Western Albemarle High School senior Nicole Muller’s Neighbors-4-Neighbors food drive campaign has been chosen as one of 10 Make a Difference Day superlatives by USA Weekend magazine, which will feature her in a mid-April spread on individuals across America whose personal initiative has made a tangible difference in other people’s lives. So far the drive has resulted in more than 120,000 pounds of food being donated to food banks across all 50 states. Being selected for the honor includes a $10,000 check, which Muller is donating to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.
It all began with a modest campaign among her dozen neighbors in the Owensville section of Ivy. “I read an article about a deficiency in the [Blue Ridge Area] food bank, so I started a food drive in my neighborhood,” said Muller, who seems rather bashful and is reluctant to talk about her part in an idea that, as one family friend characterized it, has “gone viral.”
“I sent out an email asking for nonperishable food. Everyone did it.” She collected 200 pounds, she recalled.
“Because it was a success, I decided to keep going. So I sent an email to family and friends and they donated, too. People are very willing.
“And then The Daily Progress heard about it. After an article came out, I got a lot more donations.”
Next Muller approached local schools. “We got barrels placed in schools and every month the food bank picks those up. In the month of March, which was a food drive month, we had 16 schools participating. The schools have had drives because I am younger and I can get people to support me.” When they donate they can credit Neighbors-4-Neighbors with inspiring them and that helps promote her campaign. “I have friends in other states so I emailed them and I wrote to governors’ offices,” she said. Her big break came when a national food bank association’s newsletter carried a story about her. “Then people started to donate in my name,” she explained. She has also approached Girl Scout troops about sponsoring drives.
All this is managed out of her bedroom with a computer. “I spend a few hours a week keeping up with emails and monitoring drives. It sort of took off and gained a life of its own. I think it’s awesome and I’m really glad people are willing to donate. Especially in times like this. People are going to food banks who didn’t have to before the recession.”
Muller is headed to U.Va. next fall. “My idea about a major changes every day, but right now it’s business. I like business and organizing things.” One of her college application essays told the story of her food campaign.
“I’m going to keep running Neighbors-4-Neighbors. I’m staying close to home. My job is to make sure schools and fitness clubs participate because they bring in a lot of food.”
USA Weekend selected Muller after she was nominated on their 2010 Make A Difference Day project “Dayta-Bank.” Neighbors-4-Neighbors survived preliminary judging of thousands of nominations and was short-listed for further review. Reporter Tom Lent interviewed Muller and investigated the statistics about the program’s success through food banks across America.
“I thought I had lost my chance after the interview,” she said. “It was intense. He questioned me like crazy and he wanted a lot of numbers that I didn’t know exactly.”
Lent found that the claims were valid and, after final round of judging, Neighbors-4-Neighbors was chosen for the top 10, partly because it had been achieved by a teenager.
Muller will go to Washington, D.C., April 14 for a recognition luncheon for the 10 award winners. There she will meet Darius Rucker, lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, who will be the speaker. “I don’t know who they are,” Muller admitted.
“I’ve learned the rewards of donating and that you can get people to help if you ask,” she said. “I make sure I know about food issues now. When you start something like this you really get into it.”
Muller advises those who want to contribute to the cause to donate money to the food bank through the donation page of their website, www.brafb.org. “It’s better to donate money because the food bank can get deals on food.” The food bank can provide a meal for 25 cents, so Muller is proud that the donation of her $10,000 check means 40,000 meals can come from it.
“By virtue of the numbers of pounds she’s raised, Nicole Muller is unique and very committed,” said Blue Ridge Area Food Bank CEO Larry Zippin. “The school drive she organized raised 13,000 pounds. That’s significant. She’s done a spectacular job of raising awareness and an enormous amount of food has been raised through her efforts.”
Muller’s first goal was to collect 1,000 pounds of food. Now her near-term target is 150,000 pounds, and it’s clear 200,000 pounds is not a distant horizon to her.