The Hand of Providence: Rallying a Community to Make a Difference

Melaleuca's Denise PhillipsTEMPE, ARIZONA is typical of the American Southwest.The stucco houses of suburban sprawl are uninterrupted (except for the occasional verdant golf course, palm tree, park or hotel), and every day ends with an orangey-purple brush-painted sunset. Only the barren adobe cliffs and the occasional tumbleweed remind you that you’re on the edge of the Sonoran Desert.

But if you do enough exploring in this Phoenix suburb, you’ll eventually pass a 2.5-acre structure-less city block lined with row upon row of leafy greens—big, juicy vegetables by the ton. You’ll see kale, artichokes, Swiss chard, turnips, onions and arugula. You might even spot a sizeable zucchini, a tub of blackberries, a basket of garlic or a bushel of broccoli. Not far away, at a similar site in Chandler, you’ll find an orchard with apples, peaches, pears, plums, nectarines and figs.

There’s also a pretty good chance you’ll see people out in the fields, weeding, hoeing, planting or irrigating. You might be surprised to learn that the folks you see doing the work and getting dirty don’t intend to eat or sell the food. It’s like a reversal of the tale of the Little Red Hen; this group plans to pass their harvest along to others in need.

The garden and the orchards are all part of an organization called Harvest for Humanity, a nonprofit that started in 1991 when a retired Air Force pilot felt impressed to make a difference for others. The food doesn’t go just anywhere; it goes to the mouths of the less fortunate in the Phoenix area.

For years, the pilot (Homer Piatt by name) and his organization served the community little by little. But when the Arizona real estate market was spit out by a lousy economy in 2008, donations came to a standstill. After 17 years of fulfilling his dream and helping others, Homer was suddenly unsure he could keep things going.

A Green Thumb

In her previous career, Senior Director VIII Denise Phillips managed a team of engineers in the defense industry. Then, in the 2000s, she began working as a sports massage therapist, personal trainer and nutrition consultant, as well as building a healthy, growing Melaleuca business. But Denise wanted to do more, to use her experience in nutrition to help others—a concept she calls “food as medicine.”

“In 2006, I started putting together my own nonprofit to grow healthy vegetables for the less fortunate,” Denise says. “But I realized it was going to take thousands of dollars to make that happen, and the bureaucracy was stifling. One day, someone told me I’d need to get some lawyers involved, and I said, ‘For crying out loud—I just want to help people!’”

Then in 2008, Denise stumbled on some information about Harvest for Humanity and realized someone else had already done all the work to get things set up. She hopped in her car and took a drive down to that same plot of land in Tempe, where she found Homer up to his elbows in weeds and earth.

“I asked, ‘How’s Harvest for Humanity going?’” Denise remembers. “He said, ‘Not good—the economy’s bad, donations are down and I’m getting too old for this.’ So we sat down, and I took a closer look. I told him,  ‘I’m going to get some volunteers together, and we’re going to help you with this incredible mission.’”

No stranger to networking, Denise made a few phone calls, rounded up dozens of good people from the Phoenix suburbs, and then went to work. She attracted volunteers from churches, community associations, major corporations (including ING, Intel and Cox Communications) and local school districts.

“We’ve even partnered with Starbucks in the area—we recycle all of their coffee grounds and filters, turning them into compost,” Denise says. “We’re always looking for good people who can come help out.”

The next year, with Homer’s age advancing, Denise became the organization’s executive director and enrolled it in Melaleuca’s Charitable Organization Program. Where Harvest for Humanity had teetered on the edge of extinction, Denise’s help restored the organization’s financial footing, and, more importantly, its optimism.

Denise and Harvest for Humanity friends

“As the Garden Grows, So Does the Gardener”

Even as Harvest for Humanity began growing like never before, Denise was watching the recession sucker-punch her finances. Her 401(k) was all but gone, and her real estate investments had evaporated.

“I thought, ‘If I don’t want to be in a food bank line myself, I’d better do something,’” Denise remembers. “I wondered about going back to corporate America, but then I realized I had this Melaleuca check coming every month. So in February 2011, I really picked up the intensity of my Melaleuca business.”

Melaleuca and Harvest for Humanity, as it turned out, are a natural fit. Both involve bringing together a group of people with what Denise calls “big hearts” and a desire to enhance lives. So Denise began to find business partners while she was working in the fields, building her business to Senior Director VIII, allowing her to focus on her passion without taking a paycheck from the nonprofit.

“Some people wonder what they were put on this earth to do,” Denise says. “But I know my gift is to teach people to make better decisions about their health and well being, and to be kinder to our earth.”

When a volunteer couldn’t meet her assigned shifts because of chemotherapy, Denise expanded the program to feed those battling cancer. Later, she realized she could involve children with disabilities or chronic diseases. “That’s what tugs at my heartstrings the most,” Denise says. “My whole passion is to help people.”

Ultimately, Harvest for Humanity is about a lot more than vegetables. In the end, Denise knows, when the harvest is done and the fields are fallow, the intangibles will keep feeding everyone involved throughout their lives.

“That’s what Harvest for Humanity is all about: building a strong community, teaching people to be more self-sustained and knowing that you’re helping people who might not have access to this nutrient-dense food,” Denise says. “Everyone is out there learning, having fun and making a difference.”

HARVEST FOR HUMANITY welcomes donations of land, equipment, money, time and talents. To learn more, contact Denise at 480-553-8744 or via email at denise@harvestforhumanity.com, or visit www.harvestforhumanity.com/how-to-get-involved/