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story.lead_photo.caption Photo by Philip Thomas "He is so gifted at advocating for those in need, and giving a voice to the voiceless. He is able to communicate with small groups, large groups -- he is an incredible communicator. He has given the community a language that they can use in their advocacy." -- Dr. Jacob Kaler

Mike Rusch has a clear memory of when he realized what it meant to do volunteer work for others instead of volunteering to just make himself feel good.

Rusch, the chief executive officer of Pure Charity -- an organization that consults with nonprofits worldwide to help them maximize their fundraising efforts -- says that he, his wife Corrie and a group of friends from church decided they needed to make more of an effort to give back to the community. They volunteered at Restoration Village, a safe house in Little Flock for women and children escaping domestic abuse.

Be Like Mike

Here’s how to get involved with some of the organizations Mike Rusch mentioned in this interview.

Volunteer with Laundry Love by signing up at their website at servenwa.org/laundry-love/.

Cobblestone Farms could use volunteers who are willing to mow, maintain the deer fence, harvest the fruits and vegetables, help plant the crops, and more. Groups of 10 or more from churches or workplaces often volunteer together as a fun group project. Interested? Contact Brynn Crabb at brynn@cobblestoneproject.org.

Pure Charity has a section on its website where you can find out more about fundraisers happening all over the world — and donate if you care to. Find that at purecharity.com/discover.

Next Week

Meredith Lowry

Fayetteville

"This is a place where the staff are [confronting] the sexual exploitation of children -- I can't even get my head around it," he says from the Pure Charity offices in Bentonville, where the words "We choose hope" are prominently painted across one of the walls. Rusch is charismatic, but he lacks the ostentatious showmanship that many with charisma have. Instead, he convinces and inspires with a quiet, understated sincerity. "I didn't know how to help. That's probably one of the world's most difficult problems, complicated and layered. So we said, 'Tell you what, we're going to show up the first Saturday of every month, and we'll mow the grass, and we'll take out the trash, and we'll clean. If we can do those things, then that can save you time and money to focus on what you're doing, and maybe that will be helpful.'"

Rusch, Corrie and their friends had been doing this for about eight months when Rusch found himself clearing stubborn vines and brush away from the windows of one of the buildings on site.

"Some of our initial passion of wanting to do good in the world had now turned into, 'This isn't a whole lot of fun,'" he says with a wry smile. "I'm cleaning all of this out and grumbling, and David [Engle], the executive director, comes in and says, 'Mike, what are you doing?' And I said, 'I don't know, I'm just cleaning all of this up, it should never have gotten this bad.' I was probably being a real jerk. And he said, 'Mike, come with me.'"

Rusch says that Engle took him to a room where vines and weeds obstructed the view outside the window, then took him to a room where the overgrown brush had been cleared, offering a wide view of the landscape outside. He asked Rusch what he saw.

"I said, 'That's beautiful. I can see outside the valley,'" remembers Rusch. "And he said, 'No, you're missing it. When women and children come here and they look out the window and they can't see what's in the bushes, there's fear. But here, in this room, they can look out the window and know that there's no one there that's going to hurt them.' And it just changed everything. I could cry, thinking about it even today. It wasn't just about clearing out overgrown brush, this was about safety and security and something deeper, something more important."

At the time, Rusch was well into a successful career as a data analyst. His career started at Walmart, and -- much to the delight of his four children -- he soon moved up in the ranks at companies like Hershey, Walt Disney and Viacom, the parent company of Nickelodeon. But he says he had always felt the tug toward doing work that more directly helped solve age old problems like homelessness and hunger. He served in the Marine Corps in the middle of his college education, part of which was out of practicality: Rusch says he was feeling a lack of focus at school, and he didn't want to waste his parents' money on tuition until he had a better idea of what the future held for him. But it was also out of a sense of duty and obligation, following in the footsteps of his father, who was a veteran of the Vietnam War. His experience volunteering at Restoration Village and other places in the community only sharpened this desire to be of more service.

"We adopted our little girl from Ethiopia, and that really kind of opened our eyes up to the needs of the world internationally," he says. "I was trying to understand, 'How do we serve our community at the same time?' Then, almost 10 years ago, we heard about this national initiative called 'Laundry Love'."

Laundry Love

Laundry Love's mission was to rent out local laundromats and provide several hours of washer/dryer use for members of the community who could not afford to pay to clean their clothes. Rusch says working on this initiative changed his life.

"This was for people without homes and the working poor, for lack of better words," he says. "People right at the poverty line who are making decisions between clean clothes or whether [they] put gas in [their] car.

"Any time I'm talking about Laundry Love to a crowd of people, I'll ask them to lean over and smell the person next to them, which is the most awkward, weird, weird thing. But the way we smell will dictate how people treat us. And so there's an inherent lack of dignity [associated with dirty clothes]. Kids can't go to school because their clothes aren't clean. You can't go to work. It really, really, really matters."

Rusch says Laundry Love offered him the first opportunity he had to work directly with the housing insecure population of Northwest Arkansas.

"All of us have this idea of what a homeless person is, right?" he says. "We have this stereotype of what they are. And I think, through that process, that stereotype really began to break down for us. These were real people with real needs whose stories really aren't that different than ours. "

Rusch says volunteers for Laundry Love help participants carry laundry in and out, help to wash their clothes and provide and serve a meal. But, he says, there's a much deeper need that those volunteers meet.

"I'll never forget walking into those places and being scared to death to talk to a homeless person because I didn't know what to do," says Rusch. "Probably a year or two into it, I realized that I had all these things: I had a job, I had housing, I had health care, I had money in my pocket to get gas. I had financial resources. I thought that's what they needed, all of these things that I had, but I really didn't know how to give my relationship to them, because I was scared. 'You're different than me -- can I trust you? Can I let you into my house? Can I give you a ride in my car?' Yet, they had nothing. Some of these people that we were serving, in the world's eyes, they had nothing that would ever be of any value to me whatsoever. But they gave their relationship to me in a way that I never understood how to give. And so it was in those moments that I realized that the most valuable thing that someone can give is who they are and their relationship. It just radically transformed how I saw people, how I viewed people, how we make relationships.

"If my dad was homeless in South Fayetteville, I would leave what we're doing right now. Immediately, I would get my keys, I would drive down there, I would get him, and I would bring him into my home. But we don't do that [for people we aren't related to in some way.] And the only difference between [my dad and] the person who is my dad's age, who is homeless, living in a camp down in Fayetteville, is the relationship. And so what usually happens when someone is homeless is that a relationship has broken down somewhere, or they got sick for a couple of weeks, and they couldn't go to their job, and then they got fired, and then they couldn't make their rent, or their car broke down, and they couldn't get to work. And these little things become this tsunami of crushing defeat that you just can't get out of."

The secret, says Rusch, is figuring out a way to help those struggling to form personal relationships find the same meaningful, everyday interactions that most of us take for granted -- having someone to call for a ride to work, for example.

"You ask me what I need people to do through Laundry Love: I need you to go build relationships with human beings and understand what they need so that, potentially, you can start to undo that," he says.

Serve NWA

Right around the time Rusch and his wife, Corrie, got involved in Laundry Love, they set their sights on an even more ambitious plan by joining a group of like-minded friends to start The Cobblestone Project, a nonprofit organization whose mission included helping to eradicate hunger in the community.

"We realized we were in a community with a lot of people that wanted to help," says Rusch's friend and Cobblestone co-founder, Dr. Jacob Kaler, who was part of the group that volunteered at Restoration Village. "A lot of people who had time, talent and resources to offer but didn't know how to connect that with people. Mike was, by far, the driving force behind creating the Cobblestone Project. Our vision was a community without need -- whether that was physical, emotional, social, psychological. We wanted to connect those that had the ability to help with those who needed it most."

Kaler says that it was Rusch's intention to create an organization that was welcoming to anyone who wanted to help and to anyone who needed help.

"This was a faith-initiated event," he says. "It was our faith that moved all of us in that direction, to get together and build a community. But by setting up [The Cobblestone Project] as a non-religious 501(c)3 organization, we were able to set a table that anyone was able to sit at -- something that included everyone."

"I think he sees moving parts really well," says friend Seth Haines of Rusch's ability to start and run nonprofit initiatives. "He can see who fits where and sort of orchestrate that. He's a master puzzle player, so he knows if there's something that needs to happen to advance an organization, he knows the right person for that, and he'll spring forward and get those people in the right position and right place."

Today, Cobblestone Farm -- located off of Wedington Drive in Fayetteville -- distributes its bountiful harvest to the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, Samaritan House, Fayetteville Public Library's Books and Bites, the 2nd Street Pantry and Lifesource. In 2015, an offshoot of The Cobblestone Project group called Serve NWA was created in order to focus more squarely on the issues of housing insecurity through initiatives like Laundry Love.

But the largest initiative Serve NWA has launched is the New Beginnings Community, a transitional micro-shelter in the "housing first" model -- that is the theory that basic needs, like shelter and food, need to be met before work can be done on other factors often responsible for homelessness like drug and alcohol addiction and mental health issues. There's no pre-condition required in order to receive housing, and no drug and alcohol screenings are completed prior to someone being given a bed.

Over the summer, Serve NWA purchased over 4.5 acres of land on the south side of Fayetteville from the University of Arkansas, and its leaders hope to have the micro-shelter open before winter 2019.

Rusch says Serve NWA worked on this problem with Kevin Fitzpatrick, University of Arkansas professor, director of the UA's Community and Family Institute, and the person responsible for six biannual homeless censuses in Washington and Benton counties.

"Kevin said, 'I've got to figure out how to solve this problem because every time we do the census, this group grows more and people focus on it less,'" notes Rusch. Fitzpatrick warned Serve NWA that potential solutions would not be an easy sell. "It's really expensive, and no one will want it to happen in their back yard -- and place matters," Rusch says Fitzpatrick advised them. "You can't put them far off the grid. They need to have access to public transportation, they need to be able to get a meal, and they don't have cars. So they need to be centralized, but no one wants that to happen. Well, it's not that people don't want it to happen, they just don't want it to happen next to them."

Rusch says Fitzpatrick has been "crusading" for the "housing first" philosophy in shelters for some time now. The National Alliance to End Homelessness says that there is evidence that "rapid rehousing" is responsible for people exiting homelessness over two months faster and staying housed longer.

"This idea says that before someone can be sober, before they can have their mental health issues addressed, they need to be safe," explains Rusch. "It goes back to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. They need to be able to be safe and secure and dry and clean in a sanitary place, and then we can begin to work on their problems that may keep them in homelessness."

Pure Charity

From community volunteering to opening the NWA branch of Laundry Love to founding the Cobblestone Project to helping to launch Northwest Arkansas' first micro-shelter through Serve NWA: All of these initiatives were created and followed through on Rusch's personal time, outside of a very busy career. But six years ago, when he moved from the corporate sector to the nonprofit world in his professional life, he completed a circle that means that he now spends his life giving back globally.

"He saw a need that was bigger than what was going on in the corporate world," says Haines of Rusch's career change. "So in that moment, he thought, 'This is the right move for me -- to engage in this thing that is so much bigger than what I'm doing right now.' When he sees a need that is bigger, he almost always acts on it. It's a really cool thing to watch."

"My background in technology was just kind of a natural fit for the team," Rusch says of his work with Pure Charity, a Bentonville-based company started six years ago by Josh and Kristin Copher. "I feel like everything I did in that space may have been so that we could come and do this kind of work. There are great organizations out there in the world that are doing tremendous good. In the for-profit world, you put an idea together, you raise money, you get all of the tools, you get all of the people, and then you do it.And in the nonprofit world, you do the opposite of that: You start an organization, you push it forward, you put a website up, and then you try to figure out how to pay for it, and you try to get all the right people trying to figure out how to run it. And so we said, 'Hey, if we can help solve some operational problems' -- which was my background -- 'through technology, donor management systems, fundraising systems and fundraising expertise, if we could give the nonprofits the tools to do that, maybe that would help kind of push or take that burden away from nonprofits trying to figure it out, and save some money as well as allow them to raise more money.' And, hopefully, that would serve more people and ultimately be a good thing in the world.

"That was six years ago, and it has been crazy ever since, and I wouldn't trade it for the world. It's been beautiful and horrible and wonderful and full of joy and tears -- and now, this is just what we do and kind of who we are."

Rusch says that Pure Charity has worked with more than 1,500 organizations from all over the world in the last six years.

"These are organizations that are literally trying to solve problems in the history of humanity that have not been solved yet," he says. "So it's not an insignificant thing."

Testimonials on the Pure Charity website seem to indicate that the company is fulfilling the mission it set out to do. But Rusch says he gets out of his job as much as he puts into it.

"There is so much good going on in the world, and we get to see it every day," he says. "And so the narrative that we live our life by and that we see is this one of people being incredibly generous, of good being done, of lives being changed. It's not what we hear on the news all the time. But we see this working itself out with everyday people like you and me who just said, 'I want to do something that matters. I want to help another person.' I think we all want to be a part of something bigger.

"There's just so much beauty in this world."

Courtesy photo "Mike may be the best listener I've ever met, and I think that's just a really good quality to have. He listens without expectation. He's not listening for the purpose of telling you what to do, or getting anything out of you -- he's listening without expectation, and I think that really makes you feel known." -- Seth Haines

NAN Profiles on 12/30/2018

Print Headline: Mike Rusch

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