By Marshéle Carter | Photo by Cornell Watson
She knows the answer for hunger in our communities – feed people.
Irene Briggaman has always been a force for good, according to John Dorward, executive director emeritus of the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service (IFC) and one of many who has worked alongside this town treasure and super volunteer. He describes her as a rare breed and fearless force of nature.
“She was a whirlwind of activity,” John says. “I figured out early on in the process that my job was to run interference for her and get things done that she needed. I also figured out early on that if I did my part, Irene would do several parts.”
Irene and her husband, Robert Alan Briggaman, moved to Chapel Hill in 1965. In that time, Irene has served as an avid volunteer for many local organizations, including Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, the Girl Scouts, American Red Cross, Family Violence Prevention Center of Orange County (now the Compass Center for Women and Families) and the Triangle Land Conservancy.
“She even had cards that read ‘Irene Briggaman, Professional Volunteer,’ as I recall,” John says. “Irene cares deeply about her community and everyone in it. She is that rare individual who can ask anyone for money for a good cause and then get it.”
Irene is perhaps best known as the founder of RSVVP, a fundraiser on the second Tuesday in November aimed at alleviating hunger in our community. Restaurants pledge to contribute 10% of proceeds from that day to IFC’s food bank and hunger-relief programs.
“Someone floated the idea past Irene somehow,” John says. “She thought it was a marvelous idea and set up meetings with reps from Raleigh and Durham. Neither of those two groups were prepared to start right away, so Irene said, ‘Fine, I’ll do it without you.’ “I believe she signed up some 40 restaurants that first year and the rest, as they say, is history.”
“It had been done elsewhere, and I tried to put it to work here,” Irene says. “I’d go knocking on doors. The first couple years were slow, but then it grew. Everybody began to say, ‘Is it time?’”
Irene voraciously built committed partnerships with local restaurants for nearly 30 years. Last year, more than 100 restaurants and their customers raised more than $20,000 for hunger-relief programs, bringing the 30-year total to more than $538,000, according to the IFC website.
Irene’s collected for a good cause since she was very young. Part of her job at her family-owned business was to handle collections.
“I had sales training through my dad at his grocery store,” she says, tracing her tenacity and fearless fundraising skills to her girlhood in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. “He made his own kielbasa for the neighborhood. You didn’t buy just a hot dog. We made sure you bought a hot dog with ketchup, mustard and everything else.
“It just came naturally. I am a middle child with five siblings. Battling four brothers for my turn with our bike made it clear that we all need to learn to share.”
Her generous heart earned Irene bookcases full of awards that recognize her commitment to the community. The Chapel Hill Historical Society included her among its Community Treasures in 2014. In 2017, chapelboro.com named her a Hometown Hero. And the Chamber For a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro named her Ambassador Emeritus in 2019.
Yet, the award that highlights her contributions to Chapel Hill is the one that carries her name and pays the honor forward. The Chamber’s Partnership for a Sustainable Community recognizes a dozen local heroes, first responders and community volunteers each year at the Salute to Community Heroes awards ceremony. The Irene Briggaman Lifetime Achievement award is presented “on occasion to individuals who have demonstrated a lifetime of exceptional public service and volunteerism in the greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro community in multiple capacities with different organizations. This special honor is only awarded when a nominee’s consistent volunteerism and service have made a profound impact on our community,” according to the Chamber’s award criteria.
“I cannot imagine the town being what it is without her,” John says. “Every town should be so lucky as to have an Irene, someone who spends their time helping others. Lots of us do it as our jobs, and we get compensated for it. Irene does it because it needs to be done and just maybe it won’t get done if she doesn’t do it herself.” The campaigns Irene championed over the years have raised more than a half-million dollars, which translates into more than 2 million hot, nutritious meals delivered through IFC to the people of Orange County.
Now retired, Irene, with tears in her smiling eyes, points to the awards on the shelf in her living room at The Cedars of Chapel Hill. “Everything I did was the truth,” she says. “I had to make time to do what I wanted to do. These are thank-you awards for stepping up when it was necessary.”