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On Mission to Feed the Hungry

On Mission to Feed the Hungry

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With attractions such as Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, and beaches along its more than 40 miles of coastline, Orange County in California is a popular tourist destination and home to some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country.

Yet nestled among the affluent are nearly 350,000 people, or 11.4 per cent of residents, who struggle with hunger.

Hoping to bridge that gap is Nicole Thompson Suydam, Vanguard University alumni association president and Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County CEO.

"People normally don't think others are going hungry," she says. "Our goal is really to engage the community, engage the food industry, and educate people that hunger actually does exist."

Suydam, of Aliso Viejo, California, manages over 70 employees and oversees the distribution of more than 20 million pounds of food a year from Second Harvest's 121,000 square-foot food distribution facility.

Through a network of 320 community partners distributing food at 440 locations, the organization feeds more than 200,000 individuals each month. Community partners include nonprofit organizations such as shelters, churches, homes for abused women and children, and local pantries.

Suydam says she felt called at a young age to help those in need. She credits her mother and grandmother as her greatest influences and describes them as strong, Christian women. Both single parents, she says they were generous with time and resources despite their financial struggles.

"Their example is what got me to want to be somebody who makes a difference and helps others," she says.

With her sights set on attending a Christian college, Suydam visited Vanguard University her senior year in high school. During a chapel service on campus, she says she strongly sensed the presence of the Lord leading her there. Initially she had an eye on a political career, but her focus changed her senior year while working on a class project for a nonprofit.

"It was through that class that I really discovered that I wanted to put my abilities and talents toward the nonprofit world," she says.

In 1997, she was hired as development manager for Second Harvest, directing the organization's fundraising and communications programs. In 2001, Suydam moved to Washington, D.C., with her husband Michael. In the nation's capital she led fund development for a national nonprofit focused on helping low-income women and youth become self-sufficient.

She returned to Southern California in 2003 as vice president of development for Goodwill of Orange County, which provided her with leadership and management opportunities. She returned to Second Harvest as CEO in 2012.

While much of her work now focuses on bringing in resources to support the organization's partners, she says it's important to always keep the mission in front of her. During a distribution at a church in Anaheim, a woman shared how she would go "dumpster-diving" for food at a local grocery story after her husband lost his job, but doesn't have to do that anymore thanks to the food she receives from Second Harvest.

Stories like this make Suydam feel fulfilled and challenged. Suydam says her whole family shares in her passion and that it has become their ministry together.

Her daughters Lauren, 10, and Hannah, 7, often can be found packing food, attending food drives, and picking crops at Incredible Edible Farm, an urban agricultural site where Second Harvest grows fresh produce to feed the hungry. Husband Michael, who owns a strategic communications/public relations firm, is among the 18,000 volunteers with the organization.

Second Harvest provides 19.5 million of the 61 million missed meals in its community each year.

"This is my calling, this is my purpose," she says. "I always thank God for the opportunity to do this work."


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