By Martie Thompson
About six years ago, a small group of women primarily from Ponte Vedra and NW St. Johns County began volunteering in classrooms in Title 1 elementary schools, Webster and Crookshank. The women’s own children were now of middle school or high school age and the women found that they missed volunteering in elementary school classrooms.
“When you are in these schools, you become aware of the needs almost immediately,” said Brette Reiman, one of the founders of Hugs Across the County. “We realized students needed clothes and shoes and eventually realized that even greater needs existed for food and school supplies.”
So the women formed Hugs Across the County, which aims to work with school counselors to identify and provide for the basic unmet needs of students all over St. Johns County. Reiman said it is important to note that students are homeless or living below the poverty line even in the northern part of the county. In 2017, the group formed as an official 501 c 3 nonprofit organization with an all volunteer staff and a new board of directors this year that Reiman said truly cares about kids in the community.
Hugs Across the County provides assistance in four basic areas. First are the Clothing Care Packages. Reiman said in 2018, the group provided 300 such packages of clothing to St. Johns County students in 25 schools — all over the county.
Secondly, Hugs Across the County spearheads a couple of food initiatives. Every year, the group sponsors No Hungry Holidays, which provides food over the winter break for students who depend on free school-based breakfast and lunch programs. Reiman said this need continues to grow and last year, more than 1,000 children were referred by school counselors at 36 schools in St. Johns County.
“This includes all of the Ponte Vedra schools and the vast majority of NW St. Johns County schools,” Reiman said. “For instance, Bartram Trail High School requested 30 bags of food.”
Reiman said she also learned that in some instances, school administrators were using their own funds to feed students who came to school too late for the free breakfast at school, as well as to feed the students again before they boarded the bus for home in the afternoon. Now, Hugs Across the County stocks food pantries containing kid-friendly breakfast and lunch items at six county schools.
In the area of literacy, Hugs Across the County celebrates Dr. Seuss’ birthday in early March by providing a brand new Dr. Seuss book to every kindergartener and first grader in the county’s six Title 1 elementary schools.
“Books are very important to me,” Reiman said. “Research has shown that in low income communities, approximately 60 percent of kids do not have books to call their own at home. We are trying to change that.”
A new program launched last summer, “Summer Soar” (because it aims to combat the “summer slide”) is a four to five week program with volunteers who work with Crookshank and Webster schools as well as Kids Safe Zone and the Homeless Coalition to bring books and read to the children once a week. At the end of each week, each participating child takes a book home. Reiman said that two juniors at Ponte Vedra High School, Sami Meyers and Alex Schupler, took this program to heart. They collected books and recruited and scheduled the reading volunteers.
Finally, Hugs Across the County sponsors a girls’ empowerment program in conjunction with the school counselor at Murray Middle School. This is a monthly lunch for about 40 girls facing serious life events. Each month the focus is on a different subject matter, such as the importance of surrounding oneself with supportive people, and the girls are also provided with a copy of the book, “Wowsdom.” Reiman said they are always looking for guest speakers and lunch sponsors.
Reiman acknowledges with the growth of Hugs Across the County, she now works a full time volunteer job.
“Truly, though, this community is incredible,” she said. “We get remarkable support from families, students, churches, Rotary clubs, and neighborhoods. It is very humbling.”
Visit www.stjohnshugs.org, call (904) 580-4847 or email email@example.com for more information or to make a donation to Hugs Across the County.
Photos courtesy Hugs Across the County
Ponte Vedra High School Juniors Sami Meyers and Alex Schupler put in hundreds of hours towards multiple Hugs Across the County programs.