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Mad Hops for Humanity

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Spencer presents the IRC in Seattle's Executive Director, Nicky Smith, with a check after successfully dunking a basketball for refugees. Two of Spencer's kids also join in the fun!

Photo: Kevin Connelly/IRC

A year ago, Spencer Darrington – like many of us – wasn't very familiar with refugee issues or refugee resettlement. He first became aware of the scale of today’s refugee crisis after hearing a leader of his church speak. Spencer learned there are more than 60 million forcibly displaced people and that half of the world’s refugees are children. He was shocked.

While taken aback by these numbers, Spencer admits he wasn’t immediately stirred to action: “Somebody did do something, but that somebody wasn’t me. That somebody was my wife, Heather.  A day later, thoughts of the refugee crisis were no longer on my radar, but for her the fire was kindling, and before long, she was on a mission to do more than just empathize, but to do something to realize a better future for these individuals who are in the direst of circumstances.” Heather reached out to the IRC and got straight to work organizing a winter coat drive for newly-arrived refugees, assisting the IRC with an office move, and later coordinating a large-scale hygiene kit drive with the broader LDS community in Redmond.

Spencer contributed to these efforts, too, and began to learn more about the IRC’s programs and the staff and volunteers running them. This led to an opportunity for Heather and Spencer to set up an apartment for a Syrian family who had just arrived to Seattle with nothing but the basics. “With neighbors and friends, we collected donated furniture and other household items, and spent part of a day staging the modest apartment in anticipation of their arrival,” says Spencer. “Our children lovingly arranged Piglet, Eeyore, and Winnie the Pooh along other simple toys for the two little girls; each bed was perfectly made; each lamp meticulously placed.  We wanted every inch of the apartment to say ‘welcome’ as they arrived exhausted, completing a journey of a year or more to get here—on the cusp of starting a journey to make a new life that will take years to complete.”        

A week later, Spencer and Heather received a thank you letter from the IRC, along with some photos of the mother, father, and two young girls they helped (with permission from the family). This was a turning point for Spencer: “When I saw the pictures of the little girls playing with their toys, I couldn’t help but tear up.  I didn’t know this family, but suddenly it felt like “our family.”  For us, readying the apartment was a few phone calls and a morning of our time; for them, it was a home and a refuge—it was everything. In that moment, something changed inside of me. I knew I wanted to do more, I needed to help more.” It was then that the idea for Spencer’s “Mad Hops for Humanity” campaign was born.

While getting to know the IRC team, Spencer learned that access to transportation can be a major challenge for refugee families during their transition to a new home and community. The IRC in Seattle dreamt of purchasing a passenger van to pick up newly-arrived families at the airport, take families to medical appointments and other critical services, help refugee job seekers attend job interviews and professional development opportunities, facilitate community field trips for refugee youth and elders, and more. In April 2017, Spencer decided to take up this cause in particular, launching an ambitious fundraising campaign while training to dunk a basketball by his 44th birthday in August. All contributions to the campaign would go toward purchasing and maintaining a passenger van for the IRC in Seattle.

Spencer put all of his energy behind the campaign. In addition to physically training to dunk a basketball within four months – no small feat! – Spencer also created a Facebook page, Twitter feed, Instagram account, and blog, inviting community members to follow along on his “sojourn to slam.” Spencer opens up on the blog, sharing personal stories that have shaped his current views on refugees, including the harrowing experience of being caught in a war zone during the 1992 military coup attempt in Venezuela.

Friends and family of Spencer and Heather immediately began supporting the campaign. Donations of $25, $50, $100 trickled in steadily for the first several weeks. As with many fundraising campaigns, donations began to slow down after a time, but Spencer would not be deterred from his goal of raising $44,000. Spencer asked his employer, Expedia, to help promote the donation drive internally at the company, which led many of Spencer’s colleagues to contribute to the fundraiser. Expedia also provided an impressive match for employee contributions, which totaled $20,000. As word about the campaign spread, other community members not personally affiliated with Spencer and his family also stepped up to help the cause. For example, NE Seattle Service Club hosted a bake sale that generated $2,400 for the campaign.

As Spencer’s deadline neared, he prepared for the next big challenge: the dunk. On the morning of August 3rd at a middle school gym in Tukwila, a community of supporters cheered on Spencer while he bravely dunked a basketball for seemingly all the world to see. The atmosphere was electric. All of the positive energy from the crowd – which included youth and families who will benefit from the passenger van – helped Spencer get the extra boost he needed to get above the rim.

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Part of what makes Spencer and Heather’s story so inspiring is that it demonstrates how anyone can make a difference. They made a deliberate decision – one we can all make – to be more active in supporting people who need help in our community. They activated their personal networks, including friends, family, and colleagues, to generate a tremendous amount of support for a cause they care deeply about. Plus, by opening up on their blog and sharing their own journey, Spencer and Heather are also motivating others to take action.

As of this post’s publication, the Mad Hops for Humanity campaign has generated an incredible $42,855 and remains open to contributions if you’d like to help Spencer officially meet his $44,000 goal. Thank you to everyone who has donated and helped make this dream come true.