GIBSONTON — As they gear up for the upcoming school year, the staff at Gibsonton Elementary is also preparing for another year of helping some of the most impoverished local children through Project Smile, a weekend pack of meals to go home each Friday.
With 95 percent of the school's students receiving free or reduced lunch, Gibsonton Elementary has been receiving the assistance of Mike Daigle and the Greater Brandon Kiwanis Club to create Project Smile.
"Nearly five years ago my wife was reading an article on a Sunday morning about the challenges of nutrition and childhood hunger in America and a woman who had started a weekend backpack program in California," Daigle said. "From that, she and I started talking, and we've always been wanting to give back based on the success we've had in life."
After identifying Gibsonton as one of the lowest-income areas in Hillsborough County, Daigle, who is now retired, utilized the relationship and generosity of his then-employer, the Mosaic Company, to partner with the school's administration to determine who among the school's population was the most "food insecure."
"I work very closely with our guidance counselor and our social worker, and they work with the families," said Gibsonton Elementary principal Amber Statham. "So they're always in the know on who has the most need. The parents feel very comfortable coming in and working with us on whatever their specific need might be."
What began as a humble effort to help the one in three children who go to bed hungry each night, the Kiwanis Project Smile has doubled since its inception in 2012. This year, 200 of the school's 600 children will receive meals for 37 Fridays out of the school year.
One of the biggest challenges, however, continues to be funding.
"We give 7,400 meals and right now we're spending $5 a meal, so that's basically $37,000 annually," said Daigle. "If we raise $10,000 more, I can put more than a dollar more into each bag. $6 would provide a little more protein and a little more fruit."
Daigle hopes to improve the diet through use of crowdfunding and applying for different grants through organizations like the Tampa Bay Lightning. He believes sustainability is key to being able to provide for even more children in the area.
Statham says Gibsonton Elementary continues to contribute to plans to expand the program because of the feedback they've received from local families.
"I think it's wonderful," said Statham. "To see the smiles on the kids' faces when they come back to school and they see those green bags sitting out there every Friday is wonderful. They just run up and hug the volunteers. You can see the impact that it's making and just how much it means to those families."
Contact Kelsey Sunderland at [email protected]