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Chuck and Laura Richardson

A hunger to help

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In the summer of 2003, Chuck and Laura Richardson bicycled across the United States for the cause of fighting world hunger. They raised about $6,000. This summer, they did it again. They raised $38,000.

They plan to do it next summer and the summer after that.

That's the short story of their work.

The long story--and it's a good story--is this Chapel Hill couple's search for a way to live out their values and be of service to others. To be not just liberal, if all that means is to talk a good game, but to talk and then act in a truly selfless way, which is why they call their efforts Altruistic Action.

And it has been a search. Chuck's search, at first. "The story is Chuck," Laura says right off. "Well," he starts to answer--but she stops him. "You're the catalyst for all of this," she says to him. "Chuck has always felt deeply for people who are suffering. He just has a strong compassionate nature."

She says it with pride. At first, when the idea of the bike ride came up, he was going, leaving his job to do it, and she was staying, so as not to lose hers. He got as far as the Appalachians without her. "He called me, crying, a couple of times. I was still living in my little box, not wanting to be irresponsible," Laura says. "And finally he convinced me, you can go, too. I got out of the box, and I've been living outside of it ever since."

Understand that neither Chuck, now 34, nor Laura, 29, were bicyclists. Nor, for that matter, was Chuck especially interested in tackling world hunger, at least the way he tells it. It's more like world hunger tackled him. He'd read Gandhi as a kid. He started reading about India. He reads. He learned that 850 million people in the world live on the edge of starvation, mainly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. When he learned that, he found he couldn't let go of it, all the more so as he realized how easily others could.

"Once you feel a certain way about something," he says, describing his own transformation, "to know that that's going on out there, and it's not being addressed--finally, you say, well, maybe I should do something about it."

But do what? The '03 bike ride started as a gimmick, but it was also--for him, then her, too--a way to test his resolve, since he not only didn't like bicycling, he actively disliked it. He had to borrow a bike. She, at least, owned a mountain bike that seemed, to their friends, not at all the right thing to use. But her bike made it to California with just one tube change. And so did they.

That first year, they raised money in the form of pledges, from family and friends, and they gave it all to Doctors Without Borders. Then they rode, paying all their (modest) expenses themselves.

This year, they sharpened their approach. They created Altruistic Action, which is not a charity--don't try to give them money--and from which they make not a dime. They designed it as a "vessel" for their advocacy. Meanwhile, Chuck searched for a charity that could benefit more directly from their efforts as they moved cross-country. He found it in Pratham, a nonprofit based in India that runs schools in the most impoverished slums of that country's biggest cities. Pratham USA, which supports it, has just nine chapters here, but is starting to extend into Indian communities throughout the United States, including the growing one here in the Triangle.

So, for example, when the Richardsons rode into Dallas, the Pratham chapter there used them to spark its first-ever public event, a bike rally. According to an excited account of it in the chapter's newsletter, "the event was a great success," with free food from Subway, Domino's Pizza and Kaurina's Kulfis, free shirts and wristbands, and inspiring remarks by Chuck and Laura "about their passion to support and help the children of India." It raised $7,500 for Pratham USA and "raised the awareness among the newest mainstream people" of the poverty still extant in their native land.

On the other hand, a fund-raising event in Los Angeles turned out to be an almost complete bust when its organizers put the Richardsons in a room with a Republican congressman and 350 of his big-ticket political supporters, including a lot of very conservative Indian-American businessmen.

But their last event, their return to Hindu Bhavan--the Hindu Society of North Carolina's temple in Morrisville--netted $12,000 for Pratham at their homecoming "Evening of Hope." That's where we met them, and saw the Richardsons saluted "for the transformation of their lofty passion and caring thoughts to action to help the poorest of the poor." It was a sight--the two white folks draped in Indian scarves and the local Indian community's genuine appreciation.

All in all, they enjoyed enough success that they remain committed to their three-year plan. They'll ride cross-country twice more, working with Pratham, while trying to develop a good "template" for helping a charity do its work while they do theirs, which is raising the American public's awareness about hunger and starvation.

Next summer, they plan to spend their first 10 days riding in North Carolina, helping the new, Triangle-based Pratham chapter become statewide. They also want to reach out to--and help Pratham reach--more non-Indian folks who might enjoy a bike rally and learn something new about the world in the bargain.

In that vein, the Richardsons aren't much interested in meeting corporate CEOs or the rich donors (like the ones they encountered in L.A.) that every other charity wants, too. Raising money from them, Chuck thinks, is like taking it from somebody else, since rich folks have budgets of how much they're going to give away.

No, he says, they'd like to expand the pool of givers with "the $20, $40, $100 people" who, once hooked on giving, might decide to adopt Pratham, or world hunger, as their first cause.

How can the Richardsons ride away every year? Are they teachers? No, they're not. In fact, Chuck's a high-school dropout with a GED who takes classes at Durham Tech when he can fit them in. He works, when he's here, as a cook for a nonprofit in Hillsborough, making breakfast and lunches for 180 daycare kids.

It's not that he doesn't respect education, Chuck says. He has great respect for his father, a retired school superintendent who's helped with their rides and who's driven his car alongside them, too, from time to time. It's just that he was always in such a hurry to live his life, which included a first marriage, and a child he still supports, when he was 18.

"I knew everything at 18," he laughs, "but then I kind of lost that knowledge along the way."

And Laura? She's been working as a receptionist for an insurance agency, a job they let her interrupt. She just passed the test to become an agent for the company a couple of weeks ago.

But don't conclude, from all this, that she's just following Chuck around. He followed her--pursued her--when she moved to Chapel Hill from California nine years ago. Of the two, he's definitely the talker, and the dreamer. But she's his rock, and their strength is their bond.

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