don’t forget, he has that great team working with him.

“They have a long road ahead of them,” Crawford says. “But if anybody can do it, I think it’s them.”

They hope a large fundraiser scheduled for April 29 at Alamance Country Club will help them shore up more community support and draw more local restaurants into the fold. Some of the HOPE team members will dedicate their summer break to helping the non-profit grow. 

“It’s exciting to see the entrepreneurship bug bite other students,” Roll says. “It’s not just Jensen. Everybody has an investment in it. … I’m really blessed to be in a college setting with so many people who are invested in helping us.”