LONGWOOD, Fla. – By reaching out to elementary schools, this local Realtor® and his wife found a way to mentor and feed homeless, displaced and poverty-stricken children.
Several years ago, Mark Santolin and his wife Rhonda went on a spiritual journey. “We attended some of our church’s programs and classes, and it set our hearts on fire,” says Mark, a sales associate with EXIT Real Estate Results in Longwood. He says the couple realized that in order to make their spiritual journey mean anything, they had to take action and do something to help others.
So, when the time came to participate in a community-feeding project, the Santolins jumped at the opportunity.
“Our bible study took on an Easter project to feed the homeless. Over 150 people came out of nowhere to get fed. They were in the woods,” says Mark, who’s been in real estate for 14 years. “That’s when Rhonda and I decided to bring tents, water and non-perishable food to the woods. There would be no judgment, no forms to fill out, just necessities and someone to listen,” he says. “Our goal at that time was to bring 10 people back into society by helping them get back on their feet. We ended up getting six of them out of the woods.”
However, the Santolins felt like they were hitting a wall in terms of helping the homeless in the woods; so they looked for other ways to make a difference. “We realized that if we truly wanted to help this situation, we had to reach out to the children,” says Mark. So, he and Rhonda went to a few elementary schools and asked what they needed to help homeless and displaced kids. “To our surprise, several principals were willing to work with us,” says Mark.
The Santolins soon found out how great the need really was. “We heard stories of kids gathering food that the other children don’t want or don’t eat and packing it up to bring home over the weekend,” Mark says. “If they didn’t do that, they wouldn’t eat for two days.”
And, he adds, these kids aren’t just thinking of themselves, they’re gathering food for their siblings as well. “That’s when we created Bags of Hope Central Florida,” he says.
Bags of Hope Central Florida
Founded in 2009, Bags of Hope Central Florida (BOHCFL) is a program that offers homeless, displaced and poverty-stricken children bags of food to sustain them and their families over the weekend, books to keep them focused on school and, most of all, a consistent, friendly volunteer to help mentor them. The program has now evolved to serve three Central Florida schools and some 300 children.
Each school identifies the children in need and every Thursday or Friday, volunteers with BOHCFL come to the school and meet with the kids for an hour. “We call it the Bags of Hope Central Florida Kids Club,” says Mark. “It’s more than just a bag of food to sustain them over the weekend. That’s the immediate need. What makes the program work is the mentoring we do,” he says
Each volunteer is assigned specific children – each week he or she spends time with that child asking questions about school, their spelling tests and more.
“This one-on-one mentoring has been the difference in the program,” Mark explains. “These children need a person who they can consistently see—someone who encourages them to dream big.”
Each bag of food includes bread, fresh fruit, veggies and proteins such as peanut butter, canned meals, rice, beans, canned chicken and tuna, Vienna sausages and macaroni and cheese.
Reading is fun-damental
In addition to supplying the bags of food, the organization has a reading program. The children get to bring a new book home each week.
“We have a book team,” says Rhonda. “This team helps match up kids with a book on their reading levels, and they get to keep that book,” she says. “If they have a sibling, we encourage them to bring a book to him or her too.
“Children living in poverty tend to put the whole family before themselves,” says Rhonda. “We give them the book to keep so they have something to own. It’s a symbol and helps with the insecurity they may have. After all, these children are bouncing place-to-place, motel-to-motel.”
And, if the children want to, they can complete a book report on the book. Bags of Hope Central Florida volunteers, generally retired teachers, will talk to them about the book and their report; then the child gets to select a prize from the treasure chest.
Children will stay in the Bags of Hope Central Florida Kids Club until there is no longer a need or they move on to middle school, according to the Santolins.
“We targeted elementary school children because they’re easy to identify,” Rhonda explains.
Adds Mark, “We just want to plant the seed to help them cope and prosper in school. The bandage is the food; the program is the solution. We want to teach them to focus on education. That’s how they can fix their futures.”
Keeping kids in school
For Mark, being with the kids energizes him.
“I started mentoring one young fourth grader,” he says. “He was very destructive and had behavior issues at school. He’s in fifth grade now and his behavior has improved dramatically. These kids just need a consistent face each week.”
Both Santolins say that being able to provide this program is a blessing. “Our goal has always been to turn the word ‘faith’ into a verb,” says Mark. “We’ve driven to trailer parks and had starving children take food and desperately eat it immediately. How can you see that and not do something about it?”