When a weekend backpack program began at Spring Hill Elementary, Ron Van Matre said the goal was to target the "neediest of the needy," and ensure that food went home with the children every weekend to prevent them from going hungry.
Back then, the elementary school was the only one being served where 50 children picked up a backpack each Friday packed with food, ranging from crackers and peanut butter to easy-to-microwave goods in containers.
Now three years later, eight schools, along with the Boys and Girls Club and two Head Start offices, are now served by the program, called "Weekend Blessings," with 620 children — and counting — now being provided food.
"In one year, we went from serving 50 students to 400," Van Matre said. "Now here we are at more than 600. But the great thing is that this is run 100 percent by volunteers and donations. And we're really blessed in that the community has some major food drives going on along with groups that are willing to sponsor these schools and ensure that students go home with meals to ensure they don't go hungry."
Following the success of weekend Sunday dinners to feed the homeless, Van Matre said volunteers realized that more and more children were taking part.
Although schools provide meals during the week and through some summer programs, he said nothing was available to ensure needy children were being fed on the weekends.
From there, volunteers for the nonprofit People Helping People turned their attention to the problem.
Each school is now sponsored by a church organization, which signs a commitment of two years to continue providing food and backpacks for anywhere between 40 and 70 children.
JoAnne Boggus, board of directors member and volunteer for People Helping People, said not only do the volunteers pack food for children at the school but also for any of their siblings under the age of 18.
Unlike the free lunch meal programs run by the school district, she said the non-profit doesn't concern itself with selecting all nutritional food and instead looks for items that can be well preserved and that even a youngster can unseal and eat.
"We're purely focused on the issue of the child being hungry, not winning a nutrition award," Boggus said. "So yes, there are Pop Tarts and other snacks with sugar. But we also put peanut butter and fruit cups in there."
She added that some faith-based organizations learn fast that just because children are hungry, doesn't mean they're not picky.
"The boxes of raisins tend to come back with the backpack," Boggus said, "but chocolate pudding always wins."
Meanwhile, Van Matre said any assistance from the community is welcome as the need for food to feed children is ongoing.
Anyone interested is urged to contact People Helping People at (352) 686-4466 or go to http://www.phpinhc.org.