PubCorps taps into community to change the way people volunteer

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
John Richardon, right, and J.P. Kennedy will launch PubCorps with a Sunday Brunch Launch at the Asheville Masonic Temple on Sept. 15. The organization will tap into area restaurants, breweries and more to create volunteer opportunities.

A new nonprofit organization is tapping into a unique approach as it seeks to strengthen communities around serving others. 

PubCorps will launch with a Sunday Lunch Brunch at the Asheville Masonic Temple from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, with a goal of fundamentally changing the way people volunteer.

Black Mountain business owner John Richardson noticed something in 2015, when he began volunteering at Haywood Street in Asheville with his Ale House employees. 

“We had a great time,” he said of their first trip to the United Methodist mission that offers programs for area residents experiencing homelessness. “Everyone enjoyed the experience so much that when I talk to my staff at the end of each year, they all consistently say that the opportunity to give back at Haywood Street was one of the highlights of their year.”

Not only did the employees find the experience rewarding, it impacted them in ways they hadn't anticipated. It strengthened their bond, according to Richardson. 

“It really made us a better restaurant,” he said. “Most folks are in agreement that giving back is important, both individually and collectively, but only one out of four Americans volunteer. I think that's because we haven't made giving back simple enough."

Richardson, who is also one of three owners of Black Mountain Brewing, started calling the service trips PubCorps, and a pair of separate issues coalesced into a single concept.

“So not only do you have 75% of the country not volunteering, we're also dealing with a crisis of loneliness, as a society,” he said. "We live in a world where everyone is so plugged into their devices, they often feel disconnected from the people around them."

However, as his employees would gather following their trips to Haywood Street, they were more interested in recounting their shared experience than looking at their smartphones. 

"I wanted to figure out a way to make volunteering easier for people and help reconnect the community at the same time," Richardson said. "So PubCorps isn't just about volunteering, or about getting together and having a beer or coffee or soda, it's about what can happen when you connect everyone and provide them with an opportunity to give back."

With pubs, restaurants and breweries serving as "the new American gathering place," the organization can reach a wide array of would-be volunteers. 

"We're not reinventing the wheel," Richardson said. "We simply want to do for volunteering what Uber and Lyft have done for transportation and allow people to connect with an opportunity through the ease of a smartphone."

PubCorps volunteers serve meals at the Asheville Buncombe County Christian Ministry's Veterans Restoration Quarters.

Participants sign up for PubCorps online and receive information about scheduled meet-ups. They volunteer at nonprofits that serve the needs of local residents and head back to a participating pub or restaurant where they receive a free beer, coffee or soda, when they're done. 

"It's the best idea I've heard in a long time," said J.P. Kennedy, who joined PubCorps to head up digital marketing and media relations. "People want to work together to make their community better; we just hunger for it at this time with so much information coming at us tearing us apart. We want to do simple acts to help make it better."

Western North Carolina, according to Richardson, provided the perfect setting to launch the concept. 

"I'm in the right place at the right time," he said. "The spirit of camaraderie among the breweries and restaurants in this area is amazing. Everybody wants to be part of the greater good."

Pisgah Brewing Co. collaborated with Black Mountain Brewing to introduce PubCorps Blonde Ale in support of the initiative. 

"The kegs sold out before it even came to market," Richardson said. "It's my understanding it's the fastest-selling beer they've ever produced. It's a beer with a story to tell."

The Black Mountain-based brewery was one of several area businesses, including presenting sponsor of the upcoming brunch, Symmetry Financial Group in Swannanoa, to support the venture. 

"People have really gravitated to this," Kennedy said. "Not only do we have a beer collaboration, but we also have New Belgium giving us space to store the 100,000 meals we'll distribute from the brunch and Bounty & Soul supporting us. We have a calendar with 10 to 12 breweries or pubs giving us an evening to go into their communities to explain what we're doing and I don't think you see that kind of response unless you have a great idea."

The PubCorps Sunday Brunch Launch, which will take place on the final day of the inaugural Chow Chow festival in downtown Asheville, is expected to draw around 500 volunteers, according to Richardson. Participants pay $5 to package meals that will be distributed to area residents battling food insecurity. 

"With that $5 you also get a free t-shirt and a cup of coffee," he said. "It'll be followed by an after-party and we'll announce the location during the event. It's going to be a great time."

The goal of PubCorps, Richardson continued, is "to be a model for how to use craft beer to build community."

"We want to use the area's reputation as 'Beer City' to help establish it as 'Volunteer City,'" he said.  "We want to rewrite the narrative of what it means to be Beer City and we can tap into that community and use it for the greater good."