A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: Central Kentucky sisters work to expand food program to ‘FEED’ hungry kids

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Shannon Smith carries a searing and vivid image of a child she worked with while volunteering as a parent in a Garden Springs Elementary School classroom, in Lexington, back in 2016.

“He had always been glad to see me and would give me a big hug. But this was after Christmas break, at lunch, and he had his head down…and he looked so sad,” Shannon said.

Wholeheartedly touched by the episode, Shannon, in her own words, “held it together through lunch” until she could find some context with the problem. She talked to a counselor and discovered that the child’s situation was not a totally rare one. In simple terms, it was a food crisis issue–not only one happening at this particular school, but a problem appearing too often with other families around Fayette County, too.

Shannon Smith and Mandy Otis (Photo provided)

She discussed it with her sister, Mandy Otis, also a parent at the school and a close neighbor in their residential subdivision. Mandy agreed with her concern for what seemed to be a terrible injustice.

“It was a big wakeup call for us that there are kids in class with our children that are hungry,” Shannon said.

They soon learned that their school had an initiative in place to help, called the “Backpack Food Program,” assisted by the neighborhood Gethsemane Lutheran Church. The program provided bags of nutritious food for weekend (and often school break periods) use. Unfortunately, the 36 bags that the church generously supplied to the school only went about halfway toward meeting those needs. The sisters had already witnessed an example of the consequences.

Armed with the information, they were motivated and ready to help. Almost without hesitation, they got busy — and committed to do the other 36 for the school. “So we just jumped in to do the other bags ourselves for the next two or three weeks,” Mandy said.

They shopped at places like Costco and Kroger and paid for the food out of their own pockets, along with receiving some financial help from neighbors and their mother, who lives in Richmond. But soon, the sisters realized they would need greater help, both financially and labor-wise, to sustain their endeavor of compassion.

They decided to do fundraisers, starting with a pool party that raised $1500. Others in the community volunteered with funding projects also. That included crucial help with fundraisers and consulting from Sylvia Lovely, who hosts the Food News and Chews Radio Show on WVLK, in Lexington. Sylvia’s presence became an immediate catalyst.

“Sylvia has been a godsend because she is very organized and has been that ‘missing piece’ to help us think about that next step,” Shannon said.

Young people helping out with the FEED program (Photo provided)

More money and volunteers for the project began to appear, including some enthusiastic young people. Besides Mandy’s and Shannon’s kids, a group of kids from the neighborhood came together to pack bags–a fun and gratifying activity modeling community service. “They were excited to help,” said Mandy, “and we had kindergarten kids through the fifth grade.”

The project rolled forward, and besides the help of Sylvia Lovely, they also received important voluntary assistance from Bradley Stevenson, Executive Director of Child Care Council of Kentucky. “He built up our web site and we used his 501-c3. His accountant did our financials…it became a lot easier,” said Mandy.

Their program now has a more formal structure and its nonprofit legal status under the umbrella of the Child Care Council of Kentucky facilitates fundraising, as donations are tax deductible. The scope of their work has recently expanded significantly.

The endeavor has a new name: Fayette Eating, Education, & Delivery (FEED). It also has a new web site stating that the program will “continue to serve Garden Springs Elementary for the 2018-2019 school year and has also added the following schools for the rest of 2018-2019 school year: Beaumont Middle School, Rosa Parks Elementary, Garrett Morgan Elementary, and a portion of Northern Elementary’s school bags.” Altogether, FEED regularly helps serve portions, along with other organizations, of about 100 to 125 bags around Fayette County.

Lovely added that “FEED’s goal is not only to provide weekend backpacks, but to raise awareness for a broader effort to end well-documented child hunger in our community.”

The “Back Pack Gang,” as Shannon calls the team members, is made up of Christie Morris, Jennifer McChord, Kasey Spicer, Sylvia Lovely, and Sharon Bird (mother of Mandy and Shannon), along with Bradley Stevenson being available to provide supportive consulting.

Food bags ready to go (Photo provided)

The other schools now served buy a portion of their food through the auspices of FEED and have their own volunteers doing the packing and delivery. For both sisters, they are invigorated by the progress and glad that they are not as much pressed to juggle the time demands of their family, their jobs, and the program. Shannon is the governmental relations director for the American Heart Association in Kentucky and formerly a lobbyist for children in foster care. Mandy works for Kentucky’s Office of the Attorney General in the Child Abuse and Human Trafficking Prevention division.

According to the two, they adopted much of their compassionate spirit from watching their parents and stepparents while growing up in their eastern Kentucky homes. Their father was “a hard-working truck driver who would give you the shirt off his back,” and their mother and stepfather organized a truck delivery of goods to those hit hard by Hurricane Andrew in 1993. They described their parents and stepparents as “always kind and giving” people who are supportive and encouraging of them.

Stevenson called the sisters’ role “critical” in the development of the food program. “What started out at one school has grown to multiple schools that are providing food for kids on weekends,” he said. “We know that nutritional food plays a critical role in the health and growth of children and this program is playing a huge role in ensuring that. I am grateful for Mandy and Shannon and their passion to ensure kids have food on weekends and holidays.”

Even with the success of FEED and its outreach, Shannon said she still “doesn’t feel like it’s enough. It feels like a really tiny pin prick for what needs to be done.”

For more information about the issue of child hunger locally and the FEED program, visit www.feedbackpackprogram.com

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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