Azar Nafisi once wrote, “A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.” The same could be said of great journalism, especially the kind of storytelling that springs from a place of empathy. The Hope Fund, a program that blends three organizations together to bring the narratives of those in need to the broader community, deals in those “complexities of life” that can lead to difficult times.
During the holiday season, the Florida Times-Union and University of North Florida (UNF) work with HandsOn Jacksonville to showcase several local families and individuals in need of help. HandsOn Jacksonville identifies the cases, UNF journalism students select and write the stories, and the Florida Times-Union publishes them. Since 1994, the Hope Fund has been collecting donations from readers to help Northeast Florida residents with necessities such as clothing, utilities and food.
The idea is to inspire altruism in readers through the stories of people who are in need. According to Journalism Professor Paula Horvath, the stories “connect readers with a real person with a name, and oftentimes they find aspects of themselves in these stories. They can step into their shoes.” Her applied journalism students are charged with interviewing, writing and editing the stories.
Hope Fund recipient Harold Florence (right) plays a piano while it is still on the truck as Bruce Carter looks on. Carter and Dave Tuttle of Presbyterian Social Ministries delivered the donated piano to Florence.
Debbie Carter of Presbyterian Social Ministries hugs Hope Fund recipient Harold Florence after his newly donated piano was delivered at his apartment.
Harold Florence grew up in Jacksonville. He was a promising musician, whose career was cut short due to his struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction. He found his path to sobriety, but missed the music that once filled his life. This portrait by Will Dickey and his story by Brianna Sigman published in the the Florida Times-Union led to someone gifting him a piano and other instruments.
Horvath brought the idea to Jacksonville over two decades ago after doing something similar when she was a reporter and editor for the Gainesville Sun. “Twenty-two years ago, I noticed that there was no such thing at the Florida Times-Union and UNF,” she says. “I’ve always been a big proponent of a person’s need to become involved in the community.” She says that this writing assignment gives her students in the department of communications exposure to people they may never have come into contact with before. “It’s incredibly eye-opening for them.”
It’s also a great way for those in need to see that they are not alone. “The use of storytelling like this is a great way to connect these people to the community,” says Horvath. For example, last year, a man who had struggled with addiction for many years came to Presbyterian Social Ministries seeking help, and HandsOn Jacksonville connected him to the Hope Fund. University of North Florida’s Brianna Sigman wrote the story: Harold Florence, age 60, had been a promising young musician but lost his way during his college years and fell into addiction. When he was featured in Sigman’s story, he had been sober for a year, but he was missing one thing in his life: his music. Readers helped him re-connect to his passion by donating instruments. Horvath recalls, “when they delivered the piano to his house, he jumped up on the truck and started playing it before they even had a chance to unload it!”
University of North Florida Journalism professor Paula Horvath instructs the senior class that will be writing the 2016 wave of Hope Fund articles.
Florence’s story is one that stands out for Hope Fund Photographer Will Dickey: “It was special because I have a music background myself, so we had something in common. The cool thing about the story is that we ran it a few days before Christmas, and on the first or second day of January, someone donated a trumpet, and somebody else donated a piano.” During a follow-up story, he captured a touching photo of Debby Carter from Presbyterian Social Ministries hugging Florence while he was playing the piano for the first time in his home.
Will recalls another story when, through the Hope Fund, someone paid for a contractor to create an accessible bathroom for a wheelchair-bound client.
“This is one of the best charities that I’ve been involved in,” Dickey says. He’s been helping with the photos from day one, but this is the 10th year that he’s been the primary photographer. “I enjoy meeting the people; I always like to sit through the interview, so I know what to capture.” My goal is to take a portrait of them that is flattering and respectful. I don’t want to take a picture where readers will feel sorry for them.”
According to HandsOn Jacksonville CEO and President LeAnn Daddario, “Telling stories really connects the heart and the head to people’s plights.”
But what is even more compelling, she says, is that, “those folks are just like you and I, where at one point they had regular jobs, families, responsibilities, but then they had a major life hiccup: a divorce, a disease, a chronic illness of a parent or a child, which made them one paycheck away from hardship.” Telling one’s story can help us see how similar we are to one another.
This model of giving works well, especially when the journalism is top-notch. “I think that the best student journalists are the ones who capture the heart and the essence of the client that they are writing about,” says Daddario. “The more descriptive they can be, the more they can connect the emotion and tell the story to the audience. They can humanize it … to a point where readers can’t walk away from it.”
University of North Florida students that are writing stories for the upcoming Hope Fund series.
Stories about individuals in need seem to allow us to connect intimately with strangers, and these connections can lead to action. A positive series like this, among so much negativity in the media, is refreshing for readers and motivates them to make an impact. “They want to see people rebounding from difficult circumstances,” Daddario explains. “It’s giving hope to those clients and those agencies.” The stories tap into a spirit of generosity; readers can remember a time that they were helped, and they want to pay it forward. “Storytelling is the vehicle that does that,” Daddario adds. “If you didn’t have storytelling you would not be able to make the connection.”
Horvath explains how the process works: “Each of the nonprofits gives names of three of their clients who have basic needs that have fallen through the cracks. I review them first and then allow the students to make the final choice.” The stories appear in the Florida Times-Union between Thanksgiving and Christmas including instructions about how the readers can donate, and 100 percent of donations go directly to the agencies. Daddario says that this process maintains the integrity of the contributions; it’s a zero net gain for all organizations involved.
Horvath urges students to write in a way that inspires hope and generosity in the reader, and she asks them to be respectful of their interviewees. “One of the things I tell them is to approach their meetings as a personal conversation.” The process begins by creating a fairly intimate relationship between student and client, she explains. “I tell them it’s perfectly fine to empathize and to cry.” For the students, this experience can be life-changing, and for the client, the fact that someone cares enough to create a carefully-crafted narrative must be incredibly touching as well. And of course, having total strangers give you money to pay your mortgage or put groceries on the table shows clients that someone in the community really does care. Daddario says: “Hope is a really powerful thing for people.”
Will Dickey has been photographing portraits for Hope Fund for over two-decades.
Brightening the Lives of Our Neighbors
The first Hope Fund story will run on Thanksgiving Day, November 24 in the Florida Times-Union.
To donate go to hopefund.org