One November night back in 2011, a feature story on 60 Minutes would change Gina Wilkins life forever.
The segment was called “Homeless Children: The Hard Times Generation,” and the story covered the plight of children whose parents had lost their jobs during the recession, and were now homeless and struggling to afford food. In the video, children describe what it’s like to go to bed hungry and wake up through out the night with hunger pangs, and how they would try to get other kids to share their food with them at school because they don’t have enough food at home, which for most of them was a motel room.
Wilkins could relate to the struggles of adults who had lost their jobs or careers due to the dismal economy. Not only did she have friends who had lost their careers and financial stability during the recession, but she also lost her own small business where she worked as an architectural draftsman.
“When it went down, I kept on saying, things will get better, this is just a bump in the road. But it wasn’t,” says Wilkins.
All that night she paced, she cried, and she knew she had to do something to help. The next morning, she says, “The Mouse was Born”. Wilkins came up with the name, “The Kind Mouse Productions
,'' drew a crude logo, and started making phone calls.
She called around and talked to leaders of businesses and anyone else who would donate food, money or time to help feed Pinellas County children who didn’t have enough food.
Shortly thereafter she was running a backpack program out of her St. Petersburg home called Mouse Nibbles
, a weekend feeding program for kids who weren’t sure where their meals would come from when they weren’t at school.
Donated, packed and delivered bags of individualized food items like boxes of raisins, spaghettios, and apple sauce cups that children could carry home in a backpack and prepare for themselves would be sent home from school with students who were identified by social workers or school staff.
Wilkins says, “I knew that we had to do that because the hungry kids were at the schools, and the social workers would know what was going on.”
The successful mouse
The Kind Mouse, whose mission is to “assist families in transition and their chronically hungry children,” now operates out of a multi-roomed location in St. Petersburg. Labeled bins of canned food, cereal, oatmeal and boxed food like macaroni and cheese are neatly organized on shelves from floor to ceiling, and there are plans to start a garden this spring to supply fresh vegetables.
Programs have expanded too. Since 2012 The Kind Mouse has helped over 100 families who have fallen upon hard times with food, pet food and housewares through their Transitional Family Program
, and Mouse Nibbles has provided more than 12,000 hungry kids with food for the weekend, according to the Kind Mouse website.
Kind Mouse Productions also partners with the Pinellas County School Board for the Jane’s Pantry/HEAT program
, which identifies and provides nine emergency meals per week per child in a family that may be homeless or on the verge of becoming so.
CEO of The Kind Mouse, Wilkins, is fond of saying, “It takes a large litter to run this mouse,” and by that she is referring to the many volunteers and sponsors that help support the Kind Mouse Mission.
But what is unique about this nonprofit is that it not only feeds hungry children, but kids are also an integral part of its success.
Children helping children
In the beginning, adult volunteers would bring their children in to help pack Mouse Nibbles bags. Seeing how much those kids enjoyed themselves and took pride in their contributions, Wilkins had an epiphany.
“I realized, this is the future mice,” says Wilkins. “This is what’s going to keep The Mouse going when I’m too old to do it. And to me, that’s the best thing for me in my heart that I did, bringing the kids in. They are just so fresh faced and full of ideas and they want to help the other children.”
The Kind Mouse’s “Mice in Training
,'' program, for five to 12-year-olds, and the “Mice Intern
,'' for 13- to 18-year-olds, enlists child volunteers to contribute to helping to feed the hungry.
These young volunteers sign a commitment letter that they will collectively pack 350 Mouse Nibbles bags per month, promote and run food drives, and attend and participate in Kind Mouse events, including this year’s challenges to learn the dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller for the occasional flash mob, and learning the lyrics to Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” to perform at an upcoming Angels Against Abuse Gala
The kids go on food shopping trips together and work within a budget. They learn to organize for effectiveness, all the while contributing to helping the hungry in their community. They even get business cards.
Recently they held their yearly elections around a crowded board room table to vote on who would be this year’s president, vp, treasurer, secretary, art department, promotions/media/marketing person, and event coordinator. Each candidate stood up to tell the voters why they should be elected.
The Mice Interns candidates used words like responsible and organized, while the Mice in Training candidates promised to make it safe and fun, raise awareness at their schools and get more donations.
The kids also learn about video production as a way to help tell the stories of other nonprofits and those that they help. Wilkins’ husband Stan, a network videographer who just happened to film that 60 Minutes news feature that started it all, volunteers to teach the kids how that is done.
From the Mouths of Babes
Ten-year-old Phoebe Mitten already graduated up to being a Mouse Intern since she relates better to the older kids. She says she’s part of the Kind Mouse because, “I like to help people and I wasn’t doing enough to help my community.”
The Skyview Elementary fifth grader recently approached her principal about having a food drive at the school.
“I told [the principal] Mrs. Hester and she decided that it was a good idea since they weren’t doing their food drive, so I set out bins every week and every body would bring food and every Friday I would pick it up. Mrs. Hester was really excited,” says Phoebe.
The Mice Interns and the Mice in Training don’t have contact with the students they help, because they all understand the importance of their peers being able to maintain their dignity. They’re taught that if they see another student with a Mouse Nibbles bag to keep quiet about it. The saying is “What happens at Mouse Nibbles stays at Mouse Nibbles.”
Elizabeth Hodgson, 16, is the newly elected president of the Mice Interns after joining last June.
Hodgson says she didn’t realize the magnitude of those who don’t have enough food before she started volunteering at Kind Mouse.
“It was sort of shocking,” she says. “You hear about it other places, but you don’t think about it being where you live. I didn’t know that some children did not have food over the weekends - they get food during week for school lunches, but that’s what Mouse Nibbles helps.”
Ten-year-old Sydney “Jingles” Merritt, former president and now VP of the Mice in Training (so all the kids get a turn at different positions) has been volunteering along with her mom, Sarah Merritt, since mid-2015.
Merritt says since joining she has watched her daughter develop “More self confidence, [become] more outgoing”, and open to “trying new things.”
“I just see her growing up,” says Merritt.
Merritt says that she thinks the programs are great for kids to be a part of because it gives kids a different perspective.
“Your life is not terrible because you got your Xbox taken away. You don’t realize the big picture,” she says.
As for Sydney, she says being a Mouse in Training is fun because, “I get to pack food bags, and I get to collect food for the homeless, and I get to be in a group of awesome and crazy kids. I think it’s important to volunteer because other people need food, and if we have it and they don’t have it I feel like we should give it to them.”
Wilkins beams with pride when she talks about her little mice.
“The kids have realized that although their little world, their family, is stable, the blindfolds have been removed and they realize that there is so much hardship and they want to help out with that. … Their minds just blow me away,” says Wilkins. “They’re our next generation. I’m so proud of them. I can’t even say enough about them. They just make my heart warm. I’m so grateful to everyone whose involved with it. I can’t thank these people enough.”