Tracy Bender has invested the past eight years of her life helping curb national hunger.
As executive director of the Columbia born Souper Bowl of Caring, which anchors a nationwide day of food donations each Super Bowl Sunday, she saw annual food and cash donations reach $10 million. During that same period, she oversaw the creation of a National Youth Advisory Board program that trained high school students as leaders and ambassadors for the organization in their communities.
Bender stepped down from the post recently to become executive director of marketing and communications at Columbia College. She spoke recently about the joys and challenges of the past eight years.
What are some of the greatest memories you will take with you regarding your time with the Souper Bowl of Caring?
Bender: “I am thankful for so many, and all of my memories include wonderful people whether it be staff, board members, volunteers, mentors or youth. The team of people was absolutely the best part. Our staff changed a lot through the years, and some folks only stayed a short time while others I worked with for eight years. Every day I had the gift of being surrounded by people who loved the cause, the work and each other. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
What would you like to feel is the single greatest achievement of the organization during your tenure?
Bender: “In 2007, I worked with our talented intern Caitlin McLaren Figura to create the National Youth Advisory Board program. The program has continued annually and is a national leadership and service program for high school students. Through NYAB, I have met some of the most creative, compassionate and fun young people, and while my job was to teach and train them to become better leaders, speakers, servants and citizens, I definitely learned from them as well. My life has been enriched by these youth, and I am proud to stay in touch with so many and call them friends.”
What about the job was just the most downright fun?
Bender: “It was always so much fun to watch the numbers grow on the website on Super Bowl weekend. Souper Bowl of Caring doesn’t raise money or food but mobilizes others to do so. So it’s fun to celebrate the work being done by watching the numbers grow as people report their activity on the website – with thousands of people reporting, sometimes it jumps millions at once. I imagine there will always be a part of me glued to the website on that weekend so I can cheer on the growing success.”
What has been one of your biggest lessons from your time with the group?
Bender: “Never underestimate the power of young people. Since 2004, I have been challenged and inspired by youth across the country who saw the opportunity to change their world and seized it. Some activities were grand and garnered a lot of attention, while others were simple yet equally meaningful. Young people not only see great opportunity to make a difference but they seem to have a lot of fun doing it – what a great lesson for us all to learn.”
What is one of your personal favorite Super Bowl Sunday or Souper Bowl Sunday memories?
Bender: “Each Super Bowl weekend has looked different for me, but over the past several years I spent the big weekend in the Super Bowl city. I went to NFL events, hung out with celebrities and gave national media interviews. In looking back over nine Super Bowl weekends, my favorite was this last one. I was nine months pregnant so I spent Super Bowl Sunday at our office rather than in New Orleans (host of Super Bowl XLVII). It was wonderful to return to the basics and spend the day taking phone calls from churches across the country reporting in their results. I probably answered at least 100 calls that day and it was such a gift to celebrate with the callers about how much they raised or how many volunteer hours they gave. After a full day at the office, I had the unexpected event of going into labor and our daughter, Ann Marlowe Bender, was born the morning after the Super Bowl.”
OK, so what’s the part you’ll probably miss the least?
Bender: “Years ago we purchased some inflatable games to use at events to help engage young people and raise awareness. One of the games was a massive field goal kick. It was probably 20 feet tall and weighed more than 300 pounds. I know my friends and family will not miss helping me move, set up or deflate the infamous inflatable.”
How do you feel the attitudes of feeding the hungry have changed, if at all, in the area in the past several years?
Bender: “It seems more people are aware of the realities of hunger and poverty because so many more people are struggling to make ends meet. The faces of those in need of our help may not be who you think. I would like to see the attitudes continue to change, where there is less judgment toward the people who need our help and more compassion and care given freely to our neighbors in need. As I learned as a child in Sunday School, God loves a cheerful giver.”
How will you personally stay connected to the cause, if not directly the organization, in the years to come?
Bender: “I will absolutely stay involved with Souper Bowl of Caring as a volunteer and donor. I think it will be fun to be on the other side and maybe even help my church youth group with their efforts.”
Reach Rantin at (803) 771-8306.