The first day of school is coming up fast, and Barb Mains and her dedicated band of volunteers at Help 4 Kids have turned their focus to backpacks, clothing, school supplies and weekend meals for children. "We're going to do 1,000 a week," Mains says, talking about the meals placed in the backpacks of children who otherwise might face a weekend of hunger. "We did that many at the end of last year," having started the 2009-10 school year with 548 backpack meals a week.
The number grew when Backpack Buddies meals were added at North Myrtle Beach Primary and Elementary school buildings. Over the summer, Help 4 Kids fed 900 children, up from 600 children last summer. A stunning number of students in Horry County Schools are from poverty-stricken families, according to HCS data, and 612 were identified as homeless the past school year. Mains has seen the same troubling situation reported by veteran directors of area food pantries and other basic needs nonprofits: "When the economy went down, we started helping people who had been helping us." She and her counterparts are talking about hard-working folks who manage to survive on low-paying jobs, but are in a world of hurt when they lose the job. "I see people every week who don't know where their next meal is coming from or the gas to get to work," Mains says.
Help 4 Kids started after Hurricane Hugo in September 1989 when Mains, her sister Aileen Page and Lee Dougherty "went out to do some volunteer work." Then, for ten of the interim years, Mains' organization was part of SOS Health Care. Since 2009, Help 4 Kids has been one of the community partners of the United Way of Horry County. Help 4 Kids received a United Way allocation of $20,000 for the 2010-11 fiscal year, the same number as the previous year, Mains says. The food for the backpack meals will cost $1,200 a week. Help 4 Kids has a total annual budget of $250,000.
Mains is rightly proud that Help 4 Kids is purely volunteer. No one receives a salary or reimbursement for gas or other expenses. She is also proud of her 100 volunteers, several of whom have been with her for 20 or more years. Mains jokes that being a Help 4 Kids volunteer "is like the Mafia . . . once you get in you don't get out 'til you die." One of the regular volunteers is the director's husband, Toby Mains.
It's the children being helped that keeps them going. "All you have to do is see the looks on the kids' faces," says Barbara Ogram, a volunteer for at least 20 years. In addition to the weekend meals, Help 4 Kids provides clothes, shoes, school supplies all year and backpacks with supplies at the start of school. Mains depends on churches, Sunday School classes, service clubs and individuals for financial support. As one example, the Rotary Club of Little River sponsors backpack meals at Loris and North Myrtle Beach elementary schools.
"The truth is, we use what we get," Mains says, whether individuals' checks or donations of backpacks from a group. "We never get extra ... we always get enough to do what we need to do. We have a lot of faith."