Beth Yam recognized for Hunger and Homeless Coalition

Oftentimes hunger and homelessness go unnoticed on Hilton Head Island, obscured by the gated neighborhoods and lush environment.

Organizations, frequently led by local churches, have tried to make sure those in need get help. Now one of those organizations is getting recognition for its service.

Congregation Beth Yam is the recipient of the Irving J. Fain Award, a recognition of social action programs by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. Beth Yam was one of 18 congregations recognized this year out of the 900-plus reform synagogues nationwide that are part of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Beth Yam spearheaded the Hunger and Homeless Coalition, a local network of about a half dozen churches that have started programs to help the needy. Most recognizable is the Backpack Buddies program, spurred by the fact that close to half of the enrollment at the public elementary schools receive free or reduced-price meals. The question remained: What do those children eat when they're not in school? The coalition has teamed with three elementary schools to give 50 of the most needy children a package of food to last them the weekend.

The coalition also has helped out at Holy Family Catholic Church's soup kitchen, providing food, clothing and toiletries. It's also compiled a list that police can give to the homeless that details where they can get help.

All this has come together in a somewhat short time for the congregation. It started with a "Help -- I'm Hungry" forum held March 2010 at Beth Yam. The forum brought together community religious, political, school and nonprofit group leaders to discuss ways to combat homelessness.

The interest was high enough that the coalition was formed shortly after. Within months, Backpack Buddies was under way.

"I was shocked," said Janet Weingarten, who attended the forum and now heads Backpack Buddies. "It was very revealing. There is nothing worse than a hungry child or a cold adult or those without."

The coalition also is taking steps for programs that can find places for the homeless to stay during the winter with an ultimate goal of establishing a homeless shelter. It's working alongside groups such as Family Promise, which started a day center in Bluffton for local families to shower, eat and look for work.

Hilton Head has as small Jewish population; Beth Yam has slightly more than 200 members. But by banding with other churches and organizations, its ability to change can be felt even more, leaders said.

"Hilton Head is a beautiful place," said Twyla Sable, co-chairwoman of the coalition. "You come here and think this is the perfect place. Then you find out it's not. If you're cold or if you're stomach is empty, you don't get to see that beauty."

To get involved in the Backpack Buddies program, call 843-342-3386.