Here to help: The Kind Mouse is on a mission to help families with food insecurity
Gina Wilkins knows sometimes small acts of kindness reap the biggest rewards. In 2012, Wilkins’ work as a self-employed, certified, architectural draftsman was hit hard by the recession. But it was nothing compared to the struggles faced by her friends in the business, the contractors and craftsmen she interacted with daily.
As she explains, “A lot of my contractors were down and out, their wives were working with them and they simply lost everything. I’d get phone calls in the middle of the night, hardworking professionals who were desperate, depleting their children’s college savings to stay afloat, wondering how they would feed their families.”
At the same time, Wilkins’ husband, a photojournalist, joined the production for a 60 Minutes special, “Hard Times Generation, Homeless Kids” highlighting the slide into poverty facing the middle class in Seminole County, the highest drop witnessed across America since the Great Depression. The night the program aired, Wilkins couldn’t sleep.
“I just knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what. My mind kept going around in circles,” she says.
The next morning, May 2012, she launched the Kind Mouse, a Pinellas County nonprofit organization assisting families and children with food insecurity. The Kind Mouse just celebrated its ninth anniversary. As Wilkins explains, “we started off feeding five homeless children, and now we’ve served over half a million meals.”
The key, according to Wilkins, is to galvanize many small efforts into big action.
Her first effort was to reach out to local agencies to form partnerships with those on the front lines of childcare: schools, the local police and sheriff’s departments, or existing organizations working with vulnerable populations. But from the very beginning, Wilkins was determined to make the Kind Mouse a community effort by engaging more fortunate children to lend their hands as volunteers, children helping other children, or as Wilkins describes “an army of mice.”
“That’s the thing that makes the Kind Mouse different,” explains Wilkins. “Yes, we’ll always feed children, we make that clear. But to me, children shouldn’t feel like they are part of some problem. They can be part of the solution. So, I realized we needed to develop an educational program where they could take charge.”
From Mice in Training (ages 5-12) to Mouse Interns (13 and older), Wilkins and her team guide the children volunteers on all aspects of philanthropic work.
“The children learn how to run a nonprofit, how to navigate and lead a board meeting but they also help with the practical, and public, side of packing or dating the food, and going into the schools and teaching by example,” Wilkins adds. “I felt that I could go and talk with third graders and stand on my head while trying to share my knowledge but they’re not really going to hear me. But take a third-grader talking to another third-grader and they’re going to listen.”
A recent Kind Mouse initiative added a media production company, to give the volunteers experience on the public relations side as well. “We now have our own in-house video production company called MouseVision,” Wilkins says, “which the kids run, 100%. They shoot, they edit, they produce.”
For any of the Kind Mouse programs, volunteers must sign a one-year commitment to participate, and parent interaction—especially with the younger volunteers—is expected.
It’s a system that obviously works, bringing a small community together, led by the children volunteers, to make sure no child goes hungry. The Kind Mouse is coming off a year of increased need with the COVID-19 pandemic but they met the challenge with creative solutions. Wilkins describes how children volunteers worked from home, packing and dating food, writing thank-you letters and preparing speeches, while their partner agencies—now more than 30—tirelessly worked to get the increased allotments of food into needy tummies. One favorite memory from last year was using a food truck, for a month of Fridays, to deliver hot meals to waiting families.
“We just had to really think outside the box,” Wilkins said, “but mission accomplished, as we met the increased demand.” Approaching a decade of service, the Kind Mouse powers ahead with a new initiative, Baby Mouse Nibbles, focused on care-bags for infants and babies in foster care.
In these years of increased food insecurity, the Kind Mouse is gearing up for another successful MouseQuerade, their annual benefit and celebration of their children volunteers, held annually at the Kapok Tree. Described as “a festive night benefitting the children we serve,” this year’s event is Aug. 21. There are many ways to help make the night a success, from attending, donating or purchasing a ticket for one of the many mice volunteers and partners to attend.
“The kids are magical, and it’s a fun night to celebrate their hard work. If you want to learn about our kids’ programs and what they’re doing to support needy children, MouseQuerade is amazing. It’s eye-opening, and our chance to show how proud we are of them throughout the year,” Wilkins says. ♦