Second Harvest, Good Samaritan in first place in race for $1M

Sue Guinn Legg • Apr 19, 2012 at 10:00 PM

Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee and Good Samaritan Ministries have stretched out their lead in Walmart’s “Fighting Hunger Together” Facebook race for $1 million to be awarded to one of 200 communities across the country with high unemployment rates.

But in light of the “social media phenomenon” that wrapped up Walmart’s last $1 million Fighting Hunger Together competition with 3.5 million online votes cast for a single community in the final day of the contest, the food bank and the ministry were not resting on the 1,000-vote lead they held Thursday. Leaders of the agencies were searching for ideas to help leverage the millions of Facebook votes from outside Northeast Tennessee they will need to maintain their lead and claim the prize.

“This is not a comfortable lead, not by any means,” said Rhonda Chafin, executive director the regional food bank in Gray that jumped to the front of the online voting within 12 hours of the April 10 contest kickoff on Walmart’s Facebook page and has remained at or near the top of the competition’s leader board for the past 10 days.

“We are grateful for the way the community is supporting us. It’s amazing how people have voted. We have 700 new ‘likes’ on our Facebook (page). People are engaged in the work that we doing. And that’s incredible.”

But, Chafin said, the food bank’s supporters should be aware “there is a community with a large company or a group that will have all their people vote and they will leave us behind. The main thing we need to do is remind everyone to be consistent in their voting and vote every day (through April 30), to go to (www.facebook.com/walmart), click on ‘Fighting Hunger Together,’ find Tennessee and vote and share their vote for the Johnson City area.”

During a break at a conference at Tusculum College, where she was networking for Facebook votes and innovative ideas from the latest in a series of local student bodies contacted by the food bank, Chafin said, “We need the community to come together and help us find ways to leverage votes from outside the area.”

In addition to local liberal arts and community colleges, she said the food bank has contacted many of the region’s largest employers, including East Tennessee State University, Mountain States Health Alliance and Eastman Chemical Co., to encourage them to encourage their workers to vote. Still, she said, “It’s going to take something bigger. We’ve got to have a large group or a company that is national and has a headquarters here to help us. And we are encouraging help from individuals who have innovative ideas for empowering national votes, millions of votes.”

Sarah Wells, Good Samaritan Ministries executive director, said the ministry’s Internet research of Walmart’s campaign showed the Mormon church played a key role in the Salt Lake City’s amazing come-from-behind win last year and set the ministry on a course to spend the final 10 days of this year’s competition reaching out to East Tennessee’s major church conferences.

The Salt Lake City Deseret News reported two weeks before the close of the campaign that ran from May 10 to Dec. 31 of 2010, the food bank serving the Salt Lake area was far behind with about 3,500 votes when it began the climb to its 5.3-million-vote finish. According the Deseret News, an estimated 3.5 million votes were cast for the Salt Lake area in the final 24 hours of the competition, crashing Walmart’s website 15 minutes before the voting was scheduled to close. Two weeks later Walmart verified the vote and declared Salt Lake City the winner, describing the two-week surge in the voting “a social media phenomenon.”

With hope local church congregations can come through a similar online fashion for Northeast Tennessee, Wells said Good Samaritan has reached out first to the local Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church and will soon be following up with calls for help from regional conferences of Baptist and Presbyterian congregations and the Episcopalian Diocese of East Tennessee based in Knoxville.

In the meantime, she said, “Good Samaritan has 5,000 Facebook contacts we are contacting every day. Hales Community Ministries and (Assistance Resource Ministries) are working hard for us in Carter County. And (former) Sheriff (Kent) Harris is asking his Facebook friends in Unicoi County to vote for us.”

Wells said Milligan and King colleges, “where young people are on (Facebook) every day,” are also on board. Schools in Elizabethton and Happy Valley are have posted flyers reminding everyone to vote. And in Johnson City schools, Wells’ twin granddaughters, Hannah and Megan Devotie, are networking daily with their teachers and fellow students at Science Hill High School.

To vote or to learn more about the Fighting Hunger Together competition, visit www.facebook.com/walmart (http://bit.ly/JaHJs6).

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