To Save The Poet of El Barrio, mGive Twilio and Heroku Join Forces to Launch Hotline

February 14, 2013
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Dial (630) 4-A-Rhyme or (630) 427-4963  to listen to some poems. Text “poetry” to 80077 to make a $5 donation to support public poetry

On Friday, February 8, I read a heart-breaking story in the New York Times. Jesus “Papoleto” Melendez (pictured right), the poet and prophet of El Barrio, was about to be evicted. In some ways, the misfortune that befell the bard of Spanish Harlem was a typical story. His unemployment checks had run out and job prospects for a 62-year-old poet, no matter his lifetime achievements, were not bright.

I checked out his website, which was full of his poems. “I wish I could hear him read these,” I thought. While I love poems on a page, there is a power in their performance that can’t be matched. That’s when the idea hit me: Why not create a poetry hotline of Papoleto’s poems that could also collect donation to help him pay his rent?

Launching The Hotline

I called Papoleto, and we came up with an even better idea. We decided to create a public poetry hotline that would make poetry more accessible to everyone, whether they were standing on the corner and waiting for a friend, walking down the street or commuting to work. The hotline would run on donations, like public radio. Papoleto would be the host and curator.

If you can’t get a job, why not make your job? And while you’re at it: make it your dream job. Here’s how we made the dream come true in less than a week.

In the first five minutes, I bought the hotline number: 1-630-4-A-Rhyme from Twilio.
In the next five minutes, I sent an email to The mGive Foundation and asked if they could help me figure out a way to accept mobile donations.mGive processes over 85 percent of all mobile donations—it’s the leader in the text donation industry.


To my surprise and delight, I heard back almost immediately. Talk about customer service. They said they would be happy to help, but there was a wrinkle. Carrier regulations require text donations be awarded to a nonprofit that has been registered for more than one year with more than $500,000 in earnings.

I was downcast. I know lots of nonprofits, but none of them fit into that category. I started thinking about our options. We could put a donation button on Papoleto’s website, but the chances that people would visit a website after calling a hotline weren’t great.
Then mGive stepped into the breach.  Jen Snyder, the executive director of The mGive Foundation, offered to reach out to one of their existing nonprofit customers (they have more than 500) and see if they could help.

Jen also explained some of the trickiness involved with keeping the mobile channel for donations safe and secure. Short codes can be ripe for abuse. mGive goes to great lengths to ensure that all donations get to their intended recipients. Their efforts sounded meticulous, and time consuming.

The Wish Comes True

On Saturday, I told Papoleto that setting up the hotline could take a week or more. I was so wrong. By the end of the weekend, Jen and her team had recruited “Wish Upon A Hero” to help us out.  Wish Upon A Hero was founded in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center. Founder David Girgenti thought there should be a faster, more organized way to connect individuals in need. So he built it. Wish Upon A Hero is also one of the most successful users of mGive’s text-to-donate platform, which paid it a perfect fit for Papoleto.

By Monday morning anyone was able to text the keyword  POETRY to the short code 80077 to make a donation of $5.

Total time spent: less than three hours.

I wrote the app for the hotline Monday evening in less then half an hour thanks to some code I cribbed from Michael Selvidge, Twilio colleague and creator of Callin’ Oates. I debugged the app on Tuesday during Twilio’s weekly code coaching, thanks to huge help from Kevin Burke, a user experience and engineering guru.

I loaded the app onto Heroku, a web service that replaces the need to buy web servers and load balancers and all the other crazy infrastructure that makes websites run.  The command to launch the app is a poem in itself: “git push heroku master,” and we were live.
Today is Valentine’s Day. If you need a dose of love, inspiration, humor or outrage, please give it a call. The number is (630) 427-4963 or (630) 4-A-RHYME.

How To Support Poetry

And, if you’d like to support Papoleto’s efforts to provide public poetry, and help save the poet of El Barrio, please text the word  POETRY to 80077 to make a $5 donation. You’ll get a confirmation from the “Wish Upon A Hero” foundation asking if you really want to donate. Please don’t forget to respond “yes.”
A lifetime of poetry listening lies ahead.

*$5.00 donation to Wish Upon A Hero Foundation Inc. Charges will appear on your wireless bill, or be deducted from your prepaid balance. All purchases must be authorized by account holder. Must be 18 years of age or have parental permission to participate. Message and Data Rates May Apply. Text STOP to 80077 to STOP.Text HELP to 80077 for HELP. Full Terms: Privacy Policy: