Making Sure Kids Eat: Two Local Heroes Fill Backpacks and Bellies
By Thais Leon-Miller and Pamela Settle, from the Holiday 2013 issue of GoodLiving magazine
Editors’ Note: Most of us take food for granted and waste more than we are willing to admit. We also may not realize that right here in Pinellas County, about 7,000 children go hungry everyday. These are children who have no control over their circumstances. They are the innocents. And they are our neighbors; real children who are part of our greater Pinellas County family.
The holidays are a time we focus on giving food to charities that provide holiday meals. The spirit of giving peaks and we are moved to drop some cans into the food donation box. But what about the rest of the year? What about the children who know the pangs of hunger the remaining days of the year?
Pinellas County Schools feed free breakfast and lunch, and in some schools dinner, to qualifying children. These children, though, go home for the weekends and the long holiday breaks from school and may not eat until they go back to school. This is something that Gina Wilkins and Lewis Hill couldn’t live with. Separately, and together, they fight the good fight against childhood hunger. They lead their respective organizations and manage a small army of volunteers who pack donated food items for children to carry home. This act of love is the lifeline for children throughout our community. Did you realize that a pack of peanut butter crackers and a box of raisins would mean so much? We didn’t until we met these remarkable Good People.
Gina Wilkins, founder of The Kind Mouse Productions
It doesn’t take a long time speaking with Gina before you hear the smile in her voice. There is no mistaking the enthusiasm when she is discussing her project of feeding hungry kids across Pinellas County. The Kind Mouse Productions is Gina’s brainchild, inspired by a 2011 CBS 60 Minute Report “Hard Times Generation: Homeless Kids.” (June 26, 2011.) Gina was working as an architectural draftsman and had seen a lot of her colleagues fall into a slump due to an ailing economy. She felt that she needed to do “something” but wasn’t sure what until she saw the news report. The segment put children’s homelessness under a microscope and Gina immediately connected with it. Families being forced to split up due to home foreclosure or a family of four living in a cramped hotel room resonated strongly with her.
To learn how to set up a non-profit organization, she sought help from Lewis Hill, founder of Pack a Sack 4 Kids, and Bob Dillinger of Nourish to Flourish, two organizations that focus on feeding kids. She learns as she grows, including how to do fundraising and volunteer recruitment. By this Christmas, Kind Mouse will be feeding 100 kids in Pinellas County on a weekly basis.
“We work with the schools in St. Petersburg to find out which kids need the most help, the hungriest of the hungry. Then [without knowing the identity of the families] we offer our services and make sure they aren’t going to bed hungry.”
The stories she tells are sobering. “There was a boy who came in with his mom and when he saw our logo on a Mouse Nibbles bag, he exclaimed that he had been eating them all summer long.” He went on to thank Gina for the granola bar that was packed in one of the bags. She later learned that he, his fourteen year-old sister and his mother had all shared it for dinner the previous night. “These are hard-working, educated families who have fallen on hard times. Some of these people have Master’s degrees. This could be any one of us.”
Gina is not only focused on making sure every child is fed, she also wants to make sure that the entire family stays together, including the pets. When Janette Rivera of The Vinoy received an email from Gina requesting a donation, Janette, an avid animal advocate, asked about the families’ pets. Realizing the importance of the family pet, they started requesting dog and cat food, leashes, and supplies to add to the donations.
The Kind Mouse hosts The Hotel Food Drive Competition, running from November 25th to December 16th. This well-timed event ups the amount of food stuffs sent to each family during the holidays. Gift cards for local grocery stores are the coveted item for this time of year, and she is praying for a big turnout to ease some of holiday volume. Gina addresses this nonchalantly as she does all the other sacrifices and hard work she has put into this project. Working out of her two-bedroom home, she handles the majority of the picking up, sorting, fundraising, and promotion of The Kind Mouse. She shrugs this off even as she explains that she is now committed to the project full time. “It’s 100% full-time and 100% volunteers. Hungry children are more important.”
While she gives a great deal of credit to her volunteers, she doesn’t have enough of them and needs the manpower, and gift cards, desperately. Gina doesn’t stop though, and continues to live up to the organization’s name. “Kind” representing the legacy that she wants to leave behind and “Mouse” being her nickname since birth, Gina Wilkins continues to do what she can for the children of Pinellas County, one nibble at a time.
Lewis Hill, Founder of Pack a Sack 4 Kids
It seems simple enough. Garner donated food. Recruit volunteers. Coordinate with individual schools. And every Friday get 1,400 small bags of food into the backpacks of children. Maybe it seems simple because Lewis Hill makes it look easy. He works every day in a small office out of the First United Methodist Church of Clearwater. Something that started in 2007 as a small project to keep him busy in retirement is now his full time mission. Pack a Sack operates with a letter of agreement with Pinellas County Schools to be the provider of supplemental food for needy students. Currently they serve students in about 40 different schools, working closely with principals to make it all run smoothly.
The program is successful because community organizations have signed on for the long haul to be a part of the program. The community organization commits to raising funds or obtaining the donated food on an ongoing basis. They also provide volunteers each week to pack the sacks that will be delivered to the schools. Many of the volunteer organizations are churches, but civic groups, companies and families are chipping in, too. “I have moms who call up and want to do food collection as part of their child’s birthday party,” said Lewis. No matter who calls to help, he will find a way.
He believes that children should not go hungry. “I want to do away with hunger. That’s my goal,” he says. But for now he knows that there is a constant supply of hungry kids. “I don’t pay too much attention to the numbers. We just feed hungry kids.” Lewis also has his share of poignant stories. The ones that really break his heart are the ones where he knows a child is in a position to make a tough choice: to eat the food, or share it with a hungry friend or sibling. No young child in modern America should have to make that choice, but it happens right under our noses.
This year resolve to be a part of feeding kids in Pinellas County. Contact either Gina or Lewis and learn how you can donate money or food.
Email Gina at Gina@thekindmouse.org. Follow TheKindMouse on Twitter: @TheKindMouse and like them on Facebook.
Email Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org