Nonprofit White Pony Express move expands services to needy
By Lou Fancher
Food rescue in the East Bay just took a gigantic step up.
Two new warehouse spaces -- each about 4,000 square feet -- have bumped White Pony Express into the big leagues.
"We're like a large corporation that uplifts lives with clothing, food and opportunities to serve," says Gary Conner, the nonprofit's executive coordinator.
Founded in 2013 by Carol Weyland Conner, the all-volunteer program partners with food retailers to bring surplus food to charitable organizations serving people in need in Contra Costa County.
Hitting and nimbly leaping to new growth milestones within its first year, White Pony added Free General Store events that offer mobile boutiques stocked with new or carefully screened, lightly-used clothing and toys to underserved communities, and White Pony Inn, a service that provides connection to housing resources.
But despite rapid success that resulted in a shift from using for deliveries two donated vehicles to the current fleet of nine vans and a refrigerated truck, expanding from a handful of food donors to 50 suppliers, and from 15 recipient organizations to almost 50, White Pony's donated warehouse space in the Saranap neighborhood had a limited footprint that forced volunteers to work under less-than-ideal circumstances.
"We were sharing the only office space with a freezer, fridge and walk-in cooler," says IT coordinator Sandra Smith. "In the winter it would flood because the building was about to be torn down."The building's deteriorating condition began to have a negative impact on efficiency. The close quarters meant that packing delivery vans with donated goods happened in the too-small parking lot, leaving food, clothing and workers unprotected during inclement weather and drivers jockeying for position. The matter gained urgency after the landlord told Conner the building would be torn down last November. A search for a new home was on.
"Two-and-a-half-years ago we had nothing. Now we've donated 2.9 million pounds of food, 200,000 articles of clothing, toys and books, and (have) these two new warehouses," says Gary Conner, greeting visitors during an open house April 16, at their new facilities in Concord.
In the organization's freshly painted, expansive General Store warehouse, industrial-style palettes hold new clothing from Not Your Mother's Jeans, and other name-brand retailers. At a nearby table, volunteers sort like-new clothing that must pass stringent requirements and labeling procedures.
"We have two sorting phases to select only high quality items," says Ellen Baum. The San Francisco-based psychotherapist volunteers once a week. "This is close to my heart: the work of sharing abundance with people who don't have it is a gift."
In front of the food warehouse, treasurer Isa Campbell highlights important features.
"We have assigned spaces for each vehicle, trucks can pull into the dock, the roll-up door means loading can happen in the entry bay. And instead of a bathroom sink for all to share, we have hand-washing stations throughout."
A dispatch office is no longer adjacent to a loud industrial-size cooler, and the first-ever office means files can be stored in one place instead of spread around in various locations, she adds.
Operations coordinator Lorraine Granit says growth spurts require new procedures. Because there are no off-the-shelf software packages for White Pony's customized distribution, the IT group is constantly developing its own.
"The people who volunteer are dedicated to helping others. They work, they have varied schedules, but we've never had to cancel a run, I'm very proud of that," she says.
Patricia Durrell, of Concord, has volunteered as a runner for nine months. Inspired to join the organization after seeing artisan bread from a bakery near her workplace going to waste everyday, she says, "There's not a lot of giving I can do to help the hungry on my own, but giving back this way, this works."
Gary Conner, asked if he worries about building the infrastructure to support a "large corporation" with a $5 million budget that relies on volunteers, says he doesn't bother with concerns.
"If I'd bothered with that, I would never have done this. We have 400 people helping and the community has supported us," he said. "We've done everything at the highest level and for us, this means we have to create every structure with the idea that it will move on. We'll keep moving up as we serve the community."