NEW YORK — In an attempt to fight "compassion fatigue" and keep the celebrity charity ball rolling, USA for Africa organizers unveiled "HandsAcrossAmerica" Tuesday: a human chain that would stretch from Manhattan to Los Angeles on May 25, 1986, and would raise an estimated $50 million to $100 million to feed hungry Americans.
Following the successful fund-raising pattern set by the 1984 Olympics torch relay, the scheme would involve as many as 10 million Americans who would each pledge between $10 and $35 to participate in the national hand-holding event.
USA for Africa President Ken Kragen, who made the Tuesday announcement at a press conference, estimated that at least 6 million would have to hold hands in order to stretch the 3,980-mile "HandsAcrossAmerica" route. But far more than that are expected to call a special 800 number (USA-9000) to sign up, and everyone will be afforded a place in line, he said.
At noon Pacific Daylight Time (3 p.m. EDT) on the Sunday before Memorial Day, participants would link hands over a prescribed route that snakes over 16 states and the District of Columbia. According to the plan, the transcontinental daisy chain would then sing, in unison, "America the Beautiful" followed by the anthem of the 10-month-old USA for Africa Foundation, "We Are the World."
The plan, which is being initially underwritten by the Coca-Cola Co., might bring back Olympic fund-raising memories.
Like the 3,500 Olympic torchbearers who each paid $3,000 to run one kilometer with an Olympic torch last year, each person who participates in "HandsAcrossAmerica" next May stands a good chance of being filmed, televised or otherwise immortalized, if only for those few hand-holding moments.
Kragen said he is already asking every radio station in the country to broadcast the event and plans to use the next seven months to whip up as much media froth as possible--from feature stories in hometown weeklies to network television.
What some have detected as waning interest in the various "Aid" projects in recent months should not apply to "HandsAcrossAmerica," Kragen said. Last month's Farm Aid concert in Illinois, for example, raised less than one-fifth of the $50 million that organizer Willie Nelson had hoped for, but that was due to a basic repeat of the Live Aid formula of July, Kragen said.
"You keep careers or you keep events alive by being imaginative," Kragen said, "by doing things that capture so much imagination in people that they want to participate. Farm Aid was a wonderful experience . . . but Farm Aid could not help but be similar to Live Aid.
"This event ("HandsAcrossAmerica") is like none other that has ever been done," he continued. "And I see no reason that this event will be affected by compassion fatigue. I think that this event is so exciting, so special . . . that it's going to be a very, very special occurrence."
Whereas the Olympic torch run across America raised $10.9 million in 82 days, "HandsAcrossAmerica" hopes to raise 10 times as much in a few mega-event moments.
USA for Africa's first mega-event--the multi-artist recording session that produced "We Are the World"--earmarked most of its proceeds for Africa. "HandsAcrossAmerica," however, will be strictly an American project--all proceeds to be raised by Americans for Americans.
Citing a recent report completed by a Harvard University medical task force, Kragen and USA for Africa Executive Director Marty Rogol put the number of hungry and poverty-stricken Americans at 20 million. The "HandsAcrossAmerica" largess will be spent in a percentage breakdown similar to the method that is being used to parcel out the $34 million raised thus far through sales of "We Are the World," but none of it will go to Ethiopia or any other African nation.
Rogol said 10% will be allotted to emergency needs, 50% will go to existing U.S. food bank and poverty programs and the remaining 40% will be given to "innovative" poverty-ending project proposals, such as community job programs and tenant-owned apartment complexes.
A total of 90% of the "We Are the World" royalties and other contributions made to USA for Africa up to this point had been earmarked specifically to feed starving Africans. Only 10% remained in the United States to feed Americans.
USA for Africa officials said they have not abandoned their African efforts, but Tuesday's announcement marks a major shift away from the organization's African emphasis.
A slick, minute-long Coke commercial screened for reporters was replete with U.S. symbols: the Statue of Liberty, an Olympic high-jumper, the Declaration of Independence, all intercut with footage of farmers and athletes and middle-class children, all patriotically drinking Coca-Cola. As its first major underwriter, Coca-Cola is providing the bulk of "HandsAcrossAmerica 's" $18.8-million operating budget, according to Kragen.