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New charity in Hernando County help keeps little tummies full

From left, Paul Douglas, Diane Dannemiller and P.J. Winstead sort food to stuff into backpacks at Eastside Elementary School on Tuesday morning for HeartFELT Foundation. HeartFELT (Feeding Empty Little Tummies) gives backpacks to children to take home for the weekend or holiday breaks.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

From left, Paul Douglas, Diane Dannemiller and P.J. Winstead sort food to stuff into backpacks at Eastside Elementary School on Tuesday morning for HeartFELT Foundation. HeartFELT (Feeding Empty Little Tummies) gives backpacks to children to take home for the weekend or holiday breaks.

Seeing the goods spread out on the table Tuesday at Eastside Elementary School could change your whole idea of what it takes to make sure kids have a decent Christmas.

There were none of the expensive gaming systems you may have given to your child or grandchild to spare the poor tyke any feelings of deprivation. There weren't even any of those standard charitable gifts — bikes or dolls — distributed with the idea that it would be a shame for any kid to be without one.

No, mostly, the table just held staples — cereal, peanut butter, baked beans — with the only concession to the holiday season being boxes of frozen turkey roll. Because this is what it would really be shame for a kid to be without on Christmas Day — dinner.

"Something isn't right when kids are going hungry,'' said P.J. Winstead, a member of a new and particularly timely charity, the HeartFELT Foundation.

That string of capital letters refers to "Feeding Empty Little Tummies.'' And, though the organization rushed to provide Christmas food for children and their families — strictly homeless ones at this point — it hopes to do the same throughout the school year.

"We cannot let these kids be hungry over the weekend,'' said the organization's founder, Pattie Stepbach. "We're asking these kids to perform academically when they're hungry. We're asking them to do homework when they're hungry. And that's just not going to work.''

Stepbach, a former teacher now employed by an educational software company, said she's long been aware that many children depend on the free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches they receive at schools.

Then, a few months ago, she saw a television news report on a national program that sends children home every Friday with packs of food so they can eat when school is not in session. She couldn't shake the comments of one of the founders, a school nurse in Arkansas who had been inspired to act by the sight of children arriving in class on Mondays dizzy and clutching their stomachs.

"She realized they were just hungry,'' said Stepbach, who can be reached at pattie.stepbach@operationheartfelt.org.

Stepbach talked to Hernando school officials, including Dianne Dannemiller, the district's supervisor for federal programs, to help her identify the local children whose families most needed help.

Though HeartFELT hopes to eventually work across the district, Eastside, where 78 percent of the children receive free or reduced-price meals, seemed like a good place to start.

There always have been a lot of deprived children at Eastside, said Beth Zacharias, who runs a program that advises these children's parents. One sign that things are even worse, now that the county's unemployment rate has climbed to nearly 15 percent, is the cleanliness of the cafeteria.

Meals have become so precious that once-common food fights are a thing of the past, Zacharias said. "There's never a crumb on the floor.''

Eastside principal Bev Chapin helped Stepbach identify the children mostly likely to be underfed — those living in cars, derelict recreational vehicles or even tents.

Winstead, meanwhile, came up with the name of the new organization after a dinner with Stepbach and another early member, Paul Douglas, about a month ago.

"I said, 'Pattie wait until it's 2 in the morning and I get a hot flash. That's when I do my best thinking.' Sure enough, I get this major hot flash, and it just comes to me.''

Douglas has been assigned to pursue federal designation as a charitable organization, which will allow donors to claim income tax deductions.

That, in turn, will enable HeartFELT to solicit help from Publix, which has promised to donate food, and America's Second Harvest, a food bank in Tampa, which will sell the group boxes of food at its standard rate for nonprofits — 18 cents per pound.

The federal designation will also let HeartFELT unleash the full force of Stepbach's awesome fundraising ability, Douglas said.

"You don't refuse her," he said. "She's one of those people that if you say 'no,' it doesn't faze her. It does not compute in her mind.''

So far, Stepbach has just been able to work on Winstead, Douglas, Chapin and her fellow members of the Perceptor Beta Pi sorority, who ponied up money they usually spend on exchanging Christmas gifts.

With the resulting pool of about $400, she had enough money to fill several carts at Save-A-Lot, plus a cupboard full of food, with $27.14 to spare. She, Douglas and Winstead stuffed backpacks and grocery bags for nine children from six families, whose idea of a having a merry Christmas might be just not going hungry.

New charity in Hernando County help keeps little tummies full 12/24/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 24, 2009 7:23pm]
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