Rachel Zelon founded Hunger Relief International (HRI) in 2009 as a Judeo-
Christian nonprofit relief organization working to alleviate the impact of hunger on the lives of malnourished children and their families as a first step in a long-term strategy to achieve self-sufficiency. HRI serves those affected by extreme poverty or natural disasters who lack food, water, education and/or sanitation by responding to crisis, building resilience and creating opportunities that treat and prevent the short and long-term effects of hunger and malnutrition. A provider of more than 11 million meals, HRI spends 91 cents of every dollar raised directly on its program expenses.

It was Stay Thirsty Magazine’s privilege to visit with Rachel Zelon for this Conversation and to name Hunger Relief International the Stay Thirsty Worthy Cause for Fall 2018.

STAY THIRSTY: What is Beat Hunger and why did you create this campaign?

RACHEL ZELON: The Beat Hunger campaign was created to bring awareness to the ongoing need for nutritious food and support for millions of Haitians living in extreme poverty. While Haiti is largely out of the news cycle, the need remains critical!

STAY THIRSTY: How were the celebrity drummers for this project chosen and how have they raised the visibility of your work?

RACHEL ZELON: In order to speak to the widest audience, we approached well-known, highly influential artists from a variety of genres including rock, R&B, hip hop, alternative and classical. Stewart Copeland, the Grammy-winning drummer of The Police, and Sheila E., known for her work with Prince, are all-time greats, listed in the Top 100 drummers of all time in Rolling Stone. We were also able to work with newer artists like Rico Nichols, the talented, young drummer for Pulitzer and Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar. The complete roster includes Stewart Copeland, Sheila E., Kenny Aronoff, Dame Evelyn Glennie, Stephen Perkins, Mix Master Mike, Kristen Gleeson-Prata, and Rico Nichols.

Beat Hunger

Each of the artists has worked closely with us, and utilized their personal media platforms, to support the cause. The hashtag “#BeatHunger” organically generated more than 4.5 million impressions across social media in just a few weeks. The videos have generated hundreds of thousands of views around the world. Like Stewart Copeland said, “…we’re banging up a noise to get society to focus on what can be done to beat hunger on this earth.” We are so grateful to these artists for donating their time and talent to HRI.

STAY THIRSTY: Why did you choose Haiti back in 2017 as a location for Hunger Relief International (HRI) to focus on?

RACHEL ZELON: It was actually 2010 when we chose to work in Haiti. One of the primary reasons was that we were just launching HRI at the time of the massive earthquake that left hundreds of thousands of people dead, homeless and facing dire conditions in Haiti. Additionally, Haiti is one of the 15 poorest countries in the world today, and yet it is located only a little over two hours from U.S. shores. It seemed an obvious choice for HRI to work with suffering people in a neighboring country, where hunger, malnutrition, extreme poverty, lack of clean water and sanitation are rampant.

Young Girl in Haiti

STAY THIRSTY: What is HRI’s core mission and where has HRI gone before?

RACHEL ZELON: HRI is still a small, albeit growing, organization. Our core mission is to alleviate the impact of hunger on the lives of malnourished children and their families as a first step in a long-term strategy to achieve family and community self-sufficiency. Right now, HRI is working in Haiti and Guatemala. We are determined to ensure that we are substantive in our work – we don’t want to say we work in 10 countries but barely scrape the surface anywhere. I’d much rather we focus our efforts in two or three countries and really have a significant impact on people’s lives. Haiti, as I previously mentioned, is one of the 15 poorest countries in the world and Guatemala has the 6th highest rate of chronic malnutrition and stunted growth among children under the age of 5. Both very compelling reasons to focus our energy and resources in these two countries – neighbors of the U.S.  

HRI'S Rachel Zelon

STAY THIRSTY: You have devoted your life for the past 30 years to humanitarian efforts by putting your own boots on the ground to help others in need. Which projects have been the most rewarding for you and which have been the most challenging?

RACHEL ZELON: I have loved every project I have been lucky enough to work on throughout my career. The work we are doing today in Haiti and Guatemala is certainly among the most challenging and rewarding. I say challenging because we are talking about changing behaviors and that is very, very difficult. We’ve seen it over the last 50+ years of work in developing countries. We know that certain behaviors will result in improved outcomes for children; in other words, better health and as a result, opportunity. However, the importance of customs, traditions and cultures on human behavior cannot be minimized either. So, finding that balance of identifying ways that will lead to behavioral change while being respectful of the customary is challenging, in a good way. That is why I think that HRI’s approach – working with host country national professionals (Haitians, Guatemalans, etc.) leading the way is a critical factor to affecting positive change and ultimately to giving children, families and communities an opportunity to improve their futures. The rewards are when we have parents that have never been able to send their children to school, able to do so with money they have earned after a 24-class training program! It is seeing children turn into responsible, self-sufficient adults and parents, with healthy children.

The key for me is to take it one day at a time, one person at a time and to understand that if we save or change one life, we have truly saved the whole world.

Young Boy in Haiti

STAY THIRSTY: HRI acts by “responding to crisis, building resilience and creating opportunities that treat and prevent short and long-term effects of hunger and malnutrition.” How do you go about setting up a program like the one in Haiti and how do you measure its effectiveness? What has been the impact of HRI’s work in Haiti vs. your work in other countries?

RACHEL ZELON: This is where we take our lessons learned from years of personal experience and that of other professionals around the world. Before anything else, we will always implement a needs assessment to understand what the needs and gaps in service are, and how they are impacting a specific target population. Then, we begin to work as a team – I am a very strong believer that teamwork is the absolute key to achieving the best programs – to come up with innovative strategies to address the gaps in service. We always take into consideration the local customs, culture and traditions, and make sure that every activity and program is respectful of these. Once we have a detailed plan, literally down to what we will do each day, we begin implementation. And that’s where the next challenge arises – the need for flexibility! A diverse group of professionals may have the best ideas in the world but that does not mean the execution of those plans and ideas will work as intended. So, we always need to be able to make adjustments as needed, to rethink and re-tool quickly and appropriately. Once we finally feel comfortable with how a program is functioning, it’s really a matter of implementing, monitoring, evaluating and always making modifications, as needed.

You ask how we measure our effectiveness – that will vary with the specific program, and the goals and objectives we set for each. In Haiti, for example, we have seen progressive and measurable improvement in the health and well-being of children living in residential institutions. Their growth – weight and height for age – has improved and most of the 1,500+ children we work with are well within the norm or approaching normal. We have seen improved academic achievement due to improved diet and health, and fewer waterborne and sanitation-related illnesses. All of these represent measurable outcomes that show a nutritional support program is working. With the families we are working with, we also have measurable outcomes – all of the families and children participating in our Children First Program during the 2017/2018 academic year are re-enrolled in school, their parents have paid for their tuition, uniforms and school supplies from money they earned through their new or expanded businesses as a result of the HRI parent training program. The health of the children is also followed carefully by our nurse on the ground (Haitian, of course) and these children are all receiving nourishing food both at home and at school. These are all very positive indicators of the “success” of programs.

Every country and program has its own unique challenges and varying needs. The key to any program is to start where the beneficiary is and go from there. We are patient, professional and always, always work in partnership with local communities, churches, schools and businesses. It truly “takes a village” and lots of patience to see true change.

Young Boy with Rachel Zelon in Haiti

STAY THIRSTY: How do you and HRI work with local institutions, like churches, schools and local governments, in crisis regions?

RACHEL ZELON: In any program, project or crisis relief effort a good organization will partner with other like-minded organizations also working in the area – we don’t ever want to duplicate services, especially in an emergency situation. In addition, at HRI our key partners will always be local institutions that include, but are certainly not limited to, community groups, schools, churches and certainly local governments. The type of work that we do, whether it’s an emergency relief effort or working on long-term, sustainable solutions to hunger or extreme poverty, absolutely requires diverse partners that bring their specific skill sets, knowledge, influence and leadership to the table.  

STAY THIRSTY: Your organization raises a great deal of funds. Where does the money typically come from and how much of the funding goes to your programs versus HRI’s administration and overhead?

RACHEL ZELON: Thanks, we would love to raise more funds and be able to reach even more vulnerable children and families. HRI’s funding comes largely from individual donors from all over the world as well as churches, synagogues and family foundations. On average over the last eight years, HRI has spent ninety-one cents of every dollar directly on our programs, leaving nine cents of every dollar to cover our fundraising and administration. That’s a pretty good percentage for programs, and keep in mind, we do not have significant amounts of GIK (Gifts-in-Kind) that skew the percentages of many organizations out there. When we say ninety-one cents on the dollar, that is exactly what we mean!

STAY THIRSTY: Where is the next crisis you are targeting for your humanitarian work? How do you determine when it is time to move on to help another region?

RACHEL ZELON: We are committed to our work and our teams in Haiti and Guatemala. Much remains to be done. In crisis situations, we work with several partners around the globe to provide assistance to those in need in any way that we can. It’s what we do.


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.