Like other great beginnings, this one takes place at a wedding. Jeff Shinabarger and his wife Andre sit around a table with eight other guests during the reception, engaging in the polite conversation typical when meeting someone for the first time. Shinabarger considers it the perfect moment to test out something that has been running through his mind.
“I have this theory,” he begins, explaining that most people have some portion of an unused gift card in their purse or wallet. He asks the other guests whether it is true, and they in turn begin taking them out. His question: What if these cards, regardless of the amount left on them, could be put to better use?
“I looked at complete strangers and said, ‘Well, either you can keep those or you can give them to me, and I promise I will give them to someone in need,’” he said. That night the Shinabargers walked away with $50 and the birth of an idea, the Gift Card Giver program. Through it, unused gift cards are collected and matched up with a specific need—gas cards for those traveling long distances for medical treatment, department store cards for a family of 12 displaced by a fire. To date, they’ve collected more than $200,000 for people in need.
“All these different places I went, I met people giving their lives toward [restoration].”
Stepping up to help others seems to come naturally to Shinabarger. His father pastored alongside leadership expert John Maxwell in the 1980s. Shinabarger’s parents always had people in the home for counseling, even to the point of protecting a woman in an abusive relationship. From an early age, Jeff and his sisters were exposed to the difficulties many people face. “That was a part of life,” he said. “Some people think that security for kids is to separate them from ‘situations.’ My parents did a really good job of educating us, teaching us values that really mattered. But also, we saw a lot of problems. And that shaped how I think today and my responsibility in how I want to live out my faith in culture.”
Years later, Shinabarger was invited by Maxwell to serve as creative director for Catalyst, a church leadership conference based out of Atlanta. There, he learned a number of organizational skills, expanding the conference from one annual event to a series drawing thousands of attendees each year. After eight years he decided to launch his own organization, Plywood People, with the motto, “We will be known by the problems we solve.” The non-profit exists to spread social innovation throughout Atlanta. Shinabarger credits Plywood with helping launch more than 100 socially conscious start-ups—businesses and nonprofits that work to fill specific needs in the world. One of the more prominent, Thrive Farmers Coffee, allows coffee growers direct access to consumers, providing higher wages in an industry that’s increasingly edging out generations of farmers. Chick-fil-A recently started serving Thrive coffee in its restaurants.
Shinabarger got the idea for Plywood People from a year of traveling through poorer countries—the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Kenya, Rwanda—examining projects that were making a positive social and economic difference, particularly among those in need. “All these different places I went, I met people giving their lives toward [restoration],” he said. In many of the poverty-stricken areas he visited, Shinabarger noticed a common material used as a solution for problems—plywood. So his project took on the name.
Another of Plywood’s start-ups, the Billboard Bag Project, began in Guatemala, where Jeff and Andre met women who create bags from discarded billboard fabric—something he refers to as “upcycling.” The Shinabargers bought out their entire supply, promising to sell it all in the U.S., which they did in less than a month. Then the organizers of a large conference asked for more bags—5,000 to be exact. “I said, ‘I don’t know . . . the answer is yes! We’ll figure it out,’” Shinabarger laughed.
He reached out to the women back in Guatemala, who weren’t able to handle the large request. So he wondered if it would be possible to manufacture the bags stateside by hiring a handful of women in need of employment. These women—from Myanmar, Iraq, and Afghanistan—are among the thousands of refugees who live in Clarkston, east of Atlanta.
“There are 65 social service programs in Clarkston,” Shinabarger said, “and no jobs.” Some of the refugees find work at chicken plants in north Georgia, but a two-hour one-way commute is often unsustainable. “It’s about creating job opportunities for people who come to America to find refuge,” he said. “Part of refuge is to live a good life where they can provide meals and a home, where they can care for their family and get an education.” Now through the Billboard Bags Project, seven women find meaningful employment. So far, the team has created more than 90,000 bags.
“If I’m not open to the problems of my community, then I will never know what they are.”
Though Shinabarger is a Christian, he chose to start Plywood People as a nonprofit, not a ministry. “In the heart of Atlanta, the easiest thing for me to do would have been to make a Christian organization. I would have gotten instant funding, and I would have had an instant audience. But I believe I would not have progressed any conversations for the city,” he said. It’s not only the faithful Shinabarger is trying to influence, but also those people that Christ ministered to—the down-and-out, the destitute. These are the folks who may not darken the doorstep of a church but who are open to relationship. To help them, he’s able to bring together businesses, civic leaders, and others for the common good. “As we entered into building a community in the city, I felt it was really good that people know my faith. And yet they aren’t offended by it. I think we have earned the right to be heard.”
Anyone can become a problem solver, but Shinabarger insists that cannot be done in a relational vacuum. “If I am living an insular life and I’m not open to the problems of my community, then I will never know what they are,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter if you’re in a city of 10 million or 10. You have people, so that means there are going to be problems. There’s going to be brokenness; there are going to be needs. But you can get involved in other people’s lives and serve them in some way.”