Helen McGovern just got her happy ending.
McGovern, the executive director of the Emergency Food Network, was named Tuesday as one of three winners of the 2012 Harlequin More Than Words Contest. With the honor comes $15,000 for the Lakewood-based organization, which supplies food to 67 food banks, shelters and meal sites in Pierce County.
The aim of the annual contest is to inspire women across the United States with the stories of five women who are making “extraordinary contributions” to their local communities and “help turn awareness into action, and mobilize others to become engaged and make a difference.”
McGovern is the first to admit that she was a bit skeptical when she found out she was a nominee.
“It was kind of like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Harlequin; it’s kind of a joke,’ ” she said. “But it’s $15,000–money that we hadn’t budgeted for and we can’t get any other way.”
With a laugh, she added, “So now I’ll have to read a romance novel.”
The other winners are Mindy Atwood of Ohio, who runs Patches of Light, a nonprofit that allows anonymous “angels” to pay rent for parents of desperately ill children, and Sally Spencer of Ontario, who manages a mentoring program that rescues at-risk children.
“We are thrilled that our readers and fans have voted for such deserving and diverse causes and the heroic women who champion them,” said Donna Hayes, publisher and chief executive of Harlequin, in a statement.
More than 111,000 online votes were cast between October and December and the contest link was shared 7,800 times on Facebook. Voting fluctuated by the day–sometimes by the hour. McGovern was never higher than third, but at times was just 2 percentage points from second.
“It was very close at the end, and there was a glitch, and they wanted to reopen voting,” McGovern said. “We were like no, no, please don’t do that. It’s painful to ask everyone to vote every single day.”
EFN Development Director Jeff Klein said that when voting closed, they were hopeful that McGovern was in a good enough spot to hold on, “but it was getting close there at the end, and the fourth-place person had passed her at one point.”
But McGovern’s fans weren’t going to let that happen again. Facebook groups, two local coupon sites and individual supporters from everywhere from Lakewood and Los Angeles to Italy and the United Arab Emirates rallied people to support McGovern and EFN.
“Everybody being so tenacious made a difference,” she said. “It’s people who really care about our mission and saw a way to help us out.”
Deserving special recognition were the kids from the Lakewood’s Promise Computer Club, who McGovern said, “were not going to let us lose out to Columbus, Ohio, again.”
Tacoma/Pierce County Habitat for Humanity lost to Habitat for Humanity of Greater Columbus in last year’s AHS Challenge for Change, which came with a $25,000 prize for neighborhood revitalization efforts. The money would have gone toward the building of homes in Tillicum, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
When the city popped up as one of the Harlequin nominees, "The kids were like, ‘This is not going to happen,’” she said. “They were such stalwart little supporters; they had everybody voting.”
EFN is able to purchase $12 worth of food for every dollar donated, and in turn distributes more than 14 million pounds of food annually.
“This really makes a difference, especially because demand is way up this year,” Klein said. “Every bit helps, so when it’s $15,000, it helps a whole lot.”
The $15,000–which arrived in check form via FedEx–will be used to pay for freight of fresh fruit and vegetables–about a million pounds worth.
McGovern said it costs about $600 to bring a load over from Eastern Washington and that they are also getting deliveries from California, including semi-trucks of oranges and grapefruit.
The money means “a lot of apples, potatoes and onions,” she said.
A Harlequin e-novella about McGovern and her work will be published in 2013. The short story will be available in eBook format to download at no cost.
As for the moral of the story, McGovern said she has already written her own.
“You can help in so many ways,” she said. “It’s not just about writing a check to us. Whether you volunteer or click a button on Facebook, it’s really cool. We’re very grateful.”