Charitable effort to feed hungry children expands into Celebration, maybe Poinciana.

Tom Brannigan founded the Green Bag Project as a small non-profit program to help hungry families, but with strong business support, the program has grown dramatically. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).

CHAMPIONSGATE – A few years ago, Tom Brannigan began visiting some of the middle class and affluent neighborhoods in Northeast Polk County and Northwest Osceola County, showing up at people’s doors with empty green bags, hoping someone would be willing to contribute by putting canned food inside the bags.
The donations weren’t for Brannigan himself, but for local families who have been hard hit by the recession and the collapse of the housing market, and could barely afford to buy food. Brannigan opened his charitable effort, known as the Green Bag Project, in an office at ChampionsGate, and in the past few years has watched it grow considerably, well beyond his modest early efforts.
Today, Green Bag has become successful enough that Brannigan is expanding it, and working to create similar “splinter” projects in what he calls “donor communities,” or communities that have enough well-off families and residents that he sees an opportunity to get more people involved in helping to feed homeless families across the region. He’s working to build partnerships now in Celebration and Solivita, the active adult development on the Polk County side of Poinciana.
“We have what we call splinter groups,” Brannigan said. “And Celebration is a donor community.”
That’s why Brannigan has reached out to residents there to start a new group to work with the Green Bag Project, right in their own back yard, with a focus on the Celebration K-8 Elementary School.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you set up a group called Celebration Cares,’ ” he said.
Like the Green Bag Project, Celebration Cares would work to help feed those in need, particularly children. And it was launched in part because of a recent decision by the Osceola County School District.
“The small group of volunteers working with the Green Bag Project have established a separate non-profit focused on Celebration,” Brannigan said.
One reason he asked the volunteers to get more involved is that this region has become known – primarily through a segment of “60 Minutes” that was broadcast in 2011 – for families so badly hurt by the recession, they’ve been forced to live in local hotel and motel rooms because they could no longer afford a house or apartment. That issue prompted Brannigan to expand Green Bag’s mission, to feed hungry children in Osceola and Polk counties, by adopting local schools like Westside K-8 Elementary School in Four Corners and Loughman Oaks Elementary in Davenport. Green Bag holds fund-raisers to help stock the cafeterias in these schools with extra food, and they also provide backpacks filled with food that the needy students can take home on weekends. As Brannigan noted, some students get virtually all of their meals from their local school.
Last September, the Osceola County School District reassigned 100 children from Westside Elementary to Celebration K- 8, “all of whom live in the extended stay motels,” Brannigan said. “Westside K-8 had too many homeless kids, so they were transferred.”
The term “homeless,” in the view of the state and local school districts, means families without a permanent address. They also referred to officially as “Families in transition.”
That’s when Brannigan reached out to volunteers in Celebration to help feed students at their school.
“The new non-profit has provided all the food needed to these kids, and they have been very successful in raising awareness and money in Celebration,” he said.
Green Bag Project is based at 1503 Legends Drive in ChampionsGate. It started modestly with volunteers dropping off green shopping bags in local neighborhoods, with notes attached asking people to put any spare food they could offer inside it. The bags were collected, and the food was given to local food pantries.
The effort began to grow, and started a Web site with a Paypal account that people could donate to, by logging on to www.green-bag-project.org.
In the past year, Green Bag Project has grown considerably, helped by the fact that a rising number of business organizations and civic groups have signed on to assist Brannigan. The Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, a trade group representing the fast-growing number of vacation homes in Osceola and Polk counties, adopted Green Bag Project as its charitable cause for 2011, urging members to support the non-profit program at each of its monthly meetings.
The Davenport-Four Corners Kiwanis Club has also held fund-raisers in support of Green Bag Project, which helped Brannigan open four summer feeding locations on U.S. 192 in the summer of 2011, as special locations where kids could stop by to get a free lunch while school was out.
The non-profit’s business support continues to increase, Brannigan said. He noted that Dardin Restaurants just awarded the Celebration Cares group a $4,000 grant.
That money is well needed, he said.
“Every Thursday afternoon during the school year, we meet the children arriving on three school buses from Celebration school at the motel drop off location,” Brannigan said. “Some of the parents come out to meet the kids and there are food items given out.”
Brannigan hopes to start a similar splinter group at Solivita in Poinciana, further expanding Green Bag Project’s reach.
“I want to create entities down there, and show them what we do,” he said.
Green Bag also partners with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, which has been sending pre-wrapped food packages to Brannigan. Those packages are given to low income students who may be getting fed at school, but don’t get much food at home over the weekends because their parents have very little money.
Green Bag also has a storage unit at Formosa Gardens shopping plaza on U.S. 192 for warehousing food.

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