Clark Whitney feasts on helping hungry children

April 9, 2012
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Bridget Clark Whitney was 12 years old when she asked her mother a question that left an indelible impression on her life’s journey.

“What is our purpose in life?” Whitney remembers asking, a fairly weighty inquiry for a preteen. Her mom’s reply didn’t miss a beat.

“She said, ‘We’re here to serve each other,’” recalled Whitney.

Her mother’s laconic response sparked in Whitney a passion for social justice that hasn’t been doused since her younger years.

“I remember feeling I could best utilize my skills in nonprofit work, especially helping fulfill basic human needs and basic human rights.”

While she carried within her a heartfelt desire to make a difference in people’s lives, she didn’t know what form it would take. Her altruistic passion was honed while a student at Aquinas College after Mary K. Hoodhood founded Kids’ Food Basket in 2001 on a shoestring budget of $20,000 that fed 125 students at three schools every weekday.

The nonprofit’s mission dovetailed with Whitney’s college major in community leadership. She worked at Kids’ Food Basket as an intern in 2002, making the local organization that provides sack suppers to elementary students throughout Greater Grand Rapids her capstone project.

“What an opportunity: to be 22 years old, find an unmet need and gather resources in meeting that need,” said Whitney. “I don’t think it’s very common to find your life’s calling in college.”

Then, after graduating from college in May 2003, which also is when Kids’ Food Basket received 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, Whitney was tapped as its executive director. The memory of the day she hired on still brings a smile to her face.

Kids’ Food Basket is a year-round endeavor. During the school year, sack suppers are distributed within classrooms to ensure that every student who needs one receives one. During the summer, sack suppers are distributed at 15 park sites and other locales each weekday.

Kids’ Food Basket also serves as an outreach engine, not only for adults to serve as volunteers but also to empower kids to help one another through volunteering and educational programs, which are geared toward helping children understand the challenges of hunger and give them an opportunity to lead projects that benefit fellow kids.

These days, Kids’ Food Basket’s budget has grown to more than $3 million, all of which is culled from foundations, corporations, community organizations and individual donors. Its base of operations has relocated several times through the years, always nudged by its need for more floor space. Currently, it utilizes 9,500 square feet of space in a building Grand Rapids Label owns at 2055 Oak Industrial Drive NE.

But as the financial support has increased, so has the number of elementary children who are counting on Kids’ Food Basket for their evening meal. Currently, 4,832 students in about 35 schools take home a sack supper weekdays and weekends, meals that always include a meat-and-cheese sandwich, a piece of fruit, a vegetable, a granola bar and a juice box. These servings of food must equate to 800 to 1,000 calories, an important distinction for students’ health and well-being, said Whitney.

That caloric intake is crucial because most of the kids that receive a sack supper from Kids’ Food Basket also receive federally funded breakfasts and lunches that collectively amount to 1,000 calories a day, said Whitney. But growing children require 2,000 calories a day for proper brain development, all of which plays a critical role in their ability to focus on teachers’ instructions and fends off the fear of whether they will have anything to eat in the evening.

“That’s where we come in,” said Whitney, an unapologetically effervescent, can-do kind of leader with an easy laugh.

“Knowing there are 4,832 kids who don’t worry about where they’ll get their last meal of the day is tremendously rewarding.”

It’s a mission that requires of Whitney clear thinking and a concerted effort to stay on task. Help to defeat childhood hunger comes from the capable assistance of 10 staff members and an average of 170 volunteers.

Kids’ Food Basket’s mission is not as daunting nowadays as it was when Whitney was a college graduate in her early 20s when she was thrust into a leadership role in a nonprofit that at times snowed her under with its share of challenges. Such challenges included the occasional payless paydays for herself so her support staff could get paid, as well as learning what works and, just as important, what doesn’t work to keep a nonprofit operational.

But then she would remember the reason she became involved on the ground floor with Kids’ Food Basket and she pressed on. And things somehow would gel: Donations of food would pour in. Checks to pay for overhead and expenses would unexpectedly appear. Hope that Kids’ Food Basket would soldier on grew brighter.

“These past nine-and-a-half years have been expansive lessons that I’ve learned,” she said. “I refused to give up because I knew this was making an impact, and that we were doing what was right. That’s what kept us going.”

To be sure, knowing Kids’ Food Basket is making an impact fuels Whitney with the determination to stay the course. But there also are the memories of children searching for scraps of food in their schools’ garbage or taking condiment packets home for supper that convinced Whitney there was a better way.

At the same time, Whitney said she understands that some people are incredulous there are still so many children who come home from school without hope of having an evening meal. The reasons vary, but this she knows: 37,000 children in Kent County live in extreme poverty.

“We feed 4,832 children, and there are probably 4,832 different reasons why kids need our meals,” said Whitney. “We have teachers tell us kids need our meals. Kids have to dig for food from trash. Kids steal ketchup packets to use as a meal. But now, we have parents who tell us they can afford to get a prescription or leave the lights on.”

Whitney credits several sources for her concern for the well-being of others, including her parents for shepherding her to adopt a generous, thoughtful outlook toward strangers; her studies at Regina High School, an all-girls Roman Catholic school in Warren, a suburb of Detroit, that taught her how to become a “social entrepreneur”; and the community leadership program at Aquinas College.

“It’s made me who I am today,” said Whitney. “I am personally called to be working for others, working on society’s most pressing problems, and I think this is one of them.

“We’re positively affecting the lives of 4,800 children. There is no greater gift.”

When asked if there could be a time when she might venture to another nonprofit to help solve other pressing problems, her reply is an immediate “no.”

“This is my baby, what I feel that I’m meant to do,” she said. “When you love something so much, you don't want to let it go. You want to give it everything you possibly can.”

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