She traded one hardship for another. Single mother Kerrie Tramel left her violent husband in Texas and came to the Milton area. But money is tight. When her only son, Matthew, brought home a piece of paper from Hobbs Middle School asking if the family could be included in Project Giving Back, Tramel agreed.
Now Mathew collects food pack each Friday to help out over the weekend. It’s a small thing that makes a big difference.
“It takes a little bit of the stress off me, knowing I can spend my money on the electric bill or something instead of having to worry about food,” Tramel said. “Things have been tight, so him bringing home some snacks for himself on the weekend is great. It’s been a blessing.”
Project Giving Back sends nonperishable goods home each Friday with students whose families are homeless or living with friends or family members. Many of the students are on the free or reduced lunch program at school and may not have access to regular meals over the weekend. Participation is voluntary and completely confidential.
Kerri Eaton, a Hobbs Middle School math teacher, got the idea for Project Giving Back from a cheer gym her family owns in Mariana, Florida. She and the cheerleaders would periodically make food packs for homeless shelters in the area. At Hobbs, she teamed up with Carissa Hanger, who works in the front office and leads the Student Government Association (SGA). The two sent a letter about the program home with students who qualified.
At first just six or seven families participated, but in just a few months, that number has grown to more than 20. Eaton began the program purchasing food herself. Then faculty at the school chipped in, as well as neighbors. Even friends of friends began donating food. Hanger took it to the next level and contacted Target about sponsoring the program. The store agreed.
On a normal week, Hanger hands the food packs out each Friday and sees the students’ reactions firsthand.
“They get excited about it, because some of them—I don’t want to say they don’t have anything, but they don’t have much at home,” she said. “So this is going to help them get through the weekend.”
She recruits SGA students to pack the bags the food goes home in. The group is big on community service, and the project is one more way they can help out.
“I think it’s awesome that we’re blessed with the opportunity to give back to people who don’t have as much,” said Kyla Kirby, an eighth grader and president of SGA. Kirby and other SGA students helps pack the bags of food each week, and helped box the Thanksgiving dinners. “I think it’s great that we all came together to do that.”
The project is confidential, so she doesn’t know which of her classmates receive the food packs. Looking around the school at her fellow students, she doesn’t even wonder.
“I don’t think of them as the children who got the boxes,” Kirby said. “I just think of them as other children. They’re just like me. We’re all the same.”
The teamwork has brought a lot of people together, and it all started with just an idea.
“Could I put something together, and would the kids want it?” Eaton recalled thinking at the beginning of the school year. She mentioned the project to the parents of kids she tutors in Gulf Breeze, and word spread before she knew it. Boxed stuffing, beans, butter, cranberry sauce started pouring in.
“Eighteen people I don’t know donating pies to go in these kids’ boxes is incredible,” Eaton said. “The project is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. It’s saying, ‘I don’t have to know you to help you.’”
Eaton is motivated in part by putting herself in her students’ parents’ shoes. She might not be able to help with the electricity bill, she said, but she can help make sure the kids are not hungry.
“The idea that they might leave here and not get a meal on a Saturday or a Sunday, I just can’t bear it,” she said. “Maybe their bellies won’t be full, but I know their bellies won’t be empty.”
She doesn’t directly communicate with the students who receive the food packs, but it makes her feel good to know they’re taking even just one worry off their plate. She guessed most of them probably don’t even know she’s involved. Donations from Target have been a huge help to the program, Eaton explained, and have enabled Project Giving Back to do much more for the families.
“It’s exactly how I wanted it to be,” she said. “Coming together and doing something selfless for someone else.”
Hanger, who used to work at Target, contacted managers there about sponsoring the program. The store donated enough food for students to have two meals, snacks and water each weekend, and contributed food to the 19 turkey dinners the Project Giving Back distributed the day before Thanksgiving. Ark Animal Hospital donated 15 of those turkeys. The rest of the food—butter, pies, cranberry sauce, boxed stuffing, bread, and more—came from school faculty and people who’d heard about the project.
“Seeing that it was a local program, everyone was extremely receptive,” said Lauren Gutschlag, executive team lead of human resources at Target in Pace. “As someone who lives in the Milton area, these are families we see on a daily basis—our neighbors, friends, coworkers even. That’s one small way we can give back. I think it’s absolutely worth the time and energy that goes into it, and we’re excited about ways we can assist in the future.”
Target employees even help pack food during their breaks.
“Everybody looks forward to that!” Gutschlag said. “They keep asking about it and wondering what more they can do, so it’s a great way to drum up involvement in our community.”
Gutschlag takes the food to the middle school herself, or Hanger collects the food if it’s a really busy week. It’s all a very local effort. Target has agreed to help the program through January, but there’s talk of further assistance. The important thing is making sure students have nutritional food to take home, Gutschlag said.
“We’re just really grateful that they reached out to us so we can help out,” she said. “I’m sure there will be a lot of exciting partnerships to come.”