HOLIDAY — The man standing in his garage in Holiday Lake Estates was just minding his business Tuesday when the 2010 gray Kia Sedona pulled up carrying two moms, their kids and 50 bagged lunches, complete with foil-wrapped turkey cheese melt sandwiches, strawberries and cartons of chocolate or regular milk.
"You got any kids here under 18?" the woman in the front passenger seat yelled out. "We're from Gulfside Elementary School, just up the road, and we're giving out free lunches to kids under 18."
Turns out he did. Three boys, in fact, including a 5-year-old set to start kindergarten in August. And sure, they'd take a free lunch, the man said, heading into the house to fetch the boys as Lori Homer, Nanette Galati and their kids poured out of the SUV to fetch three bags out of the back and tell them all about the school's free summer lunch program.
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Chris Clayton knows the face of hunger. How couldn't you when you're the principal of a Gulfside Elementary School, where a whopping 85 percent of the 600 or so students qualify for free or reduced-price meals?
Never mind the statistics showing that 10 to 20 percent of that population probably suffers from chronic hunger.
"You see the signs," Clayton said. "The kids rushing to the food line in the cafeteria on Monday morning. The ones always asking for seconds. The ones hoarding food to take home — maybe to a younger sibling who is hungry, too."
So Clayton was enthusiastic when his school was one of about 38 sites selected to a host a federally funded summer feeding program for children.
You didn't have to be poor or qualify for free or reduced-price meals to take advantage of the school's free lunch program. You didn't have to be a student at Gulfside. You could be in middle school or high school. Only criteria, said Clayton: "You just had to be a kid."
Only problem? Hardly anyone was showing up.
That was cause for concern for Clayton, who knew there were kids out there in need of a meal. Some of them, undoubtedly, were home alone while their parents were at work. Others didn't have transportation to get to the school.
His solution was to take the program to the streets, to meet the kids where they lived. He got the go ahead from the Pasco County school district — on an experimental basis.
"They gave me six visits, each Tuesday and Thursday during the month of July," said Clayton, who made automated calls alerting Gulfside parents that representatives from the school would be handing out lunches in certain parking lots.
And he enlisted the help of a few PTO moms who lived in the neighborhood who knew the kids, their parents and the need.
Homer and Galati, whose children take part in the school-based feeding program, quickly jumped on board. They hung fliers and took care of the first two deliveries, handing out 70 lunches last week. They upped that number and were poised to hand out at least 100 lunches this week.
"We know it's a pilot program," Homer said. "But we're really hoping it will catch on — that if we show the need, we'll be able to feed more kids."
Add to that the fact that her kids are getting a lesson in community outreach. "They see us working in the PTO at school, but it's good for them to be helping in their community."
Galati, who loaned her vehicle and gas for Tuesday's delivery, sees the program as God's will.
"Kids don't ask for these difficult circumstances," she said. "A lot of families are going through hard times and if I didn't have a car, I would hope that someone would help me out. It's like paying it forward. It says so much about the principal and the school — that they have a big heart for kids."
Clayton, who was on vacation during the first week, and Homer, Gulfside's new PTO president, came along for Tuesday's deliveries, introducing themselves to parents and exchanging hugs and high fives with the kids.
"My goal — and I thought it was a lofty one — was to hand out 500 lunches to the community," Clayton said. "I think we just might do that."
After hearing about another school feeding program sponsored by Pinellas United Methodist Church in Palm Harbor, Gulfside plans to partner with Next Generations Church in Trinity for a "Pack a Snack" program that will send kids home for the weekend with juice boxes, apple sauce and granola bars.
That's bound to give a big lift to parents such as Nicole Santos, who brought her daughters Yazmin, 6, and Maiya, 2, to the pool at the Weston Oaks Apartments on Tuesday to pick up their free lunches.
"It really helps us out," Santos said. "It's a bit of a struggle these days. At lunch time, well, there's really not much at home."