Heart F.E.L.T., Filling Empty Little Tummies, is a Christian based Outreach Ministry designed to feed children on the weekends, when they can often go hungry. With this program, churches team with elementary schools in Calvert County to feed hungry school children where free or reduced lunch programs cannot, namely on the weekends. They do this by providing food to students in backpacks, which the children pick up on the Thursday or Friday before the weekend. The backpacks are non-descript so they don’t embarrass the child.
Heart F.E.L.T., like a number of other community programs, started when a concerned citizen saw a need that was going unaddressed. In Calvert County, it began with Jack Woodford. “Little Jack” faced childhood hungers growing up when his father had a stroke at the early age of 35. His family lost their dairy farm and had to depend on the generosity of others to make it from day to day. He relates, “My childhood was nearly perfect for the first few years of my life. My Dad was a dairy farmer in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York. We had a 110-acre farm where we had chickens, hogs, and approximately 30 dairy cows. Our farmhouse was on one side of the old country road that we lived on, and the barn was on the other side of the road. Everything was going great. I was 4 years old when it happened. Dad had collapsed in the middle of the road. A passerby stopped and helped Mom get Dad into the house. Dad had suffered a crippling stroke at the age of 35. I still have the visions of Dad having convulsions where he was sitting in a chair and stamping his feet on the floor… We lost the farm; we lost our home. We were able to get help from the welfare system financially and we were able to receive surplus food. We were able to move into an old family home.
“We were one of the poorest families in the small town I grew up in. It was not easy growing up in a small town. Believe it or not I was bullied. There were times when I was gang bullied by several kids at one time. I felt isolated at times because other kids shunned me because I was different than them. The clothes that I wore were not as nice as theirs. Some of the clothes that I wore had patches on them and most of the time, my clothes did not always fit right. I suffered with periods of depression. I was different from most children that were my age due to my size. I was even treated differently by adults than other kids my age, especially teachers. They thought that I was older than the other kids in my class.
“Fortunately, there were some people that helped us in many ways. Most helped us anonymously. Some gave my siblings and I gifts at Christmas and at other times during the year. Others provided us with Holiday Food baskets. These are a few of the things that I remember that some people gave of themselves out of their generosity anonymously. Those things impacted me significantly. I started realizing this over the years when I looked back on those times. I asked myself many times how can I ever repay those that did things so generously for me and my family. What they gave to us was “priceless.”
In June of 2012, Jack felt called by God to pay it forward for other children in need. He found that his daughter, Jacki, in Tampa, Florida was involved in a Heart F.E.L.T. ministry with her own church and this inspired Jack to do the same here. Jack got his church, Trinity United Methodist Church in Prince Frederick, involved and organized that summer. They delivered nine backpacks to Barstow Elementary school in January of 2013 and Heart F.E.L.T. has continued to grow since then.
The growth of the program has spread from just one elementary school and one church. There are currently 20 churches working in the ministry that are partnering with 14 elementary schools and 5 of the 6 middle schools in Calvert County. Over 300 children benefit from this program in Calvert County. It is also beginning to spread to Charles and St Mary’s County, as well. St. Matthews UMC in LaPlata, Maryland is a small Church with a big heart that has recently started partnering with a school in the Nanjemoy, Maryland. All donations go directly to the children in need.
Each school is partnered with one or more churches to support the program. Even though Jack continues to lead the program from Trinity UMC, Heart F.E.L.T. is definitely a ministry with a decentralized administration. While local churches can benefit from programs such as Farming4Hunger, the Maryland Food Bank and SMILE, each church manager its own program. Each church has its own pantry and set up with the schools. Their volunteers pack their backpacks with their own selections of food products.
Children are selected based on perceived need. When a teacher or other school staff member sees a student that shows the telltale signs of going hungry, they refer the student to the school counselor. The counselor prepares a referral form on behalf of the student and sends it to the parent or guardian for consent. No child is entered into the Heart F.E.L.T. ministry without parental approval. Once approved by the parent, the referral form is given to the church partner for that school. While the program is a Christian ministry, churches do not evangelize to students or attempt to draw them into their church.
Each backpack is filled with food that is easily carried and consumed by the student. Volunteers stuff prepackaged foods that children can open themselves. While these may not be as nutritious as fresh from the garden fruits and vegetables, organizers note, “Some nutrition is better than none.” Calories need to be compact so that each child need not carry more than 6 – 7 pounds in their backpack. Food that is in smaller packages also provides more diversity for weekend meals. Here, the economy size is not always better. A bigger box of any one food limits other foods, which can be added to the backpack. Backpack foods must be all dry products with the exceptions of shelf stable milk and juices. Backpacks avoid glass containers all together. With efficient packing, students often bring food home for themselves and younger siblings who have not started school, yet.
Jack makes it a point that this is a Christian ministry. He was asked if he considered that his program was an interfaith venture. He said, “No.” He said he began this ministry out of response to his Christian faith and it would be insincere to attribute this to any other faith. Jack is a Christian responding to God’s call in his life as a Christian. To be sure, we can only respond out of our own faith in the way our religion shows us how to respond. This ministry is a real response to a real problem and a real faith.