LEOMINSTER —Sticky July heat — and the occasional downpour — beat down on the sidewalk in front of Market Basket in Leominster on Friday, but the dozen or so rotating volunteers for Kylee’s Kare Kits for Kidz, stationed under blue tents set up by both entrances, were undeterred. They were too focused on their mission: raising money and collecting food donations for underprivileged children in Leominster and other nearby towns.
Kylee McCumber, a chatty 17-year-old Leominster resident and rising senior at the Winchedon School, is not yet old enough to vote, but she’s spent the last seven years running Kare Kits, which she founded at 10 years old, with the help of her grandmother, Lori Bateman. They now have a steady flow of about 30 volunteers, they said, and they’re a tight-knit bunch. When a sudden burst of rain threatened to blow one of their tents away on Friday, the pair laughed as they and their team scrambled to secure the awning that protected both themselves and the donations from the unpredictable summer weather.
Kare Kits serves nearly 500 area children, the bulk of which are Leominster residents, by providing enough food to feed them during the weekends, when school — and subsidized meals — are otherwise not available, according to McCumber. Many of their recipients are identified by school guidance counselors.
“When we first started, we used to (package food) around our kitchen table,” McCumber said on Friday. “And then we moved down into our basement, and then we now have a [dedicated] building that takes up half our driveway.”
Food insecurity, which can be difficult to detect on a case-by-case basis, is a problem that McCumber is intimately familiar with. In between collecting donations on Friday, McCumber said she just a kindergartner when her mother developed a substance abuse disorder and began spending her money on drugs instead of food. At six years old, she would often go for three days in a row without food.
Although McCumber ultimately moved in with her grandmother full-time, it wasn’t until she was 10 years old that she realized other kids — even in her own school — also struggled with hunger. For years, she said, she thought she was alone. That changed when in the fourth grade she asked her grandmother why some of her classmates ate breakfast at school instead of at home. Bateman said she explained to McCumber that while some students came to school early for extended day programs, “there were some children that didn’t have breakfast at home and that if they didn’t eat it at school, they wouldn’t have it.”
Until then, McCumber hadn’t even noticed that there was a free or reduced meal program at her elementary school.
“She didn’t believe me,” Bateman said, “and later that day she went and asked the principal if what I told her was true.” When her principal confirmed that some children went without food when school wasn’t in session, Bateman said thaT McCumber was livid, and that summer, Kare Kits was born. After running yard sales to launch the program, they began buying weekend meals for about ten Leominster children.
Nearly eight years later, they serve 50 times as many, and they are not done growing. McCumber said that she plans to return to the organization after college, which will continue running even in her absence. She said she can’t imagine doing anything else, and can’t imagine what her life would be like if she hadn’t launched the program, which is a registered nonprofit.
The group collected donations all day on Friday for its annual “Fill A Truck” event and will do so again on Saturday. They also accept donations on their website, on a rolling basis.