Kid-fueled nonprofit I Heart Hungry Kids is growing up
by: Lauren B. Johnson
How the nonprofit started by three young brothers addresses childhood hunger
I Heart Hungry Kids—founded by brothers Jackson, Gabe, and Riley Silverman—works to address childhood hunger through service, community outreach, and advocacy.
As children, we’re taught to use the buddy system, share with others, and lend a helping hand. No one would expect these simple preschool lessons might apply to the complexities of the local childhood hunger crisis. But, sometimes, the most straightforward ideas can make the biggest difference.
When he was seven years old, Jackson Silverman learned that 16,000 kids go hungry each weekend in Charleston County. Having watched his mother serve at the Lowcountry Food Bank, the determined boy decided he wanted to contribute. At the time, the charity lacked opportunities for kids, so Jackson cooked up the idea for a peer-to-peer program connecting young do-gooders with the food bank’s BackPack Buddies initiative. Jackson—along with his twin brothers, Gabe and Riley—jumpstarted I Heart Hungry Kids in 2013 with the help of a $500 grant from food services giant Sodexo.
Since its founding, the focus of this kid-operated nonprofit has been on the packing parties—energetic gatherings of 135 child volunteers who assemble bags of foodstuffs. BackPack Buddies then distributes the meal kits to Title One schools in the Tricounty area each Friday. As the face of I Heart Hungry Kids’ hands-on service opportunities, Jackson kicks off each party with a welcome speech explaining the day’s mission—over the years, he’s become quite a public speaker, delivering a TED talk at the age of 11 and, later this month, a PechaKucha presentation with his brothers.
After firing up the crowd, Jackson turns the stage over to DJ Gabe, who spins high-tempo beats, while Riley hits the kitchen with a nutritionist to fuel the volunteer force with healthy snacks. The energy is palpable as kids dance down the assembly line of nonperishables. “These kids are motivated to work hard, knowing the next child who touches the bag is someone in need,” says the boys’ mom, Tiffany.
Jackson, now 14, and Gabe and Riley, now 12, have grown up alongside the nonprofit. The boys plan to host four packing parties in 2020 as well as explore the areas of philanthropy most meaningful to them. Jackson, a high-school freshman, recently collected more than 3,000 pounds of canned food for James Island Outreach for his Eagle Scout project. Riley is a grower for Katie’s Krops, tending three school garden beds to donate his harvest directly to shelters and food banks. He also heads up a fight against school lunch debt with an effort dubbed Catch Up on Lunch. During the past year, the project has paid four local schools’ debts, reducing the Tricounty’s $600,000 lunch tab by $25,000. Gabe is focused on community outreach through canned food drives, raising awareness, and fundraising events.
Josh, the boys’ dad, says helping others can be a part of a child’s life from a very young age. Tiffany adds, “Our most important job is to help our children become men of character and substance. We’re planting seeds now for a lifetime of service.”
This past April, I Heart Hungry Kids was chosen to be the charitable beneficiary of an amazing art exhibition entitled Fortunate. Held at the Vendue Hotel in downtown Charleston and organized by hotel staff in partnership with the Robert Lange Studios, the show was a huge success both artistically and as a fundraising event.
Recently, Post and Courier writer Maura Hogan published an article discussing the rise of art hotels in Charleston as an alternative venue for exhibitions, and featured Fortunate in their coverage. Below is an excerpt of that article:
Charleston won’t stop building new hotels. That could be a good thing for local artists.
By Maura Hogan, email@example.com
August 10, 2019
On the main floor of The Vendue hotel, there is a giant Zoltar fortune-telling machine tucked into a corner. Enthusiasts of the movie “Big” may recall a similar one from the scene in which a young boy makes a wish with a carnival Zoltar to be big. He is thus transformed into a grown-up, played by Tom Hanks, who retains his childlike wonder.
The turban-topped figure encased in glass at The Vendue produces fortunes for a dollar. The merry machine is part of “Fortunate,” the hotel’s current exhibit of 30 commissioned works that are each inspired by the prophetic slip of paper found within a fortune cookie.
On a recent afternoon, Vendue guests laughingly extracted their Zoltar fortunes, resulting in a lively scene that seemed in marked contrast from a standard hotel lobby tone of unassuming patrons sipping drinks and studying maps.
Zoltar achieves more than that, too. A percentage of the proceeds from the art sales and the fortune machine are going to a local charity, I Heart Hungry Kids, which provides lunches to local schoolchildren who are in need of them, among many other initiatives.
What’s more, by disabling the invisible fence between residents and visitors, businesses and artists, The Vendue and similarly arts-supportive hotels offer a prism into the civic potential of our ever-proliferating hospitality sector. Existing and planned properties can — and should — interact with the community in meaningful, mutually beneficial ways. Arts programs are but one illustrative example of that.
In 2012, when Jonathan Weitz of Avocet Hospitality acquired The Vendue, he struck upon the idea to highlight art as the hotel’s point of distinction, informed by the hotel’s gallery-dense French Quarter neighborhood.
“At that point, no one was really focused on the art side of it,” said Weitz, who began his research by checking out 21c Museum Hotel, the visionary boutique art hotel collection based in Louisville, Ky., that has now expanded to places like Durham, N.C., Nashville, Tenn., and Cincinnati.
“We’ve allowed the Charleston arts community to determine what The Vendue is going to look like, show by show,” said Weitz, adding that 16 guest rooms are each dedicated to a specific artist.
This interface between business and art is significant enough that the national nonprofit arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts has initiated its pARTnership Movementprogram to promote such practices. The group’s 2018 survey of the corporate practices of 132 small, mid-size and large U.S. businesses determined that 79 percent of businesses believe the arts improve the quality of life in the community. Its website offers examples of businesses that have done so, including hotels.