It Takes a Village

Three organizations show just how much impact communities can have when they band together.

by Jeana Durst
Content Director, JBMC Media

There is a multiplying effect to kindness. When one person shows it, another is more likely to follow suit. But what happens when entire communities catch that momentum and mobilize technology and church groups to meet the needs of the most at-risk kids? We talked to three area organizations (all registered 501 c3 nonprofits) who are leading the way in this “kindness revolution.”

Many parents may be unaware that the girl sitting beside your daughter in science class may be packing away part of her school lunch to save a portion for dinner in case there is nothing at home to eat. The boy who plays on the baseball team with your son may wearing last year’s shoes while avoiding complaining that they hurt his feet. That’s why local communities have stepped up to meet the most urgent needs—with a particular focus on serving kids who are hungry. “Food insecurity” is defined as the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. According to the Alabama Food Bank Association, of the 48.8 million people in the U.S. living in food insecurity, 16.2 million are children. A heartbreaking reality.

And it’s happening right here in our backyard. According to Greg Bishop, founder of Hoover Helps and co-founder of Neighborhood Bridges, there are almost 200 kids in Hoover who are not only food insecure, but also homeless. But with the help of organizations like his, kids no longer have to rely only on a well-meaning school counselor who could be overwhelmed with various needs and just “throwing crackers at the problem.”

Neighborhood Bridges

Bishop and his army of volunteers are taking the task of solving hunger and other needs to the next level with the introduction of a seamless online platform, dubbed Neighborhood Bridges. This online tool connects informed counselors in 12 Alabama communities with dedicated donors to fill needs for food, clothing items and other household goods. What’s unique about this system, which originated in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, is its simplicity: A school counselor goes onto this website and enters a particular need, such as a winter coat, on the dashboard for their community. “They type in a few sentences and it’s done,” Bishop says. The needs are then claimed by Neighborhood Bridges donor members after emails are posted on Monday mornings. Next local fire stations make deliveries to the schools. With 975 online members already, the fill rate hovers at an admirable 100 percent. When the needs go out, “They gobble them up,” Bishop says. And the beauty is that the counselors no longer have to make 15 phone calls just to locate some extra food items. “It puts wind at their back,” Bishop says. And it engages the 75% of people in the community who may not have kids in school and want to help.

Pelham City Schools employees recently launched a Neighborhood Bridges program. Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Bridges Pelham

Already operating Hoover Helps since 2015, Bishop was in a unique position to lead the Neighborhood Bridges effort. What began as a brainstorm session in his family basement, Hoover Helps had grown to serve 524 kids in the Hoover system by pairing churches with schools to supply food to needy. Together his team helps to educate school leaders and counselor on the signs of food insecurity, which include children who are absent often, who rush though meals or hoard food ,and ones who visit the nurse a lot. This educational effort reverberates, and along with the ease of technological solutions like Neighborhood Bridges, allows more kids to be reached. In fact, you might say that the program is “a gateway to kindness.”

Take Action: Visit the Neighborhood Bridges website, pick the community you’d like to help, log in to be a member and get notifications via email or social media. Monetary donations are also accepted to help supplement food needs for Hoover Helps. neighborhoodbridges.org

Hueytown Community Helpers

What happens when you get caring and determined people together in a church small group talking? If you are in the room with Ginger Parsons, Community-Church Liaison for Hueytown Community Helpers, then lives are going to be changed. This neighborhood group that started with only 13 church partners in 2018 has grown quickly and now provides 177 school age kids food every Friday during the school year to combat weekend hunger though their “Blessings in a Bag” program. Parson says, “In addition to having the food in the bag, it’s the consistency of it that matters—it’s something they can depend on.” Every six weeks, their volunteers pack 1,200 bags of food, provided by area church volunteers, which will be discreetly delivered to Hueytown students who have been identified by counselors.

Volunteers help with a recent event at Hueytown Community Helpers. Photo courtesy of Hueytown Community Helpers

But food is not all they provide: Parson and her team of church and community helpers and business donors often meet other needs, like distributing school supplies, coats, underwear and hygiene items. And they engage with elderly community members who enjoy writing inspirational notes for each child.

Take action: The best way to help is to come pack food with the volunteers. With about 100 people on board, it takes about 30 minutes to pack food, and kids are encouraged to help too. They also need food (see the website for a list of food items they accept) and monetary donations for purchasing food. hueytowncommunityhelpers.com

Vineyard Family Services

When Ward Williams founded Vineyard Family Services, he had a feeling that there was a great number of people in his community with needs who might never walk into the doors of a church. With Vineyard Family Services, he and his staff are able to reach people where they are. The nonprofit, whose mission is to promote responsible fatherhood, stable coparenting and help families in crisis, also began a Backpack Buddies program in 2009. What started

with 2 schools with 40 kids now serves 1,000 kids a week. Schools are paired with church donors to meet the needs of food insecure kids in Shelby County, where there are 10,000 children on free or reduced lunch.

The Liberty Park Middle School girls basketball team pauses for a photo after helping with a Backpack Buddies event. Photo courtesy of VSF

Backpack Buddies ensures that each weekend bag packed is delivered to the 31 participating Shelby county middle and elementary schools. They also make certain the bags contain at least 2,200 calories and kid-friendly food that is shelf stable. While benefits to children include better academic achievement (98 percent of the kids in Backpack Buddies continue to advance to the next grade in school), the real impact is the conversation that gets started. “Being in the program allows a child to have a one on one relationship with a counselor, which we have found to be a big benefit,” Wiliams says. When counselors and teachers understand more about a child’s home circumstances, it’s easier to spot potential issues and provided other means of support.

Take action: Come to a packing party or arrange an opportunity for Vineyard Family Services to speak to your church group about supporting the mission. Monetary and food donations also accepted. For guidelines on food items, see the website. vfsdads.com

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