June 23, 2017
alumni archives history for Project HOPE

Project HOPE’s Alumni Association continues the mammoth project of organizing and archiving six decades of HOPE history.

The Association’s vice president, Debbie Reister, is coordinating the effort. This year’s preservation plan has included two on-site visits to Project HOPE headquarters in Millwood, Va. The most recent team included John Wilhelm, Debbie Reister, Janis Reister, Faye Pyles, Faith Garver and Irene Machado.

The endeavor started in 2013 when Debbie approached HOPE board members asking if she could help “save the history of Project HOPE.” Debbie says there was already an archive, but it was limited in scope and not easily accessible. Although there were many photos, “Nobody could really see them,” she says.

alumni archives history for Project HOPE

Debbie’s professional background is in Medical Records Administration, so archiving data was not as daunting to her as it might have been to others. Debbie worked for Project HOPE for 25 years in many parts of the world: Egypt, Grenada, Portugal, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Kazakhstan, as well as at HOPE’s headquarters. Her professional background and history with HOPE has given her the tools and knowledge to undertake the lead role in archiving.

In 2014, Project HOPE’s Alumni Association purchased PastPerfect Museum Software and worked with the IT department to set up the laborious process, which required some in-house time at corporate headquarters in Virginia for the Michigan resident.

alumni archives history for Project HOPE

Due to recent storage changes, a new home had to be found for dozens of boxes of documents: books, newsletters, press releases, scrapbooks, diaries, press clippings, proposals, reports, personal correspondence, etc. The most historically significant pieces are being methodically organized, sometimes by subject matter, geographic region, date – depending on which system makes sense for the type of document. Old movies of HOPE voyages and 33 1/3 records of public service announcements may be made available for public viewing through YouTube.

As thousands of pictures are scanned and added to the virtual online gallery, the alumni volunteers also make every attempt to identify dates, people and places – a process that can be difficult with the photos that have no accompanying captions.

alumni archives history for Project HOPE

And although the project is tedious, these “HOPIES” have fun reminiscing – and sometimes marveling – at some of the things they come across. There are scrapbooks full of press clippings from news outlets all over the world. Many of the stories that were reported are heartwarming accounts of lives improved and saved.

“As we go through the old press clippings, sometimes we’ll come across historic world events that we didn’t even realize HOPE was there for,” says Faye, a Project HOPE alumna and HOPE’s 2013 Volunteer of the Year. Faye had wanted to be part of Project HOPE since she was a little girl reading about the SS HOPE in her Weekly Reader magazine, so the archive project has been particularly gratifying for her.

And then there are the celebrities and renowned public figures who are pictured in association with Project HOPE – often in terms of fundraising benefits: Bob Hope, Sargent Shriver, Sir John Gielgud, Olivia De Havilland, Jimmy Stewart, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Charleton Heston, Shirley Temple, Ronald Reagan, Robert Kennedy, Henry Kissinger.

SS HOPE ship

Perhaps one of the most profound pieces of memorabilia the group has come across is a copy of the paperwork documenting the conversion of the USS Consolation navy hospital ship to the SS HOPE. In 1958, Dr. William Walsh persuaded U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to donate the ship. Over the next two years, the SS HOPE was refitted and equipped for its new role as a peace-time hospital ship. American doctors, nurses and technologists volunteered their skills and knowledge with the people of developing nations – teaching while healing. For every American on board, a counterpart would be trained. The volunteers were moved by this document, emblematic of the birth of Project HOPE.

The group continues to make progress, but the project will never really end. “We just keep plugging away at it,” says Debbie. “The process is ongoing, as Project HOPE continues to make history.”

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