Florida Charity Helps Homeless Children
The small, disheveled elementary students arrived at school and trudged their way through the weave of buildings, heading to the cafeteria early Friday morning. Once a month they are given the gift of toiletries, set aside and in bags waiting to be picked up and packed into their little backpacks. Luxuries like soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, laundry detergent, and deodorant. These items are not always seen in their households. Now, for them and their families, they have a small amount of provisions for the month.
Florida is home to almost 19 million residents, according to the United States Census Bureau. An estimated 75,000 of these residents are homeless and living in poverty. Nearly 50,000 are children.
Jan Huegen, 71, is a slender blonde woman with blue eyes and a bright smile. She saw what most others in the community seem to miss, which is the large number of homeless and needy students struggling to survive and get through school. She is President and founder of the North Port Coalition for Homeless/Needy Children (also known as Backpack Angels), a non-profit organization founded in 2010 in Florida.
The North Port Coalition’s mission is “to collect, organize and distribute common everyday personal hygiene products to the groups who have direct contact with the homeless and needy children,” helping these children and teens to make it through school and have a bright future. It can be difficult, especially when many of the students have low self-esteem because of their appearance, or because of the way they smell. They walk the halls hoping to be invisible. Some students, especially older ones, don’t always attend school because they don’t have what they need in order to get ready and be prepared. Huegen and those who work with her are trying to change that.
After growing up in a household of seven children, Huegen knows what it’s like to feel left out and on her own. She was the middle sibling. The three youngest went and did their own thing, and so did the three oldest kids. “I was running the streets at the age of five,” said Huegen. She can relate to these children because of those experiences.
When Jan had kids she was a stay at home mom, hoping to give to her children the childhood she never had. Once her kids grew up, she went to work for AT&T for 13 years before retiring to her home in North Port, Florida. Now she not only runs the North Port Coalition for Homeless/Needy children with a few other women, but she is also grandmother to 15 grandchildren.
Jan originally heard of this need in the community from a guidance counselor she knew working at a local school. The person called and told her about a girl in the local high school who was in need of hygiene products, and Huegen immediately felt the need to help. She went and bought a few backpacks and filled them up with toiletries and other necessities like feminine products, lotion, soap, shampoo and conditioner, combs, and deodorant. She then dropped these bags off at the school.
“We never see the kids,” said Huegen. “Most would be embarrassed if others knew they were homeless and it’s an invasion of privacy. We just find out how many bags each school needs and we drop them off.”
The Backpack Angels now provide toiletry bags for nine schools in Sarasota County, and even though she never sees the students she’s helping, Huegen knows that what she does is making a difference for a lot of children and families.
Mindy Winskill, a guidance counselor at Glenallen Elementary School in North Port for the past six years, is especially grateful for all that Huegen and her Backpack Angels do. Since the economic fall in recent years, she has not only seen an increase in foreclosed homes and the number of homeless children, but in the attitude of children overall. The bags of toiletries help.
“The kids really look forward to coming and getting a bag, and their parents are grateful as well,” Winskill said as she distributed bags to children.
Winskill doesn’t just distribute the toiletries, but also gives out bags of food for the weekends, which are provided by The Warren Backpack Program, which runs a similar program as the Backpack Angels, but with food rather than personal hygiene products.
For Huegen, having never worked in any kind of charitable organization before, she feels like this is exactly what she should be doing. From the beginning, she received a large amount of support for others in the community. At first she sent out an email to the gated community where she lives, notifying everyone about the need for toiletries to give to students. There was then an abundance of things piled on her doorstep. Other women she knew soon offered to help, and the organization grew.
Today Huegen has over 100 volunteers, and has distributed to hundreds of children and teens. Six of those teens are graduating from high school this year.