Inspirational speakers are a fixture at many events. It’s hard to say, however, whether their messages compel any of the people in the audience to take action about something when they return home, or if they just provide a fleeting emotional uplift.
There’s no question about that in Anthony Prusak’s case. Prusak attended PCMA Convening Leaders 2019 in Pittsburgh, Jan. 6–9, and although it was his 10th year in a row attending the event, he was so “blown away” by the speakers this time around that he immediately decided to give back.
In particular, he was touched by Nadya Okamoto, who launched an initiative to make feminine-hygiene products available to women in need, and told the audience that everyone has the potential to create social change. “She thought about something that people really need,” Prusak told Convene. “She created something that’s really impacting people’s lives.”
A Chance in the World author Steve Pemberton, another Main Stage speaker, had a similar effect on Prusak. Pemberton spoke about being “good to each other, to our community, our country, and our citizenry,” Prusak said. “I took that to heart as well.” And when tennis icon Billie Jean King told the audience that “every single one of us is an influencer,” Prusak said, it really drove the message home for him.
The speakers “touched my heart, they really did,” he said. “I walked out of there and I really wanted to do something, to make a big change.”
It didn’t take Prusak long — and he didn’t have to travel far from Pittsburgh — to figure out what that “something” might be.
Help on the Ground
As vice president of business development for ABTS Convention Services, Prusak travels more than 60,000 miles a year between his Cleveland home and Miami, where ABTS is headquartered. He spends a lot of time at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and sees many of the same TSA officers frequently. When he traveled home to Cleveland from Pittsburgh, those agents had been working without pay for nearly three weeks due to the partial government shutdown — the longest shutdown in U.S. history, affecting an estimated 800,000 workers, including TSA employees.
“These people are our first line of defense at the airport,” Prusak said. “I just couldn’t imagine opening up a pay- check and there’s zero dollars in there. I consider them part of the hospitality industry — and this isn’t how they should be treated.”
As Convene reported previously, right after Convening Leaders concluded, Prusak contacted a friend, Todd Payne, chief marketing and air services development officer at Cleveland Hopkins, to see what he could do to help the TSA screeners. Payne put Prusak in touch with the TSA lead at the airport, Steven Hogan, who explained that regulations stipulate that government workers can’t accept gift cards or money, but they can accept food. Prusak came up with the idea to provide boxed lunches to a shift of 80 agents (240 agents in total work at the airport over three shifts).
With his plan approved by the TSA, Prusak started a GoFundMe campaign that he shared on Facebook with the Northeast Ohio (NEO) Foodies group. With 10,785 members, the private group was a potent source for guidance. In less than 24 hours, he was close to meeting his $1,000 goal.
He was featured in a Jan. 11 story in Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer and on a local news station that same night. Donations started rolling in, he said. By the time he cut off the donation period, donors had contributed $5,884. With that amount, he knew he would be able to feed all 240 TSA agents for one day.
As a result of the publicity, Andrea Sasson, campus coordinator at Cleveland’s Open Doors Academy at Orchard Stem School had students write cards of support for TSA agents. “Something positive,” Sasson told WKYC Ch. 3 in Cleveland. “It’s nice to know you’re cared about and loved and we try to practice that every day.”
It Takes a Village
Kevin O’Donnell, a friend of Prusak’s and owner of Victory Alley in downtown Cleveland, supplied the lunch items — turkey wraps, chocolate-chip cookies, fresh fruit, bottled water, and a candy bar. John Selick, senior culinary manager at Sodexo Healthcare Services for University Hospitals Cleveland, rallied 25 volunteers to help with meal prep and packaging. Someone in the NEO Foodies group donated the boxes.
The students’ cards were placed on top of the meal boxes so officers could read them, and later were posted on walls around the TSA checkpoints in the airport. “People were reading the cards,” Prusak said. “There were a lot of emotions. People were crying, hugging, thanking us.”
There was even enough money left over from the fundraiser to bring TSA officers 20 trays piled high with pastries the following day, Jan. 19, provided by a local shop, Bloom Bakery.
“I’m thrilled I had the opportunity to do this for my hometown community,” Prusak said. “Just going back to what Nadya said, it starts out with an idea and then [you] surround yourself with quality people and others get behind you.”
A Circle of Good Will
ABTS Convention Services’ Anthony Prusak was motivated to do good after hearing PERIOD founder Nadya Okamoto speak, and his actions have in turn had an impact on her.
“It absolutely inspires me,” she told Convene via email when she was told about Prusak’s initiative to have meals delivered to TSA agents at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. She echoed a tweet she wrote when she first heard about his project. “OMG THIS MADE ME CRY,” Okamoto wrote on Twitter. “So inspired by this story, and humbled and thankful for the opportunity to speak at #PCMAcl this year.”
Okamoto said in the email that she doesn’t usually write a speech before she gives it. “I just take the stage and tell my story, and speak from the heart on what has brought me to where I am today, and where I hope to go from here — especially as it pertains to my work with PERIOD,” she wrote to Convene.
“I don’t register what sort of effect it will have on people, and am still so touched by how much my story resonates with others. It can be nerve-racking and sometimes exhausting to share my story all the time, especially about my past adversity — but this is why I do it, and this inspires me to keep feeling confident in my story and sharing more unapologetically.”
Steve Pemberton, whose Convening Leaders speech also spurred Prusak into action, responded on Twitter to the news as well. “This is an extraordinary gift, Anthony,” Pemberton tweeted. “I shared this example of your goodness with my children.”