Ben and Candace Curtis’s interest in childhood hunger began four years ago, when they watched a Dateline NBC special that followed an underprivileged family around for a week.
The winner of four PGA Tour events and his wife are parents of 6-year-old Liam and 5-year-old Addie. The television show touched a nerve and opened their eyes.
“These people had to choose between paying their utility bills versus eating. And they had three small children,” Candace said. “The kids were throwing bones in the garbage and the mom was in the trash saying, ‘We can make soup with those bones.’ I thought, ‘I wonder if that’s more of an issue than people are talking about?’ ”
Ben’s breakthrough came with his improbable victory in the 2003 British Open, but the Curtises took their time establishing the Ben Curtis Family Foundation, now awaiting approval by the Internal Revenue Service. The Kent State graduates finally settled on a project in Candace’s hometown of Kent, where they have lived for the past two years after moving from Stow.
On May 24, they held a trial run of their “Ben’s Birdie Bags” program at Holden Elementary School.
The Curtises learned that more than 70 percent of the students at Holden participated in the free or reduced lunch programs, according to Tom Larkin, assistant superintendent of Kent City Schools.
Nearly one in four children in Portage County is “food insecure,” a USDA measurement of regular access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle, according to statistics provided by the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank.
The biggest challenges for these children come on weekends, especially at the end of the month, and during spring break and Christmas. On Mondays, those who are undernourished don’t perform as well in class. So the Curtises enlisted the help of family for the experimental launch of the Birdie Bags, giving out about 230 backpacks filled with enough food to last students through the Memorial Day weekend.
Each child could take home a bag that held canned ravioli, a package of pasta, beef and chicken ramen noodles, microwavable macaroni and cheese, a small box of cereal, two packets of oatmeal, MooMates, Capri Sun drinks and all-natural fruit chews. It also included a $5 voucher for local produce at the Haymaker Farmers’ Market, open year round on Saturdays and located close to Holden.
Judging by the single-page questionnaire included in the bags, the program was a huge success, especially the vouchers, which at least one family used to buy a tomato plant.
The plan for the 2013-14 school year is to distribute Ben’s Birdie Bags at Holden on eight long weekends starting Aug. 30. The Curtises hope that’s just the start.
“In a perfect world we want to do all five elementary schools for every weekend of the school year,” Candace said. “Even if we could go to the high school and the junior high … we’d love to be able to help all of Northeast Ohio as well. I’ve got big hopes, but they keep reining me in.”
Ben said they plan to contact businesses in Kent, including fast food restaurants, to see if they would like to donate or include food coupons.
“We’d love to do all the long weekends, plus the families that are really in need, help them out a little more often,” Ben said at Muirfield Village Golf Club, where he was competing in the Memorial Tournament. “That’s something we’ve got to play by ear and see how the funds come.
“If Taco Bell or McDonald’s throws in a $10 coupon, if they’re the business that steps up, you’re not going to turn them down. At least they’re going to eat.”
Julie Troman just finished her fourth year as principal at Holden Elementary, but started there 20 years ago teaching kindergarten. She’s thankful that the Curtises chose her school, especially since Portage County does not participate in a federally funded backpack program.
“We’ve always known the need was there, we just haven’t had any whole school, large-scale way to address the need before and that’s what this program has been able to do,” Troman said.
“It doesn’t require a parent’s signature, it doesn’t require a form to be filled out or certification through a government agency. If someone takes it and doesn’t need it, we say, ‘Take it, anyway, and give it to a neighbor who needs it.’ We’ve really been able to make it our own without having to wade through mountains of red tape.”
Larkin said the Curtises contacted him last fall about starting their foundation. He pointed them to Holden, which has a much higher number of students on free and reduced lunches than the district average of 42 to 43 percent. In total, 753 children in the Kent system received some kind of subsidy for lunch in 2012-13.
In its infancy, the Birdie Bags program will be run by Candace, her mother Diane Beatty and sister-in-law Sara Beatty. It could turn into a full-time job for Sara, married to Candace’s brother Brett. Sara is reviving the business skills she used while working in human resources for Orlando’s Sea World, where she’d been employed since she was 14, before she and Brett returned to Stow to raise their two children.
Sara attended Holden, but was stunned by the number of children going hungry.
“I knew it wasn’t a wealthy area,” Sara said. “As a kid I would have never known there were that many hungry kids. We definitely weren’t wealthy; my parents had one car. Back then that was kind of normal. But [70 to] 80 percent, that’s bad.”
Just as surprised was Diane Beatty, who used to work at Franklin Elementary. Her husband, Jeff, Candace’s father, also attended Holden.
“I knew there were a lot of kids in the school I was in on free and reduced lunches. I worked in the cafeteria and took the money,” Diane said. “Back then there was a need for it. I’ve never been aware that kids were going hungry over the weekend. It never even entered my mind. Not here.”
The Curtises will try to get the word out before fall, mainly through their website, www.BenCurtisFoundation.org, and a Facebook page.
Nearly everyone has encouraged Candace to start small and watch the program grow. But there is no doubt the Curtises will help children no matter how many weekends the backpacks are sent home.
“We’ve seen communities really come together around these backpack programs for kids,” said Laura Bennett, chief operating officer of the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, which will partner with the Curtises. “It brings to light this horrible occurrence of kids really depending on the school day for their nutritional needs. Even addressing this one school is going to make an impact.”
Larkin marvels that while the Curtises could live in a gated golf community anywhere in the country, they chose to raise their children in Kent.
“That says a lot about them,” Larkin said. “I’ve been very impressed with how humble and genuine they are. They have been blessed with some circumstances, yet they are not losing touch with their roots and what’s important to them.”
Larkin is not the only one who raves about what the couple is doing.
“I love that enthusiasm, I love that energy, I love that giving spirit. There’s so much our kids can learn from people like Ben and Candace who say, ‘We’re in a good place right now, we want everybody to benefit from that,’ ” Troman said. “That’s how great ideas start, when people get excited. If all you do is think about the what-ifs and ‘Well, we can’t do that because,’ you never really get anywhere. A little bit of this is about bravely letting it go and seeing what happens. That’s how change happens, how good things happen for kids.
“I appreciate Candace has got all these great ideas. I don’t want her to lose sight of being so passionate and wanting to change the world. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to change the world.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.