Have you ever been really hungry? Not just “when’s dinner”? hungry but weak and in pain and desperate–not knowing when or how you could find food? On any given day, that’s the condition of millions of people in this count alone, and 20 years ago Alan Shawn Feinstein set out to fight it.
He had the money. Through a remarkable combination of determination and good luck, he had gone from a middle-class life teaching in junior high school and writing a financial column in a small-circulation newspaper to starting a financial newsletter and building it into an immensely profitable business. His warning that gold and silver were overvalued three days before their prices crashed helped build the circulation to over 500,000. Then, in 1996, he retired from publishing to devote himself full time to philanthropy.
Right in Providence he had two giants in the hunger alleviation movement as models. Sister Fran Conway had been organizing and operating soup kitchens and food pantries of years. And, over at Brown University, President Howard R. Swearer had founded the World Hunger Campaign, the first university center to study and attempt to end the causes of hunger.
Inspired by his own teaching experiences years before, Feinstein worked with Swearer to launch the World Hunger Brigade, a program that encourages junior high school students to study hunger and design programs to fight it. At the university level, Feinstein’s and Swearer’s efforts continue today with the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts University, which carries out projects designed to help reduce hunger in countries around the world, and the Center for a Hunger Free America at the University of Rhode Island. Anti-hunger awareness has been built through participation in events at the centers by such celebrities as Morley Safer, Audrey Hepburn and Ellie Wiesel.
On his own Feinstein conducted two major efforts. One was initiating an annual $1 million giveaway to anti-hunger agencies nationwide to spur their own fund raising.
Years before his retirement, in a speech before the annual Rhode Island Philanthropy Day banquet, he made a $100,000 challenge, offering to match up to $100,000 in donations to any Rhode Island non-profit over the following 30 days. If more than $100,000 was raised, he would divide up his $100,000 proportionately. “The results exceeded my wildest expectations,” he remembers. “Over $1 million was raised from my challenge.”
That prompted his $1 million nationwide challenge, which has raised over $2.5 billion.
His other major effort was initiating a scholarship/school program encouraging youngsters to do good deeds. “After successful publishing career, I wanted more,” he says. “I wanted to go back to my roots of teaching and helping the needy. So that’s when I started my school program.”
Believing that “children are never too young to be taught to help others in need”, his plan developed out of his teaching experience, which he had thoroughly enjoyed. For some things, you need a village. For others, like alleviating widespread hunger, you need an army. And the Feinstein Army of tens of thousands of four- to 14-year olds would be recruited from elementary and junior high schools in Rhode Island and nearby sections of Massachusetts.
Now half of the schools in Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts are Feinstein Leadership Schools. “All of these boys and girls do so many wonderful good deeds, and I’m glad I can inspire them to do it,” he says. “They have the power to reach out to help other people.”
There are now over 250,000 Feinstein Jr. Scholars, both current students and alumni of Feinstein Leadership Schools. They have all pledged to do good things to help the needy. “I’m so proud of them,” he says. “We have several million dollars in scholarships in Rhode Island colleges. The scholarships are available to all students, but our Rhode Island junior scholars get a leg up when they apply to college.
“The most important thing I’ve done, even in fighting hunger, is to make children from the ages of 5 and up realize that they can make a positive difference in the lives of others,” he says. “Most like to make a life-time commitment. They know that every time they do something good for someone else they make the world a better place. That makes them very special people.”
As well as being inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1995, his many honors include the American Historical Society’s Distinguished Services Award, the American Red Cross Longfellow Humanitarian Award, the first Rhode Island Citizen of the Year Award by the March of Dimes Foundation and the first humanitarian award given by his hometown of Cranston. He has received the prestigious President’s Medal from Brown University and Rhode Island College, and honorary doctorate degrees from Providence College, Salve Regina University, Johnson and Wales University, Roger Williams University, Rhode Island College, the University of Rhode Island and the New England Institute of Technology.
He founded the Citizenship Center at the International Institute of Rhode Island and has given start-up funds to over 200 houses of worship throughout the country to start food pantries available to everyone in need in their communities regardless of their religious affiliation.
Many schools in Rhode Island have been named for him including the Graduate School of Johnson & Wales University, the College of Arts and Science at Roger Williams University, the School of Education at Rhode Island College, the College of Continuing Education at the University of Rhode Island, several elementary schools and pre-schools, the middle school in Coventry, the Learning Academy in Woonsocket – plus elementary schools in Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Kenya. With the help of former Rhode Island College President John Nazarian, he also founded the Institute of Philanthropic Leadership at that college. Over 150 public and parochial schools identify themselves as Feinstein Leadership Schools, encouraging their students to share his commitment to reaching out of help others in need.