By LINDA CHION KENNEY
With the Mosaic Company and club support, the Kiwanis Club of Greater Brandon is nine years into its outreach efforts at Gibsonton Elementary School, where the Project Smile and Friday pantry programs ensure kids and their families living in tough times have enough to eat seven days a week.
Thanks to the global pandemic, this year stands out from the other eight as businesses, educators, families and individuals face the resulting havoc on schedules, systems, psyches and livelihoods.
As the saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” and so it is for the work of the Kiwanians in Gibsonton, including members associated with both the Greater Brandon and Greater Riverview clubs, which now operate together under the Brandon umbrella and meet at Bootleggers Brewing Co. in Tampa, at the crossroads of the Greater Brandon/Greater Riverview area.
“Without them it’s impossible,” said Catherine Gilmore, Gibsonton’s community school coordinator, whose job is to coordinate volunteers; to help support and facilitate the needs of families, staff and students; and to identify resources needed to help ease their struggles.
In these pandemic times, “We have a higher need for our food pantry, we have a higher need for our clothes closet and for hygiene supplies,” Gilmore said. “We have a higher need for just basic supplies, including sheets, bedding, towels, comforters and pillows. We’ve given them all out. This year we had more families that needed school supplies, so we provided everybody with supplies, and we continue to do that as needed to support both on campus and e-Learners.”
With the winter months approaching, Gilmore said the need for winter clothing is expected as well, “because our kids aren’t going to be able to have the resources they need otherwise, unless they get them from the community.”
Project Smile’s roots stem from a conversation Kiwanian Janet Daigle, a retired school teacher and Gibsonton Elementary volunteer, had with her husband Mike, who has since retired as Mosaic’s senior director of research and business development. She shared with her husband an article she read about children eligible for school breakfast and lunch assistance who go hungry over the weekend.
“The problem with [the federal] free- and reduced-lunch [program] is that it’s only five days a week, so on the weekend there’s a food gap and some of these kids just aren’t getting any food,” Mike Daigle said. “They’d come in Monday tired and lethargic, so we wanted to address the weekend gap, and that’s what we started nine years ago.”
What started as the Project Smile backpack program — providing food for children to take home for the weekend — has emerged into a partnership with the nonprofit Feeding Tampa Bay and its Feeding Minds School Pantries program.
The need at Gibsonton Elementary has roughly doubled over the years, with Kiwanians now distributing roughly 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of food each week to about 200 students and family members weekly, at a cost of about $500 per week in food purchases from Feeding Tampa Bay, Mike Daigle said. “It’s very cost-effective,” he added. “About 80 percent is covered by Mosaic and the other 20 percent by Kiwanis club fundraising.”
With Daigle at the Gibsonton Elementary food pantry on Oct. 15 were Kiwanians and retirees Dave Hill and Gordon Sanford, busy unboxing and shelving that week’s Feeding Tampa Bay food delivery.
“These families need this food, and we can only give them this little bit,” Sanford said. “I wish we could give them a lot more.”
He said he also worries about families showing up “and there’s nothing left for them, so it’s kind of tough to monitor what we distribute so that everybody gets something.”
Having lived through their professional lives, “We’re lucky,” Hill said. “We’re retired and [the pandemic] doesn’t impact us like others. We don’t worry about job loss. I told my wife, ‘Can you imagine if you’re sitting there worried about your job day in and day out?”
Noting “the stress and tension” and “the fiscal loss to the family,” Sanford acknowledged with Hill that hard luck could befall anyone.
“People who have never been to a food bank before, they were probably volunteers at a food bank at one time,” Hill said, “and then you have a job loss and the next thing you know you’re trying to feed your family.”
“It makes you feel like you’re giving opportunity to people who don’t have,” Hill said, about the Kiwanis outreach effort. “Just helping a little bit, it all adds up.”
To learn more about the Kiwanis Club of Greater Brandon and its meeting dates and projects, visit: www.BrandonKiwanis.org.