ZEPHRYHILLS — On a Thursday morning in a small warehouse off Gall Boulevard, a well-oiled machine of goodwill is cranking.
At the Thomas Promise Foundation, volunteers Carlos and Robin Clothier, pack boxes of macaroni and cheese, granola bars, apple sauce, breakfast cereal and other non-perishable food items into black, plastic, grocery bags. By nutrition standards, the food is not optimal, but foundation board members have devised a combination that is light enough for a kid to carry and can be stretched into six meals with a few items left over for snacks.
Come Friday, the bags are easily slipped into the backpacks of hundreds of Pasco County students who might otherwise go hungry over the weekend.
"I think it’s wonderful that this helps kids who aren’t eating properly," said Robin Clothier. "It’s a shame that there are so many hungry people in this country in this day and age."
The Thomas Promise Foundation, started 7 years ago by Wade and Dianna Thomas, is one of several local service organizations trying to fill the weekend hunger gap. They were inspired by the generous nature of their daughter, Brooke, when they discovered she was depleting her on-line school meal account to feed hungry first-grade classmates.
"We tell kids to share, and Brooke was just sharing with kids who weren’t able to have the items she had," Dianna Thomas said. "But it was a red flag for me."
She reached out to Diane Vaughan, the registrar and homeless advocate at Zephyrhills High, who alerted her to a erecent survey about food insecurity conducted by students for a class project.
One of the questions was whether school lunch was their last meal of the day. Almost 9 percent of the students answered "yes."
"I felt bad because I grew up in this town and hadn’t seen it before," said Dianna Thomas, a 1991 graduate of Zephyrhills High who has served on the Thomas Promise board since its inception. "I couldn’t believe that many kids were going hungry."
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Thomas Promise serves 24 schools, mostly in east Pasco County.
Some 1,200 elementary students are enrolled in the weekly Operation Backpack program. The nonprofit also helps stock food pantries at secondary schools where students drop in as needed. Funding also pays for field trips, school sports and activity fees for students in need.
"It’s gone a long way — it’s good," said Brooke Thomas, 14, who enjoys cheerleading and horseback riding, and comes by the warehouse after school to help.
About 220 bags of food are dropped off each week at Pasco Elementary, according to drop-out prevention teacher, Chris Kent. There, 93.56 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-priced meals.
"The food is easy for kids to make a meal for themselves. We have kids in third grade making meals for their sibling," he said. The foundation also has provided families with clothing, bedding and furniture.
"They are a great organization in helping people get back on their feet," he said.
It also helps homeless students.
"Some of these students are living on their own or couch surfing," Vaughan said. "Whenever they need food, they come in and see me and we give it to them. We do whatever we can to keep them in school. We want them to get that diploma."
More aid requests came in after Hurricane Irma.
"Losing a week of pay set some families back so far that they are really struggling," Vaughan said. "These are kids that have parents, and they have a roof over their head, but it’s so shaky it changes day-to-day. And it’s not just our school. I think it’s across the state."
And across the country.
According to the nonprofit No Kid Hungry, hunger affects one in six children in America.
Closer to home, 57 percent of Pasco County students qualified for free- and reduced-price meal programs in January. That figure that has been inching up, said Julie Hedine, director of food and nutrition services for Pasco County Schools.
Breakfast and lunch are served weekdays at county schools. Free breakfast is available to all students at 50 Pasco County schools. Some schools are serving breakfast in the classroom to catch students who don’t arrive early enough. The school district sponsors summer feeding programs at schools and local feeding sites, as well as buses that venture into neighborhoods.
Organizations such as Thomas Promise are essential to narrowing the gap, Hedine said. The district works with supplemental food service groups such as United Methodist Cooperative Ministries Suncoast, to bolster its purchasing power.
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The Thomas family is the heart of the foundation.
The warehouse, office space and electricity are donated by Thomas and Son, a family pre-owned car business. Wade Thomas is board president. Dianna Thomas serves as treasurer and secretary, and Joe Simmons is executive director.
"We’ve been very fortunate with our local donors," said Simmons, who brings in about $100,000 annually in corporate grants and local business sponsorships.
In 2015, Brooke Thomas was named a Tampa Bay Lightning Community Hero and awarded a $50,000 donation for Thomas Promise. In 2017, the foundation expanded its fundraising by taking over sponsorship of the Rattlesnake Festival an event for local youth held annually in San Antonio.
"That brought in enough to pay for 43,000 meals. I couldn’t be happier," said Diana Thomas. Donations also come from food drives, bake sales and morning coffee hours.
Then there are volunteers.
Veronica Gliatti furthers the cause using social media skills she mastered as director of corporate development for the American Cancer Society in Nashville, TN.
"I really like this organization — it’s supporting life in a different fashion and increasing awareness that poverty in this area is real," she said.
She worries about kids whose parents don’t register for services, and a weak job market that make programs like Thomas Promise necessary.
"This program is great, but it’s not going to cut it," she said. "We really need to bring more jobs to this area so people can feed their families."
Dianna Thomas plans to continue expanding outreach.
"There’s no doubt in my mind that right now we’re not making a dent in what is out there, " she said. "Every year the goal is to increase the number of kids you’re helping. My goal is to be able to do all of the Pasco County schools."
Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.