Acquaintance, need for food bank donations attract rock stars

A chance acquaintance and a conversation between two United Way employees about a decline in Project Topeka food donations led to a band of rock stars coming to Topeka Performing Arts Center in November for a benefit concert and holiday food drive.

Al Hammons, United Way information technology director, established a number of celebrity contacts while helping former major league pitcher Roger Clemens, run his foundation in Texas. Dan Woodard, United Way’s vice president for labor relations, also serves as president of Project Topeka. The project operates an annual campaign to generate food donations which are given to local food banks and pantries. Woodard mentioned to Hammons that donations to Project Topeka were down significantly this year – at times, running as much as 50 percent lower than normal.

“Coming off of the recession and with our community having lost a number of jobs over several years, it has been harder for people to give,” said Dan Woodard. “Still, the need is there and it is growing.”

Hearing this, Hammons quickly reached out to guitarist Gary Pihl of the rock band Boston, recalling that Pihl has a passion for charity and especially for hunger awareness. Hammons asked Pihl about bringing his other band – December People – to Topeka to play a community benefit concert to benefit United Way and generate food donations for Project Topeka. Pihl checked his schedule and was quickly on board. Planning for the United Rocks! concert began immediately. Pihl visited Topeka Aug. 13, stopping at Wal-Mart and Let’s Help’s food pantry to record promo spots and radio and television interviews to promote the concert.

December People plays traditional Christmas songs in the styles of such artists as The Who, Santana, The Police, ZZ Top, Boston and others. The band has played sold out concerts on the east and west coasts, each time collecting truckloads of food from concert goers for local food banks and pantries. Everyone attending the Topeka concert on Nov. 22 is asked to bring two or three food items.

In 2013, food and monetary donations to Project Topeka helped fill approximately 4,700 emergency food orders, equating to 95,000 meals.