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Volunteer Spotlight: Hayes helps to bridge gap with Food For Thought

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

Editor's note: For the next few weeks, The Destin Log will be highlighting in the Saturday editions people in our community that voluntarily offer themselves for service around town.

What started out as just helping as a classroom mom has turned into a chance for her to help fill the gap for many children.

Leah Hayes of Santa Rosa Beach volunteers with Food For Thought, which is a not-for-profit organization based in Santa Rosa Beach that provides backpacks filled with healthy food for students who are dependent on free or reduced school meals. 

Leah Hayes is a volunteer at Food For Thought in Santa Rosa Beach office.

According to FFT website, they currently serve 32 schools in Walton and Okaloosa counties, providing backpacks for 3,300 students each week.

Related:Jan. 2017 - Food For Thought starts new food drive

Hayes moved to the Emerald Coast about eight years ago and became the room mom for her daughter who was in kindergarten at Butler Elementary at the time.

"We were getting a lot of requests from the teacher to send in more snacks and more snacks, so I went back to her and said, 'Hey, do we need to set up a schedule, what's the problem, are parents forgetting?' She said no."

Volunteer Leah Hayes helps load boxes of food into a Food For Thought van for distribution to the north end of Walton County. She volunteers at the Santa Rosa Beach office.

Much to Hayes surprise, she found that a number of students were dependent on food at school.

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"This whole area seems to be so affluent, I was just shocked that that would be happening," Hayes said. "This is probably the only meal some of them are getting. What else are these kids doing? We have to do something bigger."

At this point, Hayes was pointed in the direction of Tiffanie Nelson, the founder of Food For Thought.

Volunteer Leah Hayes helps load boxes of food into a Food For Thought van for distribution to the north end of Walton County. She volunteers at the Santa Rosa Beach office.

It just so happened that Nelson was a neighbor of Hayes and she quickly became involved with the FFT organization.

"I started just delivering the backpacks at school and went up from there," Hayes said. "Now I'm a board member and treasurer of the organization."

Food For Thought's goal, according to their website, is "to support a child’s development and educational experience by bridging the gap between school meals during weekends and holiday breaks."

"If these kids don't have enough for snacks and they are relying on these school meals. What happens when they are not in school, on weekends, over Christmas break and summer break? How are they being fed? Maybe they are partially homeless, we're not really sure," Hayes said.

She explained there could be a number of reasons for the lack.

"Some may have parents who have just had a medical emergency ... or maybe they've  had a car accident and suddenly someone is out of work and they are relying on these  school meals. You never know," she said.

Although Hayes now serves on the board and is treasurer of the organization, she continues to volunteer.

"I like the volunteer aspect of it. I don't do bag delivery in the school as much anymore," she said.

Hayes, however, does lend a hand when they have to move large amounts of food to the different locations. Food For Thought has a pantry in Santa Rosa Beach, as well as a location in Destin and DeFuniak Springs.

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"I help on those big loads and food distributions ... things like that," she said.

Hayes also heads up the development committee and helps organize some of the special events and private dinners for fundraising.

And her work with the organization hasn't gone unnoticed.

"Leah (Hayes) is a dedicated board member and hands on volunteer," said Tiffanie Nelson, founder and CEO of FFT. "Her years of service to the organization have made a huge impact on our programs and fundraising."

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And after almost six years with the FFT, Hayes still loves volunteering.

"I continue to do it because I think there is still a need. I still see the need," Hayes said. "The other thing that keeps me doing it, is seeing how the organization works from the inside out."

"Food for Thought is run on such a narrow margin, we have maybe two fulltime employees," she added. "So much of every penny really goes to help the kids in our community."

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And when the schools shut down due to the pandemic, the community really needed help.

"There has absolutely been an extra need," Hayes said. "We have definitely seen an increase. We've seen people who have never had to ask for help before coming to us."

Food For Thought has been offering curbside service during the pandemic.

FFT has been doing curbside pickups in five different locations around Walton and Okaloosa counties to help fight the hunger gap.

"So we've kind of had to revamp our whole program to do those larger events where they get family-size food instead of backpack snacks, and they have to come pick them up now," she said.

For more information about FFT or to donate, go to fftfl.org.