In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, families are struggling now more than ever to make ends meet as they navigate the complexities of insurance and loss of personal property, even homes. As Southwest Florida faces short-term relief and long-term recovery, Blessings in a Backpack is working with community partners to distribute thousands of meals to children in need.
“Monday after the storm, we went straight into setting up grab-and-go sites in the most hard-hit areas of the community,” said Cecilia St. Arnold, executive director for Blessings in a Backpack of Southwest Florida. “Within the first week, we were able to feed 4,200 kids in Lee County.”
In a typical school year, the nonprofit serves 28 school-based programs located between Lee and Collier counties. Every Friday, Blessings in a Backpack provides four nutritious kid-friendly meals – two for breakfast and two for lunch – in student’s backpacks to ensure children are fed over the weekend.
“Many children and families in Southwest Florida are already food insecure, so we’ve only just begun to see the repercussions of Hurricane Ian,” said St. Arnold. “It is estimated that nearly 2,000 children in our community have been displaced and are in need of our services.”
In areas that were already home to thousands of food-insecure children, families are now facing the financial burden that comes with severe storm damage and loss of employment. That’s why Blessings in a Backpack has been working around the clock to continue their weekend meal program and meet the growing need.
With the help of community partners, the organization provided meals to more than 10,000 local kids in two weeks – a blessing for students who couldn’t rely on free and reduced-price meals while schools were shut down.
“We have never been prouder to support the hard work and dedication of charity partners like Blessings in a Backpack, who never stopped finding alternative ways to get children access to food during this devastation,” said Bryan Simmering, vice president of the Bobby Nichols – Fiddlesticks Charity Foundation. “Now more than ever, it is imperative we give back to our community and support the efforts of our local charities.”
Blessings in a Backpack is one of four charity partners carefully selected by the Bobby Nichols – Fiddlestick Charity Foundation (BNFCF), which organizes and runs the annual Nichols Cup Pro-Am Golf & Tennis Tournaments in Fort Myers. This year, BNFCF awarded Blessings in a Backpack a check for $156,000 to help continue feeding local children. The donation funds an entire year of weekend meals for 1,350 kids at Colonial Elementary and James Stephens Elementary.
“As our biggest donor, we can’t say enough great things about what their support means to these kids each year,” said St. Arnold. “Thanks to our relationship with BNFCF, we also gained an amazing partnership with the Children’s Advocacy Center of Southwest Florida, who helped us distribute hundreds of meals to kids directly impacted by the hurricane through their outreach center on Palm Beach Boulevard.”
The life-threatening storm surge and hurricane force winds left behind an extensive amount of destruction to neighborhoods, businesses and schools – an impact that will take communities years to rebuild.
In a typical budgeted year, Blessings in a Backpack provides 6,200 kids hunger-free weekends for the entire year. However, St. Arnold already sees those numbers changing with schools reopened and taking in displaced students.
“What we’re seeing now is hundreds of displaced kids coming from hardest-hit areas, like Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel, and being moved to schools that we already serve and have budgeted for,” said St. Arnold. “This means many more kids might qualify for our feeding programs which would require more of our services, as well as the funding needed to make it happen.”
With the need for food assistance projected to rise exponentially throughout the Lee and Collier school year, the organization is going back to the drawing board on ways to keep up with demand. For a donation of $130, Blessings in a Backpack can provide nutritious, shelf-stable meals for 36 weekends for one school-age child. Gifts of all sizes are welcome and can be made online at Swfl.BlessingsinaBackpack.org/Hurricane-Ian-Response or by mail at P.O. Box 61402 Fort Myers, FL 33906.
For more information on Blessings in a Backpack, visit Swfl.BlessingsinaBackpack.org. To learn more about the BNFCF, visit NicholsCup.org.
About Bobby Nichols – Fiddlesticks Charity Foundation
Founded in 2002, the Bobby Nichols – Fiddlesticks Charity Foundation organizes and runs the annual Nichols Cup Pro-Am Golf & Tennis Tournaments in Fort Myers. Since its formation 21 years ago, more than $15 million has been raised and donated to children’s charities in Southwest Florida. To learn more, visit NicholsCup.org