Amazing Kids! Magazine

Amazing Mentor Spotlight Interview with Dr. Carol Weyland Conner

By Ashley Lin, Nonfiction Editor and Adult Spotlight Interviewer

 

In just three years, the White Pony Express has rescued and delivered more than 4.5 million pounds of fresh and nutritious food. The Free General Store has distributed an estimated 265,000 articles of clothing, 94,000 toys and children’s books, and 25,000 diapers. When two homeless men died from the winter cold, Dr. Conner went to the funeral service and decided to do something so that tragedy didn’t happen again. She launched a project whose volunteers have gone out and given the homeless about 10,000 items of warm clothing. White Pony Inn offers multiple services for those on the verge of homelessness, from getting public assistance to mental health support, shelter, and food. Meanwhile, Francis in the Schools is a vibrant program hosting free and fun-filled educational outings for inner-city children.

When I first heard about Dr. Carol Weyland Conner, I couldn’t believe how much she’d done! Not only has Dr. Conner started all these nonprofits of sharing abundance, she’s managed to balance many other passions and beliefs, including being the spiritual director of Sufism Reoriented and a grandmother of five. Hopefully, Dr. Connor can share with us what it takes to give back to the community while improving aspects of ourselves (balancing our academic and personal goals) throughout the process.

Dr. Carol Weyland Conner has developed her programs with an overarching mission: to enable those who have more to easily give to those with less, so every person can share in the happiness and thrive in the abundance of life. How many times have you heard the quote “sharing is caring”? Have you ever thought for a second about what it really means? Whether you’re sharing money, your time, or even just a smile, it can turn someone’s day right side up. I make it a goal to share something, no matter how small, with someone else every single day.

Whom will you share something with today? Let’s hear more from Dr. Carol Weyland Conner and see if she has any advice for us on how kids can help build up others and make a difference in others’ lives. Share the love, everyone!

Amazing Kids (AK): Can you please describe your background and how you initially got involved in charity work?

Dr. Carol Weyland Conner (CC): I have always been interested in finding ways to help children and people in need. Because I have long had a love for America’s cities, I volunteered with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in San Francisco, where I witnessed the impact of poverty, alienation, and neglect on children living there. I wanted to do something to help them and help other people less fortunate than I. In 2001, I succeeded my spiritual teacher as the head of Sufism Reoriented, an American spiritual order created by Avatar Meher Baba. The community service programs I have created emerge from the understandings that have come to me in my role as a spiritual teacher. One understanding is that opulence and poverty, literacy and illiteracy, jealousy and hatred, which are in evidence today in their full measure, can and will be dissolved through the feelings of the oneness of all. Another understanding is that the problem of hunger afflicts many on earth. However, change for the better is coming, and just recently, the French government passed a law requiring that markets give away, rather than throw away, all their good surplus food. Finally, for real spiritual work to be done, we must serve transparently—that is, without a sense of “What a good person I am for doing this.” Instead, when we feel it is a great privilege to help others, we are approaching true selfless service.

AK: Briefly describe the programs you have created: White Pony Express Food Rescue, Free General Store, and Francis in the Schools.

CC: White Pony Express Food Rescue: I created White Pony Express Food Rescue to become the connecting link between this surplus and those who need it most. We found that when people hear about the program, they understand it instantly, and they want to help. Every day, seven days a week, volunteers go to supermarkets, farmers’ markets, etc., and pick up their surplus food: fresh fruits, nutritious vegetables, milk, eggs, bread, meat, and cheese, even flowers. Then, they deliver this miraculous bounty free to nonprofit groups like shelters and recovery centers that feed the poor and hungry. Today WPE Food Rescue volunteers gather over 4,000 pounds of food every day. Then they deliver it free to over 50 organizations. The program has 400 dedicated volunteers and a small fleet of refrigerated trucks and vans, several donated. It is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Since WPE Food Rescue started in 2013, it has rescued close to 4.5 million pounds of good food.

Free General Store: Like WPE Food Rescue, this program also gathers and redistributes surplus abundance—in this case, high-quality new and lightly used clothing and children’s toys, books, and games. When I realized that poor and homeless people don’t have the means to travel to us, we decided to take these items directly to them. Dedicated volunteers transport thousands of these items to a poor neighborhood where they set up an inviting “Mobile Boutique,” where people can “shop” for the items they need—all for free. To help these “guests” feel like they are in a real store, our volunteers arrange and categorize the clothing neatly on racks. Volunteers become “wardrobe consultants” to help guests find outfits for job interviews, church, and school meetings. Since its founding in 2014, the Free General Store has staged 43 Mobile Boutiques. It has given away 265,000 items of new or like-new clothing; 94,000 children’s books, games, and toys; and 25,000 diapers. Divine unity exists beneath the surface of all life, and I do not want us to treat others less than ourselves. My guideline for selecting items to give away has been to ask ourselves, “Is the quality of this item good enough that we would have it in our own homes and give it to our own children?” If so, we will take it and offer it. If not, we will not.

Dr. Conner supervises the Free General Store’s Mobile Boutique in San Pablo while it gives away thousands of articles of clothing, toys, children’s books, and games along with a huge amount of free groceries.

Francis in the Schools: Children growing up in underprivileged inner-city neighborhoods are surrounded by poverty, crime, and neglect. In 2011 I created the Francis in the Schools to be a day-long, free outing for 350-1,400 children to give them the experience of figures whose lives exemplify noble values. The day begins with free transportation to the event. Then children attend a high-quality original musical theater production that powerfully dramatizes universal human values being acted out. When children see these values dramatized, they recognize and understand these qualities and begin internalizing them. Next, the children are escorted to a unique Faire, designed with activities to inspire and delight them. Volunteers do everything possible to make them feel happy and valued, thus reinforcing the inspiring qualities depicted in the play. The day is intended to help the children feel respected, appreciated, and loved, to build their self-esteem and confidence. We try hard to nurture feelings of kindness, courage, and self-worth and encourage them to embrace universal noble values to strengthen their character and bring them happier lives. Since the program was founded in 2011, it has served 12,000 children. Most of these events have been presented in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we have also put on programs in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and New York City.

Two young ladies receive gifts from Dr. Conner at the Faire staged on the grounds of George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

AK: What are your goals for these programs in the next two years?

CC: White Pony Express Food Rescue program is planning to prioritize schools in poor

neighborhoods, so it can set up food pantries like it did at an elementary school in San Pablo. The goal is to help ensure children from disadvantaged families have the nutrition they need to learn well. Food Rescue also hopes to create capacity for more donations and deliveries. Free General Store will embark on distributing free “developmental toys” to young children in underserved areas. These active toys spark imagination and creativity in young children, advance their academic learning, strengthen motor skills, develop spatial awareness, etc. Francis in the Schools will expand its services to children living in the poorest neighborhoods of the San Francisco Bay Area by bringing the program to our home county, Contra Costa County. The program seeks to increase its volunteer fundraising team with the goal of enlisting additional major donors and diversifying its fundraising efforts. Over the next two years, the team also plans to improve its process for making and communicating operational decisions. White Pony Inn is becoming more integrated with Contra Costa County’s Continuum of Care. White Pony Inn is exploring the possibility of opening full-service centers for homeless people. The Inn would provide showers, laundry, lockers, meals, mailboxes, a reading room with Internet access, a warming center for 12 hours a day, evening films, help with finding shelter, and help with learning how to live effectively in this shelter.

AK: How did you come up with the ideas to start these programs?

CC: None of these programs have come about because of any deliberate planning on my part.

In every case, a door opened, and I simply walked through without any knowledge of where this might lead. But in every case, they have brought new opportunities to share divine love with others. I began White Pony Express Food Rescue and Free General Store when I became aware of the disconnect between the abundance all around us and the unfilled needs of our marginalized neighbors. Finding a way to bridge that gap was compelling. I feel the idea of Francis in the Schools came to me because of my concern for the effect on children of growing up in cities marked by unemployment, poverty, deportation, drugs, and crime. Too, I had long been inspired by Francis of Assisi’s example of selfless service to all humanity, especially those on the margins of society. The White Pony Inn came about from my research into the causes of homelessness. I became convinced that in many cases homelessness could be avoided if those sliding down that slope were given assistance in time to regain control of their lives. So, I created White Pony Inn for that purpose.

AK: All of your programs are impressively intricate and organized, especially the White Pony Express. How did you initially start the programs, and how have they changed?

CC: To launch each of these programs required putting together a small team of dedicated people

who would collaborate to first understand the human need and then get the programs started. I’ll comment on the three largest programs:

White Pony Express Food Rescue: We began the Food Rescue program on a budget of just $800. We printed business cards and then went out and talked directly with managers of supermarkets and shelters for the homeless. Offers of food began pouring in from places like Whole Foods Market, Sprouts, The Cheesecake Factory, Trader Joe’s, farmers’ markets, and other local businesses to regularly give their excess inventory. My own students volunteered to staff the program. In the beginning, many used their own vehicles and gas money to pick up and deliver the food. I arranged for Sufism Reoriented to provide free space for warehouse needs and to pay larger bills. Anonymous donors provided funds for a used refrigerated box van and two refrigerated cargo vans. Other volunteers joined—retirees, faith-based service and youth groups, corporate volunteers, and more. We caught the attention of organizations like Rotary, and when we became a registered nonprofit group, they offered donations to help fund the work. White Pony Express is now larger and more permanent, hiring several employees, although the senior management team and most of the staff remain volunteers.

Free General Store: We began the store in the same way as we did WPE Food Rescue—by going out and talking to people who were key to making it work. When we approached merchants, many recognized that this program is based on the principle of the unity of all life. They liked the idea that this work is not charity but an effort to uplift lives and bring those living on the margins into society’s mainstream. Many businesspeople found this idea fresh, stimulating, and even mold-breaking. In their kindness, they opened the door to their inventories, and that gave us the bulk of the clothing, toys, books, and games we needed to start the program. Along with Food Rescue, Free General Store has moved into a large building that now serves as its distribution center. It is now well-known and highly respected, and its events continually draw coverage on local television news broadcasts.

Francis in the Schools: I set aside some personal funds to create the first program, and then I put together a small team of dedicated people who engaged others as volunteers. The rector of the National Shrine of Saint Francis in San Francisco agreed to let us put on the stage performance in the Shrine. Volunteers prepared a musical play about Francis of Assisi and created activities for a festive outdoor Umbrian Renaissance-style Faire for children. The city’s Park Department gave us permission to stage the Faire in Washington Square Park. Our team then contacted schools and community centers in San Francisco’s more disadvantaged neighborhoods and invited them to attend this free event. We arranged free bus transportation for the children and their chaperones. Businesses were approached for donations of food, flowers, supplies, and matching grants, and they responded generously. Our first program was held in May 2011 for about 350 children. In the two years that followed, nearly a dozen more Francis in the Schools events were offered at the National Shrine. By late 2013, the program had grown in capacity, and we were able to welcome 1,400 children at a venue in Oakland. In 2014 Francis in the Schools received invitations to bring the program to the East Coast. A team of more than 100 volunteers responded by driving and flying across the country to bring the program to inner-city schoolchildren in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Later, in conjunction with Pope Francis’s visit, we offered the program for children in New York City. In 2016 Francis in the Schools became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation so that all donations made to it are now tax-deductible.

A happy moment in South San Francisco for two Faire guests and Murshida Conner as they share an embrace.

A face-painted, wheelchair-bound boy receives a farewell gift at the Oakland Faire.

AK: What is the most memorable moment you’ve had with someone your programs serviced? How has it impacted your life?

CC: The lightness and sweetness of the guests, their smiling faces, their joy and pleasure and

gratitude—it is so touching that increasingly I find words are useless to describe the essential qualities of these events. Below are a few of the beautiful and charming comments children have written me after attending a Francis in the Schools event:

  • “It was the most wonderful day of my life.”
  • “Now I know what it’s like to spend one day in Heaven.”
  • “Thank you for being nice to me. Thank you for doing the best you can for me.”
  • “I learned you don’t need to be rich. You need love and kindness to all people.”
  • “I can use what I learned to become a better person.”
  • “From the play about Saint Francis, I learned to never be afraid of anything.”
  • “I will apply what I learned into my life by being nicer, to get over my fears, and help other people. Also, I can help teach little kids about Saint Francis so they can do marvelous things just like him.”
  • “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’ll never forget it!”

This emboldens me to continue on.

AK: Your programs have a wide scope of people they reach. Francis in the Schools reaches kids from San Francisco to New York City. White Pony Express is largely a volunteer organization. How do you get people everywhere engaged?

CC: It starts with involving people who really believe in what we are doing. When people

“try out” volunteering, they are deeply touched when they meet the people these programs serve, learn their needs, and feel their gratitude. Program leaders speak before local service organizations, and that has brought us both new volunteers and donations. We have created websites and videos, so people can see what we do and learn more. It is important to know that not just your friends or those in your age group will be interested in volunteering. Our volunteers range in age from 8 to 85, including students, retirees, the unemployed, and professionals from Rotary Clubs, youth groups, and corporations. There are Catholics, Mormons, Baha’is, Hindus, and those whose religion is simply “to do good.” We look for volunteers who will understand that the love they convey is as important as the food and clothing they deliver.

AK: What advice would you give to youth today who want to start a charitable program?

CC: Starting such a program must begin within one’s self. Whom do you want to serve, and

why? If the answer is a genuine desire to help others, that’s a promising start. Then ask yourself, “How strong is my passion to make my program succeed?” It will take a deep commitment to overcome those obstacles you will surely face. Then go out and talk to the people you want to help. Get very clear on their needs and the most practical way to fill them. From that point on, try to practice the motto of Father Junípero Serra: “Siempre adelante, nunca atras.” Or, “Always forward, never back.”

AK: Who has been a mentor or a confidante to you throughout your life and experience with these service programs?

CC: I know that every inspiration I have comes from Beloved God, and everything I do flows

from wanting to please Him. I am continually inspired by Meher Baba’s love and the example of his perfect attunement with God and his selfless service to all. Baba created an array of service projects in rural India, including a free hospital and dispensary, shelters for the poor, asylums for lepers and the mentally ill, and free schools for boys and girls where spiritual training was integrated with practical education. He demonstrated the principles of selfless service by actively participating in every aspect of the work; he washed the clothes of the children and the lepers, and he cheerfully cleaned the latrines. No job was more—or less—important than any other. I have also been blessed to be mentored by my shining predecessors, Murshida Ivy Duce and Murshid James MacKie. Their remarkable qualities and divine example are with me every moment as I carry forward what they have entrusted to me.

Thank you so much, Dr. Conner, for sharing your story of starting multiple charitable organizations with us today. Your kind heart and charitable actions have inspired a genuine desire in me to help others, and I know our readers will be inspired, too!

7 comments

  1. Alice Travis /

    What an inspiring article. I have always thought that volunteerism is the way we will solve social problems in our communities. And here is a jaw-dropping example of how it can work. Thanks for featuring this program and Dr. Conner. Big or small, doing something useful for others makes a difference.

  2. Heather Osborne /

    This is a lovely rich and full article. Thank you so much for highlighting this inspiring story!

  3. Raleigh /

    It’s so nice to see people taking time out of their busy lives to help other people. And it’s really so easy! Simply by sharing a little bit of extra from what they already have, and my collaborating and working together, they do so much good for so many people who need it! Bravo.

  4. Susie Kohl /

    As a preschool director and life-long student of what motivates and inspires children, to want to contribute to the world, I am grateful for this article and for the wonderful programs that bring loving support to so many.

  5. Ellis Pines /

    What’s even more amazing is that Dr. Connor’s projects elicit voluntary donors and workers rather than depend on government. In that sense, they bear a stamp of freedom for all that give and receive. It’s not a regimented drudgery, but an intense interest in the well-being of our fellow members of the community. Rather than a compulsory redictribution of abundance, it’s a heartfelt sense that you want your “marginalized neighbor” to enjoythe same good food from Whole Foods Market that you do. And you’re empowering those friends to move forward.

  6. Duncan Knowles /

    Wow! This is a really insightful and helpful interview. And what amazing things Dr. Conner has accomplished. The interview is filled with Dr. Conner’s wisdom and practical advice, and she offers an intriguing model for helping less fortunate people. If we live in communities with surplus food and clothing, she encourages us to gather that up and provide it free to those who really need it, not as charity, but to help draw these people closer into the “mainstream”. And to look for volunteers who understand that “the love they convey is as important as the food and clothing they deliver.” Thank you, Ashley Lin. Well done.

  7. Thea Montandon /

    Dear Ashley Lin, Thank you so much for this stunning story that illustrates just what can be done to help our neighbors. It is most impressive that it’s all done without condescending or belittling people for not having enough to manage. Thank you again, and thank you Dr. Conner and all her volunteers.

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