After a life-changing trip to Tanzania, Rebecca Wofford saw a problem and wanted to be part of the solution — so she created The Lunch Project, a nonprofit designed to provide meals for children living in poverty across the globe. Not only is The Lunch Project helping better the lives of children around the world, Rebecca says it’s also helped her become a better lawyer. We are excited to introduce you to today’s FACE of Charlotte, Rebecca Wofford, and tell you more about her nonprofit, The Lunch Project.
Tell us a little about The Lunch Project.
The Lunch Project (TLP) is a nonprofit organization working in Tanzania, East Africa and Charlotte, NC. TLP gives kids the fuel to learn. In Tanzania, the “fuel to learn” means a simple meal while the children are attending public school. This meal is locally sourced and prepared by the mamas of the children who attend school. In this way, TLP gives back to the local community through economic stimulation. The goal is for economic stimulation and education to help lift these communities out of poverty. In the U.S., kids also need the “fuel to learn” but that fuel takes a different form. We offer global empathy education to area elementary schools so students here can “walk in the shoes” of a child growing up on the other side of the globe and learn how their community works together to make their lunch program happen every day. Kids put empathy into action by conducting service projects that help other kids including those served by TLP.
What inspired you to create the project?
In 2011, I was in Tanzania with law students, and we were researching the outcome of the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of “primary school education for all children in developing countries.” We learned that public schools had recently become open to all children in Tanzania but that schools were struggling with attendance and outcomes. We learned that resources were scarce and that although kids attended school for relatively the same amount of time each day that our kids here attend school, they did so without any food. No fuel in the belly meant kids were struggling to attend and learn. The head teacher of Lemanyata Primary School, a school we visited during this first trip, asked me if we could help. This simple question sparked the idea that became TLP.
I was asked a simple question in the middle of Africa — “Can you help us?” and I said, “yes” and it changed my life for the better. I am often embarrassed that people think TLP is my gift to others when TLP has been an amazing gift to me. All of the people involved in TLP from the mamas in Africa to the volunteers who devote their time tirelessly in Charlotte have turned this simple idea into this wonderful project, and I am amazed every time someone “gets it” and wants to help.
How did your background in law lend itself to starting the nonprofit?
My background in law not only was the reason I was in Tanzania, because the opportunity came through my work as a law professor, but my background in law helped me start TLP. Lawyers are critical, analytical thinkers, so I asked several lawyers to be on our founding board including our board chair, Tricia Sistrunk, who attended law school with me. She and our board really helped us implement TLP including our incorporation and by-laws as well as thinking through each logical task that followed. Now, my nonprofit background is having an impact on my law practice. I recently transitioned to a collaborative family law practice, which is empathy-based out-court representation of family law clients. I had no idea that what I learned about empathy through TLP would help me become a better lawyer.
What’s been the most rewarding part of running The Lunch Project?
Watching the children in both communities desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves and to change their world. The children in Tanzania want an education so they can better their communities. The children in Charlotte empathize with children across the globe and want to help them.
What are your hopes for the future of the project?
My hope is that our global empathy education spreads to other communities in the U.S. so we help our children become better global citizens. Growing empathy here will also create more lunch programs in Tanzania so more children will become educated and more communities will be lifted out of poverty.
How do you balance your work life, home life and running The Lunch Project?
I practice family law full-time, and my husband and I own our business, Wofford Law, PLLC. We have two children in middle school, so life is really busy! Our children spend after-school hours in the loft above our office, which really helps. I ran TLP until October 2015, at which time our board hired our first Executive Director, Charlotte native Cindy Quinlan. I have more balance in my life now that we have Cindy on board running the day-to-day operations of TLP.
What inspires you on a daily basis?
My children inspire me on a daily basis. They have grown up with TLP, and they practice empathy much better than I do. My son recently helped lead an empathy lesson with his youth group at church. My daughter really notices when a friend or stranger is hurting and always wants to help. It helps me remember to practice empathy with my family, friends and clients.
What’s something people would be surprised to know about you?
That I grew up in West Virginia and my mom worked as a cook in an elementary school near our hometown. She wanted her children to become professionals, and my parents sacrificed to send all of us to college. When I met the mamas in Tanzania, I had an immediate connection to them because I understood why they wanted to cook at their children’s school.
How do you relax and unwind?
Most often, I relax by reading a good book or piling on the couch with my family to watch HGTV or a movie. I enjoy lunch or dinner out with family or friends. Other interests include listening to live music — especially low-key singer-songwriters — hiking and being in the mountains. When I really need to think, I enjoy pulling weeds in our rock wall out back. That’s what my faith friends and I refer to as “monk work,” and it really helps clear my head.
Best piece of advice?
You cannot be anyone other than yourself. When I am true to who I am, things have a way of magically working out.
Is there a motto or mantra you live by?
You cannot change other people. You can only change how you react to them.
What’s your favorite place to travel and why?
Tanzania. It is a beautiful place with beautiful people who welcome strangers with open arms. Locally, we go to Asheville a lot because my husband and I spent our first year of marriage living there and because it has a cool vibe that makes us feel like young dreamers.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Coffee, HGTV (especially Fixer Upper) and a baseball cap.
Thank you to Piper Warlick of Piper Warlick Photography for the beautiful photos.
Read about more inspiring women in Charlotte — check out our FACES archives.
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