Santa Claus, as one might guess, is used to hearing all sorts of requests when kiddies climb onto his lap and tell him what they want for Christmas: The “it” toy of the season. A pony, a puppy or a kitten. A video game. A superpower.
And so it was when jolly old St. Nick parked his sleigh at Valverde Elementary School in Denver in December, 2019. His appearance was part of the annual Holidays for Kids, an event that Amp the Cause hosts during the months of November and December at Title 1 schools throughout the metro area. In 2019, Holiday for Kids reached 1,900 children, treating them to an unforgettable day filled with arts and crafts activities, lunch and a visit with Santa before sending them home with backpacks stuffed with books and toys.
Yet it was the shy voice of one Valverde kindergartener that caused even Santa to catch his breath.
The 6-year-old asked for more food. Valverde Elementary’s 17-day holiday break was fast approaching, and “He was worried that his family wouldn’t have enough food to eat during that time,” recalls Amp the Cause president Julia Simmons. “That little guy’s request literally stopped us in our tracks. There wasn’t a dry adult eye in the room.” The poignant request proved to be an important call to action. After rallying the troops to come to the aid of this child and others at his school whose families also were at risk of running out of food during the school break, Simmons, her staff and board of directors took a closer look at food insecurity, particularly how it affects Denver-area children. Their conclusion was to add a new element to Amp the Cause’s mission.
With that, Fill the Void: Amp the Cause to End Hunger was born. It differs from other hunger-relief efforts in that instead of distributing boxes or baskets of food to those in need, recipient families are given a $250 gift card redeemable at grocery stores that include program partners Safeway, King Soopers and Walmart.
The idea of giving a card is significant because it enables the parent or guardian to shop with dignity, alleviating the embarrassment that comes with using a SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or WIC (Women, Infants and Children program) card. It also helps to re- duce the burden on food banks that have been stretched to their limits during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, Simmons says, “It lets the families eat the foods they choose, not the food that is chosen for them. They can shop at stores most convenient to where they live and to buy things that meet their religious, dietary and cultural needs.” Fill the Void also has an Instacart account for those whose mobility, work schedules or COVID-19 concerns preclude them from in-person shopping.
Unlike SNAP and WIC, recipient families can use their cards to purchase personal hygiene items, cleaning supplies – even pet food. They cannot, however, use it to buy alcohol or tobacco products.
The cards are distributed, physically or digitally, every quarter. The program is funded through sponsorships, partnerships, donations and events like Amp the Cause’s signature fundraisers, Denver Day of Rock and the Celebrity Waiters Dinner.
Simmons and her staff have set a fundraising goal of $420,000 per month, which would allow Fill the Void to award $5 million in gift cards per year.
As of mid-September, Fill the Void had served 131 families in the Denver and Aurora public school systems and was poised to serve 200 more at 22 Title 1 schools in both districts. Title 1 schools have populations where more than 94 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches.
“The 1,200 families that we’ve identified have extremely high rates of food insecurity,” Simmons says, adding that one in every five children in Denver experiences food insecurity and that 72.49 percent of the students in the Denver Public Schools alone receive free and reduced-price meals at school, but do not have the same access to food during the summer, school breaks or other school closures.
One recipient, Blanca, describes how Fill the Void helped her family.
Blanca, a stay-at-home mom raising her four children and 2-year-old grandson, and her husband, who had worked eight to 10 hours a day as a plumber and handyman, both contracted COVID-19 at the beginning of April. The virus prevented her husband from working, leaving the family with no income until receiving a Fill the Void gift card in June. Blanca continues to test positive for COVID-19, while her husband, who is testing negative, continues to have a bad cough and trouble breathing.
He is only able to work three to four hours per day. The gift card provided a week’s worth of groceries for the family of seven, with enough left over to restock their cupboards for future weeks.
“The struggle to feed children in our community is real and it’s not going away,” Simmons declares, adding that donations to Fill the Void may can be made by visiting ampthecause.org or by calling Jordan Fouts, 303-249-8428.
Fill the Void
Amp the Cause was founded as Concerts for Kids in 2004 by Christie and Walter Isenberg. Its purpose was to raise money to help children with life-threatening illnesses, to raise awareness of local charities and to provide opportunities for kids to participate in educational programs in a safe and healthy environment.
Fill the Void: Amp the Cause to End Hunger expands on that mission.
1616 17th St., Suite 462
Denver CO 80202
Joanne Davidson has written about the Denver area’s nonprofit organizations since 1985. Her work has appeared in publications that include The Denver Post andU.S. News & World Report
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