Purpose Prize

Marc Freedman Portrait

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Pam Koner

Purpose Prize Fellow 2015

A former dancer and fashion stylist pairs families with plenty with those with little to reduce hunger in impoverished communities.

I started Family-to-Family in 2002 in response to a New York Times article that described an Illinois community so poor that many houses had dirt floors and children went to bed hungry. Moved by the news piece, and up for a challenge, I got on the phone, called the pastor of the church mentioned in the article and asked what the community needed. He said: Food. I contacted my neighbors and suggested each of us adopt a family. I asked FedEx if they would ship packed food boxes and they agreed…for free! Each of us were assigned one of 17 needy families to shop for each month.

The Times wrote about our effort, and after that, I was inundated with requests from people who wanted to help. One woman worked in nonprofits; another was an HR guy. We formed a little group, and then formed Family-to-Family. Two years later, the 17 families had grown to 60 donor families linked to 60 recipient families across the U.S. Today our Sponsor A Family program has over 350 recipient families linked to 350 donor families.

F-to-F seeks to address two key issues: Poverty in our country – 46 million Americans live in food-insecure households, including nearly 15 million children – and a growing lack of empathy towards those less fortunate than ourselves.

  • Provides close to 20,000 meals each month to roughly 425 struggling families in 27 American communities in 18 states. 
  • To date, the group’s hunger-relief programs have provided 3.6 million meals. 
  • Since 2010, children in Family-to-Family’s Kids Can! food drive program have donated more than 33,000 canned or boxed food items to food pantries.

In our core program, donors are responsible for either shopping, packing and sending a monthly carton of non-perishable groceries (enough for seven dinners) to their sponsored family once a month or donating $35 each month for a grocery store gift card for “their” family in need. We encourage donors to reach out to families with letters and messages.

While the focus of our work is assisting those in need, it includes embedding compassion and generosity into the lives of children, especially as our nation becomes more polarized between the “haves” and the “have nots.” We encourage parents and children to shop for the food items or gift cards together, and encourage the children to become pen pals. We also encourage them to participate in school canned food drives.

After basic hunger is addressed, moving the literacy rate up is key to lifting youngsters out of poverty. Our primary literacy program, One Book At A Time matches donors with low-income children who love to read. Donors send one book plus a letter to their matched child once a month for a year. Children are identified for this program by their teacher or after school program. The program encourages reading and fosters writing skills. (The kids write back.)

Children in struggling families can also benefit by giving to others, gaining feelings of empowerment and self-worth by making a difference and belonging to a community. So we developed a school-based food drive that asks children to support their local food pantry by bringing in just one can of food. We also have a literacy program that permits low-income older kids to share (donated) books with younger children: They sit and read together, and then, surprise the youngsters with the news that the books are theirs to keep.

I have been lucky to have had multiple careers as a dancer and fashion stylist, two wonderful daughters, a supportive husband and financial stability in my life. I am truly grateful for all of it – but it has been my Family-to-Family program that has transformed me…stretched me and rewarded me with patience, empathy and acceptance.