Thanks to dedicated volunteers, the Kids of HOPE program is making sure local children in need never go hungry
It all began humbly enough.
In the summer of 2009, HOPE Helps, Inc. in Oviedo decided to organize a simple meal distribution to help local families who were facing food uncertainty. The fare was simple – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches bagged with a donated book for kids to enjoy. The setting was simpler still: a folding table set up outside Oviedo High School, covered with a birthday tablecloth, with a few balloons tied to it to attract attention. Joan Faulkner, HOPE Helps president and CEO, wasn’t sure how many families would come to take home a meal.
“The need blew us away,” says Joan. “We didn’t know how many would sign up. About 200 did.”
It was clear HOPE Helps had to make this kind of kid-friendly food distribution service an ongoing endeavor. Joan dubbed the initiative the Kids of HOPE Enrichment Program. All she needed was committed volunteers to make the mission a reality.
It wasn’t long before Jen Hoffer and her sons – Noah and Clay Hoffer-O’Connor, then seven and four – answered the call. They became familiar faces in the HOPE Helps food pantry, where they’d come to pack food bags for kids and families in need. Jen loved that the program allowed her, with a volunteer as young as four, to show her kids the importance of helping others.
“They’ve called us The Entourage at HOPE,” says Jen, “because we were always together.”
The trio, who live right outside of Oviedo, started volunteering for Kids of HOPE with another home-schooling family. The other family has since moved away, but Jen and her boys, now 14 and 11, have not stopped packing food bags for children to take home during school breaks, when free or reduced-cost meals are not available.
“I want to instill in my sons that even if you can’t help financially, we are pretty well-off compared to others, and we can help by donating time,” says Jen. “This teaches them perspective.”
She’s also seen her boys exhibit leadership skills when they take initiative during the packing process. If a food bag needs a box of macaroni and cheese, for example, the kids step up and get it done without being told.
At Kids of HOPE’s 10-year anniversary celebration this year, Jen, Noah, and Clay were named Volunteers of the Year. Jen takes special pride in the fact that Noah and Clay have official HOPE volunteer name tags, an item generally reserved for adults.
“The family has provided several hundred hours of donated time,” says Joan. “We are so grateful for their ongoing service.”
The kind of volunteer work that Jen and her sons do is not only crucial to ensure students are fed over school breaks, it lets local families know they are in a community that cares.
Since that initial lunch distribution to 200 families back in 2009, Kids of HOPE has expanded to serve more than 500 families and their kids.
Heather Goergen, a HOPE Helps case manager, says that the original summer-break distribution has evolved into a full-year program that covers all the Seminole County Public School holidays and breaks throughout the school year – about 13 weeks in all.
The volunteer-made lunches include fresh fruit and easy-open items – such as pop-top containers – for kids who may be home alone during the day while their parents work. Many of the items in the lunches can be prepacked, but volunteers add fresh items such as apples, oranges, and baby carrots right before distribution.
Kids of HOPE focuses on key, healthy items: shelf-stable milk in kid-sized boxes; small fruit cups with fruit in juice as opposed to syrup; small boxes of raisins; single-serve trail mix, granola bars, and popcorn; soup; Vienna sausages; or pop-top cans of tuna, chicken, or ravioli.
To make the meals more inviting, the Kids of HOPE paper grocery bags are decorated and colored by younger volunteers – a job Jen’s sons did when they were smaller. Now that they are older, they have friendly competitions amongst themselves or with other young volunteers to see who can pack bags the fastest.
Parents who come pick up weekly lunch packages are offered the chance to meet with case managers and learn about other HOPE Helps services, like budget coaching, résumé building, and food-stamp application guidance. Joan says clients’ self-sufficiency is the ultimate goal.
Jen and her boys have also regularly volunteered at the annual Kids of HOPE Back-to-School Bash. The program provides backpacks, school supplies, and clothing for the new school year along with vision screenings and hygiene products. This past year, more than 400 children were served.
As the need in Oviedo has grown, so has HOPE Helps, itself.
“HOPE started in a really small building,” Jen says. “At that point, we were packing about 50 bags for Kids of HOPE every week. Now, we do 200 to 250.”
And no matter how busy Jen and her kids may be, they always feel appreciated.
“HOPE staff are always telling us ‘Thanks for helping’ or ‘Glad you’re here,’” says Jen. “You feel like family there.”
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