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'She was indefatigable': Remembering Irene Briggaman's efforts to alleviate hunger

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DTH Archive. Irene Briggaman (left) laughs with Chrissy Beck at the Chapel Hill Chamber of Commerce while discussing the 2005 membership drive. Photo by Chris Fields.

After moving to Chapel Hill in 1965, Irene Briggaman began to volunteer, seeking to alleviate hunger and empower youth in the community.

Briggaman, who died in early January, dedicated her life to helping others through volunteer work. Most notably, she founded the Restaurants Sharing V/5 & V/5  Percent charity event that has been held in Chapel Hill on the second Tuesday of November since 1989.

Briggaman retired after the 30th annual RSVVP event in 2018. John Dorward, the former executive director of the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, said Briggaman was a force of nature.

“She was a marvelous individual,” Dorward said. “She volunteered for us, she volunteered a half a dozen places around town. She knew what she wanted to get done.”

'There is a solution to hunger'

The annual RSVVP event, which Briggaman co-founded with the Inter-Faith Council, asks participating restaurants to give 10 percent of their gross profits to the IFC’s food security programs.

Dorward said the event was originally based on a similar event held in Baltimore. The Raleigh Food Bank had been considering putting on a similar event, but it was Briggaman who took the reins and started the event in Chapel Hill.

“She was the first person I ever met who said, ‘There is a solution to hunger, and that is to feed people’,” Dorward said.

In 2019, 75 restaurants participated in the event. Dorward said the event has raised over $500,000 since it was first held in 1989.

Dorward attributed the success of RSVVP in the Chapel Hill area to Briggaman.

“Irene said, ‘No is an answer, but giving me no answer is not acceptable,’” Dorward said. “She would go back and she would talk to a restaurant owner six or eight times. She said ‘If they tell me no, I’ll stop going. But until they tell me no I’m gonna keep going and keep trying.’”

RSVVP was not held in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Other efforts

Briggaman was involved in several volunteer efforts outside the RSVVP. Aaron Nelson, chief executive officer of the Chamber for a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro, said she was always looking for something to help with.

“She was indefatigable,” Nelson said. “She seemed always busy, always wanting to help, always asking how she could help, always volunteering to serve different organizations.”

Briggaman became an active member of the public schools and the local teen center as her children grew up. She also worked with the Red Cross, Family Violence Prevention Center, AARP, the Triangle Land Conservancy and other organizations.

Before she created RSVVP, Briggaman was involved in the annual CROP hunger walk, which also raises money for people with food insecurity. 

In 1996, Briggaman described herself to The Daily Tar Heel as a professional volunteer.

“The need is so great, and I know that I’m helping to fill a gap,” Briggamn said.

An honorable legacy

In 2005, Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce announced the Irene Briggaman lifetime achievement award. The award is now given annually to an individual who has had a lifetime of exceptional service and volunteerism in the Chapel Hill area.

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“I’m glad that we named it for her before she died because she got to meet and help select the award winners for the past 10 years,” Nelson said.

In 2019, the Chamber For a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro announced it was making Briggaman an Ambassador Emeritus, an honorary title for volunteers dedicated to the community. In 2014, she was named a 'Town Treasure' by the Chapel Hill Historical Society.

“The community is a better place when she was here, and I am grateful to have known her,” Nelson said.


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