VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. – Every weekend school-aged children in Central Florida struggle with food insecurity.
Monday thru Friday their school can supplement their diet, but on weekends they are on their own.
This week’s Getting Results Award winner tackled that problem head-on.
Every Thursday Kelli Marks, and a handful of volunteers, can be found at her small warehouse in Orange City. The group gathers up dozens of pre-packed food storage bags filled with treats. The one-gallon bags can hold up to seven meals, yet they are small enough to fit in a backpack.
“This is a weekend program,” Marks said, taking a break from the assembly line of filling the bags. “We deliver the kids packs on Thursday to the schools and then on Friday they are dispensed to the kids discretely. The kids take them home in their backpacks. That’s why we call it Backpack Buddies.”
Marks started the nonprofit in 2019. At the time she was PTA president at Orange City Elementary.
“A family came in and the mother was crying. She said she didn’t have any food. So I went to the school pantry and there wasn’t anything in there,” she said.
Marks went on social media to ask for help. The community responded by filing the pantry in 24 hours.
“I thought, ‘Wow, people want to help,’” Marks said.
Marks consulted with Provision Packs, a nonprofit that helps with childhood hunger in East Volusia County.
“So we started something similar over here in West Volusia,” Marks said. “Now we can feed kids over here as well.”
Marks said she had no idea how to start a nonprofit but she knew she had to help.
“I love challenges,” she said. “I guess when I went into it I didn’t realize I’d actually be doing social services. I thought I was just going to help everybody and give them food and we’d get through the pandemic and we’d all be back to normal.”
She discovered the need wasn’t going away.
“Everybody says the pandemic is opening up and things are going back to normal. Well, guess what? Hunger is not going back to normal. It’s still there. It was always there and it’s just getting worse.”
Backpack Buddies supplies weekend food for over 300 kids attending four schools. They have also expanded, offering a family food pantry as well.
Marks commitment to starting a nonprofit isn’t the first time she’s stepped outside her comfort zone to help her community. Marks jumped into politics with the same energy.
“I never paid attention to local politics. I just didn’t. I was busy doing other things,” Marks said.
That was until she went to a council meeting and was inspired to run.
“Part of being a city councilperson is community service, you’re supposed to work for your community,” she said.
Marks is now District 4 Commissioner and Vice Mayor of Orange City.
“I was intimidated a little bit by the political world because I didn’t know it. But I just took it by the horns and said I’m going to learn it,” Marks said. “And now I love it.”
News 6 was there as the Backpack Buddies delivered kids packs to Orange City Elementary, the school where Marks’s nonprofit story began.
Carl Ellis volunteers once a week, donating his time and his pick-up truck for deliveries.
“Kelli is top-notch. She pours everything she has into this program,” Ellis said. “It’s a blessing to have her doing this.”
Marks and the Backpack Buddies program were nominated for the News 6 Getting Results Award by Shari Simmans.
“The backpacks allow kids to take food home in a manner that doesn’t shout ‘I’m poor and need food,’” Simmans wrote in an email. “The program is so successful that families who were fed through the program during the pandemic, and are now in a better state, are giving back and donating cash and time.”
Backpack Buddies has about 150 kids who are on a waiting list for service. Marks said funding is the issue.
“For us to tell the school that we can’t cover it right now, it kills us because we want to do it but we can’t promise something we can’t deliver.”
Orange City Elementary principal, Charlie Bynum, said the program allows kids to bring food home but the effects can be seen in the classroom.
“Here at school I want kids to worry about one thing and that’s getting their education, not what they’re going to eat. If we can take any burden off of them then absolutely,” Bynum said.
Marks says she hopes to expand to other West Volusia schools. To do that, Backpack Buddies will need a box truck, a larger warehouse and more funding for operations. Marks is hoping for more community partners.
If you think you can help, you can find a support page on their website.
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