Local volunteers meet students’ critical needs

Hugs St. Johns makes sure children get clothing, food and more

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St. Johns County, according to most criteria, is the most affluent county in Florida. Yet, even here, 8.2% of minors live below the poverty line.

In fact, about 800 students in the county are technically homeless, according to federal guidelines established by the McKinney-Vento Act.

These students are identified through the school district’s Aid and Support for Students in Sudden Transition (ASSIST) program so that district staff can assess their needs, according to Michael Israel, the district’s homeless liaison.

“One of the many high-priority needs of the identified students is a need for clothing and hygiene supplies,” Israel said.

Fortunately, for more than a decade, a group of volunteers has been at the forefront of local efforts to meet those needs.

Alternately known as Hugs St. Johns and Hugs Across The County, this nonprofit maintains a 2,000-square-foot storage space filled with clothing, shoes, socks, underwear, toiletries and school supplies. When a school counselor makes a request via the Hugs website, volunteers gather up the items and deliver them to the school. Sizes and color preferences are noted, and students are given a week’s worth of outfits.

Last year, the Hugs volunteers packed about 500 large bags for delivery. The bags were dropped off at nearly every public school in the county, and not just Title I schools. Deliveries were made in Ponte Vedra and Fruit Cove, as well.

But clothes are not all the group provides. And schools are not the only places they deliver.

The boy who limped

Brette Reiman founded Hugs in 2009 with a small group of volunteers who traveled twice a week to Webster Elementary, a Title I school in St. Augustine, to help in the classroom.

There, they quickly discovered that many of the students needed clothing and other items.

But it was a first-grader who really inspired them to act.

The boy had been limping for months, and no one knew why. Then, someone suggested checking the size of his shoes. It turned out they were two sizes too small — his family did not have the means to buy him a new pair.

So, the volunteers ran out to Walmart and bought him shoes in the right size.

From there, the group began purchasing items for other students in need and soon learned that this need was not limited to Webster Elementary. It existed through the county.

That’s when Reiman established the nonprofit. Clothing was stored in her garage, but soon the volume exceeded the available space and Hugs rented a pair of storage units. Then, in 2020, the group found a warehouse large enough to accommodate its growing stock.

Full stomachs and more

In addition to providing clothing, the nonprofit restocks food pantries at 13 schools each month.

These were created at the request of a principal who, out of her own pocket, had been providing food to students as they left for the bus every afternoon; she knew that they didn’t have food at home to eat.

Another way Hugs St. Johns looks after students’ dietary needs has been its No Hungry Holidays program, which provides 10 days of breakfasts and lunches over the winter break. That program has grown to where it now serves about 1,200 students each December at schools throughout the district — including more than 100 students from the Ponte Vedra area.

“Food insecurity is very real throughout St. Johns County,” said Reiman.

In addition to its food and clothing efforts, Hugs St. Johns offers a girls’ empowerment lunch-and-learn program at Murray Middle School and a summer reading program with high school volunteers who visit three locations in underserved communities to read to the kids.

It has also expanded its services beyond schools to help children at the Betty Griffin Center, a domestic violence shelter in St. Augustine.

“A lot of times when families are fleeing domestic violence, they leave their belongings behind,” said Jessica Gamble, Betty Griffin Center children’s advocate. “The emergency clothing bags from Hugs ease the difficult transition into shelter by meeting some of their basic needs and giving that family one less thing to worry about.”

Gamble said Hugs has even assisted with school uniforms, dance leotards and football cleats.

“Their help goes beyond clothing, though,” she said. “Anytime we need anything for one of our kids, they do whatever they can to help us. They have donated Christmas presents, snacks, school supplies, toiletries, board games, books and so much more.”

Volunteers and donations

A few years ago, Karen Burke of Ponte Vedra began donating items on the Hugs wish list. Soon, she began to volunteer as a delivery driver, and the experience was an eye-opener.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I went places in the county, and I was like, ‘I didn’t even know these places existed.’”

Today, she is the nonprofit’s clothing coordinator and heads a team of volunteers who keep the donated apparel organized and see to its distribution. But more help is always welcome. Hugs St. Johns posts a list of donations it needs and hours that volunteers are needed on social media.

“I am always, always, always looking for volunteers, and also I’m always looking for donations of gently used or new clothing to help keep our shelves stocked,” Burke said.

Some clothes come through neighborhood clothing drives. Others are simply singular donations. The sizes can be infant to adult. But they must meet a minimum standard of quality.

“As long as they’re clean and no rips, no stains — anything that I would want to send my kids to school in, we’ll take that stuff,” Burke said.

In addition to ordinary clothing donations, some people purchase apparel from the organization’s Amazon wish list. Others donate money.

Reiman praised Burke for her conscientiousness.

“She packs those clothing bags for kids as if they were her own children,” Reiman said.

Israel has seen firsthand how this personal touch has benefitted the students.

“The thoughtfulness, care and concern are definitely shown in each package that a student receives,” he said. “The sense of pride that our identified students have when they can put on a fresh set of clothing items each day in invaluable.”

“Hugs is an amazing organization filled with amazing people, and we are beyond grateful for all they do for us and our families at Betty Griffin Center,” said Gamble.

Reiman extends her praise to the community.

“I cannot state enough that we would not have been able to do what we do and grow the way that we have grown without the absolutely incredible community support from so many people throughout St. Johns County,” she said.

To learn more about the organization, including ways to volunteer and donate, go to stjohnshugs.org. Social media sites include: twitter.com/StJohnsCoHugs, instagram.com/stjohnshugs and facebook.com/HugsStJohns.

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