It isn’t complicated, says kidsPACK Executive Director, Patty Strickland, there’s an issue that needs to be solved. Unfortunately, it’s a problem invisible to many, even in a community as giving as Polk County. It all begins with community awareness and $25 a month.
Executive Director Patty Strickland retired twice from the medical field. She started volunteering with kidsPACK before being asked by the board to step in and help. Five years later, she’s still here. “I do not see this as a job. This is a mission,” said Strickland. “I am very firmly convinced that this is where the Lord said, ‘You need to be because I’m not finished with you yet.’” Committing to a nonprofit is a world different from medical corporate, says Strickland. “You’ve got to come in with a heart and a passion for what you’re doing. The heart and passion of kidsPACK and one of the reasons I am firmly committed to kidsPACK is because there’s only one mission, and that is to feed hungry children.”
Working alongside Strickland is kidsPACK Program Manager, Amy Royal who retired from Lockheed Martin and the Givewell Community Foundation. A friend on the kidsPACK board asked if she would come to speak with them. “I didn’t know it was an interview until I got here,” she smiled. The conversation she had with kidsPACK founder Randy Browning and Patty Strickland emboldened Royal for the cause. As a mother, she was always a proponent of public schools, all children receiving the same education and a fair chance. A discrepancy in the thousands, or at least lack of awareness thereof, of homeless, specifically homeless children was staggering to Royal. She joined the mission – that was almost two years ago.
What is kidsPACK?
KidsPACK is a nonprofit organization that started in 2011 by Randy Browning with the sole mission of feeding hungry children. By working directly with teacher liaisons in schools throughout Polk and Hillsborough Counties, kidsPACK fills the gap for disadvantaged children by providing discrete backpacks with enough food for three meals a day over the weekends. The food in each pack is child-centric as well as easy to open and prepare as many of the kids they serve do not have access to running water or a microwave.
“They go to school and get breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday. Then what happens on Friday when they leave? There’s nothing for these children to eat. That’s why kidsPACK is important,” said Strickland. The program is strengthened by the ability to work directly through the school system. “We know that our mission is being met because they’re with the children, day in, usually a lot more than the families are,” said Strickland, explaining that the children they serve are homeless – living in cars, tents, in homeless camps, even under bridges.
“There’s no guarantee that I can find a sponsor because when you’re starting out with about 4,000 children plus that are registered in the school system as being homeless and we only service about 1,800 – that’s a big gap,” said the executive director.
It was about two and a half years ago that Strickland was at a Polk County School Board meeting and heard the statistic that there were 800 unaccompanied youth living on the street within the county. Their status of being “unaccompanied” also designated them as homeless. “I raised my hand and said, ‘We will help.’ Even though that’s not part of our program. We get no funding for that, absolutely nothing. It’s volunteer-based, donations only,” Strickland said. “The Lord told me to raise my hand, I raised my hand […] We have never, not met that need.”
In addition to kidsPACKs, they can assist with familyPACKs when needed. If a teacher, who knows the needs of a certain student, tells the nonprofit that a child has a mom, dad, and sibling at home, kidsPACK will provide a familyPACK. These are comprised of donated food that can feed a family of four for five days with nonperishable items. “We get a large shipment from Publix to help with that,” Strickland noted.
A few years ago, area coaches contacted kidsPACK with a need. Homeless kids and teenagers would eat lunch at school at 10:30 in the morning and would practice for a sport for one or two hours and go home hungry. KidsPACK started their P&J Project in which Publix provides them with peanut butter, Walmart donates items like Gatorade and chips, and the public schools, as well as Butter Krust, give day-old bread. They asked the coaches to approach local churches about starting a jelly drive to make the PB&Js.
KidsPACK takes the discretion of the children they feed seriously. Every year, they receive the number of how many homeless students are enrolled in each school. They do not get the names, just the number of students. This crisis isn’t designated to a few schools. “There are homeless children in every school, in every zip code, in every neighborhood,” said Strickland. If you’re a parent, your child goes to school, even in private school, with a food-insecure child.
The Face of Homelessness
At the onset of the pandemic, Strickland said the greatest fear for kidsPACK was the children – many of them living in cars without access to electricity, a refrigerator, a classroom. “They don’t even have the option of going into a kitchen and sitting at the kitchen table – they’re doing all of this out of the backseat of a car or on the ground of a tent,” she said. It is Strickland’s mission to change the view our community has of the face of homelessness. “The average age of a homeless person in Polk County is nine,” said Royal.
Not to say that adult homelessness and hunger are not important – they most certainly need to be addressed. Strickland’s focus is simply different. “My concern is that we change the vision of the gentleman standing on the street to a family of four living in a car or living in a friend’s backyard. [...] We hear stories from the schools that will break your heart.”
One such situation involved a mother living in a house with her three children. There was nothing in the house – no furniture, no food. The family had been surviving off nothing but water for three days. Strickland continued, “Or you have a gentleman living in an orange grove with a special needs child. The reason he’s living there is because he’s afraid the state will take his child away from him because he lost his housing because he lost his job.” Homelessness is also the face of a high school student whose mother was Baker Acted. With no place to go but her car, she was allowed to live in it until her mother was released. “She was 15 and celebrated her 16th birthday in that car,” said Strickland.
“It’s a lovely story and a lovely mission, but it is so hidden in this community. We sit in Lakeland, Florida. Polk County is the third largest philanthropic area in Florida and we have the fifth-highest child homeless population,” said Royal.
Coming Together During COVID
The virus has put a halt to many things, child hunger has not been one. KidsPACK has not stopped for a moment. With their network of schools, churches, organizations like Parker Street Ministries and the Mission of Winter Haven, volunteers, and corporate sponsors, they have been able to continue feeding children – though they have had to shift their execution.
When churches initially closed months ago, kidsPACK lost 17 pack and deliver sites. They opened their facility in Lakeland, adhering to CDC guidelines to groups of ten in the morning and ten in the afternoon on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to pack. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, volunteers would sort food. “Then, on Wednesday morning this whole parking lot was full of wrapped meals going to different organizations, and we had volunteers who loaded their cars up and delivered. We may be facing that in the upcoming season,” said Strickland.
KidsPACK contacted the schools that were doing lunch pick-ups as well as Parker Street Ministries and The Mission of Winter Haven. “In Polk County, a lot of our kids, over half of them are bussed to schools. They don’t go to their neighborhood school anymore,” said Royal. Many of the children who live around Parker Street Ministries go there after school for tutoring, summer programs, and the like. KidsPACK was able to deliver meals there and to the schools doing meal pick-ups to get food in the hands of the children they serve.
“Teachers that did not have a hot meal program in their schools, a lot of them still got meals and hand-delivered them to our kids,” said Strickland. “That’s how committed the teachers are within the school system.”
“It was a network of people making certain that these children continued to be fed,” said Strickland. The nonprofit continued to feed between 1,100 and 1,200 children a week despite the obstacles. School may be out for summer break, but kidsPACK continues to meet needs. Churches and other organizations, even teachers and principals pick up kidsPACKs and deliver them to children during the summer – sometimes as many as 100 students per school.
Their biggest issue wasn’t the loss of 17 packing facilities, it was the suspension of buying power. The nonprofit would typically buy in bulk but no longer could. They started scouring Publix, Walmart, Sam’s Club – anywhere they could find bulk items. “Instead of a child’s lunch being $6, it went to being $9.20,” said Strickland. They reached out to the community for financial and purchasing help, requesting folks pick up ten cans of Chef Boyardee, or Pop-Tarts, or applesauce when they were grocery shopping. “Our community stepped up,” she said. The buying power is still not there and may not fully open up anytime soon as coronavirus cases continue to rise.
Depending on whether or not schools reopen, Strickland says, “It’s going to be a different arena, but I can tell you our commitment and our mission and with the networking of the individuals that we have and with community awareness, we will meet the needs of every child.”
How You Can Help
“I think with community awareness, with our school system, and with kidsPACK, we can meet the needs of the children that need to be fed – but we also need to do more for them, like find them a home,” said Strickland.
To its executive director, the importance and urgency of kidsPACK lie in speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. “If someone does not lift these children up, does not allow them to be a part of society – because they are going to be our future leaders – then we’ve lost a generation that we should be ashamed of ourselves that we’ve lost,” she said. “We are part of the torch that brings light into the darkness of children that are going without food.”
According to Royal, their fundraiser, Pack the Park in which they partner with the ballpark has been canceled. This and other fundraisers are a sizable piece of how they sustain their mission. “We’re not getting any relief between that $6 that we used to pay to the $9.20 that we’re paying now, and until we get our buying power back, we have to bridge that gap with money,” she said.
You can bridge that gap by sponsoring a child. Monetary and food donations are always welcome and helpful, but for only $300 a year or $25 per month, you can sponsor a child. You can specify what school you want your sponsorship to go to and your money will only go to that one child, feeding them for 50 weeks. What is $25 a month to you? What could it be for a hungry student? Pull together funds with your family, friends, or church – $1,500 could mean feeding five children for an entire year.
You can also volunteer. Sign up on their website and Amy Royal will send out an email when they need help with the day, time, any other requirements to help, and a link to sign up through Sign Up Genius.
“I think each one of us has a duty to take care of children. They are the most vulnerable portion of our society. They didn’t ask to be in that situation and they really have no way of getting out of that situation unless they get an education,” said Strickland. “That is why I’m committed to kidsPACK because we work with the school system. If I can fuel their tummy, they can educate their mind – they have a way out of poverty.”