We Are Here For Each Other: Practicing Kindness Every Day at Kids’ Food Basket

Today’s guest blog comes from Bridget Clark Whitney, the Executive Director of Kids’ Food Basket. This November we are thrilled to shine light on this incredible organization. Their mission is to nourish children so they can do their best in school and in life. Find out more about their work and get involved here: http://www.kidsfoodbasket.org/

2016-11-09_13400When I was a little girl – around the same age my daughter Madeline is now, a precocious four-and-a-half – I remember feeling deeply troubled about what I should be doing with my life. I was watching all of these adults around me doing their jobs, hustling and bustling around, and I felt this huge sense of fear and confusion. What should I be doing? Shouldn’t I be doing something important?

Like most four-year-olds, I ran to my mother crying. Between tears, I blurted out: “Why are we here, mom?”

I’m not sure what kind of response I was looking for, but I’ll never forget what my mother said: “We are here for each other.”

I’ll also never forget how she said it, like it was the simplest thing in the world. Of course, I thought. We are here for each other.

I didn’t know it then, but this idea, that we are here for each other, is the foundation I would build my life on. It’s the idea that has influenced me to dedicate my life to working on social justice issues and society’s most pressing problems.

Both my parents taught me a strong sense of right and wrong, and have lived their lives with uncompromising integrity, expecting me to do the same. Neither of them grew up in families with financial privilege, but they believe, and have taught me to believe, that the love of family and friends makes us rich beyond belief. My parents raised me to be an honest, hard-working, passionate, compassionate, kind, committed citizen. As a young child they would take me to volunteer in soup kitchens and community centers, teaching me that we can all make a difference; that we can all be great through service to one another.

As a young adult, I chose to go to Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, which has a fantastic Community Leadership Program. Grand Rapids was a whole different world from where I grew up, first in Pittsburgh, and then in Detroit. At Aquinas, I had the fantastic opportunity to study abroad in Ireland.

Ireland was all that I thought it would be. It was a fantastic adventure. I made friends with the locals, I loved the landscape. Toward the end of the semester, I thought to myself: “I think I’ll stay here.”
And I did.

If you asked me then how long I thought I’d stay there, I would have sworn on anyone’s grave that it was going to be forever. I loved Ireland.

And then I got a phone call from my college advisor. It went something like this:

“Bridget Clark, you need to come back and finish school. You only have a year left. All you need to do is one capstone project. And I have such an amazing project for you! My friend Mary K. Hoodhood recently started this initiative to provide dinner to hungry kids after school. She needs someone to run it. I think you’d be very good at it.”

I hung up the phone. I thought about those hungry kids. I thought about this lady, Mary K., who needed my help. And I immediately knew what I had to do.

We are here for each other.

Four days later I was on a plane, headed home. During those four days, I researched what childhood hunger looked like in Kent County, where Grand Rapids is located. It couldn’t be that bad, right? Grand Rapids is a pretty nice city. I was devastated to find that, in 2008, there were over 30,000 children living below the poverty level. I also learned that childhood hunger has devastating effects on brain development. If kids don’t have consistent access to good nutrition before they’re twelve, the effect on their brains is almost irreparable.

We are here for each other. We are here for each other. We are here for each other.

In my first year of work with Kids’ Food Basket – this little organization determined to ensure that kids didn’t go to bed hungry – I was shook to my core by the immense need in my community. It was vast, immense, and deeply complex. I knew that we had the responsibility to achieve significant growth. In fact, it would have been irresponsible not to.

From day one, I was 100% committed to this work, because I saw both the immense need and the immense impact on a daily basis. During the first few weeks we served Sack Suppers, a principal contacted us and told us that they had a little girl who kept bringing parts of her Sack Supper to school the next day: sometimes the carrots, sometimes the sandwich. When they asked her why, she said she always saved some, because she was never sure if she would have food at home. The principal called to thank us, because they were able to tell the little girl that she would always get dinner now, every single week night, because of the kindness of the volunteers at Kids’ Food Basket.

The only job I’ve had after college has been directing Kids’ Food Basket, and I have stayed for two simple reasons: this work is critical, and the community we create every day here is amazing.

At Kids’ Food Basket, we empower communities to attack childhood hunger so that young people can learn and live well. We serve over 7,500 children a nutritious, ready-to-eat Sack Supper every week night. Every Sack Supper is locally funded, decorated, packed, and delivered by volunteers who care. We also engage youth in our Kids Helping Kids program, with the firm belief that while 1 in 5 kids in Michigan may experience hunger, 5 in 5 have the power to help change that. We know that this world is messy: poverty is complex, and there are many reasons children may be hungry. It’s so important that we care for each other in these messy times, and Kids’ Food Basket has become an engine for that.

I have had to learn how to become extremely competent in leadership, strategic planning, managing budgets, program development, human resources, fundraising for a budget that has grown from $20,000 to $4.2 million, public relations, volunteer management, food procurement, and childhood hunger issues in a relatively short period of time. I have gone from leading a staff of one to creating jobs for a staff of 29, dozens of interns, hundreds of committee members, and an extremely dedicated board of directors.

In other words: I have had to be scrappy and fearless and brave. Because I am here for these kids, all 7,500 of them that we now serve every weeknight in three West Michigan cities, and the thousands and thousands who remain on our waiting list. I am here for them.

And when this work gets tiring (which it does!), all I have to do is watch our volunteers, ages 5 to 95, at work. Kids’ Food Basket is a kindness factory. When we first started out 15 years ago, we had about 20 dedicated volunteers that came to help pack Sack Suppers for the three schools we served. I thought that was great! Look, 20 people care about childhood hunger!

Now, we see about 250 every single day between our three locations. In the course of a year, we’ll see over 15,000 different people, all of them ready to pack a Sack Supper for a child they’ve never met, their hearts overflowing with compassion and kindness.

I love that our volunteer program at Kids’ Food Basket brings together people of all backgrounds, beliefs, and abilities. On any given day, we might have a religious group volunteering next to a group with physical disabilities next to a group of kids from one of the schools we serve. Or a group of coworkers from a bank next to some college kids next to a political campaign staff. And all of them are getting along and laughing as they make sandwiches, cut veggies, mix trail mix, and pack Sack Suppers, because they are committed to one goal, one great act of kindness: ensuring that our communities’ kids have the nutrition they need to thrive – in and beyond the classroom.

When I watch our volunteers hard at work, there is always a little voice in the back of my head saying: We are here for each other. We are here for each other.