Harvest of Hope Foundation moving forward, president says

By Emily Hoover| ehoover@flagler.edu
Photos by Gena Anderson and Phillip C. Sunkel IV

For Phil Kellerman, president of the Gainesville-based Harvest of Hope Foundation, philanthropy runs in the family.

After his grandmother Helen Zand, a professor and social worker, mentioned she would be leaving an inheritance to her grandchildren, Kellerman said he was going to put the money to good use.

“[My grandmother and I] used to talk about the issues involving poverty,” he said. “She was really smart and really ahead of her time. This was right around the time I was thinking of setting up a foundation for migrant workers and I told her I was going to set up a foundation in her honor.”

Kellerman said migrant farm workers are important because they handle the consumer’s food. Because a lot of crops still must be hand picked, they are some of the toughest laborers, he said.

Valient Thorr at the 2009 Harvest of Hope festival.

As a migrant advocate for 23 years, Kellerman said Harvest of Hope has been a grassroots, direct emergency service provider for migrant farm workers for over 15 years. He said he also worked at a national migrant hotline for 16 years and retired recently after over one hundred thousand calls. But federal money was not used for financial aid, he said.

“I was increasingly frustrated that all we were was a referral hotline and there wasn’t aid out there,” he said. “So the foundation has been able to fill in some of those gaps.”

According to the Harvest of Hope foundation’s website, as of July 2011, the foundation has disseminated over $899,000 to seasonal and migrant farm workers and their families. However, Kellerman said the foundation, which functions independent of federal and corporate aid, has had its ups and downs.

“Like any other nonprofit, it’s always a struggle,” he said. “We never have enough funds.”

Lack of funds is a primary reason for the suspension of Harvest of Hope festivals in 2011 and 2012. After holding two festivals at the St. Johns County Fairgrounds in Elkton, Fla., Kellerman said another festival would require a boost in financial support.

“We would love to do another fest, we get asked that all the time,” he said. “But the reality is we need financial backing. We pay for car breakdowns, rent, utilities, funeral expenses. We’re really unique in that way. Most governmental agencies, they don’t like to deal with that—it’s a hassle. But that’s what the migrants need.”

Flagler College senior Lauren Ruotolo said she went to the 2009 Harvest of Hope Festival, but could not afford the second fest.

“It’s a really awesome cause,” Ruotolo, 21, said. “Farm workers are exploited and they work for minimum wage, sometimes less. They have no external support and it’s important to support those not given enough attention from the government and society in general.”

Chali 2na waits patiently before he hops on stage

Ruotolo said she first heard about Harvest of Hope through her friends at Flagler. She said in addition to being excited about camping and seeing live music, she was happy the money she spent went towards the foundation’s cause.

However, Randy Covington, who has written for Historic City News and Conservative Research Network, said he does not advocate many of the festivals handled by St. Johns County.

“Every [Harvest of Hope] festival lost money. They were money losers,” Covington, 56, said. “[St. Johns County] is not — and should not be — in the business of promoting entertainment. I object to the county dipping their toes into things they have no experience in. We can’t be buying into losing ventures because a small constituency might like it.”

In a series of articles published on Conservative Research Network, Covington — who said he has lived in St. Johns County for eight years and works as a technical manager for a custom windows company — described Harvest of Hope Festival as a “Cash for Punkers.”

“It was billed as a punk rock fest,” he said. “The county subsidized ticket sales through a Ticketmaster account, $18 for one year and $13 for the second year, I believe. Essentially, they subsidized personal entertainment.”

St. Johns County Commissioners Ron Sanchez and Ken Bryan did not return calls for comment.

However, Ruotolo said she thinks the festival supported local businesses.

“[The festivals] definitely helped out,” she said. “People were coming [to St. Augustine] from a distance. Local businesses were making profits at campgrounds and hotels. Artists might have sold [their work] at the festivals, because it’s a specialty niche that attracts artsy, music-loving people. I saw nothing but smiles when I was at the fest.”

Yet Covington said he does not believe the festivals generated revenue for the community. He said he cites the closing statements made by the county as evidence.

“These festivals took place 25 miles from business areas,” he said. “Nobody can quantify how this is beneficial, if these people were at the fest all day and all weekend. Putting six thousand kids at a campground for a weekend isn’t going to have an effect on local businesses.”

Jeff Sapp, the owner of Back 40 Urban Café, said his business vended at both Harvest of Hope Festivals. He said that while Back 40 “did great” during the first festival, his decision to return in 2010 was not beneficial.

“During the second one, I didn’t make a lot of money,” he said. “I know [St. Johns County] added more vendors. There weren’t enough people. I was definitely bummed when it was decided that they wouldn’t do a third one, but the county lost money on the whole deal. So I guess you have to look at it from a business perspective.”

Sapp said rainy weather and scheduling—the foundation booked the festival at the end of Spring Break—also contributed to the losses.

Kellerman agrees.

“If we had some of the same attendance [the second year], we would have made a lot of money,” he said.

After organizing smaller benefit concerts at Café Eleven and arranging a Dead Prez concert at The Present Moment Café, Kellerman said even though he has not left St. Augustine behind, the foundation now centers itself on traditional fundraising.

“The current powers that be, the political forces in St. Johns County, have not been receptive,” he said. “The political atmosphere is changing and people are questioning the revenue generated for the county. With all that going on, it’s not the right time to put on a third.”

However, Kellerman said the foundation is still moving forward.

“Some benefits work, some don’t,” he said. “Now, we’re trying to maximize our efforts and focus less on benefits. We’re doing more on eBay.”

Ruotolo said perseverance is key.

“If you keep knocking on one door and no one answers,” she said, “then go knock on another door.”

In addition to supporting over 50 different funds, which help specific migrants—including the Willie Harvey Fund in St. Johns County—Kellerman said the foundation is doing antique drives and selling political memorabilia via their eBay account, which is “free publicity” for nonprofits.

“We’re donating sewing machines and furniture,” he said. “We’ve collected sneakers, giving over 2,000 pairs to farm workers around the country who can’t afford footwear. These people are working in blueberry farms with split sneakers.”

Bobby Burk, one of two general managers of the Lloyd Clarke Sports Store in Gainesville, said placing a bin inside the locally operated store is an effortless responsibility.

“It’s easy, it’s like: ‘yes, we’ll take your shoes,'” he said. “Because we specialize in running shoes, runners burn through their shoes when they can still be used. Now, when customers see the bin, they walk in the door and they donate.”

He said the store also donates returns they can’t re-sell. Since beginning the drive six or eight months ago, at least a thousand shoes have been given to migrant farm workers from Lloyd Clarke, Burk said.

“I love anything that’s about helping people,” he said. “These are folks that need shoes and they have very little.”

Kellerman said Harvest of Hope is also doing a textbook drive, which accepts textbooks from 2009 to the present. He encourages students to participate in order to sustain a connection with the foundation without having to donate financially.

“[Migrant farm workers] earn our support because they do the farm work that most local citizens just will not do, ” Kellerman said. “And growers are dependent because they have short growing seasons. [Growers] need to have as much produce harvested as they can so they can make their living. This is our way of helping out.”

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