Serving others is something that’s been ingrained into Rhonda Sanders’ being ever since she can remember.
Sanders grew up the daughter of a Baptist preacher. Throughout her childhood days, she was part of small congregations across the state and she watched as her parents always did what they could to help others, despite the fact they were never wealthy.
That generosity can be traced further into the genealogy of Sanders, whose grandfather owned a grocery store in Little Rock and was known for allowing customers to take home groceries on credit and return later to pay off the bill.
“Those were the kinds of stories I was raised on,” the now chief executive officer at the Arkansas Foodbank says.
Sanders’ father joined the military when she was in seventh grade, which allowed her to see and help those in need across the world. Upon graduating high school, she postponed college for a few years to go to the Philippines with her parents who were sent there on a tour of duty.
The experience was an eye-opener for the teenaged Sanders. Even still, Sanders didn’t see a nonprofit career in her future. She returned to Arkansas and majored in accounting at Ouachita Baptist University.
“When I picked accounting, the furthest thing from my mind was running a nonprofit,” she says. “I enjoyed business, I enjoyed numbers and putting things together. I thought [accounting] would be a good degree to have in many areas, and it proved to be that.”
After years in the private sector and a stint at the state Health Department, Sanders landed her first nonprofit job at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. It was there she fell in love with that type of work.
“The first three months were a shock,” she recalls. “It was a small nonprofit and you had so many irons in every fire. For a period of time, I thought, ‘What have I done?’”
About a year into the job, Sanders began work on legislation on childhood immunizations and it was then she realized the nonprofit world was where she belonged.
“I’ve had times when I could have looked at going back to either for-profit or a state agency, but no, the nonprofit work has been my focus and my calling,” she says.
She went on to work at the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance before becoming CEO at the Arkansas Foodbank, where she says her education and passion have come together in a perfect fit.
“You have to have that knowledge and understanding of how to operate a business, and that’s one of the things that interested me with my accounting degree, and being able to able to match it with the mission of what you’re doing business about,” she says.
The Arkansas Foodbank is a Feeding America food bank and represents 33 counties in south and central Arkansas. In that area, the nonprofit serves about 300 local agencies that include pantries, kitchens and shelters. The foodbank gets food from national donors, retail stores in its area and food drives. Last year, the Arkansas Foodbank delivered 21 million pounds of food, and it has a goal of shipping out 26 million pounds of food by 2016.
As Hunger Action Month, September is an important time for the Arkansas Foodbank to help raise hunger awareness and show others how they can help the fight. For a complete list of events the Arkansas Foodbank has set for September, check out its website at ArkansasFoodBank.org.
Sanders says the Arkansas Foodbank is always looking for new ways to acquire and send out healthier, more nutritious food, all while trying to end hunger in Arkansas. The job can be difficult at times, but those times are worth the trouble when Sanders is able to see the good being done at the Arkansas Foodbank’s many agencies.
“That’s when the rubber meets the road, when I get to go out there and see our agencies and what they’re doing and how the food is being used,” she says. “Those are the moments that truly bring me the most joy. That’s why we’re doing it right there.”
Soirée: If you were not working in the nonprofit sector, where would you be?
Rhonda Sanders: I would probably be somewhere in education. I’ve always enjoyed teaching and that facet of working with people.
SO: Favorite movie?
RS: “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hunger Games” — those are the movies I’ve stood in line with the kids to see.
SO: Business attire or jeans?
RS: Definitely jeans.
SO: Where is somewhere you have not been, but would like to go?
RS: I would love to go to England or France.