Pam Koner was reading the Sunday newspaper on her deck in 2002 when she spotted a photograph of a girl sitting on a filthy mattress, eating her one meal of the day—pasta with chicken neck bones. A story accompanying the photograph described one of the nation’s poorest places: Pembroke, a township in Kankakee County, Ill.
What moved Koner most was learning that at the end of each month, the shelves of the only local food pantry, in Hopkins Park, Ill. (pop. 711), were empty and some families barely had enough to eat. “When I walked off my deck that day, I said, ‘I’ve got to do something,’” recalls Koner, 54, owner and director of several creative arts-based childcare programs in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. (pop. 7,648).
It didn’t take long for Koner to figure out a way to help. She called the pastor of the Church of the Cross, which runs the food pantry in Hopkins Park, and pitched her idea. “I said, ‘What if I have families in my community adopt families in yours and send them one week of food when the food pantry’s empty?’
“I’m the mother of adopted children,” she added, referring to her girls, Olivia, 18, and Chloe, 15. “To me, the word adoption means ‘to make families.’ “
Within a few weeks, Koner had the names of 17 families in Pembroke Township willing to be adopted, and she recruited neighbors and friends in her hometown to serve as donors. Within a month, she had linked 34 families, and the Family-to-Family program was born.
Today, through word of mouth and media coverage, the program has grown to more than 475 donor families who send monthly food parcels to 475 recipient families in 13 communities in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Louisiana, South Dakota and West Virginia. “Our mission is to have 20 communities by next year,” Koner says.
Each month, donor families log on to her website—www.family-to-family.com—to access their monthly shopping lists, which includes items such as soup, pasta, tuna fish and other pre-packaged food. In addition to food, the program encourages donors to send other needed items, such as over-the-counter medications, sheets, towels, clothing and back-to-school supplies. The monthly cost per donor family averages $35 to $40. Federal Express ships more than 500 Family-to-Family food packages free of charge each month.
Lori Ratner of Stamford, Conn., has been involved with Family-to-Family for almost two years. “Without doing much, you’re doing so much,” Ratner says. “It’s had a big impact, not only on myself, but also on my husband and my four kids. It shows them you can give in more ways than just giving money, and it shows them the little things do make a difference.”
Koner acknowledges it takes time to shop for another family and package the food every month, but she does it because it’s more meaningful than sending money, and it provides an important message about caring and compassion to her children.
“It’s easy to write a check, but it’s not always easy to do the right thing when you’re busy,” she says. “I came up with something that is hands-on. We’re teaching our children that giving often has some sense of personal sacrifice. This creates a sense of living empathy.”
So does the letter writing in which Koner strongly encourages both donor and recipient families to participate. “There is no middle-person charity. I pack my box, I put my letter in, and the person who opens it up and puts on my daughter’s jacket is my family. My family and I will always stay connected.”
Lisa Dyson, a pastor at Church of the Cross, says the relationship between donor and recipient families is just as important as what’s packed in the boxes. “It sends a message that somebody cares, and that somebody thought of them time after time. Some of them have had the same families for almost four years. The Family-to-Family program expands their horizons.”