Caring for the world from Oro Valley: Global relief organization got its start in Oro Valley - Tucson Local Media: Import

Caring for the world from Oro Valley: Global relief organization got its start in Oro Valley

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Posted: Wednesday, March 9, 2005 12:00 am | Updated: 7:50 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

March 9, 2005 - In a year, more than one million pounds of relief supplies are distributed around the world through the efforts of Tucson-based World Care.

A half million books, thousands of computers, countless piles of clothes, boxes of food and more than 500 volunteers come through the organization's doors.

Orchestrating this elaborate operation is World Care founder, and Oro Valley resident, Lisa Hopper. Those who work with her call her the conductor.

World Care is, literally, Lisa Hopper's dream.

Hopper says she was lying in bed one night in 1994, in deep slumbers, when she dreamed of starting this organization, although she wasn't sure exactly what it was or what she should do about it.

In the 10 years since, World Care has gone from occupying a few boxes in Hopper's home to nearly outgrowing a large warehouse in Tucson.

It's gone from collecting a couple of pencils to distributing supplies that meet the basic needs of people in the area and throughout the world.

But the now successful and thriving nonprofit organization, which has won a heavy armful of awards, was born out of a series of failures and challenges.

Hopper is aware that telling people of her dreams about World Care could make some think she is certifiably crazy. When she first started having the dreams, she didn't share them with anyone, for just that reason. But she drew pictures of what came to her in the dreams, and she made notes about what she could remember. This was her way of trying to figure out what they meant.

With her other dreams, she would draw them, and then they would go away, as if putting it all down on paper was a way of her brain getting rid of it.

But the World Care dream persisted. At the time, Hopper was in the medical field and was one of the top radiologists in the profession. A Chicago native, she was working in Washington, D.C., but got an offer from the University of Arizona to come head the radiology department. She accepted.

She is not married and does not have any children or family in the area, so when she found herself alone in Tucson, she decided to join a local golf league to keep herself occupied in her off time.

While she loves golf, she said she kept feeling as if she should get involved with "something that had a little more meaning." It was around that time that she went on a work-related trip to Guatemala, to assess the medical needs of villagers there.

It was in one of those tiny, remote villages that she had "an epiphany" - it was there that World Care began.

"I realized that the people there needed education more than they need anything else," she said, after seeing the children with no books, papers, pencils or other tools needed to learn basic reading, writing and arithmetic.

When she got back to Tucson, she began collecting school supplies. She realized that in America, a place of abundance, she should be able to find the surplus and redirect it to people in need.

In her own field, she had seen things shipped off to landfills because of rules and regulations, even though the supplies where still perfectly usable. After doing some research, she found out these same practices existed in businesses and schools, and with individuals. She began asking for these things, to save them from going to waste.

During her first collection, she was able to provide 200 children with school supplies, all things that were "recycled" from other places. By this time, in 1995, she had moved into her beautiful home in Oro Valley, and began filling up the spaces in it with boxes, instead of knickknacks. Pencils in one box, notebooks in another, and so on, down her list of necessary supplies.

Over a casual breakfast with her golf buddies one morning, she and the women started talking about what they would do with their lives if they could do anything they wanted, without having to worry about money, family obligations or other obstacles.

Hopper said she would "like to help some kids." She shared with her girlfriends her experience helping the children in Guatemala and said she was sure there were kids in Tucson that could use the same help.

Suddenly, she was "given all kinds of little helping hands" from her friends, who had varying areas of expertise. One friend, for example, had experience setting up nonprofit organizations, and offered to help Hopper set up her own.

At the time, Hopper was still in medicine and said she "could afford to pay for things" to get the organization started. In 1996, the World Care corporation was formed.

The idea for World Care, and the philosophy behind it, may have been born in Guatemala, but the physical operation of actually collecting, sorting and packing supplies got its start in Oro Valley.

Before Hopper knew it, her garage had become the organization's first warehouse. Oro Valley kids and parents who heard about what she was doing would overtake her home on many days, busily helping to ready supplies - erasers, books, pencils, rulers - anything that could help a child learn.

To this new conductor, things seemed to finally be in sync. Then in 1997, UA downsized and Hopper found herself suddenly out of a job. While she didn't quite see it then, she realizes now that was another sign pointing her in the direction of what her life's work should be.

"My life was in medicine," Hopper said in retrospect. "But the dream would not go away."

She remembers those days as "dark times," a series of obstacles in her personal and professional life that took a toll on her. It was during those days that she began to look at the excess in her own life.

Going from the salary of a director to making nothing and still owing her mortgage, she began to cut out things that weren't necessary. She started eating a lot of cheesy noodles. She also cashed in her money market accounts and retirement funds. She got rid of cable television and started washing her own car. Wherever she thought she could cut corners, she did.

But money was running out regardless of how carefully she was spending it.

She got a second job with a local medical company managing projects, but just when it looked like that might work out for her, the company was sold, and she again found herself without a steady source of income.

She remembers driving home on Ina Road that day, when all the signs and dreams she had been having about World Care finally hit her. She said out loud to herself, "This is what I'm supposed to do."

And while she seemed more sure of the path she should be taking, the elements involved in being successful at her endeavor needed to be tuned.

For her first collection of school supplies, Hopper arranged to put up a table at the El Con Mall on a Saturday and Sunday. She would sit at the table from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. both days, asking passersby to contribute.

In her 24 hours, she remembers, she collected exactly one binder, two notebooks, and 10 pencils.

"I was in tears. I was literally talking to God," she said. "I said, 'You know, I left a perfectly good career, this is just not going to work.'"

But in her heart, she knew she was meant to carry out this work, and she stayed with it. In 1998, World Care started to take off.

A local newspaper got word of her efforts and wrote a story about what she was trying to do. Volunteers were showing up in numbers to her home to help, and she had even convinced some corporations to donate supplies. Then, an international crisis tested how ready she really was.

Hurricane Mitch had devastated Honduras, and charitable groups in the U.S. had started gathering relief supplies.

Hopper was contacted by a group of pastors from local churches who said they had read about her in the newspaper and wanted her to help them. They had some clothes gathered that they wanted to donate, but did not know how to get them organized, packaged and on their way. Could Hopper help?

She had some international contacts from her days in medicine and wanted to be of service, so she agreed to meet the pastors at a location on Wilmot. When she arrived, she found a 17,000-square-foot warehouse stacked nearly to the ceiling with clothes.

Hopper said she would take the reins, but would have to move her operation down to the warehouse as well, to continue the school supplies program, which had been officially named Tools for Schools.

She got to work and ended up sending seven different shipments to Honduras. She also made the warehouse, at 320 N. Wilmot Road, the new World Care home. The operation has continued to grow ever since.

Today, World Care collects 5,000 different types of supplies each year, and distributes them, first locally, then nationally and finally internationally.

Of all the money and supplies that come through the door, only 1.8 percent goes toward funding administration.

Every other penny goes toward one of the four "Tools" programs that have been developed: Tools for Schools, Tools for Emergency Relief, Tools for Health and Tools for Earth.

World Care also runs a "free loaner" program, which provides wheelchairs, crutches, walkers and other medical equipment for anyone with an immediate need.

All of these programs are headquartered at the Wilmot Road warehouse, a massive building bulging with boxes of supplies. The thrift store there is open to the public each day for those who want to shop or volunteer.

Irene Thomas, an Oro Valley resident, learned of World Care and its need for volunteers through her women's club at church. She wanted to help, and has been making the trip downtown from her Rancho Vistoso home ever since, sorting through mounds of needles, bandages and other medical supplies to get them ready to be distributed around the world.

"Once you get started, you don't want to stop," she said, from the shadows of a narrow aisle of stacked boxes in the World Care warehouse.

"I could go all night, there's just so much to do."

There is much to do, and Hopper and the other World Care coordinators hate to turn away a volunteer, even though they are now getting nearly 500 individuals willing to help at their doorstep each year.

There is always something for someone to do at World Care, from dusting shelves and folding clothes to answering phones and unloading deliveries.

Volunteer Maria Williams helps keep everyone busy. She shows up at World Care every morning "usually before the boss even gets here" to work in World Care's thrift shop. Donated items that can't be shipped elsewhere, such as old furniture or jewelry, are sold at the store, and the proceeds go toward buying supplies.

Williams, who takes two busses across town to get to the warehouse each morning, sees her job as one of making money for the organization, and it's a job she takes very seriously.

"I love donations," she said, in her thick Slovakian accent. "And I want to see everything sell because someone always benefits from it. Nothing ever goes to waste."

The 81-year-old has volunteered at many area organizations, but plans to stay with World Care because she said the mission is important to her and "the people are all so nice."

Hopper and her volunteers no longer need to solicit donations, people generally just come to the warehouse with truck loads of stuff. Once there, everything gets unpacked, sorted and repacked. The cardboard boxes, labeled with their destinations, form tall corridors inside the warehouse.

Hopper has had to answer some tough questions about the work she does from critics who ask why people should be provided with these things for free. But Hopper believes that people should never be deprived of basic needs, no matter what their situation, and does not ask many questions about why someone is in need.

"We try not to pass judgment here," she said.

If she can help to meet those needs and, at the same time, can continue to educate people, she believes most people will be somehow changed by that experience.

"If you need a walker to walk, you should get a walker," Hopper said. "It's really a problem of distribution. Why aren't people getting what they need? If the system is broken, we need to fix it."

World Care exists to help those who want to be helped, Hopper said. She refuses to be the type of organization that goes into a situation with "arrogance" and pushes aid on people in hopes of getting something back for herself.

While 80 percent of the supplies collected stay in Tucson, helping those in need within the community, World Care also has become what Hopper modestly calls a mid-sized player in the international humanitarian effort.

The organization has provided emergency relief in many crisis situations, including helping during the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the recent tsunami in Southeast Asia, for which World Care has already collected more than $250,000 in supplies and donations.

Hopper has gone to Sri Lanka to assess the situation there, and said the organization will continue to aid the people of those countries affected by the disaster as long as there is a need.

Oro Valley Vice Mayor Barry Gillaspie, who joined the World Care board of directors this year, recently recognized the organization at a council meeting for helping with the local tsunami relief effort.

The town has teamed with World Care, providing a Northwest drop-off site for supplies and monetary donations. Gillaspie said he has been impressed with the enormity of the organization and with the variety of needs it strives to meet.

And, he said, Hopper, who quietly runs things behind the scenes, deserves recognition for the work she is doing for the area and in the world.

While Hopper doesn't hide her accolades - plaques and awards paper her office walls - she doesn't tout any of it all as a personal success.

"World Care is not mine, although it is my life," she said.

Hopper considers herself a fast mover, a quick assessor and a skilled organizer, and she said that is why World Care has been able to help when others could not. Still, for all its success and recognition, Hopper will not stop plowing ahead.

"I'm afraid to stop and relax," she said. "I know it can be taken away. Humility is always right there."

© 2014 Tucson Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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