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Helping begins at home

Tony Hall hasn’t forgotten Mother Teresa’s words when they first met in Calcutta, India, late in the acclaimed nun’s life.

"Not everybody can come to Calcutta like you can," the Nobel Peace Prize winner told the then-Ohio congressman, "but remember this, do the thing that’s in front of you."

Now executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, Hall recalled the meeting and relayed the message March 29 in Founders Hall as the keynote speaker culminating Bluffton University’s annual Civic Engagement Day. His address capped a day—and an academic year—of activities exploring Bluffton’s 2011-12 civic engagement theme, "Public Health: Promoting Wellness for Self and Community."

Hall, a three-time Nobel nominee for his humanitarian work, urged his listeners—largely students—to focus on one issue, which for him has been hunger in the United States and abroad. It kills 25,000 people per day worldwide, he said, and in the U.S. alone, up to 50 million people go to bed hungry two or three days each week.

He recounted trips to Appalachia where he saw hunger’s effects firsthand. One elderly couple, giving "everything they had" to the woman’s cancer treatment, was stretching a can of tomato soup to last two weeks, Hall remembered. Another time, delivering groceries to a woman in a mobile home, he was struck by her children’s excitement, not about play or other things that typically excite children, but about food, he said. Helping that woman made him feel good, he added, saying, with words from Matthew 25, "I think anybody can help ‘one of the least of these.’"

"You don’t have to go too far from this auditorium to figure out something to do," said Hall, who leads an alliance of more than 75 corporate, nonprofit, educational, individual and religious-group members. Even in a seemingly prosperous small town like Bluffton, he suggested, "if you scratch below the surface, you’ll see some things that would surprise you."

Getting involved

Hall never saw anyone in Appalachia while growing up in Dayton, where "I cared about life around me," he said. But after the 1964 Denison University graduate joined the Peace Corps "looking for adventure" and lived among the poor in Thailand for two years, "I came back a different person," he acknowledged.

He began to think life was about more than being a businessman and, later, a congressman, Hall explained. His Christian faith grew more important to him, he said, but as friends asked him about bringing it into his workplace—which became Congress in 1979—he was reluctant at first and then unsure how to do it.

Then his life changed again, he said, when he went in 1984 to famine-stricken Ethiopia. Arriving at a small clinic run by Catholic nuns, he saw "thousands" of dehydrated people. "They thought I was a doctor, and they were handing me their dead children," recalled Hall, noting that he saw many more die during the three days he was there.

"It stung me," he said, and also answered his question about how to bring God into his workplace—through legislation and travel, which has now taken him to impoverished and war-torn regions in well over 100 countries, also including North Korea, Iraq and, recently, Somalia.

When constituents in his Dayton-area congressional district reminded him about concerns at home, Hall helped start food and immunization programs and, joined by 4,000 constituents, went on a 48-hour fast to raise money to fight hunger. Of the roughly $250,000 collected, half went to Dayton-area food banks and related agencies, while the rest went overseas, he said.

Hall was a founding member of the House Select Committee on Hunger, which he chaired from 1989 until Congress eliminated it in a deficit-reduction move in 1993. Angry and frustrated at the cut, he thought about resigning from the House, he said. Instead, at his wife’s suggestion, he decided to fast again to draw attention to the hunger issue. Subsisting on only water for 22 days, he strengthened his relationship with God, he noted, while also getting the desired attention, first from media and then from the World Bank. The bank committed $100 million that went toward microfinance and microcredit programs that have enabled poor women to obtain small loans for business purposes, he said.

Hall ultimately left the House in 2002, after President George W. Bush asked him to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture—a position he held until 2005.

His more recent work with the Alliance to End Hunger involves coalition-building with governments, nongovernmental organizations, corporations and others. He suggested that individuals passionate about the issue also bring like-minded people together and organize.

"The challenge is to do it," Hall said, expressing his belief that people care about the issue but just aren’t well-informed about it. "You can do it."

A reporter, he said, once asked Mother Teresa if her work was only "a drop in the bucket." She replied that it was "a drop in the ocean"—but it was one less drop, said Hall, calling for concerned people to "put our drops together."


Bluffton public relations, 3/29/12