- KidsPACK provides food to 3,000 low-income children weekly via 80 schools in Polk County, Fla.
- REALTOR® Debbie Miller accelerated food donations at the start of the pandemic in 2020 by launching a Facebook group when bulk purchasing by kidsPACK became impossible.
- Miller set a donation goal of 12,000 cans of Chef Boyardee ravioli for the fourth quarter of 2020. The group received 17,562.
Things I want in my life:
Food and water
A house with running water and lights
Don’t kill my pets
Help with school
Clean bed with covers
Don’t sell my toys
My own comb
These words from a 9-year-old boy in Polk County, Fla., remind Debbie Miller every day why her efforts matter. Someone from kidsPACK, the nonprofit she’s volunteered with for 11 years, shared the letter with Miller; it helps keep her passionate about the value of the organization dedicated to raising awareness about hungry children in her community and finding solutions to their plight.
The sentiment of the letter speaks to the ravages of living in poverty in Polk County and beyond. KidsPACK’s mission is making sure that children from low-income families, including many who are homeless, have food available on weekends, during the summer, or any other time school’s not in session and they’re not able to receive subsidized school meals.
Working with 80 schools in the county, the nonprofit typically provides two meals to 3,000 children weekly—6,000 meals to hold students over through each weekend.
“If kids are hungry, they’re not able to concentrate in school,” explains Miller, an associate with WebPro Realty in Lakeland, Fla.
She has volunteered with the organization since its launch in 2011, but it was her initiative at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that helped them not only keep their doors open but ramp up their response to meet an intensifying need for food.
Many of the children kidsPACK serves live in cars, tents and camps, says its executive director, Patty Strickland.
Some of their parents are incarcerated, while others, impaired by drug addiction, take the donated food for themselves. Strickland recalls how one 11-year-old student dug a hole underneath a planter to hide the kidsPACK food from his alcoholic father so he could eat it when his dad passed out.
At Willow Oak School in nearby Mulberry, about 50 students in grades pre-K through 5 discreetly receive food through kidsPACK every week. “We distribute the packs to students through our ‘breakfast club’ each Friday morning or the last day before a holiday,” says teacher J.R. Duffy.
“We had a family who lost their home to a fire,” says Willow Oak’s principal, Michelle Townley. “The third grade student was at the bus stop as he watched his home burn. Through the support of kidsPACK, the family—a single mom, grandmother and two boys—had one less thing to worry about, knowing their boys would have meals for the weekend.”
Fulfilling a Promise to God
Miller’s involvement in kidsPACK began after a life-altering car accident in December 2005 that shattered her spine. Following surgery and a painful five-year recovery, Miller recalls how she prayed and begged God to give her back her life. “I would do what he put on my heart and never question how I was going to do it,” she says. Working with Lakeland REALTORS®, she began helping with early fundraising events for the new organization 11 years ago.
“You have to be the kind of person who’s not afraid to ask for something. In real estate, you get a lot of rejection, so I’m used to that. You just say, ‘Maybe next time,’ move on, and ask someone else.” —Debbie Miller
Soon, she was hooked. Miller deepened her kidsPACK activities, stepping up to donate food, raise funds and mobilize her community to help. She talks about the nonprofit and the community need it fulfills everywhere she goes. She even involves her real estate clients in her efforts. “I sometimes purchase food on their behalf as a closing gift,” Miller says.
Solving a Pandemic-Fueled Problem
The challenge to feed hungry children and alleviate food insecurity intensified with the arrival of COVID-19, when supply chain issues, manufacturing shutdowns, transportation delays and school closures halted kidsPACK’s efforts for several months.
When Miller recognized that kidsPACK could no longer order bulk food to distribute to students, she sprang into action and found a solution.
Miller proposed a community outreach campaign with a new Facebook group. Rather than just asking people to collect and drop off food items, she set up an Amazon link so the public could conveniently purchase needed products and have them shipped to Miller’s home.
Miller launched the online group Grace Giving For KidsPACK in August 2020 and, before long, the organization was able to resume food distributions to the children the group serves.
“I set up this list so people can order items and ship them directly to my address with a gift receipt, so I know who purchased it,” she explains. Miller takes a photo of every donation and posts it on the Facebook page to engage contributors and acknowledge their support.
Because many of the children served don’t have access to running water or a microwave, food donations need to be simple to manage and ready to eat. The wish list includes nonperishables like fruit cups, applesauce, cereal, peanut butter crackers, and trail mix.
A REALTOR® for 17 years, Miller tapped into her extensive network, largely honed through one-to-one interactions. The Facebook group grew from a few dozen people at the start to more than 750 members by this past summer, hailing from nine states, four countries and 67 Florida cities. She uses the group to engage, encourage and express gratitude to all who help.
Mobilizing a Community
Two-and-a-half years later, the group still can’t do bulk ordering the way it used to, which makes Miller’s continuing volunteer work through Facebook indispensable. She posts wish lists so kidsPACK can continue to provide two meals to hungry students on weekends.
“The need hasn’t gone away, and neither has the inability to purchase bulk items. It’s not any better today than it was in 2020,” Miller says.
Ever the motivator, Miller issues “donation challenges” to Grace Giving members, setting goals like 15,000 boxes of cereal, 16,000 cups of Chef Boyardee ravioli, and 20,000 boxes of Pop-Tarts. They consistently meet or exceed their targets, so Miller keeps raising the bar. By late August, Grace Giving had donated 32,562 cups of Chef Boyardee. “We became the bulk purchasers,” Miller says.
Inflation this year has also been a hurdle for the group, yet Miller was able to convince people to keep contributing, posting buy one-get-one-free sales at local stores to encourage participation. Her enthusiasm is infectious as scores of others have joined to help, providing an additional drop-off location, picking up or packing food, or donating money since Miller sought their help.
Miller, who serves on the kidsPACK board of directors, is aiming for 1,000 Facebook group members by year’s end.
Don’t bet against her. “Debbie saw an emergency need and put a plan in action,” says Strickland. “Grace Giving has been a godsend.”