A Remarkable Man May 21, 2012 1:04:40 GMT -5
Post by heem on May 21, 2012 1:04:40 GMT -5
John Van Hengel: A Remarkable Man
In his 70 odd years of life, John Van Hengel has been a beach bum, a student, has broken rocks for $1.50 an hour, has been a high-powered sales executive and a paid poker player. But for the last 30 years, he's found a new way of life. While most people are looking to see what they can get out of life, Van Hengel is working to see what he can put into life.
That is, what he can put into the lives of others to make them a little less difficult.
Van Hengel is the creator of the 28 year old St. Mary's Food Bank in Phoenix, Arizona. It is the largest and oldest Food Bank in the world, with a warehouse that measures an incredible 12O,OOO square feet. Operating solely on private sector funds (with no government assistance), St. Mary's provides 22 million pounds of food each year to financially less fortunate people. But the truly amazing thing about this story, is that it is about people finding a different way to live their lives.
Van Hengel is a soft-spoken, gentle man who lives very simply. He draws a very small salary as a consultant, and doesn't even own a car of his own. Most of his clothes are second hand, and he simply doesn't worry about money anymore. But you'll rarely meet a man who elicits more respect from the people he works with - everyone at St. Mary's Food Bank holds him in absolute awe.
He didn't always live this way. Coming from a family of well-to-do pharmacists and physicians, Van Hengel took a degree from the University of Wisconsin and used it to start a career in professional beach-bumming in Southern California. After taking the state test for advertising, which Van Hengel calls (typically) - a waste of time - he joined an ad agency started by the "300 guys who didn't get jobs through the service." Van Hengel became involved when that agency's biggest client requested a weekly poker game and no one else in the agency knew how to play poker. So they would stake Van Hengel, who ironically, won big.
From that inauspicious start in advertising, Van Hengel eventually marketed his own line of clothing. That led to a position as a ladies clothing manufacturers' representative, he became a sporting goods manufacturers rep, and finally to West Coast Divisional Sales manager for that company, overseeing 11 salesmen. As you might imagine, he was making a pretty good living, and had married a model for l.Magnin department stores.
But then something happened that changed his life forever. He suffered through an extremely painful divorce. That changed his thinking about the value of money in his life. "I told myself: The heck with making money, I don't have anyone to spend it on anymore," Van Hengel says. At that point, angry and hurt, Van Hengel quit his job and moved back to Wisconsin to find the worst job that he could. He did.
'Working at that stone quarry for $1.50 an hour was the best thing I ever did in my life," he says. "You should have seen the shape I was in! And it gave me a chance to work out all that anger from the divorce." Strangely enough, another unthinkable thing happened. After an incident at the quarry, Van Hengel found himself partially paralyzed. In his nonchalant, offhand manner, Van Hengel explains, "One guy was picking on another, and they got into a fight. So I grabbed one, somebody grabbed another, and the guy I grabbed popped my neck." Van Hengel then went for surgery, and was the recipient of the first cervical laminectomy operation in the United States.
As a result of that pop of the neck and the operation, he was left with a locked neck, palsy and bad legs. On doctors orders, he came to the warm climate of Phoenix, and swam all the time to recover the full use of his legs. He would walk 10 miles from his apartment to the downtown YMCA three times a week. Van Hengel began doing charity work like volunteering at St. Vincent De Paul's, befriended alcoholics, and whatever else he could for whomever he could. During this time, he drove a school bus to support himself and worked into a city position as the oldest working lifeguard in Phoenix.
After volunteering at St. Vincent De Paul's for about a year, he became aware of fruit orchards that had excess fruit available, if someone was willing to come and pick it up. He began using the two pickup trucks he had purchased for his sons, and taking out clients from St. Vincent De Paul's to gather the fruit. 'Well, pretty soon I was driving this fruit to various charities and working until 9 p.m. at night," he says. "And I started thinking: this is for the birds, there's got to be a more efficient way to handle this." As luck would have it, he was introduced to a homeless mother who was feeding 10 children out of a dumpster behind a grocery store. "All the kids were as healthy as bears," Van Hengel says, "and she gave us an idea. She said there ought to be a food bank where people can go to get food when they are without."
At this point, Van Hengel went to the pastor of his own parish, Father Ronald Colloty, and explained to him this new idea. The pastor asked him what he thought he needed to get started, and Van Hengel told him they needed a building to operate from. "Well three days later we had the use of a former bakery building that the church had the deed to, and started operating the food bank from there," he says. Assistance came from many sources, some more colorful than others.
In the late sixties, the Arizona Republic newspaper featured a daily columnist named Paul Dean. Van Hengel still gets a twinkle in his eye, and amusement spreads to his features as he recalls, "Paul Dean wrote me up as some kind of kook-head," he laughs. "He wrote about how I bought my clothes at the Salvation Army and all kinds of terrible things about me. We looked like a bunch of peons down here scrambling around, and so everyone loved us. And every time we ran into a problem, he would write a funny story about it, and his readers became our first support base, because he was the first thing people read in the morning paper." As an example, Paul Dean often referred to Van Hengels' second-hand wardrobe. "His Sunday best was Saturdays' worst," Dean wrote. "He'd get kicked out of a police lineup for being underdressed." The article ends by mentioning that Van Hengel was receiving the Phoenix Ad Councils' Advertising Man of the Year award that evening.
Although St. Mary's has, by all accounts, an excellent administrative structure these days, that initial reluctance to become too organized seems to have paid off handsomely. They send out 200 boxes of food a day to social workers to distribute to their clients, 1,100 boxes of food to homebound people once a month, 20,000 boxes of food a year through the Food C.A.R.E. program, and 8 truckloads of food a day to charities around the valley to distribute among their clients. And, in 1993, St. Mary's Food Bank operated with 90.8% of it's capital going towards program services. Recent reports indicate they are operating even leaner these days, with about 92% of the capital going to programs.
Van Hengel now consults on the International Food Banking Services board, which he also created. He was initially against accepting money from the government, but other cities around the country wanted assistance starting their own food banks on the principles so successfully used by St. Mary's. So with the aid of a one-time grant, an information service was started to share the knowledge gained at St. Mary's with other organizations who wished to start food banks. As a result of the IFBS work, there are now Food Banks all over Europe, in Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Haiti and many other countries worldwide.
"We never knew what we were doing, we just did it and hoped for the best," Van Hengel exclaims. "The structure of a program must never dominate the spirit of that program," he says, with a conviction so great you can almost feel it coming from him in waves.
Perhaps the best summation of the Van Hengels' philosophy comes from Sam Gannuscio, the warehouse supervisor, who says, "The biggest thing you get out of this work is the sense of self-satisfaction. There's all different kinds of people down here, but we all have the same goal of helping others, and we all accomplish it in our own way. You'll never get rich volunteering, but I have met the greatest people I have ever met in my life down here at St. Mary's Food Banks."
I recently spoke with Mr. Van Hengel in March of 2001, and at one point we talked about retirement. "Oh retirement, that's not for me," he said. "I think I'd go crazy if I couldn't work here. You know, I love this work."