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Handling hunger in Chapel Hill-Carrboro: 'PORCH filled the gap for us so well'

Mai Mai was two months pregnant when she fled a military regime in Burma in 2008. 

After she had her baby in Malaysia, a friend told her she should consider coming to the Chapel Hill area. Soon after, Mai and her son moved to the United States.

In Chapel Hill, Mai had to work part-time in order to take care of her son. She got married in 2014, and soon she and her family were facing difficult circumstances.

“At the time I think we had 80 something dollars,” Mai said.

Without enough money to buy food, she turned to PORCH, a local hunger relief organization.

“PORCH filled the gap for us so well,” Mai said. “I was very grateful to them.”

PORCH was founded in 2010 by Susan Romaine, Debbie Horwitz and Christine Cotton, who wanted to figure out a way to combat local hunger.

“Through our volunteer work in the public schools, we were becoming more and more aware of the severity of childhood hunger,” Romaine said. “So the three of us, busy with our own lives but also knowing a lot of people with busy lives, were trying to think of some way we could contribute to hunger relief, but to do it in a very simple, meaningful way.”

Romaine said the idea they came up with was simple. Neighbors would leave a few cans of tuna on their front porch and they would swing by, pick it up and drop it off at a local food pantry.

“The response from our neighbors just totally overwhelmed us," Romaine said. "So a month later, we decided why not do this again. This time we’re just going to reach out to a few more neighbors, see what happens. So long story short, we’ve been at this for about seven years and I’m proud to say that we’ve collected over $1.6 million in hunger relief donations made possible by this PORCH community.”

Since its founding, PORCH has spread to many of the neighborhoods in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. The program has also expanded to include more nonperishables and fresh foods. PORCH now delivers to 12 food pantries in Orange County.

The PORCH brand has also spread. Twelve PORCH affiliates have taken the nonprofit's model and modified it to serve other communities.

Lynn Scattolini is one of the neighborhood coordinators for PORCH in Southern Village. About 190 neighborhood coordinators go around their neighborhoods once a month to collect cans off their neighbors’ porches.

Scattolini joined PORCH because she wanted to give back to the community.

“When I worked, I didn’t have the time for volunteer work and now it’s the ultimate luxury, just being able to choose what you want to do and how you want to contribute,” she said.

Scattolini also likes the organization because it's entirely volunteer based.

“Everything is done on a volunteer basis — out of our own cars, out of our own homes,” she said. “It’s very hard to find a volunteer organization where you have confidence that a good portion of the money isn’t going to be spent on fundraising or administrative cost.”

Romaine said PORCH has made a big dent in local hunger. However, the organization has also had other positive side effects.

“It just brings us together,” she said. “So many connections are made and I think it really helps to build neighborhoods and bring our community together on this common mission.”


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