Facebook Child Abuse Awareness Campaign: Lame? Or Helpful?

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Over the last few days a lot of people have been changing their profile photos to the beloved cartoon characters of their childhoods. I noticed on Thursday or Friday morning that a few of my Facebook friends had changed their photos to characters, and thought there must be something up.

Finally one of my friends included an explanation with his change to a cartoon avatar:

“(re: why there are cartoon images on profile pics): This was TOO fun to miss! Change your Facebook 
profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood! The goal is to not see
a human face on Facebook till Monday, December 6th. Join the fight 
against child abuse! Copy & paste this message to your status to 
invite all your friends to do the same!”

Well, why not? It was fun to see which of my friends chose which cartoon characters, and interesting to see the decade changes in cartoons, depending on friends’ ages. I had fun going down memory lane for just a moment, as I debated between a Peanut’s character and Bugs Bunny. I settled on Charlie Brown, switching mid-weekend to Linus, from the Christmas special. I did a Google image search in both cases to find just the right avatar.

And I was not alone, since millions of people were doing the same thing over the weekend. One Los Angeles Times technology blog post reported that on Saturday morning, the top 20 Google searches were related to old cartoons.

Worthwhile or Worthless?

Did this do ANYTHING to prevent child abuse? Probably not. There was some debate among my friends as to whether this was a scam, an urban myth, or just a lame exercise. Were we all being duped into changing our profile pics for no good reason?

I got into a friendly debate on one of my friend’s posts quoting one of her friends who said that red ribbons for HIV awareness, or pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness, never helped anyone. I pushed back, saying that I don’t agree that awareness campaigns don’t help people (I’ll explain more in a moment). The man who made the statement shared that his point wasn’t about the ribbons per se, but that most of the people who sport the ribbons are in effect posers who don’t volunteer and don’t contribute money to the causes they purport to be supporting. I pushed back again, saying that even if a person’s motive for wearing a ribbon (or changing a profile pic) is not sincere, when others see the ribbon it still brings to mind the cause that is being advertised.

Were all of us who changed our profile pics posers this weekend? How many of us really do anything substantive to end violence against children? Are we hypocrites for following the rest of the crowd by jumping on board with a fun, but shallow, exercise? Or, did we actually raise some awareness about curbing child abuse?

I’m of two minds about this. Do I think awareness campaigns work? Yes. But I’ll add this caveat: they work when well organized by legitimate organizations. Did this campaign to raise awareness about child abuse work? Perhaps. But in a way it was a wasted exercise precisely because it wasn’t well organized.

But boy did it show the power of social media, and I believe it holds a powerful message for non-profit organizations that want to create positive change in the world.

Awareness Campaigns Do Work

Here’s why I think awareness campaigns are effective. I worked for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) San Diego County in the late 1980s. MADD pioneered the use of red ribbons to raise awareness about drunk driving during the holidays, before the symbol was co-opted by HIV/AIDS organizations (It’s now referred to as the “Tie One On For Safety” campaign). We distributed thousands of red ribbons stapled to info cards that warned of the dangers of impaired driving. In San Diego County we did such a good job of distributing ribbons, it was hard to go anywhere without seeing a red ribbon on someone’s car antennae from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.

Thanks to the massive awareness effort by MADD chapters across the country, drunk driving fatalities fell consistently each year. People thought twice about getting behind the wheel after drinking. Designated drivers became the norm. Friends were not letting friends drive drunk. And because of all that, countless people got home safely instead of being killed by a drunk or impaired driver.

A friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer during October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, when pink ribbons were everywhere. Even NFL players were sporting pink ribbons, pink shoes, and pink gloves during games. My friend told me that seeing the show of pink all over was comforting. It let her know that she was not alone, and that millions of people were rooting for breast cancer patients to be cured, and for the disease to be eradicated.

These campaigns worked, because non-profit organizations mounted well-publicized campaigns to educate the public about their causes. MADD didn’t ask volunteers to distribute the ribbons to friends with only the most basic of explanations of what the ribbons were for. MADD planned for months ahead of the holidays how to educate as many people as possible through media interviews, public service announcements, and speeches at schools, businesses, military bases, and other venues.

Lesson for Non-Profits

While I’m dubious about the motives of this latest mass profile picture change exercise, it does illustrate the power of social media. That power can be harnessed to bring about positive change, when harnessed properly.

Non-profit leaders take notice: with some careful planning your cause could be the next major social media trend. But you’ll have to be creative about it, because sooner or later those of us on social media sites will grow weary of too many appeals.

For me, ribbons and bracelets are done. The first few organizations that utilized them were effective, but when dozens of other non-profits started using the same symbols in different colors, it definitely lost some punch for me. Changing profile pictures – which has already been done a few times in the past year – is going to get old, as well.

What do you think? Was this past weekend’s Facebook trend a useful or useless exercise?

Magical Christmas Light Display Raises Money to Feed the Hungry

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Editor’s Note: Sadly, Dave Severns passed away in October, 2011, just a little less than a year after we posted this story. Over the years Dave helped collect enough food and raise enough money to equal more than 1 million pounds of food for the hungry in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties. In 2010, the year this story first appeared, his display collected a record $84,000. Dave, and his beautiful Christmas light show, will be greatly missed.

SUNNYVALE, CA. – Dave Severns is using the power of 88,000 Christmas lights to feed a lot of hungry people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Severns is creator of the Severns-Pease Christmas Display at 1164 and 1168 Tangerine Way in Sunnyvale. This year his goal is to raise $80,000 for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties through donations from people who come to enjoy the elaborate display.

The popular holiday exhibit started as a modest installation of lights 15 years ago and has grown into one of the largest, most creative computer-automated local holiday displays in the area.  It’s so big it covers the house, roof and yard of Severns home, and the house and yard of his next-door neighbors, the Pease family.

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“It’s always a work in progress, so what you saw in 1995 doesn’t resemble what you see now,” Severns said.

With “snow” blowing from where an automated Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer sits perched on top of Severns’ garage, to cute joking elves, to the 88,000 lights choreographed to rousing music, the display is extremely popular with both kids and adults alike.

When record crowds started streaming down Tangerine Way in 2002 – the first year Severns computerized the display – friends told him he should sell tickets. Severns wasn’t comfortable making money off the display, but he decided that asking for donations to help a worthy cause was a good idea.

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Based on his experience leading food drives for Second Harvest at Applied Materials where he worked as an engineer, Severns put out food collection barrels and a secured box to collect money. That first year they raised $8,000 in a combined total of food and money.

“Every year since we’ve done better than the previous year, even in the economic downturn, which really surprised me,” he said. Last year the display took in more than $54,000.

Now retired, one of Severns “jobs” is overseeing the Severns Family Foundation, started by his father in the 1980s. The foundation focuses primarily on funding education and environmental projects, especially when the two can be combined. But it also matches donations to the Christmas display, up to $500 per donation, with a $30,000 annual limit.

This past year, the foundation donated $100,000 to a solar installation project at Second Harvest. When someone from the food bank told Severns that the combined total of all the years of display donations, plus the solar installation funds, was putting him near the million-pound mark for food collected, Severns’ competitive streak kicked in.

To reach the same status as some of the largest corporations in the valley who organize food drives annually, the display needs to take in $80,000 worth of food and dollars by Jan. 1.

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In addition to taking food and money at the display itself, people can also donate online from the site’s website at www.severex.com. Another fundraiser during the season is Tesla Night, when people can pay $10 each for rides in Tesla electric sports cars. Severns owns a Tesla, and is part of a local community of Tesla owners, several of whom donate their time and cars for the rides. This year the special event is on Saturday, Dec. 11.

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Severns doesn’t keep track of how many hours he puts into creating, setting up, maintaining and disassembling the display each year. He and his neighbor Andy Pease start installing the display on November 1. Severns said he works 12-hour days to prepare for the opening on Thanksgiving weekend. The display runs through January 1, 5:30 to 11 p.m. every night. It takes about a week to take it down.

It’s a year-round hobby for Severns, who starts planning and ordering what he needs for the next display in February. This past winter he bulk ordered all new LED icicle lights direct from a supplier in China. The lights arrived in July, and he had a work party with friends over Labor Day weekend, to attach the lights to wooden strips for easy installation and removal. The lights are secured to the strips with 12,000 zip ties.

Choreographing the lights and music is another time-consuming piece of the project, taking up to 20 hours to program a new song added to the lengthy playlist. Severns runs the entire program off a laptop computer in his workshop.

Severns said they spend about $2,500 per house each year, if needed, on new lights and materials. His energy cost: $0. Severns installed solar panels years ago. A switch to more and more LED lights in recent years has dramatically reduced energy usage.

The “snow” blowing onto Severns’ driveway is actually soap bubbles, requiring about 4 gallons of special “snow fluid” each night. The snow is programmed to blow during certain songs, but anyone can make it snow for 30 seconds by putting a quarter into a machine between Severns’ garage doors. All the coins collected go to Second Harvest, and the foundation matches those donations.

Severns’ background as an engineer has made this full-time hobby/job possible. He’s very proud of the fact that most of the display is hand-made. In fact, Severns will take items he sees in catalogs and figure out a way to reproduce them.

Such was the case a decade ago when he saw icicle lights in a Hammecher Schlemmer catalog, before any other companies were mass-producing the now-ubiquitous lights. Severns figured out how to make his own to cover the two houses.

“This year we leap-frogged the competition again” by creating all new icicle lights, he said. “Every year we try to add something new.”

This year the display features a tribute to the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants; Severns is a season ticket holder. He created a light display of the team’s “SF” logo using orange lights. More orange lights are used throughout the display, including on Rudolf, and are featured during a special remake by Ashkon of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” that became a viral video sensation during the series, and two radio announcer calls, the 3-run homer by Edgar Renteria and the last out in the series.

Also this year a virtual Santa peeks out of one of Severns’ upstairs windows as he’s preparing for his trip to deliver presents. The image is created by a projector inside the house that projects onto a translucent film.

“It’s amazing how good it looks,” Severns said of the life-like images. “The kids have been going nuts over it.”

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Inside Severns’ workshop, the nerve center of the display. The entire display is controlled from the laptop. A schematic of the display’s features is on the wall behind Severns.

The show begins at 5:30 p.m. each night with the Star Spangled Banner, featuring crowd-pleasing Christmas songs until 8 p.m. From 8 until 8:30, there’s a non-Christmas music show, this year featuring the Giant’s tribute. Then it’s back to Christmas music until 11 p.m. On weeknights, Severns plays quiet, gentle Christmas songs from 10 until 11, to put spectators in a mellow mood so as not to disturb neighbors.

And speaking of neighbors, Severns said that despite hundreds of cars streaming by throughout the holiday season, his neighbors are supportive of the display. He tries to be a good neighbor by encouraging viewers to not get too rowdy; he has a microphone hooked up to the system that allows him to make announcements to remind spectators to settle down when necessary. He also said he responds quickly to any concerns raised by neighbors.

During his many hours out front during November, he said neighbors stop by to chat, and he gets caught up on all the news of what’s happening in the neighborhood.

Overall, Severns enjoys brightening the holidays for children and adults, as well as helping to feed many hungry people locally.

“In general it’s been super gratifying,” he said.

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Visitors can tune into the 104.1 frequency to hear the music. This is also the box for monetary donations. Someone missed the food donation barrels and left a couple of cans on top of the box on a recent eveSee a related story under “Share Your Story”.