A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Food Drive (May 2001)
Today we revisit Chip Schramm’s piece on a Panic Fans For Food event in Huntsville…
Widespread Panic has always played well in Huntsville. There may be plenty of theories why this is so, but sometimes looking a gift-horse in the mouth is a dangerous thing. Heck, after 3 years of absolutely amazing concerts at the Von Braun Center (1996, 99, and 2000,) there was no reason that this year would be any different. Or was there?
Historically, bands with nomadic fan bases, such as Panics, have inevitably run into problems on the road. It serves to reason that whenever all the neighborhood kids come over to play at the clubhouse, eventually some improprieties will occur. This was the case in April of 2000 when several youths took a trip to the local hospital after over-indulgence during the concert. The fact that a few witless freaks decided to trash the towns beautiful park and camp out there didnt help endear Panic fans to the local gentry either. Both events made headlines in the local media and caused an extremely negative stigma to be associated with the words "Widespread Panic."
From the comments of the local authorities and television stations, it was clear that they didnt want us to come back. The local TV station even placed an online survey on its web site, quizzing the viewers to see if they wanted the band to come back. Not letting journalistic integrity or objective reporting stand in the way of a sensationalistic story, they openly encouraged their viewers to "VOTE NO." Despite all the homemade hoopla, the management of the Von Braun Center was ready to call their bluff. They bravely booked Panic again, to the horror of small-town agenda setters throughout Madison County.
As more and more music fans are becoming aware, Panic Fans For Food is a grassroots charity organization in the purest sense. Without any official leadership structure or ties to the band, it has been a self-motivating vehicle for good will and benevolence in communities across the country. Feel free to click on the web site link at the bottom of this article for a full report on the historical success of the PFFF projects. The funny thing about PFFF drives has always been that they were an unexpected bonus to a community that was hosting a show. With the exception of New Orleans and Atlanta, which have hosted multiple drives, most places are new to the idea and welcome it with open arms.
This year Huntsville would be different.
First off, I have to admit that part of the motivation for a drive in Huntsville was to repay the community for the problems Widespread Panic fans caused last year. It only seemed right. Huntsvillians felt certain that Panic fans were heathen sinners, cruising down the primrose path on a pack of turbo-diesel razor scooters. Though I did not bear any witness to the problems that occurred last year, I certainly understand their sentiment. The annual Panic concert is without a doubt the biggest freakshow that Huntsville, Alabama sees all year, for better or worse.
What we were not prepared for was the political backlash of the local charities who did not want to accept the PFFF donation. The food drive organizers only ask for 2 things of any local charity group: a few barrels to collect cans, and a truck to pick them up after the drive is over, before the show starts. PFFF isnt officially tied to the band, nor are they sponsored officially by any local non-profit group either. After making this clear to the Food Bank of North Alabama, we were still stunned that they "declined to participate" in any way.
So no food bank, no problem. Really, even a town as small as Huntsville must have enough charities so we could pick one that could use our food. But while a little concerned apprehension was expected, an organized political rally was not. Not only did the food bank leaders refuse to accept s donation in advance, they called a meeting of local charity groups and church charities to demand that they refuse to cooperate with PFFF. The whole episode was just completely bizarre.
So, with all the deck stacked against the food drive, with volunteers such as myself struggling with self-doubt, when things were looking the bleakest, we got a break. The Hope Place home for battered women was willing to accept our donation. We were so relieved that the drive would go on that we didnt even quibble about the barrels or collection of the canned goods. Wed deal with that later. Whats more, the Huntsville Times thought we got a raw deal. Being the only local newspaper, they jumped on the story and made the average citizens of Huntsville aware of how their civic leaders were behaving.
The Huntsville Times deserves high praise for taking the time to learn about Panic Fans For Food and the positive impact it has on communities nation-wide. It was have been far too easy for them to turn their noses up at us, but they didnt. With the help of Huntsville Times entertainment editor, Chris Welch, the community rallied around the cause. Perhaps realizing that two wrongs do not make a right, many local charities began to contact us to extend an olive branch and encourage the drive.
I would like to think that we rose to the challenge, but things are never so simple. The day of the show was mayhem. PFFF founder Josh Stack and myself drove down from Atlanta to get ready and pretty much handled the logistics on the fly. We got there considerably later than we had originally planned, but somehow I think thats how this story is supposed to go.
One of the reasons why we were facing so much resistance was because there was a decidedly "family-oriented" concert series in park all weekend. There were fences and barricades up all around the downtown area. The Salvation Army volunteered some barrels for us, but the streets around the venue were all blocked off because of the music festival in the park across the street, so picking them up proved to be a big problem. We could tell the loyal Panic fans had already arrived with some canned goods as Josh and I scrambled to get a folding table, and tape up the posters that the ladies of the Atlanta Crew made for us the night before.
And donations came in. Oh boy, did they. After Josh and I had a minute to get settled, take a deep breath, and have a cold drink, all of a sudden smiling faces bearing canned food descended upon us like Children of the Corn. Those that could brought cans and many more made cash donations. What truly amazed me was how many different folks contributed to the drive. There were a lot of new faces coming up to the table, and I was really proud of that. If the same core of people volunteered and donated every time, without support from the everyday Panic fans, the drives would not mean very much.
Pickup was something we hadnt even gotten around to considering. As the mound of cans started to stack on our table like the $60,000 pyramid, Josh and I were wondering where we were going to put it before the concert. The Salvation Army said we could bring it to their soup kitchen, but we had no way to get it there with the street blocked. Once again, the Von Braun Center proved to be a most loyal ally of the Widespread Panic fans. Event manager Mike Finnegan gave us the OK to store the cans in the building during the show, and even overnight. The magic was still there. I could feel it.
After all was said and done, PFFF collected 500 pounds of food and $750 dollars in cash donations. We brought a pick-up truck back to the venue at 7am Saturday morning and parked it where the bands bus was the previous night to collect the food. We had such a bountiful harvest that we split it 3 ways. The Hope Place womens home got 1/3 of the food and a sizeable check. The Salvation Armys soup kitchens got a nice share of the canned food because they were so helpful near the end of our quest. Even the inter-faith mission got a portion of the food, mostly because we were lost and thought we had pulled up to the Salvation Army. Hey, charity is supposed to be blind, right?
At the end of the day, the home team prevailed. And when I say "home" team I mean every citizen of the city of Huntsville. I mean every person who has every volunteered for any charity in that town. I mean every Panic fan who has ever taken the time to pick up trash in the lot and keep the scene clean. I mean Ted Rockwell who donated a portion of his Everyday Companion 3 sales to support the cause. Everyone who makes the little extra effort to try and do the right thing. We won this day because of you.