This is a holiday giving season tale involving two golfers, one well-known and the other not so much.
You are probably not aware that approximately 20 million kids in America are at risk due to hunger. There are many consequences of this, not the least of which is poor learning in school. Bad nutrition often leads to a lower IQ, shorter attention spans and lower overall academic achievement. Many of these kids are on federal programs like the Free and Reduced Price Meal Program, but that only helps kids five days a week. What about weekends?
Enter Stan Curtis, founder of a program called Blessings In A Backpack. An avid golfer and former tennis professional, Curtis was instrumental in bringing the Ryder Cup to Valhalla in Louisville, Ky., in 2007. Long involved in supporting hunger relief causes, Curtis started Kentucky Harvest, an organization that collects food for the poor. He also set up USA Harvest, which now encompasses 131 cities and serves two-million meals a day to those in need.
Made aware of the plight of school children, Curtis founded Blessings in 2005, with the goal of feeding impoverished kids on weekends during the 38-week school year. His vision was better test scores, higher reading ability, improved health and increased attendance.
Here’s how it works: Each Friday, eligible kids receive a backpack full of food for the weekend. The backpack includes ready-to-eat food items such as granola bars, peanut butter, tuna, crackers, macaroni and cheese, cereal and juice boxes. Blessings reviews its menu items with a nutritionist annually to make sure the food is kid-friendly, nutritious, non-perishable and easy to prepare. The menu isn’t a silver bullet, but Blessings points out that these kids live in a world where some food is better than no food. The end result is nourished kids, better prepared to learn. Students who participate in the program have shown substantial improvement against all the key metrics.
Blessings works with almost anyone to start a program; teacher, parent, volunteer, nurse, community advocate, etc. They provide the framework for the program as well as the backpacks, and they help find a local grocer to work with. The oil that runs the engine, of course, is money, but not tons of it. Amazingly, one kid can be fed under this program for $80 for the entire school year.
Due to the golf savvy gained at Valhalla, Curtis got the attention of the PGA Tour Wives Association, in particular Kate Rose, wife of Justin Rose. This group adopted a school in San Diego in conjunction with the PGA Tour stop in that market. But Kate wanted to do more, and so she and Justin brought the cause to their adopted hometown of Orlando. For the young British couple, this isn’t write-a-check philanthropy; they are hands-on and deeply involved, as I saw recently when invited to tag along on a school visit.
The Roses now sponsor four local schools, reaching more than 1,200 kids, and they will soon add a fifth. They personally visit the schools, talk to the kids, and work alongside the teachers and volunteers to stuff the backpacks. And they raise the necessary funding; Rose ran a one-day outing at his home course, Lake Nona, this summer that netted $200,000. He also started the Birdies For Blessings program, whereby he personally contributed $80 (that magic number) per birdie, of which he made roughly 350 worldwide this year. Rose, ranked No. 16 in the world, also got one of his sponsors, Zurich Financial Services, to get involved in New Orleans, where Zurich sponsors a PGA Tour event. Some 800-plus kids are now being looked after by this program in that recovering city. Zurich also matched Rose’s birdie contribution.
One of the best aspects of the program Curtis created is that every contributed dollar goes right to the food. It does not cover overhead for Curtis’ staff, and it does not pass through the bungling American public school bureaucracy, which would be sure to grab a slice. In fact, this program works outside of that bureaucracy altogether, focusing instead on enlightened school principals.
Blessings In A Backpack seems to be picking up more support each day. Curtis, now retired after 30 years in the financial services sector, devotes himself full-time to the effort, serving as CEO and leading a staff of 11 as they expand to more schools to reach more of those 20 million hungry kids. Curtis says the program is “exploding, reaching 60,000 children currently.”
Rose’s efforts on Tour have not gone unnoticed by his lodge brothers; Brad Faxon, Rich Beem and Pat Perez are among the dozen or more PGA Tour players Curtis says have joined the cause.
For more information or to get involved, visit www.blessingsinabackpack.org. Eighty dollars can go a long way.
The next time you see Justin Rose on television, know that there is a lot more going on behind those sunglasses than chasing a small white ball for a living.