BROOKSVILLE — There are many children and their families avoiding hunger, thanks to the efforts of Pattie Stepbach, founder of Operation HeartFELT.
Stepbach and her volunteers send children from several Hernando County schools home with food every weekend.
The FELT part of the foundation's name stands for Feeding Empty Little Tummies, which is exactly what the organization does.
Stepbach has lived in Brooksville for almost 20 years.
"I was an educator for almost 25 years," she said.
Now she is a manager at Pearson, an educational materials publishing company. Before that, she was a consultant with Pearson and worked with the Hernando school district's Title I program.
Title I schools have large numbers of children whose families qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. That means they eat meals at school during the week. But Stepbach remembers noticing children coming to school on Mondays complaining of stomachaches.
She learned about a backpack program that discreetly sends food home with children over weekends, and she decided to start one in Hernando County several years ago.
Now, Operation HeartFELT serves students in six district schools. Guidance counselors suggest children who would benefit.
Stepbach started off with $300 from a sorority to which she belonged. Since then, she has received money from businesses, organizations, individuals, co-workers and even musicians who hold concerts and give the foundation the proceeds.
More than money is donated, too. Some people donate the backpacks. Others give time and services.
The foundation buys the food.
"We are also affiliated with Feeding America," Stepbach said, referring to the domestic hunger-relief charity, providing access to that organization's food bank. "But most food is bought here in town."
Brooksville Elementary is one of the schools served by Operation HeartFELT. Principal Mary LeDoux is pleased to have the service. She said the foundation's volunteers learn over time what foods the children like or don't like and try to accommodate them.
"It's really a great program," she said.
Stepbach said the group is also aware of dietary restrictions children may have.
"We're very careful about what we give to those children," she said.
Stepbach credits the success of the foundation to its board and volunteers. The board members, in addition to Stepbach, are Diane Dannemiller, Danielle and Billy Healis, Trisha Bechtelheimer and P.J. Winstead.
Winstead buys the food and coordinates the volunteers and the filling of the backpacks.
"She's the backbone of Operation HeartFELT," Stepbach said.