Kids of Hope prevents empty stomachs during school breaks

Today, as so many of us are already anticipating the post-turkey-and-stuffing bloat, it's sobering to think about children in our neighborhoods with empty bellies.

I heard those tiny growling stomachs on a recent morning through the polite "thank yous" and "bless yous" of mothers, grandmothers and others who stopped by a makeshift table set up outside of HOPE Helps, a charity that focuses on preventing homelessness and runs a food pantry tucked off a side street in Oviedo.


Moms like Joseline Vasquez picked up bags packed with a week's worth of lunches for her two school-age children who typically receive lunch at school for free.

Without the bags of cereal, milk, peanut butter, noodles, fresh fruit and other snacks, it would be tough to stretch her budget to cover extra mid-day meals during the week-long Thanksgiving break when school is closed.


"This helps a lot," she said.

There are nearly 200,000 kids in the five-county area who receive free or reduced price lunches at school.

On a week like this one, when school is out for Thanksgiving, many of those children would go without a healthy mid-day meal if not for Kids of HOPE, a program run by HOPE Helps in Oviedo since 2009.

The Orlando Sentinel Family Fund, which is supported by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, provides a grant to help cover the lunches that go to kids during school breaks.

The program provided meals to about 600 kids in Seminole County last year when school was closed for spring break, summer and holidays.

About 250 kids received meals this week during the Thanksgiving break.

"I see a lot of families in need of this program because when you're getting the free lunches at school, that helps out a lot," said Carmella Nichols, a case manager at HOPE Helps. "To be at home and you're no longer getting that lunch ... that can put a lot on you financially."

Vasquez, who works as a pet groomer and is new to the area, said her kids love the meals.


"This program is very nice," she said. "The people are so nice ... it's a good place."

Heather Goergen, a program and case manager at the charity, says many parents are in a similar predicament.

Unlike during the recession, when so many were out of work, more people are employed today, but for low pay.

"They're getting jobs and working, but the income isn't enough to meet their household needs," she said.

Kids of Hope and other programs run by HOPE Helps rely on generosity from the community.

Publix donates unsold bread and sweets. Chipotle gives the group leftover meats and beans. Outback Steakhouse chips in onion tops or the portion sliced off to make the chain's famous Bloomin' Onion.


But many of the donations are from local families who have food to spare from their own kitchens or who volunteer their time.

On the same morning one group of volunteers passed out bags of food for Kids of Hope, another group helped people shop the charity's food pantry.

The quarters are cramped with aisles stocked with canned goods and fresh produce.

The space for HOPE Helps staff is even smaller — a tiny galley of desks crammed together.

"Good practice for being on a submarine," says one volunteer.

Work on a much more spacious office next door is almost complete thanks to contributions to a $1.6 million campaign. HOPE Helps has raised more than two-thirds of that goal so far.


By the time students are out of school for Christmas break, the new space is scheduled to be open. That means bigger refrigerators and freezers and more storage space for food.

And, possibly, fewer children left hungry for lunch when school is out.


Thousands of children and families throughout Central Florida need your help. A donation to the Orlando Sentinel Family Fund Holiday Campaign helps fund youth education, hunger, homelessness prevention and child-abuse prevention and treatment programs. All expenses are covered by the Orlando Sentinel and the McCormick Foundation, which contributes 50 cents for every dollar donated, increasing your charitable giving. You can charge a donation to a credit card by calling 1-800-518-3978. Or go online at Questions? Call 407-420-5705.