With a new school year underway, that means a lot of children need assistance with much more than just their homework.
That is where local nonprofit Hugs Across the County has been making the biggest difference since being founded by Brette Reiman 11 years ago.
The organization is looking for volunteers to help pack bags, each containing four outfits, five pairs of socks and underwear, as well as shampoo, soap and toothpaste.
Eighty bags have already been packed this year to be given out to children in need. Volunteers are also needed to help leads during the packing process.
“This year people have even donated shoes and school supplies to go in the bags,” Reiman said.
The clothing initiative was the original program introduced and remains the nonprofit’s largest among the four programs it offers, which also includes food, girls empowerment and new books.
“We always talk to the schools and the experts before we do anything,” Reiman said.
The origins of the food program started six years ago with the “No Hungry Holidays” initiative, which focused on making sure students continued to have steady hot meals over the two-week Christmas break when they would not be able to rely on school meals.
The girls empowerment program centers around helping provide life skills to girls. The program is currently only in place at Murray Middle School in St. Augustine.
According to national nonprofit First Book, based out of Washington, D.C., roughly 60% of children from underserved communities do not have a single book in their home.
That stat was the reason behind the creation of the new book program.
“Over the years, we’ve donated some pretty substantial brand-new books to school libraries,” Reiman said.
A new school year also coincides with a new era of sorts, as Reiman recently retired from her director position after 11 years and Angie Clarke and Rachel Erickson have taken over the roles of president and vice president, respectively.
“I’m excited about Angie and Rachel and believe they will continue to do great things for this community,” Reiman said.
Erickson started as a volunteer at Hugs Across the County about two and a half years ago with the clothing program.
Referrals for clothes for students primarily come from school guidance counselors.
Shoes sizes four to adult are in high demand this year and the community is asked to keep that in mind when donating.
Residents can get involved by donating either needed supplies or their time by visiting www.stjohnshugs.org and by emailing email@example.com or calling 904-580-4847.
They can also stay up to date by visiting the Hugs Across the County Facebook and Instagram pages, where weekly “wish lists” are shared with items needed and which stores to find them at.
According to Reiman, the roots of Hugs Across the County began in 2010 when a small group of mothers got together, and although they were active in their children’s PTOs, were looking for ways to get back in the classroom setting.
She reached out to Cheryl Freeman, who is the volunteer services/RSVP coordinator with St. Johns County District Schools and was informed that The Webster School needed volunteers.
“Most parents or grandparents are working two jobs and they just don’t have the time to volunteer,” Reiman said. “As we were in the classrooms, we saw firsthand the need that’s out there.”
In 2017, Hugs Across the County became an official nonprofit 501 (c) (3).
“We realized it wasn’t just Webster, but that there were thousands of kids throughout St. Johns County,” Reiman said. “We have kids at every school that are in need.”
Reiman credits all the success and help offered throughout the county over the years to the dedication and willingness to make a difference for the all-volunteer outfit.
“It has always been since day one, a community effort,” Reiman said. “It’s been incredible to see the outpouring of support and the number of people looking out for our youngest neighbors.”