You’ve probably heard the ads on the radio for veteran employment initiatives. There is a real drive to find a place for our servicemen and women in the workforce as they return from tours of duty in the Middle East.
A growing number of them aren’t just entering the workforce, however—they’re building it.
When J. Holden Gibbons came back from Afghanistan, he returned with a newfound sense of purpose for making the world a better place. In Cleveland, he started a new organization called Veterans Combating Child Hunger, “an initiative which utilizes volunteer labor to sustainably farm vacant and delinquent land for the purpose of engaging more stakeholders in the community, reducing government budget waste, reducing society’s carbon footprint as it relates to food supply, and reducing government food subsidy reliance by replacing it, slowly, with locally scaled, owned, operated and sourced food.”
We had a chance to talk with Gibbons about the unique work he’s doing.
Dustin Clendenen: What sparked the idea for creating this farming initiative, and why have you carried it out the way you have?
J. Holden Gibbons: As Steve Jobs said at the 2005 Stanford Commencement address, it is much easier to connect the dots looking back. I can now see that being raised in a family that valued humanity has been the foundation for much of my work. While serving in Afghanistan, I saw abject poverty at every turn, especially on the faces of children, and was moved to do something about it. I was frustrated by the fact that the soil and climate simply could not support any agriculture. The land had exceeded its ‘carrying capacity.’ The 2007-08 financial crisis had ravaged my hometown of Cleveland, and led to many vacant lots sitting idle in the inner city. This land availability combined with the desire to utilize it to feed those in need the most, was the basis for Veterans Combating Child Hunger (VCCH).
DC: Why did you decide to focus your efforts on the issue of childhood hunger?
JHG: I chose to focus on child hunger because of my own personal feelings about the matter, and also knowing that the mission statement, if well branded, had the capacity to attract reinforcements to the cause. Veterans often try to fulfill an archetype of an aloof and intimidating individual. The image of the disengaged and war-tired vet was one that we wanted to combat for society’s sake as well as for veterans trying to reintegrate into society. I felt, deep down, that the guys and gals I served with, and others like them that have already self-selected to serve, would jump at the chance to view war and combat as something that could create, sustain and protect life, as opposed to some other experiences we may have had.
DC: Were you surprised by the volunteer response you got?
JHG: I was surprised at how much people wanted to help, but at the same time I underestimated the planning and structure that was needed to successfully utilize volunteer effort while also providing a fun experience that would engender repeat volunteering. I think that as we focus on the core experience and making sure that there is a reciprocal relationship of adding value, we will have no problem attracting and retaining volunteers. The cites of Euclid and Cleveland have been excellent suppliers of community-minded individuals.
DC: What has been the biggest challenge to overcome for Veterans Combating Childhood Hunger?
JHG: Learning to farm from scratch was difficult, but with the help of the Ohio State Agricultural Extension, it has been more than manageable. Likewise, deficient rainfall the past two years has made life difficult since we must water the plots with 55-gallon drums during droughts. But I think the single hardest part was trying to convince many different stakeholders that this was a project worth supporting. To that end, I knew I needed to further my knowledge of business, so I enrolled in Harvard Business School’s HBX CORe program. CORe gave me the fundamental competency in business and accounting that was pivotal in my own operations, in addition to the ability to prove the impact on the bottom lines of the cities VCCH operates in. I think it’s important to identify and develop any skills you may be lacking when starting and growing a business from the ground up.