News Section: Commentary
A Community FELT Her Presence
On New Year's Eve, Bradenton lost one its favorite daughters. Jane Evers may have been small in stature, but the mark she left on our community was as big as any you are likely to encounter. The city's former first lady will be remembered for many acts of goodwill, but her greatest legacy will undoubtedly be the nonprofit she started in 2010 and was working tirelessly to advance right up until her final days. Feeding Empty Little Tummies (FELT) is not only an effort cast in noble cause, but a model for how to frame a charitable venture.
Jane would often tell the story of how she first learned of a problem she liked to call our community's “dirty little secret.” She came across a newspaper article describing the problem of homeless school students in Hernando County who relied on the school lunch program for nearly all of their sustenance, often missing meals on weekends when schools were closed. A former beat reporter, her instincts told her that the demographics in Manatee County were similar enough to reasonably assume that many kids in Manatee were also suffering from homelessness and hunger.
Evers did some digging around and learned that there were as many as 1,200 students in Manatee County public schools who did not have permanent housing. She would discover that some were living outdoors, while others moved from cars or condemned trailers to the occasional flea bag motel if there was enough money that week. Food insecurity was a major concern.
At first, her and some friends decided to informally mimic a program in Hernando, in which volunteers stuffed donated food items into backpacks that could be distributed to such kids when they left school on Friday and then recollected and refilled when they returned the following week.
Never one to think small in scope, Evers soon found that her ability to implore others to become involved and donate food was outpacing her ability to collect and distribute the food in her living room. She decided to formalize the group and the current 501(c)(3) was born.
Jane had an enthusiasm that was nothing short of infectious. I first met her shortly after she started the group when she was seeking some publicity through our publication. It was December, so my son and I decided to hold a Christmas Eve food drive at a local Albertson's; we were hooked.
What made FELT so different from any group we'd ever worked with was its insistence on remaining mission-oriented. Jane was absolutely dogged in her determination not to become a typical white-collar charity, one in which the purpose would ultimately become lost among the black-tie galas and high-paying administrative jobs that are all too common among non-profits.
Jane in May of 2011 with Elaine Graham, president of
the Bradenton Branch A.A.U.W., receiving a donation
of children's books to be placed in FELT backpacks.
Jane insisted that every penny go toward putting food in empty bellies and that no donor ever had to wonder how much of their contribution was going toward someone's salary. Even when her health began to deteriorate and the organization continued to grow – when it became obvious that some sort of administrative help would be needed – it wasn't until someone wrote a grant specifically for a part-time administrative employee (ensuring that every donation continued to go toward filling backpacks) that she would finally concede to such help.
In just three years, the little non-profit with very modest goals has already expanded to serve 16 schools, while raising more than $100,000 for the cause. Last month, FELT moved from a small garage to a new warehouse and packaging facility.
Thanks to a growing team of volunteers (as well as the dedicated involvement of many of her family members and dear friends), Jane was able to go on to her reward knowing that FELT will continue to benefit our community's most vulnerable members well into the future. She may have just missed seeing 2014, but it's safe to say that Jane Evers will touch as many lives this year as any of us, and her presence in Manatee County will be felt for many years to come.
Click here to learn how you can help FELT feed empty little tummies in Manatee County.
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