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A weekend in Raleigh doing good with the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation

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It's almost a year since the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation launched in Raleigh with high ideals and a daunting charge: to continue the work and pursue the dreams of Jamie Hahn, the 29-year old political missionary whose violent death last spring so shocked our community.

Jamie was that rare person who, when she said her life was dedicated to helping the poor and at-risk kids, people believed that she would do that and more—and that she'd succeed. She was a campaign fundraiser, and good at it. She loved to bring people together, whether for a party, a purpose, or both. Her potential to do good, as her wide circle of friends said, was limitless.

And then she was gone, killed allegedly by one of her and Nation Hahn's closest friends, someone who worked for her. (His trial on first-degree murder is upcoming.) And into that breach of loss and grief, Nation, her husband, a public relations executive, stepped forward, pledging that this new foundation would muster an "Army of Jamies" and carry on.

I've had the chance to observe and participate to a small degree in the foundation's startup year. Nation's been true to his word. The army is forming with hundreds of volunteers and contributors who've donated countless hours and more than $340,000, almost all of which the foundation retains.

Whether it will do what Jamie would've done, we'll never know, but already it's become a novel kind of organization, one that's making a difference and is destined, I believe, to keep on growing.

This weekend and next, the foundation will mark its anniversary with a series of events. It's a time, as Nation says, when everyone who shares Jamie's goals can gather, focus on their progress and help shape the future. It's also our chance to recognize that this new foundation, built on an open-source model, can be whatever the people who join in its work decide to make it.

Unlike most nonprofits, the Hahn foundation didn't start with a specific interest or project. No "aha" moment when the founder said, here's the problem and here's how we're going to solve it, as Alexis Trost, the newly appointed executive director and only paid employee, put it.

Instead, a diverse group of community leaders, skewing younger but with some gray hairs as well, gathered around Nation and helped him organize brainstorming sessions about what form the new foundation should take. A consensus emerged that it should follow Jamie's lead, meaning it should bring people together to share ideas, make connections and seek support from others with similar interests.

So that's what it did, starting with a series of "Gathering for Good" meetings in downtown spots where a mix of invited participants and others who just showed up were encouraged to stand and present their best idea for tackling the poverty, hunger or education problems around us. Raleigh City Councilman Bonner Gaylord "was lucky enough to be there," he says. "The energy in the room was electric coming from all the people who want to make the city a better place."

After which, says Gary Pearce, "they just do things."

Pearce is a veteran public relations and political strategist who helped the foundation get started. What strikes him, he says, is that its bottom-up approach reflects the way the rising generation of young leaders works, without a lot of wasted effort or overhead and with little regard for hierarchy. "It captures the essence of Jamie," Pearce says. "The energy and idealism. The effectiveness and connectedness."

That's how it's been working with the Raleigh Food Corridor. At the first "gathering," many ideas involved getting less expensive, more nutritious food into low-income neighborhoods, including by growing it or starting a co-op grocery. Doubtless this was because the social utility of good food—and the lack of it for too many—was among Jamie's particular interests.

Meanwhile, a group including Erin White, a part-time faculty member at N.C. State and an environmental design consultant, was at work on plans to improve food production and delivery systems in Raleigh and Wake County.

White and Nation Hahn quickly hatched a collaboration, with foundation participants plugging into White's group and Hahn putting the foundation's resources, people and promotional skills, including his own, behind the "food concept" banner. The result: It's taking off.

"We brought content," White says. "The Hahn foundation could bring funds, energy, ideas, people and a bit of social capital."

And it's not just intellectual efforts, adds Cindy Sink, director of communications for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, with whom the foundation has partnered on a variety of service projects.

"They're creating opportunities for people to work shoulder to shoulder with their hands in the dirt," Sink says. And everything they do is infused with innovative thought and, to be raw and completely real about it, unconditional love."

In the background, Nation Hahn is tirelessly recruiting sponsors and participants for no pay—except the spiritual value of being able to work through his grief. "It is very rewarding," he says, "to be able to give back to the many people in the community who gave so much to our family" when Jamie died.

The foundation "has been an incredibly important part of my life," he says, "and it always will be."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Acts of kindness."

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