I’ve been a member of The Downtown Optimist Club for over 15 years now. During that time, I’ve served as an officer in almost every position. I’ve helped raise money to support Youth programs in and around Meridian, MS and Lauderdale County. And I’ve listened to speakers come and request money for all kinds of projects, programs, events, and activities. And not once has any of these speakers affected me the way our speaker did yesterday.
Once per week, the Downtown Optimist Club members gather to eat lunch and socialize. After everyone gets their lunch and the volume of chatter drops due to the chewing, the meeting is called to order. Grace is asked over the food, we pledge allegiance to the U.S. Flag, guests are introduced and if we have a speaker they are given the floor.
This day our speaker was a man by the name of Gary Turbville. Gary’s not a flashy guy. He’s not a polished speaker. In fact, most of the time he was talking, he was looking at the floor. He spoke quietly yet confidently about his pet project and only checked his notes (written in pencil on the back of a folded peace of paper) a couple of times to make sure he quoted certain figures correctly. If you saw Gary walking down the street and you didn’t know him, he probably wouldn’t stand out. He’s just a regular working man probably in his mid to late 50’s. Gary’s hands are the rough hands of a man who has worked hard most of his life. He is thin, wears blue jeans and if you put him in boots and a cowboy hat, he’d look just like a rancher from out West. His face bears the lines and weathered marks of a man who has worked outdoors for many years.
I tell you all this to help you understand the stunning effect this simple working man had on me. You see back in 1995, Gary took notice of two families that had fallen on hard times and were having trouble making ends meet. He decided he could do something to help out, so he started collecting aluminum soda cans, selling them and then he gave the money to these two families. From this humble beginning, CANS for Kids was born.
Fast forward to yesterday.
Gary explained to us that CANS for Kids is his passion, his mission in life. He didn’t say it that way, you just knew after a few minutes that this man lives his life with purpose. This year Gary and other people who have volunteered to help him in this purpose have collected enough soda cans to raise over $20,000. Just in case you wondered how many cans this actually is, think about this: aluminum sells for between .40 and .65 cents per pound. That means that Gary picked up between 30,000 and 50,000 pounds of aluminum cans, delivered them to the scrap yard, sold them and has used the money for one purpose: to help kids in need. To drive the point home, understand that it takes about 28 soda cans to make a pound of aluminum. Therefore, in one year Gary collected between 840,000 and 1.4 million soda cans.
Gary and every volunteer that works with CANS for Kids pays for their own gas to go anywhere and pick up soda cans. No one gets a salary or payment of any kind from CANS for Kids. All expenses with the exception of purchasing plastic bags to collect the cans are paid out of the pockets of the volunteers. Gary builds collection bins himself and has set several of them up as drop-offs in different locations around Meridian. Gary and other volunteers work seven days per week to pick up collected cans. Anyone who calls Gary and tells him they have cans for him, he goes and gets them, no matter how far he has to go and no matter how few cans they have. Gary often travels to motorcycle rallies and spends up to four days gathering enough cans to make about $500 off each rally.
This year, CANS for Kids will provide Christmas presents to 90 children who otherwise would not have any Christmas at all. But CANS for Kids doesn’t help everyone who asks, a volunteer goes to the home of each person in need and meets with the whole family to determine the true extent of need before they help. They work with other local charities to prevent “double-dipping” which is their term for people who visit one charity after another accumulating assistance from multiple sources.
CANS for Kids is about helping as many children as possible and they don’t limit their help to Christmas time. Gary believes that a child who comes home to a house without electricity because mom or dad couldn’t pay the light bill, or a home with no heat because the family car broke down and choices had to be made, is not an environment that children can flourish in. Nor can a child study well if they are cold or have no light. So when necessary, CANS for Kids pays electric and gas bills throughout the year. If food is needed, CANS for Kids buys groceries. In the end, Gary believes that each of these small measures of assistance go a long way to changing a child’s life for the better in the long run.
As I sat there listening to this unassuming man speak about the challenges of dropping aluminum prices and yet expressing how blessed he is to be able to help people and their kids, I realized something about Gary Turbville. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand how special he and CANS for Kids really are. He came to The Downtown Optimist Club not to ask for money or assistance or volunteers. He came to ask for our soda cans. Gary is single-minded about his purpose in life. Gary is going to keep on asking for and collecting cans and helping kids simply because it is what he is supposed to do. For Gary, it’s not about raising money, although all money raised goes to help him help kids. It’s not about ego, because I’m convinced that he doesn’t have any ego when it comes to CANS for Kids. It’s not about marketing this charity, because Gary is not a marketing kind of guy. It’s about Gary living out his purpose. And all I wanted to do while listening to him was help him live that purpose.
During his time at the podium, I had a V-8 moment. You know the moment when you slap your forehead? I remember thinking to myself, “Could it really be as simple as a guy picking up cans? Can something that simple change lives?” Gary never asked that question of himself, he just went ahead and changed lives with soda cans while the rest of us sat around and wondered why we didn’t think of that.
As soon as I got back to my office, I looked up the CANS for Kids website and something else struck me. Gary didn’t mention this nor is it referred to on the site. However, I found the name, CANS for Kids, slightly ironic for with every soda can Gary collects, he is helping children say ‘I can’ instead of “I can’t”. From where I’m sitting, that is powerful stuff!
So, I’m writing this, hoping you’ll read it and consider giving Gary some cans, or money, or manpower. I do not do this very often. I usually write stuff on this site just to be writing and perhaps to make someone smile. I generally don’t ask readers to act on anything I write or challenge them to do anything with the information I provide. But today, I’m going to ask you to act. A hero is a person who recognizes a need and sets out to meet that need just because they believe they can make a difference. Gary could use a few heroes to step forward and help him continue to make a difference.
CANS for Kids
“Save a can, help a child”
Attn: Gary Turbville
10898 Gilbert Joyner Road
Meridian, MS 39305