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Innovative program supports Cor Unum effort

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Begun in September 2004, “Labels are for Jars” sells black T-shirts with monikers such as “troubled teen” or “prisoner” emblazoned on the front and “labelsareforjars.org” across the back, to raise the funds needed to build the Cor Unum Meal Center.

According to its Web site, “Labels are for Jars is trying to remove the ‘hungry’ label in two ways. We want to remove the societal label …and we want to feed hungry people in Lawrence, Massachusetts.”

“Our goal is to raise as much money as possible to feed as many hungry people as possible, and to do so we have designed a thought provoking black T-shirt, which in addition to looking great, helps to undermine societal labeling,” explains the Web site.

Father Paul O’Brien, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Lawrence, says that in the year that the shirts have been marketed, $475,000 has been raised to help build the Cor Unum Meal Center.

All proceeds from the shirts, which sell for $19 on LabelsAreForJars.org, go directly towards the Cor Unum Meal Center.

But as catchy and thought-provoking as the shirts are, what sets this effort apart from a typical T-shirt fundraiser is the packaging.

The shirts are sold in quart-sized plastic jars, with a coin slot in its screw-on top. Owners of the shirts are encouraged to “fill the jar with money as often as possible, donate the accumulated funds regularly, and help to keep feeding the hungry.”

“The shirts have drawn a lot of attention,” said Father O’Brien, one of the founders of the organization. The idea for the shirts came out of collaboration of Father O’Brien and several longtime friends, including television personality Conan O’Brien, Cincinnati Reds first baseman Sean Casey, and Mike Toth, president of Toth Brand Imaging, a Concord-based marketing firm.

According to Father O’Brien, the group came together to find a way to raise not only the funds for the Cor Unum Meal Center, but also to raise awareness of the great need in the community.

The marketing scheme the group came up with is almost as novel as the shirts themselves.

To reach teenagers — a prime market for the campy shirts — “Labels are for Jars” enlisted the help of the young people themselves.

“We believed that young people have a unique interest in changing the world and a unique potential for marketing this idea,” Father O’Brien said.

Tapping church groups, school organizations, families and other groups of youth, ‘‘Labels are for Jars’’ developed “street teams” — groups of young people who band together to sell the shirts to their peers. The teams employ creative techniques, such as writing the words “Labels Are For Jars” on every blackboard throughout a high school as a kind of low-tech teaser ad campaign. Once a sufficient “buzz” has been created in the school, the team proceeds to explain the program and sell the shirts throughout the neighborhood.

“Any community can do that, and in the process, kids can inform others about hunger,” stated Father O’Brien.

The first street teams were made up of young people with connections to the organization’s founders. However, “at this point, many groups are approaching us to sell the shirts,” he said.

For those looking for a more conventional outlet, Newbury Comics has begun selling the shirts at four of their locations.

During the holiday season, “Labels are for Jars” used radio and print advertising in order to boost their sales. It was a success, and Father O’Brien believes they will once again advertise in the coming holiday season.

Because “Labels are for Jars” is an all-volunteer effort, all the money collected directly goes toward feeding the hungry, he said.

Now that the funds have been raised to build the Cor Unum Meal Center, “Labels are for Jars” will turn to the next task — that of raising the $400,000 needed to run the center for its first two years.

“It seems almost unbelievable that Cor Unum has become a reality in such a short time,” said Boston College freshman Meghan Battle, a member of a “Labels are for Jars” street team in Concord. “Now the challenge is to raise an additional $400,000 to fund the operations of Cor Unum. We hope that everyone who wants to get involved with this project will connect with us through labelsareforjars.org.”

In the future, Father O’Brien hopes that “Labels are for Jars” can continue to fight hunger, perhaps even with additional meal centers in other hunger-ridden areas.

“If we can successfully build and fund the meal center, then we will look forward to what comes next,” he said.

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