Image courtesy of Hope Empowerment Project.

In Pennsylvania, half a million kids — 19.3 percent of the state’s population — begin their day not knowing whether they’ll be fed.

The term experts use is “food insecurity.” It can mean going to bed hungry and going to school hungry the next day. It can mean lacking nutrients the kids haven’t learned names for yet and it can impact everything from their health and their behavior to their ability to learn.

Christina McGuire and her two daughters, 15 and 5, spent time last year living in a homeless shelter. Today, they’re glad to be living in their own apartment in Duquesne but they still struggle to make ends meet. They feel fortunate to have found life-changing assistance through the Hope Empowerment Project (H.E.P.), which is based in their community.

The core of H.E.P.’s work is the Backpack Feeding Program: On Friday mornings, children at Duquesne-area schools who are enrolled in the state-wide free or reduced-price meal program take home a bag packed with non-perishable, staple foods.

It contains three pieces of fresh fruit and enough fixings —such as a box of mac-and-cheese, granola bars and cereal — to get them through the weekend.

In impoverished communities, “families struggle to pay their light bill or put food on the table,” says H.E.P.’s executive director Nicole McClain. So this little bag of groceries can make a difference.

“If I can provide a meal or two per month,” McClain says, “that can bridge the gaps for these families.”

Now, thanks to a $15,000 Small and Mighty grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation, McClain is poised to assist even more children and their families.

“Food is a basic need,” says Michelle McMurray, senior program officer of health and human services at The Pittsburgh Foundation. “Hope Empowerment Project’s food insecurity program impacts everything from health to school readiness. Allowing them to expand that program provides supplemental meals for families and ensures strong social ties among community members.”

Hope Empowerment Project logo, courtesy of H.E.P.

H.E.P. personifies the “small and mighty” moniker.

McClain operates the organization on a shoestring budget of $86,775 a year with the help of two staff members. She also has help from a lean but dedicated group of volunteers who do everything from packing bags of food to cooking meals for their neighbors in Duquesne.

“One benefit of small nonprofits is that they’re often run by people who live in — and have ties to — the communities where they operate,” says McMurray. “We want to emphasize that even in communities impacted by economic inequality, there are a lot of strengths there.”

The Small and Mighty initiative is based on research that found that smaller nonprofits represent two-thirds of the region’s nonprofit sector, but are a comparatively small proportion of funded projects in The Pittsburgh Foundation’s portfolio.

The majority of these organizations are new to getting funds from a large foundation: 80 percent of the organizations that have applied to the program made their first contact with the foundation through Small and Mighty.

To date, the initiative has awarded $538,000 in grants to 40 nonprofit organizations that operate with budgets of less than $600,000.

This $15,000 grant will increase the number of families in Duquesne-area schools who can receive the food backpacks on Friday and move McClain closer to her goal of feeding elementary school students throughout the Mon Valley.

For the kids in Duquesne, the impact of H.E.P.’s program has been more than just nutritional. The kids — and their peers — are excited and intrigued when the bags are distributed each week, says McClain. She is gratified to see their faces when they receive the bags.

“It really warms my heart to know that somebody is getting that bag who really depends on it,” she says.

In addition to the Community Meals and Backpack Feeding programs, H.E.P. offers emergency assistance and scholarships. They host job readiness workshops and charitable events, including an annual hat and sock drive. The organization also helps reintegrate high school-aged boys with juvenile detention placements back into the school system. A mentoring program is in the works.

Christina McGuire is glad to see H.E.P. growing and receiving this funding. But after her family’s positive experience with the organization, she isn’t surprised that McClain’s work is drawing this new level of support.

“People are attracted to Nicole because of her heart,” McGuire says.

Beyond help with an occasional meal, McClain “made sure my babies had coats and hats,” she says. “Nicole has always looked out for me, and I know she’s someone I can call on for help.”

Emily Stimmel

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. Today, she is a freelance writer with a decade and a half of experience in non-profit communications. She enjoys cooking, reading, crafting and exploring Pittsburgh with her husband and two sons.