Luis Cardenas’ eyes got real big.
His smile, too.
That also went for his sister, Tania.
Siblings Alyssa, Amaya and Ashley Garza, too.
Friday afternoon was almost like Christmas again for the children who are among Abel Elementary School’s 50 homeless students.
Jeff Mitchell felt like Santa as he handed each of them a new black backpack, filled with enough food -- i.e., Chef Boyardee, fruit, tuna -- for six meals.
There were toothbrushes and toothpaste, too.
“I know you’d rather have toys,” the exalted ruler at Bradenton Elks No. 1511 told them in the cafeteria. “But I want to see you get something to eat over the weekend. I want to be sure when you come back Monday your tummies aren’t empty.”
The children gratefully took their backpacks, a gift from a program called Elks Feeding Empty Little Tummies (E.F.E.L.T) the Manatee County School District targeted for Abel.
Financed by a $10,000 Elks National Foundation grant, the local Elks are trying to put a dent in a widening community problem.
According to the school district, about half of its 42,000 K-12 public school students are on free or reduced cost for breakfast and lunch at school.
Nearly 1,400 students are homeless.
Becky Lane, an Abel guidance counselor, painted a painful picture of what these children are facing.
“We have several students living in hotels, some live in their cars,” she said. “The majority are doubled up with other families in small dwellings, just trying to pull enough together so they have a roof over their heads and food in the house.”
As it is, the main meal Abel’s children receive is the daily hot lunch they have at school. The hope is the food the Elks are providing will them tide them over. “It will make a big difference,” Lane said.
The Cardenas and Garza siblings thought so, too. “We can have enough to eat now,” said Tania, 9. “This means more food,” said Alyssa, 8.
The food plus snacks will be picked up weekly by Elks volunteers from Meals On Wheels Plus and other suppliers or donors, placed in backpacks and delivered to Abel every Friday.
Which made Mitchell remind the quintet about their backpacks. “Here’s the deal,” he told them. “You’ve got to bring them empty on Monday, because next Friday I come back with all of them full and give them to you again. Understand?”
They nodded, strapped on the bulging backpacks and scampered off.
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.