Hands Across America is "running in the black," organizers said Thursday, but it could certainly use a few million more helping hands.
With just one month to go, the May 25 hand-holding event designed to raise $100 million to aid America's homeless and hungry, is still five million pairs of hands short, they acknowledge.
Campaign organizers told reporters during a Wednesday tour of Hands Across America's $9,000-a-month Century City offices that the massive charity event is only now beginning to catch on, but that optimism is still running high.
Hands Across America is a project of USA for Africa, which engineered the legendary recording session of "We Are the World." The cross-country Memorial Day weekend event originally envisioned a line of 6 million to 10 million people from New York to Los Angeles.
But, as of last weekend, only about 600,000 individuals had pledged to stand in line. That number represents about 11% of the 5.48 million people that organizers now say will be needed to span the country. On the brighter side, organizers say an additional 600,000 people have recently expressed a desire to pledge by calling in for $10, $25 and $35 contribution forms. The minimum pledge to stand in the line is $10.
The press' preoccupation with pledge numbers has been an ongoing concern of Ken Kragen, president of USA for Africa and the moving force behind Hands Across America.
"It's not like selling tickets to a concert," he said. "There is no urgency for people to sign up early. The feeling is we are building such momentum that you will see most of the people coming to this line in the last few days."
Sounding another optimistic note, Kragen said that the combined pledges and corporate contributions have assured the project "of running in the black."
So far, between $16 million and $18 million has been contributed--more than enough to cover the revised complete budget of $12 million for Hands Across America, Kragen said. Since the first announcement of the event last October, the campaign's cost estimates have ranged from $18.8 million to as high as $30 million, but Kragen said Thursday that the figures were drastically revised downward after $10 million in corporate-paid advertising was donated, primarily from Citibank and Coca-Cola.
One major expense involves a security force of about 47,000 who will patrol the 4,100-mile route. While most of the security will be provided by an army of volunteers, about 7,000 members of the security force, Kragen said, will be paid employees provided by Fullerton-based J. Mattman Security Inc., the same firm that handled security for the Olympic Torch relay run.
Neither Kragen nor officials at Mattman Security would reveal security cost estimates, but Jurg W. Mattman, firm president, said his firm will paying the security force more than the minimum wage.
"We are not using the type of person who works for $4.50 an hour," Mattman said. "We are using off-duty trained police officers because they will be in position to evaluate security or safety incidents, which is critical."
Kragen added that USA for Africa is also in the final stages of dealing with yet another major expense: liability insurance to cover possible claims by participants. He said an agreement with National Union Fire Insurance, a New York-based subsidiary of American International Group, is currently being negotiated.
Kragen declined to disclose figures for a National Union Fire policy premium until a final agreement is reached. Premium estimates given by USA for Africa officials in the past ran as high as $6 million to $10 million.
Kragen insisted that a number of factors, including the continuing parade of celebrities who are lending their names to the effort, will make for a dramatic, last-minute surge in public involvement.
One such development, he said, was a recent decision by the three major television networks to carry Hands Across America promotional ads displaying the Hands Across America toll-free number (1-800-USA-9000).
In addition, all of the 556 cities the human chain must pass through have informally agreed to provide their required municipal special-event permits. Kragen said he did not know how many permits have actually been granted to date.
Other developments announced Wednesday include:
--A commitment from Democratic Gov. Toney Anaya of New Mexico to close a 300-mile eastbound stretch of Interstate Highway 40 to ensure the safety of the chain's participants. Anaya is one of 16 state governors along the route who have endorsed the project.
--Baseball Commissioner and former Olympic Organizing Committee President Peter V. Ueberroth has given campaign organizers the go-ahead to thread their human chain through Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, where veteran Cincinnati Reds player Pete Rose will stop to join the line during the game scheduled that day.
Kragen himself plans to take his place in line at Battery Park in his hometown of New York City.
"In many ways, this event has changed from where we originally started," Kragen said. In addition to the original goal of inspiring people to feed this nation's hungry, the project is also being "embraced as a demonstration of unity, the concept of Americans of all races and persuasions standing together for a purpose."