Noticing Neighbors with Tiffany Buckley
We’re finishing out National Volunteer Week, and it lined up perfectly to talk with the owner and founder of VolunteerKC: Tiffany Buckley. She lights up when talking about her downtown organization because Tiffany puts her heart into everything she does. She consistently leads a group of 20-30 volunteers to various projects around the city, and she has an eye for acts of service that provide real solutions.
Hayley: Happy National Volunteer Week! I know you do a lot for the local community through your organization VolunteerKC. How did you get the organization started?
Tiffany: The whole story? From the beginning?
Hayley: Wherever you think it begins!
Tiffany: Well, I wanted to start giving back after I experienced homelessness in 2016. I had a situation where I wasn’t being guided by a doctor, and overdosed on antidepressants. Hayley: It’s more common than people think. Tiffany: It is. I didn't have a good support network and ended up being homeless. Moving around couch to couch, living in my car, and going to the shelter for treatment. I spent time in a county jail waiting for a court date, and felt withdrawal from my antidepressants while being in there.
Hayley: I can’t imagine what that felt like. Tiffany: The process of getting to where I am now to get back on my feet has taken a few years. Hayley: But you never stopped. Tiffany: I definitely wanted to, more than a few times. I just kept doing the best I could with the resources I had. It was 2017 when I got a couple of friends together and had our first donation drive, and it all went from there.
Recruiting friends for donation drives turned into volunteering. Volunteering turned into people donating money to me for causes, and I had to keep it separate. So I started a 501c3 nonprofit by 2019.
Hayley: That's amazing!
Tiffany: By April 24th of this year, it will mark two full years of being a nonprofit! Last year, we got involved with the Farmers to Families Food Box program due to the huge need with the coronavirus pandemic, and logged 600 hours of volunteering with all the people who have flocked to help.
Hayley: Can you explain how that works?
Tiffany: So the Farmers to Families Food Box program is through the USDA, and we got a government contract to distribute almost $400,000 worth of food last year from June to October. Then this year, we have distributed 33,000 pounds of food each weekend. It’s so needed and it’s been our largest impact.
Hayley: That is so much food! You must have a great team working together.
Tiffany: We currently have over 200 volunteers on our roster that I manage for projects in random little places. I've had organizations reaching out to me to place their employees, I've signed papers for people needing to serve community service hours—so it's come full circle. I can say: hey, I know what it's like, let's serve your time here.
Hayley: There must have been a huge need for this program with the pandemic.
Tiffany: Huge. We serve over 300 cars. That’s 960 boxes that we get rid of every weekend. So there are a bunch of people. We've created a partnership with the City of Independence and they manage our traffic. They unload the truck for us now and we pack the cars to go with what we have.
What I feel like is a huge success story is that there are a couple of people who have come through the line to end up volunteering with us. Despite their need, they give back. They’re passionate, and I love it.
Hayley: This really means a lot to you. Tiffany: Oh, yeah. The volunteers are amazing. I know it is Volunteer Appreciation Week, but April is also Volunteer Month. The city donated two suites of tickets for a hockey game on Friday, so we're having over 30 of our volunteers come to the game as a thank you. It's the least we can do, they're out there carrying these 30 pound boxes every weekend! It's a hard job, and there are people that show up every week—the same people. We've got a great team.
You know, when I was released from jail, I had nothing except for a little plastic baggie. My little soap, my little toothbrush, little pencil. And they were like: well, good luck. Here's a couple of bus tickets.
I had to figure out how to get back from Lawrence to Independence on my own. No cell phone, no GPS, no anything.
Hayley: What did you do?
Tiffany: I went into a thrift store and bought a shoulder bag, pen, and paper. I told myself: I'm going to write down my resources. I’ve got to find out where I'm going to go. So then I walked around to each of the services. Got some food, got some clothes, it was like a really long, difficult video game. Once I got out of that situation, I spent months milling around about that problem and created a solution. I figured that if we screen printed a map with a resources list on a canvas bag, it would be a durable option for people to find what they need.
Hayley: That’s so smart, too, because the bag is also a need.
Tiffany: Exactly. So then as an organization, we put all the information together on the Kansas City Community Bag. There are resources for medical, shelter, food and more. That bag is what I'm the most proud of.
I'm trying to get into the crisis intervention team with police officers.
Hayley: Well, you took that knowledge from the experience you had and used it. That's a very real need for when you're walking around. But who prints the bag? Were there any connections there?
Tiffany: Well, I had a couple. I'm an artist, and I've got artist friends. So I was playing around with the idea of how to screen print map lines well, to where it could be legible instead of blurry. I had a friend who does screen printing, and so we hand pulled all the bags with volunteers. So we collectively created the bags.
I drop off the screen printed bags to The Sewing Labs, which is another nonprofit, and they have an army of volunteers who then go sell the bags for donations. W We send bags to the outreach groups in Kansas City, the boots on the ground—volunteers who actually interact with homeless individuals.
I just want to saturate the population with these bags so everybody has the opportunity to seek the resources they need.
Hayley: I just want to tell you that I'm so glad you exist. Tiffany: Thank you! Hayley: I really, really am. The Noticed Network is all about seeing the goodness of people, and calling it out when you see it. I knew that you ran this organization but didn't understand the full extent of it. I just want to hands down say thank you for being who you are. Thank you so much. The way that you've taken every experience that you've had and used that knowledge to make life better for other people—Wow. Tiffany: I mean, what's the point of going through all that if I can’t use it in a positive way? Right? Hayley: Absolutely! And it’s so clear you’ve got a great team with you, too.
Tiffany: We have 20 to 30 volunteers who are there all the time. I know that if I text or call with a project need, they're going to be all in for it. I’ll try not to let the waterworks start, but there are friends who were there in the very beginning with me. We would go to the garden alone, just two or three of us, and know that we were doing hard work and seeing it through from start to finish.
I could probably talk for a couple hours on everybody and their individual relationships. There is one gal in particular, Stephanie, who stepped up last year and went on to start organizing things with me because I don't get paid for this.
Our amazing friend Heather came up with the idea of starting a committee for Food Box planning. So she's a force to be reckoned with. She's a program manager in her real job, but she is there every week.
I can count on everybody to treat people with respect and dignity. They lead with service.
There is so much help all around. We wouldn’t even be a nonprofit if it wasn't for our lawyer who filed all the paperwork and paid for our nonprofit status in the beginning. It's only twenty five dollars, but it's an amazing gesture. He made us 501c3. We meet once a month or so just to talk about things and do a little pep talk.
Our CPA does our books for free. They've been there since the beginning and have helped guide us. There's a lot of guiding and a lot of appreciation.
Hayley: Those are all angles people might not think about right away, but there's the paperwork, the budgeting, the morale, the resources—that's very cool. If someone wanted to volunteer with you guys, how can they reach out to you?
Tiffany: It's super easy. You can go on the website, volunteerkc.com, and sign up through the calendar of projects. It automatically alerts me that we have a new volunteer, and then I add them to the email list so they can see all of the volunteer opportunities that way. Hayley: Last question: Why do you think it's important to volunteer? What does Volunteer Month mean to you? Tiffany: Non-profits operate with volunteers. If we didn't have volunteers, the majority of the work would not get done. Volunteers are the hearts of nonprofits, and they're the hearts of the community. They are the ones who fill in the cracks that other people fall through to lift them back up out of the kindness of their heart.
There is no other incentive for them to do the work that they do. So volunteers are a lifeblood, I think, of the community—and we need more of them always. There's so much work to be done out there.