Sweet Charity: Bake for a Cause

Millions of families in this country struggle to put food on the table. Meet some moms who joined the Great American Bake Sale and found that cookies and compassion can really make a difference.
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Leah Fasten

Sweet Charity

Jeanette Bonham, 53, considered herself blessed. She grew up in a close-knit family and traveled the world with her father, an Air Force sergeant, before settling in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She married her high school sweetheart at 18, moved to North Carolina and became pregnant within a year. Then her happiness began to unravel. Her husband couldn't find a job, leaving Jeanette, who was working 16 hours a day at a carpet mill, to support them both. After their son, Phillip, was born, her husband moved out-and never returned. Because of cutbacks at work, Jeanette's hours were slashed by more than half. Unable to feed herself and her newborn, she applied to the federal WIC program, which gives food to low-income women, children and infants up to age 5. "I felt like a failure," recalls Jeanette. "It wasn't the life I wanted for either of us." After struggling for 18 months, she moved in with her parents and got a clerking job. Five years later she was financially secure enough to move out on her own and start anew.

Jeanette was able to turn things around. But for many others, hunger remains a fact of daily life. More than 11 million Americans-including 430,000 children-frequently skip meals or eat too little. An additional 25 million people are so poor they must subsist on low-quality diets or resort to food stamps and handouts. And the ranks of the needy are growing. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a group representing 1,139 cities with populations of 30,000 or more, requests for food aid have increased 10% in the last year.

Charities like churches, soup kitchens and food banks are struggling to fill the gap. America's Second Harvest, the largest hunger relief network in the U.S., has seen a boost in corporate and private donations, but that has been outstripped by increasing demand at its pantries and food banks. "This is a critical time in the fight against hunger," says CEO Vicki Escarra. "To end the epidemic, we need more people to contribute in any way they can."

Which is why Jeanette Bonham has been working with the national nonprofit Share Our Strength (SOS). In 1996 she joined up with the group's Taste of the Nation program by getting restaurants in Portsmouth and the surrounding communities to raise money for local organizations that feed hungry children. In 2006 Jeanette helped stage a benefit that collected $10,000 for SOS's Operation Frontline, which teaches families how to prepare healthy meals. "Volunteering is fuel for my soul," says Jeanette. She urges all moms to do the same and can't think of a better way to start than by hosting a Great American Bake Sale. "It helps raise money but also awareness," says Jeanette. "I wouldn't change a thing I went through because it has made me who I am today. Now I'm paying it forward. You can too."

"Chalk It Up to Teen Spirit"

Four years ago Diane DeMaio-Feldman, a working mother of three, had never so much as cracked an egg for a school or community bake sale. These days she helps organize about a dozen cupcake-and-cookie fundraisers every year at sports games, block parties and festivals. How did she become such a pro? "I can't take credit," says Diane, 48, a cognitive rehabilitation therapist. "That goes to my son, Daniel. He's only 17, but he's accomplished amazing things."

As a preschooler, Daniel was already whipping up treats for the family in his Easy-Bake Oven, and at the tender age of 10 he won top prize at his first 4-H baking competition. In the spring of 2004 the 13-year-old was surfing the Web when he saw an application for Share Our Strength, which was holding an essay contest about the importance of ending childhood hunger in America. "Before that, whenever I thought of people without enough food, I pictured kids in Africa," he says. "I couldn't believe there might be hungry children right in my own classroom."

Daniel was one of 10 winners. He attended a Great American Bake Sale (GABS) camp in Minneapolis that June, where he learned about holding a successful event to raise money for food banks and other relief efforts. "I came out of there convinced I could make a difference," recalls Daniel, who was determined to pull off his first fundraiser in July. "I didn't tell him of course, but I was a little concerned," says Diane. "After all, we had zero experience doing something like this, and I didn't know what to expect."

She needn't have worried. Following the GABS guidelines to the letter, Daniel got friends and family-including sisters Amanda, then 16, and Stephanie, 15-to create and distribute flyers advertising the sale. They wrote letters and made phone calls asking for donations from grocery stores, bakeries and banks. Daniel contacted the mayor of nearby Ocean City, who gave permission to hold the fundraiser on a prime piece of real estate-the New Jersey boardwalk. Then he stayed up almost all night baking, churning out 200 oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies, 140 brownie pops, 75 Rice Krispies Treats and dozens of cupcakes. On the big day the munchies sold out in just four hours, netting more than $2,000.

Daniel didn't stop there. In 2005 he helped found Kids Feeding Kids, a division of Peer Partners, a nationwide youth volunteer organization. He collects canned goods and puts in several hours a month at a community food bank. Plus he's still going all out for GABS, holding four to six bake sales a year. It's become a real family affair. Stephanie, a freshman at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, helps package goods, while Amanda, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, does accounting. Dad Steve, 57, a criminal defense attorney, delivers supplies, while Diane works as general manager and traffic cop, making sure everything runs smoothly.

So far Daniel, now a junior at Mainland Regional High School, has raised approximately $33,000 for GABS-and has become a kind of local hero. Neighbors smile when they hear his familiar sales pitch ("Buy a cookie, feed a child!") and see him handing out free treats to kids who can't afford them. He's also spoken at Share Our Strength conferences in New Orleans, New York and Washington, D.C. "Doing all this has helped him become a good thinker and problem solver," says Diane. "He hits an obstacle, figures things out and keeps knocking on doors until he gets results. I couldn't be more proud." Daniel, too, is grateful for the gifts he's gotten from his work with GABS. "It's brought me closer to my family-and has made me more compassionate," he says. "It's a great feeling knowing I've helped kids in our community have a better life. After all, they're part of my future."

"If I Can Do It, Anybody Can"

Terri Henry, 32, hasn't strayed far from her roots. She lives just three blocks from the charming brick house where she was born and raised. Her parents are still there, and her sister, Toni, lives right across the street. And she's never forgotten the sad stories she heard as a child about how her father grew up poor and hungry in nearby Wrightsville. He made sure his daughters always had food on the table, and Terri is grateful that her own girls, Emmeline, 5, and Delaney, 8 months, have everything they need. A busy stay-at-home mom, she did what she could to help feed the needy by donating to Share Our Strength, but she never thought she had the time-or ability-to do something on her own. "I was the kind of person who liked to stay in the background," she says. "Confident is not a word I would've used to describe myself."

But when Terri first learned about the Great American Bake Sale while watching TV last June something clicked. "A lightbulb went off, and I realized I could handle this-as long as I didn't do any of the baking," she recalls. "I went to my calendar in the kitchen and picked a date three weeks later. I can't explain it, but I knew exactly what to do." She e-mailed family as well as longtime friends and neighbors for help. Doing research on the Internet, she picked up tips on what sold best, including items donated by celebrities or, say, a pan of brownies instead of single servings. "The ideas wouldn't stop coming," says Terri. "So I wrote them all down in what I called my brain book."

Her passion started a daisy chain of giving. News of the sale quickly spread by word of mouth. Her husband, George, 36, who works as a river pilot, contributed money for packaging and advertising. Even better, he got Savannah's resident food star, Paula Deen, to donate 18 of her cakes and Deen's husband and brother to chip in autographed cans of coffee, pound cakes and pecan pies. On the day of the sale, which was held in a hardware store parking lot, Toni helped pick up last-minute baked goods donated by local businesses. Terri's mom schmoozed with customers, and sister-in-law Lauren worked the cash box. They had barely finished setting up for the sale when a man generously offered $300 for a pan of cupcakes and a Paula Deen cake. An ice cream vendor nearby decided to hand over all of his earnings for that day. The event raised $4,300, and an online fundraiser that Terri held the same day brought in an additional $3,000 in donations. For good measure, the leftovers were given to a summer camp for underprivileged kids. "What can I say? The whole thing was just magical," says Terri.

It also did wonders for her sense of self. Last August Terri bought a house in the neighborhood, hired contractors and oversaw renovations, then flipped it for a tidy little profit-all within two months. She also volunteered to work at the Talahi Island Community Center, where she and her siblings had gone when they were young. During last December's elections Terri was voted in as speaker and now presides over the center's monthly council meetings. "I would never have had the self-assurance to do all this before the bake sale," she says. "Now I realize I can pursue the things I believe in and that I really have something to offer to people in need."

As for her upcoming sale this summer, she's setting her sights higher, with a fundraising target of $10,000. "Since the majority of GABS money stays within the state, I can really make an impact here at home," she says. "My little part of Savannah can become a better place for families to live, work and play."

"Baking Together Has Brought My Family Closer"

Gail Fitzpatrick's twins, Caitlin and Dylan, are only 6 years old, but they can make an herb-crusted pork loin, apple galette and a mean marshmallow fudge. They do need a little help from mom and their teachers at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op, where they've been taking cooking classes for two years. "I first took Dylan there for a special one-on-one day with me," says Gail, 40, a family therapist. "Then Caitlin had her turn, and they both loved it so much that all of us-me, my husband, Jerry, and the twins-signed up."

Food and family has always held special meaning for Gail. "I remember the dishes my stepdad made for me," she says. "I asked him for the recipes before he died, and making them for the kids is one way we keep a connection with him." She knows how fortunate they are to have such traditions. In her job she's worked with families struggling with poverty and hunger. She read about the Great American Bake Sale in a magazine in the fall of 2005 and she knew she'd found a way to help. "But then I thought, How am I going to pull this off with the twins to look after?" she recalls.

The answer: by keeping it small and simple. She got permission to set up shop at a holiday sale being held by a parenting club that November. Gail did the baking, Dylan and Caitlin helped bag the goodies, and Jerry, who works at a billing company, played cashier. The take was a modest $200, but the day was a hit with the twins, who talked about it for months afterward.

By the time Gail organized a second event, in 2007, Dylan and Caitlin had lots of ideas. Scratch the Boston cream cupcakes-the filling didn't hold up. Make more quick breads, which are easy to freeze. They spent five hours in the kitchen with mom, measuring, stirring, beating. "It's fun because we get to make things and eat them too," says Caitlin. The twins adapted a recipe and came up with what's now their signature creation-sushi rolls made of Rice Krispies treats and gummy fish. "It's delicious but not nutritious," says Dylan. "But that's okay because we're selling it so people can get good food."

The twins are already prepping the kitchen for their bake sale this month. And Gail is looking forward to another fun family night dusted in flour. "The sales give us more time and laughs together," she says. "And they're a great lesson in giving. The twins understand that we're one family doing something small, but a lot of people doing the same adds up to something very powerful."

For more info on how to register your own bake sale event and to receive a free bake sale starter kit, log on to: greatamericanbakesale.org

Copyright &copy 2008. Used with permission from the May 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.