by Kitt McLeod
Two years ago, Rhonda and Mark Santolin founded Bags of Hope of Central Florida (BOHCFL), a program that gathers and delivers bags of food and other basic necessities to homeless people living in the woods. They've helped build outdoor showers and tent platforms, bought work boots and shovels – anything they can do to help people, who for one reason or another, are out of money. Or even worse, out of hope. Every two weeks 50 "bags of hope" are delivered. As Rhonda says, "Hope is what gets you up each morning."
In August 2010, Rhonda heard about school children stashing food into their pockets during Friday lunch because they might not eat again until the school served them breakfast on Monday. Rhonda decided their outreach program would have to grow to accommodate these children, too.
filling bags with food
Every Thursday with the help of volunteers, the Santolins fill 100 canvas bags with roughly $10 worth of food. And every Friday, they distribute the bags along with new and gently used books to children at Lovell Elementary School, located near Wekiva Springs Road and S.R. 436, just a few minutes from the Santolins’ Wekiva home.
School principal, Oscar L. Aguirre explains how valuable the Feed and Read program is to his kids. "Ninety percent of our families are in need of assistance – that's 600 out of 700 students,” he points out. “We identified 40 students who have the greatest need, and rotate in 60 others each week. It's a terrific help."
It's not just $1,000 worth of food and books being distributed each week that makes their work so fantastic. It's how Rhonda decided the exchange should happen that's so compelling. The child comes up to a volunteer, selects a colored marker, and writes his or her first name on the canvas bag. During that time, the volunteer talks to the child, asking how they are, what they want to be when they grow up, and do they understand how important education is to their success? It's a wonderful exchange of encouragement and concern, fun and support. Then the child moves on to another volunteer who helps choose two books that not only grab the student’s interest, but are reading-level appropriate to avoid frustration. The child can keep the books if they like them. Principal Aguirre says this sense of ownership and appreciation for books has already made an impact on reading test scores in the school. "Even more than the food, and the food is so necessary, the books are key," says Principal Aguirre. "The books are empowering them with something they can be proud of."
Empowerment is exactly the word Rhonda uses as her goal for each child. "These kids have no control over their poverty” says Rhonda, “but I want them to dream big, believe that it's possible to do great things, and to know that education is the way to reach their goals. They may not be getting this message at home."
filling backpacks, too
When Rhonda heard there was a need at Lake Brantley High School for some backpacks at the start of the year, Bags of Hope of Central Florida delivered 25 overstuffed bags. "I like to give them quality things," Rhonda says. She rearranges the well-marked bins in the back of her truck like a professional mover. Thirty tote bags filled with sumptuous toiletries are ready to be delivered to another grateful school principal. This petite woman routinely slugs a 40-pound bag of dog food over her shoulder and makes her way into the woods. "Knock, knock," she announces herself, respecting their home as much as her own. Doris and her protective dog, Lucy greet her graciously. It's all part of the day's journey.
Rhonda and Mark do not take a salary for any of this, working it in between their jobs as an aesthetician and realtor, respectively. BOHCFL is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with 100 percent of the donations going to the cause. They have outfitted their garage to organize the hundreds of items they buy with the donations they receive.
They would gladly expand the Feed and Read project to other area schools. "As long as people continue to donate and volunteer, we'll keep it going." Rhonda promises.
Law Firm Helps out
You won't find it advertised or hear much about it, but attorney Mark Nation and the employees of the Nation Law Firm bring 100 filled bags every month to the Santolins. "Helping people in our community who are struggling is a way of acknowledging how thankful we are to be able to help," says Mark. His wife, Wendy is not satisfied to stop at 100 bags. "We want to help double that number, and then double it again and again. It's a matter of spreading the word. Who wouldn't want to help?" she asks with a true question in her eyes.
homeless children in our community
There are many people living so close to the brink that just one more stroke of bad luck – a car breaking down, a serious illness, or a child's illness – could cause them the loss of their job. Without other means of support, eviction becomes inevitable. Some parents come to the school and explain what's happening, to which Sweetwater resident and former guidance counselor at Rock Lake Middle School, Beverly LaMotte can attest. "Our school banded together to help those we knew about, but some parents are too embarrassed to come forward and the child hides his displacement, especially older kids,” says Beverly. “The numbers are now in the double digits at Rock Lake."
"There are people living in the woods right here in our community, and in motel rooms, sometimes 10 in a room," Rhonda explains. The number of homeless children is heartbreaking, and it's growing, not by 25 or even 50 percent. There is 100 percent growth in the number of homeless children in Seminole County since last year -- from 623 to nearly 1,300 students identified as homeless.
How You Can Help
The bags can't weigh too much, since many of the children have to walk a good distance with them. Here is a list of supplies for the bags:
Cans of tuna, chicken, soup, beans, Chef Boyardee and mixed vegetables (no larger than 16 oz. size)
Mac N Cheese (regular or family size) and Vienna sausage (5 oz.)
Rice, ramen noodles, and cup of noodles (single servings)
Oatmeal packets and powdered milk packets
Peanut butter (16 - 18 oz.) and crackers (Saltines in a single ream or small boxes)
Cereal bars and cookies (small packages)
Bags of Hope of Central Florida has a drop-off box at The Nation Law Firm, 570 Crown Oak Centre Drive, Longwood and Annunciation Church on Montgomery Road at S.R. 436, Altamonte Springs.
Wekiva Springs Life Magazine is a partner of GalTime Orlando.