Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Blessings in a Backpack helps feed a need in Hernando County


As they make their way down the sidewalk on the way home from Spring Hill Elementary each Friday, the Brinson girls look like students with way too much homework.

Joann, 13, carries two bookbags, a pink one with Disney princesses on her back and another slung across her chest. Her sister, Robin, 11, carries hers the same way. They don't complain about the extra weight.

Only two of the bags hold books. The other two are packed with spaghetti and meatballs, peanut butter crackers, juice boxes and fruit cups, among other provisions. Some of the food will wind up on the table that night, enjoyed by their disabled mother and three siblings during what they call Friday Family Night — dinner together, followed by a home movie. The rest goes in the cupboard, knocking precious dollars off the week's grocery bill receipt.

"It's helps our family a lot," Robin said as the sisters rounded the block and approached their modest ranch home.

The girls are among some 375 Hernando County schoolchildren who bring home nourishment over their shoulders every weekend as part of the Blessings in a Backpack program coordinated and funded by People Helping People.

Formed in 2009, the Hernando-based nonprofit, interfaith group provides food, clothes and other necessities to the needy. The organization relies entirely on donations and grants, and its primary outreach effort happens every Sunday, when volunteers serve up free meals to more than 100 people at the Senior Citizens Center of Hernando County in Spring Hill.

Last year, the group's board of directors decided to help tackle the growing need in local schools. They learned about Blessings in a Backpack, a nonprofit organization started with two schools in 2005 that now serves nearly 59,000 students in 35 states and three other countries, according to its website.

"We thought, here's something that fits right into our mission," said Ron Van Matre, the executive director of People Helping People.

Another nonprofit, Operation HeartFELT, started a similar backpack program in Hernando a few years ago and still serves several local schools.

People Helping People started small last school year with a pilot program at Spring Hill Elementary. The national organization only supplies backpacks, so the local group pays for the food. In Hernando, several organizations do the shopping, keep secure pantries, and pack and deliver the backpacks. Guidance counselors or other school staffers provide information about needy students and how many children are in the family.

Members of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Spring Hill agreed to help get the venture moving last year by sponsoring Spring Hill Elementary. When the word got out, other schools started calling, said Maureen Follansbee, who started as the pantry manager at St. Andrew's last year. She now coordinates the program and serves on the People Helping People board.

Seven sponsors now furnish backpacks to five schools, two Head Start programs, and the Boys and Girls Club's day program in Spring Hill. How much the effort grows depends on how many more volunteers People Helping People can recruit and how many donations the organization receives to pay the roughly $100 per child it costs to feed one child for a school year.

"We are going to continue to grow because there are other schools waiting in the wings," Follansbee said. "We're going to find more sponsors, and we're going to do it."

• • •

As the recession slogged on and the unemployment rate soared, the number of poor families in Hernando continued to climb.

Now, nearly 62 percent of the school district's 22,300 students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The figure hit that all-time high last school year and has hovered there since, said Lori Drenth, the district's food and nutrition services director.

In Title I schools like the ones served by People Helping People, the rate can be considerably higher, ranging from 65 percent to 78 percent.

Some families struggle just to put food on the table and gas in the car to come to school, said Cathy Jo Ollier, parent educator at Moton Elementary in Brooksville.

"I've never seen it like I have lately," Ollier said. "They're in survival mode."

Christina and Anthony Clark's family started falling behind on bills when Anthony, an electrician, couldn't find steady work. Christina asked Ollier about organizations that might help them and their three children get by, and Ollier signed them up for Blessings in a Backpack.

"The name, that's exactly what it is," said Christina, a regular volunteer at the school. "Trying to feed three hungry, growing children can be hard sometimes."

The kids, ages 7, 8, and 9, get raisins and applesauce and off-brand toaster pastries. They love the mini canned sausages, and they tear into the juice boxes, Christina said. The supply is especially helpful on the weekends, when the kids are home all day.

"It's rough," she said, "but sometimes you just have to ask for help."

• • •

Every Thursday, in a musty storage room at St. Andrew's Episcopal, the backpack assembly line cranks up.

Volunteers read a number written on the side of each backpack that indicates how many children are in the family. Other helpers grab items, drop them in the bag and pass it down the table.

Among them are 90-year-old Doris Derer and 84-year-old Audrey Collins, both of Spring Hill. They never see the kids, but the women smile when they go to fill a backpack and find a thank-you note written in a child's scrawl. They also think back to their own childhoods. Derer's family struggled in England during World War II. Collins, a product of the Depression, remembers wrapping elastic bands around her shoes to keep the soles from flapping.

"We know what it's like," Derer said.

"We struggled," Collins said, "but we got through it."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or

Blessings in a Backpack

The pilot program started at Spring Hill Elementary School last year, sponsored by St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, and has expanded to four more schools, two Head Start programs and the Boys and Girls Club. Other locations and their sponsoring organizations include:

Moton Elementary and Head Start, Brooksville: First Baptist Church of Shady Rest

Deltona Elementary: Sisterhood of Temple Beth David

Pine Grove Elementary: Nativity Lutheran Church

Winding Waters K-8: Christian Life Assembly of God

Head Start, Spring Hill: Grace Presbyterian Church

Boys and Girls Club day program: Forest Oaks Lutheran Church.

To find out more about People Helping People, whether it's to volunteer, contribute or seek help, call (352) 686-4466 or visit

Blessings in a Backpack helps feed a need in Hernando County 02/18/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 18, 2012 12:36pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Investigators reviewing HHS chief's private charter flights


    WASHINGTON — Federal investigators are examining Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price's recent use of costly charter flights on the taxpayers' dime for official business.

  2. FSU gives president John Thrasher a pay bump as its academic standing rises


    TALLAHASSEE — With Florida State University moving closer to becoming a top-25 public university, the school's trustees on Friday bumped up President John Thrasher's salary by 7 percent and awarded him a $200,000 bonus.

    Florida State University President John Thrasher, center, is surrounded by lawmakers in 2016 as he visits the Florida Senate. Thrasher on Friday received a pay increase to go with the university's increased academic standing, including in the latest U.S. News & World Report ranking of public universities. FSU ranks 33rd this year, and is aiming for a top-25 spot. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]

  3. Pasco driver, 66, dies in Friday crash on SR 54


    NEW PORT RICHEY — A 66-year-old man died Friday after he collided with oncoming traffic on State Road 54 in Pasco County, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

  4. Florida reverses decision to shield information from nursing home inspection reports


    TALLAHASSEE — Florida regulators decided Friday they will abandon the use of software that allowed them to heavily redact key words from nursing home inspection reports posted online, choosing instead to link to the more complete reports available on a federal site.

    Officials for the state Agency for Health Care Administration said Friday they will no longer use software that allowed them to heavily redact key words from nursing home inspection reports posted online. The agency has been under increased scrutiny since Sept. 13, when eight residents of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, pictured here, died after power was lost to an air-conditioning system during Hurricane Irma. Two more residents died this week. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel]
  5. Trump's travel ban to be replaced by restrictions tailored to certain countries


    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's ban on travelers from six majority-Muslim countries is set to be replaced as soon as this weekend with more targeted restrictions on visits to the United States that would vary by country, officials familiar with the plans told the New York Times on Friday.