ALBANY — Food insecure families whose children are in the Dougherty County School System, as well as unscheduled drop-ins who came looking for food, reaped the first benefits of a grant awarded Albany’s Helping Hands Ending Hunger program Wednesday morning.

The grant, awarded to the Albany-Dougherty Helping Hands program, which distributes mostly unopened but discarded school lunchroom food to students who might not have adequate food in their homes, was awarded to the local program in response to the coronavirus pandemic, officials with Xylem Watermark, a global water technology company, said.

Carla Harward, the CEO of Helping Hands Ending Hunger, which she started in the tiny northwest Georgia Trion community, as well as the Albany chapter’s director, Cathy Revell, were among the two dozen or so volunteers who handed out boxes of food Wednesday morning.

“This grant was specific to the Dougherty County chapter,” Harward said as she oversaw food distribution at the Hope Center on Pine Avenue. “The idea (for use of the grant funds) was to focus on an area that was impacted severely by the coronavirus. Dougherty County is definitely it.

“Studies show that one in three in this region is currently food insecure; the majority of the people in this region need food. Hunger has to be addressed; no child — no one — in this country should go hungry.”

Revell said volunteers like Sherwood Baptist Church Associate Pastor Ken Bevel, Xylem Watermark employees, Feeding the Valley, Sunnyland Farms and Constantine Engineering personnel were among the volunteers who came out Wednesday to distribute boxes of food that included dry goods, meat, produce, cashews and dairy products.

“These volunteers are amazing,” she said. “The principals at the schools in the Dougherty School System notified parents, and these volunteers came out to be a part of what has grown into an amazing program. Everywhere I talk about Helping Hands — at civic club meetings, other schools — I get an overwhelmingly positive response. The Rotary Club of Dougherty County, after I talked with their organization, approved a grant that allowed me to buy appliances that served six (of, currently, 18) schools in the system. We had to have the appliances to have the program in each school.

“All of the food we collect for our Helping Hands program is food that in the past has been trashed because it wasn’t eaten or has been supplied through donations. Two things I can’t stand are children going hungry and waste. We’ve gotten so much milk through this program, we’re able to supply all of our participating students and 24 local nonprofits.”

Revell said the grant from Xylem would allow Helping Hands to continue supplying food to needy students and their families throughout the summer and the coming school year.

“It’s an ongoing project, one that will afford us the opportunity to help our students throughout the school year,” she said. “This (grant) is only going to enhance what we do.

“I’d heard of Helping Hands, and as a retired educator, I knew I wanted to do something. I was literally sitting down with a cup of coffee and said, ‘I’m going to do this.’ As an educator, when you ask some of the kids you teach what they had for dinner the night before and they say, ‘Chips and a soda,’ it’s no wonder they have a difficult time at school. We have to do what we can to help children like that.”

Helping Hands officials say they are in the early stages of expanding the program across Georgia and eventually taking it national.

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