It all started innocently enough. Retired, after a long business career that took him all over the world; and, with his three kids -- all athletes with Pac-12 pedigrees -- grown up and no longer living locally, Dave Gunderson was looking for a hobby.
A lifelong Portlander, Gunderson recalled the time when Jefferson High was a powerhouse in all sports. In more recent years, while “Jeff” has remained a presence on the boys’ basketball scene, its other sports teams have suffered, perhaps due to a lack of resources available to the surrounding community.
Gunderson’s three kids had all attended Central Catholic. Ryan, the eldest, was a record-setting quarterback who threw 49 touchdown passes his senior season. Beth and Will were both standout swimmers. Gunderson’s family had been fortunate; other families not as much. Gunderson had time; time to give back.
Five years ago, Gunderson called up his friend, Anthony Jordan, who at the time was the head football coach at Jefferson, and asked who cooked the team’s “spaghetti dinners.” Gunderson used that term to describe the pre-game team meals, usually Thursday evening after the walk-through practice but sometimes Friday breakfast or lunch; that had become part of the culture of Oregon high school sports. Jordan told Gunderson they didn’t have anything like that at Jeff.
Gunderson offered to feed the team. It was the least he could do.
“I made the very first meal,” Gunderson recalled. “I drove up to Cascade Locks and bought some salmon filets and made a salad and spaghetti. The second week I got them Olive Garden.”
The food he brought disappeared.
“I could tell these kids were hungry,” he said. “I could see the need and it was pronounced. A kid can’t go on the athletic field to compete if they’re hungry. That was happening to a lot of these kids. And the food that they did have was crap.”
What started out as a small gesture – feed a football team a team meal once a week – turned into something more. Much more. Gunderson struck deals with local vendors and soon started bringing a lot of food to the high school.
“Good food but healthy food,” he said. “Stuff they’d like to eat.”
Gunderson stocked a pantry at Jeff and soon bought refrigerators for school administrators to store cold foods. The food was available to all students, not just athletes. One effect of this additional nutrition? Jefferson saw an increase in the number of students out for sports!
Portland Interscholastic League Athletic Director Marshall Haskins saw the impact Gunderson was having at Jefferson and asked Gunderson if he’d consider going to other schools. “Uncle Dave” added Madison, Roosevelt, Franklin and Benson, all within the first year. Twice a week, he would show up with a bunch of good, healthy food.
Gunderson created a foundation. He called it Hopscotch Foundation, but it as easily could have been the Jump Rope foundation or the Tag Foundation. The name harkened back to a day when informal, outdoor physical activity was the norm rather than the exception. Through Hopscotch, the food assistance program expanded to area elementary schools. The Foundation now serves almost 20 schools, most among the poorest in the state.
“These aren’t even middle class kids,” Gunderson said. “These are very low income kids in the toughest areas of the city that no one is serving.”
Hopscotch Foundation put food pantries in every school and received lots of local support to make sure those pantries were full.
In March, when COVID-19 closed the schools, it all ended. Or so it seemed.
“On the fly, we came up with the idea of still going to the same spots and creating food distribution lines, which we did,” Gunderson said.
With help from the CARES Act, the Hopscotch Foundation quadrupled the amount of food it was distributing. Uncle Dave went from feeding just the kids to feeding entire families overnight.
With the expiration of the CARES Act, Gunderson finds himself scrambling to keep up the food supply. He knows how vital this is to those families in need.
“They can’t go buy healthy food,” he said. “We give them things they need, like milk, bread and eggs. And things they want, like mandarin oranges, granola bars, yogurt squeeze tubes and apple sauce squeeze tubes.”
With or without assistance from the federal government, the food will keep coming. Hopscotch Foundation has captured the attention of several philanthropic entities in town that will help Uncle Dave fulfill the Foundation’s mission.
Gunderson’s new worry isn’t keeping bellies full, but the idleness that comes from too much time out of school.
“Idle time is not good for these kids,” he said. “It’s important that there are sports. It’s fun for them to be with their friends and doing something. It’s not the five-star kids I’m worried about; it’s the rank and file kids. We can’t let those kids fall through the cracks.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed back high school openings and high school sports for now. It also has pushed back Gunderson’s timeline for handing the Hopscotch Foundation over to other dedicated people to carry on.
“Right now I have to get through this pandemic,” he said, when asked about when he’ll walk away. “That’s my answer. Ask me again when the pandemic is over.”
When that time comes, there will be so many in North Portland sad not to see "Uncle Dave" dropping by every week but grateful for the everlasting impact he was able to make, thanks to the desire to make some kids a spaghetti dinner.
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