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."
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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."
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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 [email protected]