Local Birdie Bag program provides meals over holidays for food-insecure families

Volunteers pack food at the United Methodist Church of Kent Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, which they will give to food-insecure families in the area.

Dylan Reynolds

It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas Wednesday morning. Nineteen days before the holiday, a group of community members stood packaging gifts inside the United Methodist Church of Kent.

Helpers young and old tore open boxes and arranged the contents in laundry bins on rows of long tables. If Santa’s workshop was in Portage County, this is what it would look like.

The volunteers weren’t packing toys, electronics, clothes or other typical Christmas presents — they were packing food.

These volunteers were with the Ben Curtis Family Foundation, one local organization working to help kids during the holiday season. The foundation’s Birdie Bag program operates year-round to provide 965 children facing food insecurity with meals and snacks to take home during breaks from school, but it is especially important during the long winter break.

“We found there are a significant amount of (Kent) kids on free and reduced lunches,” said Sara Beatty, the foundation’s communications coordinator. “So when we have the long holidays that everybody’s excited about because they get to be with family and they don’t have to school, those kids aren’t knowing where their next meal is going to be because they’re not going to school to get the (free) lunch and the breakfast.”

In Portage County, 14.8 percent of residents do not have regular access to nutritious food, according to the the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank. For children, the number increases to 23.2 percent, or 7,480 kids. 

Ben Curtis, a professional golfer and Kent resident, became aware of this problem in 2011 when he saw a television program about hunger in America. He started his foundation shortly after to combat childhood hunger in the Kent area.

“(Ben and his wife Candace) talked to the local school administration to see if there was even a need, and what surprised all of us is that there was actually a pretty big need here in Kent,” Beatty said.

Since then, other Kent residents have offered their services after discovering the realities of hunger. Mike Awad, a local businessman who owns The Overlook,  a Kent restaurant, was inspired when he heard a story on the radio about a local mother who couldn’t feed her family on Christmas.

“She was engaged to a gentleman in the military, very proud mom,” Awad said. “She’s got two kids and she was talking about how everybody does everything for these kids on Christmas. But she wanted to see if somebody would help and provide meals for the families, for a mom to wake up on Christmas and make them. It really hit home, like my God, it’s really that bad. What can I do?”

After hearing the mother’s story, Awad contacted Curtis to discuss options for helping these needy families. The result was “A Very Merry Dinner,” an annual event where low-income families can eat, receive gifts and go home with food for the holiday. 

Awad described the event, held at his restaurant, as “one heck of a dinner that includes steak, a chicken, veggies, potatoes.”

“The first year we did it, we reached out to two or three elementary schools,” he said, “and we said to the principals, ‘Listen, give us your neediest kids. We want to give them a great Christmas.’”

Awad was surprised when the principals returned a list of 250 children.

“We gave every kid a wishlist,” he said. “It was really sad because their number one present that they wanted wasn’t an XBox or a toy or anything like that. Their number one wish was food. Their number two wish was pajamas.”

In addition to providing food for that night and Christmas day, the foundation gives gifts to all participants and their siblings.

“We have a lot of very generous donors,” he said. “When you’re talking about buying a kid up to $100 or $75 of gifts … you can see how much money is required.”

Now in its third year, the dinner continues to expand to help more families. Awad says he expects almost 1,000 kids and family members to attend this year.

With the large number of kids to help and volunteers to organize, Diane Beatty, the foundation’s community outreach coordinator, said it sometimes gets hectic, especially at the Birdie Bag packing events. 

“At times it can be crazy, but … we’re all working together,” Beatty said. “We’ll pack a thousand bags in probably an hour or less. I am so grateful that they started this and that these kids are getting fed. It’s just a huge undertaking and it’s awesome.”

Then she turned around, briskly walking back to the row of tables to pack more bags.

Dylan Reynolds is the business and neighborhood reporter. Contact him at [email protected].