Packet Sea Foam: President of Homeless and Hunger Coalition keeps ball rolling

Thanks to Carole Galli of Hilton Head Island for sharing the story of a local woman making a difference.

Carole writes:

She may not have big feet, but my friend Janet Weingarten wears pretty big shoes that would be difficult to fill.

She is a charter board member of the Homeless and Hunger Coalition, and chairman of its Backpack Buddies of Hilton Head Island.

Starting from scratch, the coalition set out to help the homeless and hungry of this island; an element of our community often overshadowed by the island's beauty and seeming wealth.

In late 2009 an article on hunger and homelessness on Hilton Head appeared in The Island Packet, which caught the attention of the Social Action Committee of Congregation Beth Yam. From that article, a panel discussion was held, community leaders came together, a task force was formed and wheels began turning.

In April 2010 the Homeless and Hunger Coalition of Hilton Head Island was formed. A board of directors was organized. It included women and men from various churches and the synagogue because one of the goals of the coalition was that it be an ecumenical effort.

Twyla Sable was elected president of the coalition. Janet, one of the vice presidents, would head up a committee that would deal with hungry children.

Janet wasted no time in forming a committee, appointing chairpeople and delegating responsibilities. Her goal was to start helping as many children as possible when the 2010-11 school year began. That gave her just a few months to get the ball rolling.

With no funds in the bank, she tapped her synagogue for help, she encouraged coalition board members to garner support from their congregations, and she conducted her own fundraising campaign among her good friends. There came a point when you couldn't be in a room with Janet without hearing about hungry children.

Research showed her that 47 percent of public elementary school students on Hilton Head Island receive full or subsidized breakfasts and lunches, and many do not have enough to eat on the weekends.

Realizing that they couldn't tackle this problem on their own, Janet's committee reached out. They joined forces with the Lowcountry Food Bank in Charleston and administrators at the three public elementary schools on Hilton Head.

In addition, the committee garnered support from Congregation Beth Yam, St. Andrew By-The-Sea United Methodist Church and First Presbyterian Church. These congregations provided financial support, volunteers, and a work space, making it possible for Backpack Buddies to come to the island.

Backpack Buddies is an initiative of the domestic hunger-relief charity, Feeding America, a network of more than 200 food banks across the country, including the one in Charleston. The Lowcountry Food Bank provides backpacks and healthy, child-friendly, shelf-sustainable food that can be put into backpacks that children can take home for their weekend meals. Food can be provided for a child for 42 weekends for $151.

Once a month, volunteers organized by Nancy Lerner and Barbara Scharfenberg pick up food from a Lowcountry Food Bank storage facility in Yemassee and deliver it to St. Andrew By-the-Sea for storage. There, Sue Kerr and her husband, Joe, supervise volunteers who pack the food in plastic bags and deliver them to schools. Each Friday, school personnel fill the backpacks and distribute them to the students. The empty backpacks are returned to school and held for repacking the following Friday.

In its first year of operation here, Backpack Buddies provided a weekend backpack of food to 50 children from three elementary schools. The program was heralded as a huge success by the committee and by the school personnel, who saw its positive impact on children.

A few months into the program, knowing that many more children are in need of help, Janet encouraged her committee to look to expanding the program for the 2011-12 school year.

About that time, two big things happened that gave Janet and her committee increased energy.

Two other women on the Backpack committee, Sheila Gallahue and Connie Shelford, reached an agreement with the pastor at St. Francis by the sea Catholic Church that would allow the Backpack program to have storage and workspace in one of the church's buildings.

And the coalition received its 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, enabling the committee to apply for grants and solicit tax-deductible donations. Committee member Anita Loeser set about applying for grants and Weingarten, Gallahue and Shelford appeared before church and civic groups to describe the program and elicit support.

In early summer, it was announced that Backpack Buddies would receive new funding grants from the Ward Family Foundation, the St. Francis Thrift Shop and the Long Cove Community Endowment Fund.

About that same time, Janet recruited Iris Sullivan to establish and manage a website so donations could be made online.

As we speak, Backpack Buddies is getting organized to help 120 children this school year. They will have two packing sites, one on the north end of the island and one on the south end. This will involve more than twice as many volunteers.

As one of those volunteers, I know that it's Janet who is holding it all together. While everyone involved is eager to see this program succeed, it takes strong leadership to keep everyone on the right path. While she's very good at delegating and seems to intuitively know which people will fit with which task, Janet never shies away from making calls, sending emails, speaking before groups, pounding the pavement -- whatever it takes to get her message across. Perhaps her greatest strength is in running an efficient meeting; getting everyone to stay on task and seeing that every month we move forward.

In another life I was in a position of leadership. I had to coordinate efforts and run meetings, and I remember the frustrations. If Janet gets frustrated she never shows it. She patiently tries to steer people back on track and keep everyone ever-vigilant in their goal of helping hungry children.

I hope that 20 years from now Backpack Buddies will still be a strong organization on this island and if it is, I hope that people will remember that it was Janet Weingarten who tossed out the first pitch and kept on pitching.

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