Open Hands, Open Heart

Columnists tend to write about negative things. Especially in a world where going negative translates into more clicks. And even moreso, with Trump poised to take the helm of this Country. It's easy to fall into the trap of negativity. That's why I'm so grateful that someone who read one of my recent articles brought to my attention some evidence that not everything is headed in the wrong direction in this country. Not every millennial is disengaged. And not everyone is waiting for the Government to take the lead in righting wrongs.

Nineteen year-old Noel Berry grew up in a small town in Missouri where homelessness and addiction were not as visible to the public eye as is the case in big cities. But when she was recruited to come to New York City to model for IMG, she became exposed to a degree of hopelessness she'd never seen before. At work, everything was beautiful. The sets, the outfits, the kind and generous crew. But on the streets, hidden in corners, lying over grates -- she saw broken men. Distraught women. People injured, inside and out. And to her shock, some of them had risked their lives to protect the United States of America. She was not quite a success story yet - but she could still see, first hand, the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots.

So one day, while Noel was walking along the streets of Manhattan and feeling an emptiness and sense of futility not uncommon to young people who smile for a living - her friend Joshua Omisore tried to cheer her up with a Christopher Hitchens quote. "A life that partakes even a little friendship, love, irony, humor... and the chance to take part in the liberation of others cannot be called meaningless."

Joshua looked up from his cellphone, where he had read that quote. But Noel was just staring at Joshua's cellphone. Then, at a small camp of homeless people nearby.

Within moments, the two came up with an idea. A big one.

They would start a non-profit. And it would be called "Open Hands." It would bring technology to those who need it most. It would target veterans, single parents, the homeless, those suffering from addiction, and the disabled. It would find those people. Then help them connect to vital resources within their area.

Specifically, Open Hands would provide cellphones with text capability and software to allow people going through challenges to send texts, and get an instant interactive reply of where that person could find temporary housing, food, affordable health care, and drug treatment nearby.

From this seed of inspiration, Noel sought to enlist a leadership team who might nurture her goal. She connected with friends, volunteers, fellow models, and people she knew from the tech community (she had taught herself how to code during her teens).

Fortunately she already had Joshua Omisore at her side. A tech entrepreneur with perfect SATs and surprisingly high level connections, like Justin Combs. Her next stop was Deanna Davis, an enthusiastic NYU student and fellow model, with a background in marketing. Then came Seyi Adu, from the world of finance (soon to be a CFA). She rounded out her team with Talia Richman, to head up events and investor relations, and Brandon Fuchs, a businessman with the development of several other tech companies to his credit.

Soon, Open Hands became a reality. It is one of the first NYC-born non-profits to focus on providing technology to the most vulnerable people in the city. Their goal is to make it easier for people in need to obtain resources, and to benefit from the full breadth of government programs that put food on the table, clothes on the body, and training on the resume.

A goal like that sounds simple, but it's not easy. Open Hands not only needed to find phones and data plans, but it had to write software to make their phones easy and effective to use. Fortunately, they didn't have to start from scratch. They needed to update the Lifeline Assistance Program Telephones, a program that has been around since the 80s. There are currently about 30-40 million of these phones. If Open Hands could create new software and upgrade these phones, it could end up becoming one of the most effective (and largest) services in the nation to link up underserved people with the things that they need to survive.

Consequently, Open Hands is digging into the task at hand. Some of the software they are hoping to develop and roll out in the coming months include check-in systems for homeless people, so that they can find out which temporary housing units nearby have empty beds. This could help end the practice of homeless people walking miles in the freezing cold, only to find there's no space for them. In turn, it would allow shelters to better prepare resources and keep track of who is coming in and out. This could go a long way in addressing the major overpopulation and underpopulation issues in shelters, and save millions of currently wasted government dollars.

In addition, an Open Hands board member, Brittany Bader, has created a fund to develop software so that these phones can assist people suffering from natural disasters. Open Hands phones can be distributed after hurricanes or floods or earthquakes, and connect people in need of assistance with those who can save their lives. Brittany is also developing a homeless fund to help those who have come under hard times to develop credit, and to help find guarantors who might assist them in acquiring apartments.

Next among her ambitious but achievable goals, Noel and Open Hands plan to create software to help unemployed people find local jobs that match their skills. Which is not only good for these individuals, it's good for local businesses.

Open Hands is an inspiring effort. A group of millennials have come together to provide unbelievably necessary life-saving resources and opportunities simply by using technology to make connections. And what are millennials better at, than that?

So thank you, Noel Berry and everyone involved with Open Hands, for giving all of us something we can feel good about. It's my hope that Open Hands will see an influx of grants and donations based on their revolutionary and innovative goals. Their vision is no smaller than creating a world where nobody falls through the cracks. Thanks to Open Hands, I can see this vision, too - and share it. I hope you can, as well.