Four years ago, the summer after his eighth-grade year at Brookstone School, Jack Henslee's Boy Scout troop elected him to attend the Order of the Arrow Ordeal at Camp Frank G. Lumpkin in LaGrange, Ga.
The leadership training that weekend included performing hard labor with a scant amount of food. No dinner that Friday night, half of a hard-boiled egg for breakfast and half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch.
"It was the first time that I had experienced hunger," said Henslee, now at senior at Brookstone in Columbus, Ga. "It was during this weekend I realized not all kids have food available to them and are not as fortunate as me, since I knew at the end of the weekend, I would be going home and have food. It started me thinking about what I could do to help food-insecure children."
A few months later, during the fall of his ninth-grade year, Henslee's mother, Robbin, told him a former coworker's children had started a Food4KidsUSA chapter in North Carolina, and maybe he could start one in Georgia. Henslee was interested, so he did some research and learned that Georgia is the nation's third-worst state for food insecurity.
Food insecurity is how the U.S. Department of Agriculture measures the lack of access to enough nutritionally adequate food for an active and healthy life.
Understanding the need, Henslee took action. He informed his friend and classmate Jack Dudley, who just so happens to live in Phenix City, Ala., so he could start the Alabama chapter. Together, in January 2013, they attended a Food4Kids conference in Washington, D.C., with other state chapter founders, which now number 10.
Trained and ready to combat hunger in the Chattahoochee Valley, the two Jacks met with David Shemwell, the administrator of Feeding the Valley, and they decided to organize a program to fill backpacks (actually, drawstring bags) with nonperishable food for identified elementary school students to take home for the weekends.
A $500 grant from Sodexo enabled the two Jacks to help feed 20 children. Three years later, they have grown their Food4Kids chapters to help feed a combined total of about 280 children.
That's 200 per week in Phenix City's seven elementary schools through 11 churches; 20 children via Highland Community Church, adjacent to Fox Elementary School; and 60 through the Beta Club at Columbus High School, along with St. Paul United Methodist Church.
Henslee and Dudley have raised a combined estimate of $80,000 in three years for their Food4Kids chapters. It costs $3 per weekend during the school year to feed each child, $23,400 in Alabama and $9,360 in Georgia this year, Henslee said.
For sparking and developing such a positive impact, Henslee has been named one of the state's Top 20 Under 20 Youth Leaders, selected by 21st Century Leaders, a Georgia-based nonprofit organization that develops youth leadership and talent.
"It's a big honor, but we didn't start this for awards and stuff," said Henslee, nominated by Brookstone counselor Frances Berry. "We're just trying to help people."
Growth of the chapters
The award's publicity has generated more support for the Food4Kids chapter, Henslee said.
"I have about three or four (representatives from other communities) emailing me about how to set it up," he said.
Dudley, who expanded Central High graduate Lena Lemieux's project called Backpack Buddies, described what makes Henslee an effective leader: "He's charismatic. He's just a great guy in general. He has a very great presence. He has a passion to help people."
Backpack Buddies has grown more in Alabama than in Georgia, Henslee said, because "Georgia's laws and Alabama's laws vary severely on how you have to do this. (Dudley) can go straight to a church, and the church can use their food cabinet to pack meals there. You can't do that in Georgia."
Every two or three weeks, the two Jacks receive about 280 pounds of food from Feeding the Valley, and they store the food in a closet at the Brookstone cafeteria. Each week, a group of students packs the packs. During the Ledger-Enquirer's visit to Brookstone last week, the two Jacks led half a dozen other students through a 10-minute session to fill 20 packs of food.
The items usually include nonperishable milk, juice, stew, canned vegetables, a breakfast bar, apple sauce, a snack and a treat.
"Every single one of these have a pop top or can be opened by hand on purpose, just in case they don't have anything to open these cans," Henslee said. "A can of food is useless if a kid can't open it."
Dudley recalled, "Last year, we were down one bag. We went to the grocery story to get the exact same items, and it was like $6 or $7 for the items we got for $3 from Feeding the Valley."
The bags are bright green, Henslee said, "because kids will try to sell the stuff in the bag to get money to pay for food for their families instead of eating it. So all of the bus drivers know that if they see this color out on the bus to stop it immediately because it's not to be sold."
Most of the recipients are younger than third grade, Dudley said, because "we found that any higher than that, the kids might be bullied for having these backpacks."
Shemwell praised the two Jacks for helping to feed children who "really have no knowledge of where their next meal might come from."
"The feedback we get from the school teachers and principals, it's amazing how the children respond when they come back to school on Mondays," Shemwell said. "They're just amazed at their more positive attitudes after they've had something to eat."
The toughest challenge
The two Jacks are grateful for the success of their Food4Kids chapters, but they also are disappointed about not being able to feed more children when school officials decline the program because Food4Kids can't feed all of the school's children and school officials are reluctant to typecast students.
"The toughest challenge has been trying to get the schools that we are trying to help to participate in the program since we are not able to provide backpacks for all of the needy children who attend the schools," Henslee said. "It was also difficult finding the right people at the churches to help since they are a key part of the program."
They found the right one for the Fox students in Miss Cookie. Legally known as Beverly Thornton, she lives across the street from Highland Community Church and distributes the food bags to the children who come from Fox.
"It lets them know they are loved, regardless of the circumstances that might be going on in their home," she said. "When they're hungry they do bad. When they know somebody cares about them, it makes their attitudes more enlightened."
"Miss Cookie has been so helpful," Henslee said. "There is not a word to describe how much."
Because of privacy concerns, the Food4Kids volunteers aren't allowed to meet the children they help.
"No one here can know any of the kids," Henslee said, "so we have to go through an outlet, like a church or the school itself."
Although he doesn't see the children receive the food, he feels the blessing.
"I know that I'm helping," Henslee said. "That's kind of what matters."
But he got a sneak peek last year. A winter storm delayed the shipment of food to Feeding the Valley, so the backpack delivery for the Fox students was a day late.
When they arrived at Highland Community Church that Saturday, Henslee said, "There were around 10 kids waiting and others were running up when we were dropping off the backpacks. I could hear some of these small children yelling to others that their food for the weekend was there. They were so excited and happy to know that they were going to get a backpack.
"I knew it was working and making an impact if so many kids were coming to some place to get something. I'll never forget it."
And what the two Jacks started in Georgia and Alabama will continue to make a healthy and hopeful difference, thanks to younger Brookstone students agreeing to lead their Food4Kids chapters after Henslee and Dudley graduate this year. Rob Simkins, a junior, followed by Henslee's seventh-grade sister, Kathleen, will be in charge of the Georgia chapter, and Dudley's ninth-grade brother, Mason, will take over in Alabama.
"The whole goal was a sustainable change," Henslee said, "something that can help people and continue to help people."
Beyond the good feeling they receive for doing more than their fair share to improve their community, the two Jacks also have received mighty practical training in valuable skills, such as public speaking, fundraising, grant writing, organizing, business, law and communication.
"Repacking is annoying," Henslee said. "You've got to search every single bag."
As for the two Jacks' college and career plans, Henslee is deciding between Mercer and High Point. He is unsure of a major, maybe business, but he is certain he wants to continue to find ways to help others. "I'll probably be an eye doctor like my dad," he said.
Dudley is deciding between Furman and Birmingham Southern to major in business and economics or history. He also isn't set on a career, "but I want to continue serving in my community," he said.
The two Jacks said they might even start a Food4Kids chapter where they go to college.