Awesome Tampa Bay: Grow Food Buying Club

It starts with an idea. A public art project you've been eager to do for years. An event to bring your community together. A quirky exercise in creativity. But funding it seems impossible. Until now, that is.

Meet the Awesome Foundation. Harvard graduate Tim Hwang started it two years ago in Boston with the intention of "making the world more awesome $1,000 at a time." The idea has since spawned chapters in more than 25 cities (and counting) including Toronto, Berlin, New York City and Sydney.

With the help of Tampa philanthropist T. Hampton Dohrman and Creative Cities Productions founder Peter Kageyama, Tampa Bay has joined the global network of Awesome.

The concept is simple. A group of trustees invests their own money toward funding $1,000 microgrants. Grants are given to members of the community who submit the most exciting, unique, or simply cool ideas via an online application.

Anyone can apply and anyone can win, as long as trustees aren't directly profiting from the submitted ideas.

Part of its success, Dohrman believes, lies in its adoptable model. Want to start a chapter in your city? Do it.

The idea for Tampa Bay's was planted in June when Dorhman first read about the project. He e-mailed Hwang expressing interest in the foundation and learned that all it took to establish a local chapter was some interest from people willing to donate their money and time.

"Hampton gave a great description of what it was and what he was trying to do," Tampa Museum of Art Executive Director Todd Smith says. "There was no convincing. I thought, 'Done. When do we get going?' "

As an Awesome Tampa Bay trustee, Smith says he's looking for ideas where the money will have an immediate impact.

That instant gratification is likely another part of its widespread appeal -- grants are usually given every month. Tampa Bay's 10 trustees are easing into the concept with an initial $400 investment -- enough to fund four grants in the next year.

"It's just fun," Dohrman says. "It's the only project I've ever done where people want to give money to it not realizing it's actually philanthropy."

What's stopping grant recipients from not following through with their ideas? Trustees will follow up with winners to see how the money's being used, but for the most part, it's an old-fashioned honor code.

"You're empowering someone who wants to do something and giving them the leverage and means to do it," Dohrman says.

No Shortage Of Ideas

Awesome Tampa Bay received more than 120 applications for its first grant -- Dohrman cut 100 off the top that didn't accurately convey the message of the foundation.

To be clear, it's not a charity. They're looking for ideas that push the boundaries of creativity. They want something brilliant. Something fun. Something unique to Tampa Bay.

What types of ideas have other chapters deemed awesome? The Seattle chapter's first grant allowed a 19-year-old girl to hand out sandwiches to the homeless and film their stories for a documentary. New York City's October grant will fund a school garden for PS 377 complete with a compost system, fruit trees and veggie beds.

Tampa Bay's first round of grant applications ranged from inspiring to amusing. Monday night's announcement event at The Roosevelt 2.0 brought together applicants, trustees and foundation newcomers to support the ideas our community has generated.

Trustees agreed that The Birdhouse Buying Club, submitted by Ryan Iacovacci, would be the first Awesome Tampa Bay grant recipient.

"I'm a small piece of a larger puzzle that's coming together in the greater area," he says. "I'm humbled by the fact that they thought it was a great idea."

Birdhouse is a Sulphur Springs-based neighborhood buying club Iacovacci and his roommates started out of their intentional community in 2009.

They currently sell boxes of organic, local produce from Suncoast Food Alliance to residents for $25, but find most can't even afford that price. WIth the $1,000 grant, Iacovacci says the club plans to drop the price to $15, purchase a refrigerator to store produce and make the buying club food stamp accessible. There are also plans to purchase a few bicycles that would allow pickers to ride around the neighborhood and collect fruit off the trees.

Iacovacci says the grant was a sign that he's on the right path in transforming Birdhouse from a buying club to a food co-op.

"It's not just another swing and a miss," he says.

Coming in third place was Cigar City Brewing founder and Awesome trustee Joey Redner's favorite proposal -- Vulture Fest. Tampa resident Roger Allen submitted the idea, which proposes a celebration dedicated to the annual October return of nature's most vilified scavengers to Tampa.

Allen got the idea from the town of Hinckley, Ohio, which celebrates the March return of vultures every year with a family festival full of entertainment, activities and food. A peculiar, yet perfectly awesome idea.

"I like the nature of identifying things that would never happen if it wasn't for a small group of people saying, 'Hey, that's interesting. Let's make it happen,'" he says.

Members also gravitated toward a proposal called Get Us Out of the House by St. Petersburg native Eve Walker, which came in second.

She's an advocate for families with special needs children who wants to give parents a night to enjoy a dinner by themselves or catch a movie. Parents would be able to drop off their children at a church or recreation center where volunteers, including Walker herself, who are familiar with handling special needs kids, would chaperone.

Setting A Tone For The Future

The Tampa Bay trustees know their first grant will set the tone for future awards. By selecting Birdhouse, there's an emphasis on ideas that will generate a long-term impact -- something Awesome trustee Michelle Royal says she's hoping to see more of in future applications.

Royal, founder and CEO of How Do You Innovate and chairman of Creative Tampa Bay, wants to push applicants to think beyond what is simply a good idea. Is it transformative?

"Most people said, 'My idea is awesome because it's awesome,' " she says. "I don't think that's good enough for my community. I believe in our creative ability and our capacity as human beings to come up with something even better."

Her ideas? A Bi-Bay game of bingo between Tampa's Curtis Hixon and St. Pete's Straub Park. A game of Battleship in the middle of the bay. Both big, yet achievable, ideas that focus on building community.

A proposal from Florida Craftsmen Executive Director Diane Shelly touched on those characteristics and intrigued several trustees.

The St. Pete Coral Reef Crochet project combines public art with environmental awareness about the pollutants that threaten fragile coral reefs. Colorful, clustered shapes fashioned out of yarn are pieced together to create one giant community reef. The $1,000 grant would've bought yarn and other supplies needed for the community to contribute a section of the crochet reef.

Royal says the idea was a beautiful way to create community and community engagement through crafts.

"It was highlighting a social problem that you can have a solution to through awareness," she says, "and that awareness comes through a social activity, which I thought was very important."

Although Shelly's idea did not win, she garnered the project more attention, which will make its debut at the Florida Craftsman's gallery on June 8, World Oceans Day.

"I'm so excited [Ryan] won because it's something that's so sustainable," she says. "It's something that will continue to go on and on."

Whether the ideas are big or small, Dohrman believes the Awesome grants have the power to make a wide-reaching impact on the Tampa Bay community.

"Some [grants] are making a long-term impact," he says. "They're changing people's perceptions of the communities they live in, the nature of entrepreneurs and innovation."

He frequently refers to one of his favorite projects -- an idea from Toronto artist Stephanie Avery to create a rooftop game of "Connect the T-Dots" that's visible on Google Maps -- as a source of inspiration for the foundation's potential.

"[The dots] don't really do anything, but they have a conceptual value," he says. "You want to be in a community that's innovating, changing and challenging the way you think."

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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