BROOKSVILLE — Some schoolchildren don't relish weekends because, without the federally subsidized breakfasts and lunches they get Monday through Friday, they go hungry on Saturdays and Sundays.
Some go home to worse than an empty pantry. As Pattie Stepbach points out, there's no such thing as a pantry when your family is living out of a car or in a tent.
But the number of young students who now look forward to weekends is growing, said Stepbach, who late last year founded the HeartFELT Foundation — Feeding Empty Little Tummies.
The grass roots agency of volunteers has bought groceries with donated funds to fill backpacks that are handed out on Fridays to 90 homeless children. The group has worked hand to mouth, so to speak, just hoping it can solicit enough money to stock enough food for the coming week.
Recently, the agency got some good news: HeartFELT was inspected and qualified as a member of a national effort, Feeding America, enabling the Hernando organization to purchase food at 18 cents a pound from Second Harvest Food Bank in Tampa.
"We can buy 5,000 pounds of food for $1,000, which could keep us going for a long time," Paul Douglas, a HeartFELT volunteer and one of its nine board members, said on a recent Friday as he stocked backpacks with peanut butter, cans of soup, applesauce, boxes of macaroni and cheese, powdered milk, pork and beans, potted meats, canned spaghetti, boxed cereals and fruit juices.
"We're trying to hit all the food groups," said volunteer and co-founder P.J. Winstead. "It's not fancy, but it's filling."
Douglas shook his head at the need, saying, "To think that some of this goes on in Hernando County is just atrocious."
While the group first targeted Eastside Elementary School, in Hill 'n Dale, where the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price meals at school is the highest in the county, the effort has expanded to Moton and Brooksville elementaries plus, more recently, not just children of the homeless, but to others who appear in class on Mondays with stomachs growling.
Kids who clutch empty stomachs and worry about their next meal aren't focused on learning, said Stepbach, a former teacher now employed by a publisher of educational materials. HeartFELT aims to provide the children with life sustenance, with the idea that their academic performance will improve, too.
The recipients, selected by school counselors and administrators, are identified to HeartFELT only by numbers, not names, to protect their identity and self-esteem. Almost every schoolkid carries a backpack, so recipients aren't conspicuous to fellow students. School officials let the organization know if a needy student has siblings at home too young for school, but also likely in need of food. HeartFELT stuffs packs accordingly.
As Douglas handed out backpacks on a recent Friday, he said a young girl turned back before exiting the door and said in a small voice, "Thank you." It broke him up.
"This is a heart-wrenching project," he admitted.
As for the homeless children, Stepbach said, most don't fit the normal on-the-street stereotype; many come from families where parents have lost their jobs and their homes in the current economic downturn. They are embarrassed to be on the dole.
She told of an instance in which a volunteer approached a wooded area in Hernando where homeless people were known to have taken up habitat.
"The volunteer called out that he wasn't the police," she said. "Everybody scattered. Four children came out." They were hungry.
HeartFELT is operating under the nonprofit umbrella of Shiloh Problem Solvers, so donations are tax-deductible. Funding was launched with a $300 donation from the Preceptor Beta Pi chapter of Beta Sigma Phi sorority in Spring Hill.
Other donations have come unexpectedly and just when the organization was down to its last few dollars, Stepbach said. For instance, when a volunteer moved into the checkout lane at a local grocery store, another shopper asked about the volunteer's full cart. The volunteer explained. The unknown woman gave her a $20 bill. The clerk charged her for one box of macaroni and cheese among a basketful of them.
Attorney Frank Miller turned over a room in his law office building to the group for storage and packing.
The Hernando County Family YMCA has set out bins to collect nonperishable food for HeartFELT.
The giving has "just been overwhelming," Stepbach said.
She is bent on forging ahead.
"We have to tell our story," she said. "We have to feed the children. They aren't responsible for their parents."
Stepbach pointed out that 100 percent of donations go to feeding hungry kids.
"No administration costs," she said. "Every dollar goes to feed these children."
Beth Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.