The ending initials in Operation HeartF.E.L.T. stand for "Feeding Empty Little Tummies," a local organization founded by educator Pattie Stepbach. Stepbach, who has served in several school districts in Florida saw an increasing need in her own classrooms when she began recognizing some kids were distracted by hunger. "I always had something in my desk for them," Stepbach recalled.
When faced with a serious illness, she prayed that if she survived, she would do something great. Once healed and healthy, she founded Operation HeartF.E.L.T. with 6 families and 9 children. That was 10 years ago. Now Stepbach, with a team of board members and volunteers are working together serving on average 800 children and their families to make sure they have adequate food and nutrition during weekends and school holidays.
Board members Virginia Singer of the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Catherine Reeves of the Rising Sun Bistro worked alongside more than 15 volunteers to receive $5,000 worth of food to stock the organization's shelves last Thursday, Aug. 15.
The organization's ability to grow and provide for these kids and families has been made possible by the community. The warehouse, located in the Killingsworth plaza is provided by the insurance company of the same name. Utilities and media services are provided or paid for by other private donors. Operation HeartF.E.L.T.'s remaining total expenses are around $1,180 per year. The backpacks that are instrumental in getting the food to the students are provided by local cable manufacturer ICTC, which also modifies them with rugged 'feet' and other reinforcements designed to withstand the heavy usage.
Though not a resident of Hernando County, "Big" Kenny of the country music duo Big & Rich has ties to the area by keeping in touch with his former elementary school teacher. He and his partner, John Rich played a concert in Brooksville last February to benefit Operation HeartF.E.L.T.
After the concert in February, Kenny and John visited the organization’s warehouse. Stepbach said Rich asked her, "Where do you get this food?" She explained that some of it is purchased and some of it is donated by the community. Soon after that visit, Rich called Winn Dixie and set in motion a partnership with Operation HeartF.E.L.T. "John Rich made this happen. He believes in what we do, he knows our expenses are minimal and almost every dime goes to buy food."
Rich’s efforts resulted in $5,000 worth of food donations, and a $15,000 cash donation, presented by Winn Dixie. The local store’s manager and several staff members were at Operation HeartF.E.L.T.’s warehouse on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019 to fill the shelves.
In addition to getting food connected to the students in need, is the importance of preserving their dignity. Stepbach briefly described the workflow involved, beginning with the student in need being identified by a teacher, guidance counselor or principal. No one else at the school or the organization will know anything about the student or family receiving the backpack.
Stepbach explained how volunteers are trained, especially those who are still in school. "We have (school aged) volunteers such as the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. We always have a talk with them about what they're doing and to make sure when they see one of the backpacks in the school, they do not mention it. We let them know that there are kids less fortunate than them, so we give them a lesson on giving back."
The volunteers shop monthly for non-perishable, yet inviting meals that kids and their families will enjoy. More than one choice is available for each meal, such as hot and cold breakfast cereals, canned tuna and chicken, vegetables, pastas, and skillet mixes. These are just some of the items that made their way onto the shelves in a mere 50 minutes from the time the truck was unloaded. "We try to give them fruits, vegetables, protein ... it's very, very important for us to do that." And of course, ramen noodles. Every kid’s favorite.
When asked if the organization has a maximum limit on the number of students they can serve, Stepbach simply said, "Nope."
Upcoming events that benefit Operation HeartF.E.L.T.:
September 7, 2019: At Southern Hills, The Ernie Chatman football kickoff - tickets are $30. September 19, 2019: The Dade City Kiwanis welcomes Cowboy Troy. For tickets and information, please call 813-714-0435
Public donations are also accepted. At present donations can be dropped off at the warehouse, located at 19227 Cortez Blvd (in the Killingsworth plaza). Phone (352) 754-5463 for information.
Donations are also collected at Westover's Flowers and Gifts, 510 E Liberty St, Brooksville, FL 34601 (352) 796-3519
Please visit http://operationheartfelt.com/ for more information and a suggested food list.
In the future, collection bins are planned throughout the county. If you wish to donate to any of these locations, keep in mind that glass jars cannot be accepted. Expired items are also not accepted.