Teen’s ‘gift’ fights hunger

Every Wednesday night, Alexis Dillard loads up backpacks with spaghetti and tortillas, fruit cups and granola bars, rice and beans.

Before she heads home to finish her homework, Alexis, a 17-year-old high school senior in Peachtree City, makes sure the team of volunteers has filled 90 backpacks with a weekend’s worth of food for children.

Last year, Alexis, an AJC Holiday Hero, jumped at the chance to join forces with her mentor, Natalie Hynson, to start a backpack ministry after hearing about children in her community not having enough food over the weekends. They named their charity, Joshua’s Gift.

Each week, dozens of volunteers buy and collect food and meet at Peachtree City Christian Church in Peachtree City (where Alexis’ father is the head minister) to prepare the backpacks. Joshua’s Gift raises enough money to purchase about $800 worth of food every week. Volunteers also drop off the backpacks at three elementary schools in Fayette County. (They use backpacks so the children can take the food assistance home without drawing attention to the charity.)

Alexis and Hynson teamed up after Hynson observed a boy causing trouble at Oak Grove Elementary School in Fayette County, where Hynson volunteers and one of her children attends school.

A teacher asked the boy what was wrong. The child said he was hungry. The teacher explained snack time was in a few minutes.

“And then I heard the boy say, ‘No, I am hungry. Really hungry,’ and it just hit me. I came back to my office and cried,” said Hynson, who runs the preschool ministry at Peachtree City Christian Church. “The child in a classroom next to my daughter does not have enough to eat. I just thought this is crazy.”

At first, she let it go. But after a couple of months, she was struck by an overwhelming urge to do something. She immediately turned to Alexis.

Hynson knew Alexis was full of energy and shared her passion for helping children. Alexis often volunteered at the church preschool. She wanted to be a teacher for children with special needs.

The two researched childhood hunger together and discovered it’s not uncommon for children on free and reduced lunches in public schools to go hungry on the weekends. They stumbled upon troubling statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — about 15 percent of U.S. households lack resources to provide enough food for everybody. The nonprofit Feeding America, a network of more than 200 food banks in the country, estimates one in five children is at risk for hunger.

Alexis and Hynson tapped into their church community for help. Alexis recently helped organize and run a “breakfast with Santa” fundraiser at the church to raise money.

Alexis said running the charity is a lot to juggle, but she’s never wavered in her commitment.

“We just felt like this was something we could do and make a difference,” Alexis said.

Alexis has always been concerned for children, according to her father, George Dillard.

In elementary school, she was always paired with an autistic boy. She connected with the child.

“In third grade, the child had this spell in which he would get very upset and crawl under his desk,” Dillard said. “Alexis would crawl under there with him and not say a word. She would just be with him until he calmed down.”

Because the backpacks are dropped off at the schools, Alexis and Hynson rarely have any contact with the recipients.

But they recently received a letter from a mother who said her husband had been unemployed for months and the food helped her nourish her children during their recent hardship. Hynson drops off a few of the backpacks at homes receiving multiple backpacks and whose children can’t lug all of them on the bus.

Recently, Hynson was running a little late and Alexis went along. When they got to the family’s home, the children’s faces lit up.

“They said, ‘Oh, it’s the nice lady that brings us food,’ ” Alexis recalled. “They said, ‘We love you so much.’ It’s moments like that that make it all worth it.”