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Teens learn unexpected lessons on the food line

It's hard to see past the construction on Gunn Highway. But it isn't quite rush hour, so Rheda Bloom can make a quick left in her white Dodge Shadow with the bad paint job.

Packed in back are Vienna Fingers cookies, apples, fruit punch and some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches prepared by children at the Hillel School.

Bloom, a grandmother in walking shorts, is on her way.

For months she and a group of young people from a variety of backgrounds have made Wednesdays special at the Audley Evans athletic center in College Hill.

Teens from some of Hillsborough's most comfortable neighborhoods _ indeed, some driving Volvos and Mercedeses _ have been bringing after-school snacks into some of Tampa's poorest neighborhoods.

The concept is as simple as its name: Kids Feeding Kids.

But carrying it out is anything but simple. Logistical complications and questions of sensitivity have given these young people more of a learning experience than they bargained for.

In these times of shrinking social programs, it is a recurring question: How do you lend a hand without making people feel they are taking a handout?

"We don't want to appear like a lot of rich kids in polo shirts," said Bloom, echoing a concern that some have voiced.

Still, children are hungry. And who better to respond than other children?

The idea for Kids Feeding Kids emerged in September, when Bloom was volunteer services coordinator for Tampa Jewish Family Services. At a Hillsborough Children's Board conference, she heard a statistic: One fifth of the county's children go to bed hungry at least once a month.

Caught up in her own community's fall food bank drive, she thought, "If we have all this food, there shouldn't be hungry children."

So she started calling around. After-school programs soon emerged as a logical place to reach hungry children; there are lots of them in the county, but little funding for substantial snacks.

Her hunch was confirmed when she visited the Audley Evans center, where the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay and the Tampa Housing Authority operate a program that serves children both inside and outside public housing.

As Bloom tells it, she saw a group of children that day receive two Ritz crackers apiece. "I raised three children, and when they would come home from school, two Ritz crackers weren't going to cut it," she said.

So her organization and the Boys & Girls Club assembled a youth board. They met for the first time in November. "Everyone who came was very focused on why they had come," Bloom said. "The issue of hungry children was important to everyone who was there."

Food was procured from stores and food banks. Deliveries were begun at Audley Evans and the Booker T. Washington Middle School in Ybor City.

But, as we said earlier, there have been rough spots.

Some suburban parents have balked at sending their children into high-crime neighborhoods.

Nor is it easy for the Boys & Girls Club kids to go to the Jewish Community Center for the Monday night organizational meetings. In December, after two club counselors were robbed at gunpoint outside the Audley Evans complex, the organization suspended its night-time activities, including bus trips to Citrus Park.

And there has been talk that the suburban youngsters might have offended some of their intended recipients.

"The little ones, they like it," said Boys & Girls Club member Natasha Spencer, 12 and a member of the youth board. "But the older ones don't like it. They say, "I don't want anyone serving me.' "

Within the Jewish community, some wondered if it might be simpler just to drop the food off at the center.

But for now, the kids have worked out a solution: "We'll serve the young ones, and let the older ones serve themselves," Natasha said.

And the Boys & Girls Club has resumed the Monday night bus rides.

On this Wednesday, the food delivery came off like a well-oiled machine. Bloom arrived in College Hill at 4 p.m.; youth members Rachel Pross and Brian Manowitz, both 16 and from Carrollwood, met her there.

A table was set up outside. Adults and teens worked together, focused on an objective that needed no discussion whatsoever: making sure each child had a snack to his or her liking.

Soon dozens of young children were munching on sandwiches and apples.

Through the gates that surround the center, children who were not enrolled in the program extended their arms. Behind them, you could see the crude graffiti of public housing. The children's faces bore innocent smiles. Rachel, who chairs the youth board, handed them apples.

"Every time I come here, I think about how fortunate I am," she said.

To help the program

For information about Kids Feeding Kids, leave a message for Rheda Bloom at Jewish Family Services, 960-1848.