Vicki Brown: The Go-Getter Who Became a Go-Giver

June 4, 2009
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Vicki Brown

Vicki Brown

When DPI Labs was launched in the late 70s, DPI stood for DeSmet Precision Instruments. As the world fully entered the digital age, it was unofficially known as Digital Precision Instruments. Today, it could just as easily stand for “Divine Powers Intervene.”

How else can you explain a multi-million dollar La Verne, Calif., aerospace company deciding that it needed to distribute thousands of pounds of food to the needy twice a month from the parking lot of its corporate offices?

For the answer you need to talk to Vicki Brown, the CEO of DPI Labs, whose high-end avionics and aircraft management systems help run Air Force I. It also makes “Secure Voice,” which prevents enemy combatants from eavesdropping on the U.S. military’s cockpit conversations.

About three years ago, her minister at Glenkirk Presbyterian Church in Glendora handed Brown and four others in her Wednesday “New Community” group $100 each, seed money, in essence, to start a project that might benefit the greater community. Vicki literally sank her money into the ground.

“I decided to plant a garden,” said Brown, whose Glendora home features a large backyard perfect for growing tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and other vegetables. At harvest time, she took the produce around to different community centers and mobile home parks, but was disappointed to learn the children more often preferred macaroni and cheese to anything fresh — mac and cheese being far less expensive for parents on a budget to buy than fresh produce.

As a CEO experienced in overcoming obstacles, she learned about Second Harvest (now known as Feeding America) and the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank so she could participate in distributing food on a grander scale. Not long after working in food banks in downtown Los Angeles, she got the idea to start a food pantry in her own community, where she believed the need was just as great. About three years after applying for nonprofit 501c(3) status, her application was granted and Sowing Seeds for Life’ germination began in earnest.

Neither rain, nor sleet, nor hail, nor lightning, could halt yesterday's food bank distribution to the community.

Neither rain, nor sleet, nor hail, nor lightning, could halt yesterday's food bank distribution to the community.

 From a single seed of an idea sprang forth an amazing coalition of volunteers to serve even larger legions of people in dire need. When Sowing Seeds for Life started handing out groceries behind DPI’s shipping and receiving area, it was mostly her church members and company engineers and othe staff lending a hand. As word spread by posting flyers and gaining some local media attention, her list of volunteers grew and so did the lines of people in need.

In April 2009, Sowing Seeds for Life handed out groceries to 2,806 people. To take home the food, they simply had to sign their name and put down their address.

One of those was a man named Ed, a 10-year yard supervisor at a recycling plant until he was laid off more than a year ago. He has no health insurance, no car (which he had been forced to sell) and no income, his unemployment insurance long since exhausted.

“I can’t blame myself,” Ed said. “It’s the times we live in. My boss is down to just a few employees. That’s it. There wasn’t enough business coming in. I have years of experience, but this is economy is so bad, no one is really hiring.”

Sowing Seeds for Life is close to the trailer park he lives in. Normally, he takes the bus to two or three different food banks a week. It’s a huge inconvenience, but he’s grateful, and grateful for Vicki Brown.

“Something like this is a godsend,” he said, still waiting patiently far back in the in line despite arriving early to get a good spot. “If it wasn’t for stuff like this, I’d be sunk. Everything has run out for me.”

He picked up his groceries, a cardboard box stuffed with cheese, bread, strawberries, a frozen chicken, water, orange juice and soap.

My hat’s off to her,” he said. “She’s a fantastic lady. If it weren’t for people like her, none of us would have any future.”

Asked if he thought that maybe he was standing in line with some people who were taking advantage of Sowing Seeds for Life’s generosity, he said, “This is not something you come to get freebies. If you need to be here, you need to be here. It’s not for me to judge anyone else’s plight.”

Just as quickly, Ed swung the conversation back to Brown. “I don’t think she realizes the scope of what she’s doing and how many people she’s helping. There are not enough people like her who have the ability to do that and the generosity to do that.”

Like attracts like, and Brown has attracted volunteers as dedicated as she is. Volunteer Pam Archibald sits on Sowing Seeds for Life’s board, which should not be construed in any way as some sort of perk or special recognition. Board members sort, bag, lift, haul and hand out groceries with all the other volunteers.

“We hoped it would grow to serve the community,” Archibald said, “but we didn’t realize it would grow as fast as it has. We just stand back in awe about the blessings that have been brought to this table. I don’t think we ever intended to feed this magnitude, but we are glad to be out here doing it.”

Volunteer Linda Orozco was helping out for her sixth time. The pantry is open the first and third Wednesday of the month, the second Wednesday being busier than the first because the social security checks and other financial resources, which normally come out on the first, have been exhausted by mid-month.

“I saw an ad for volunteers on the Internet,” Orozco said. “When I leave here I feel empowered. It’s a blessing to be out here helping people.”

How long that help can continue is causing some angst, despite donations of food and supplies from large contributors like Nestlé’s, Arrowhead Water and the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. Although many food items are free, they must still be picked up, stored, and distributed. Items like detergent, diapers and soap cost Sowing Seeds for Life 20 cents a pound. Brown said she would like to get Sowing Seeds for Life’s expenses down to a penny a pound. The pennies add up when you’re giving thousands of pounds a food away each month.

Last year, Brown said Sowing for Seeds for Life received about $1,000 a month in contributions from the community. This year’s total is $1,500 for the year despite the growing demand for assistance. “We all need to share in the joy of giving,” Brown said, adding that a $100 donation would cover a week’s worth of expenses because DPI covers the cost for rent and utilities, and “there’s nobody on the timecard here.” Every dollar goes to furnishing food.

If anything, Brown and her staff have done too good a job. Sowing Seeds for Life has become a distribution hub for other food banks. It offers activities for kids while their parents wait in line. A father’s day project is planned for the kids on June 17. At the first food pantry in August, a dentist will distribute toothbrushes to children and show them how to take better care for their teeth. At the 4th of July country fair in La Verne, volunteers will serve hot dogs and other treats in exchange for donations to help continue the work of Sowing Seeds for Life.

Brown also has big plans, befitting her CEO title. She wants to extend her building out another 5,000 feet, so she can move her pantry inside, a permanent, dedicated space protected from the elements, which were on full display the day LaVerneOnline interviewed Brown amid a freak shock and awe lightning storm.

“Everybody should be doing something to help their local food pantry,” Brown said, standing and shivering under a tent, whether it be money, time or saving plastic bags so Sowing Seeds for Life can reuse them to send people home with groceries.

In tough economic times, local police departments have seen a rise in petty thefts. Brown thinks her pantry can help relieve some of that desperation.

Brown is also a cancer survivor, a hard-charging CEO who now sees life a little differently, a little more preciously. “I basically gave the company to God,” she said.

Brown is a go-giver, not a go-getter. In recent years, she has been a taker only once – when she decided to take her pastor’s $100.

As far as we know, the pastor’s never going to see that Ben Franklin note again.

For more information on Sowing Seeds for Life, please go: DPI is located at 1350 Arrow Highway in La Verne, California, 91750, between I-10 and I-210 and adjacent to Highway 57. The Pantry is open the first and third Wednesday of each month, starting at 3 p.m. Again, volunteers and donations are always needed to sustain this effort.



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