In a name that refers to a popular slang phrase as well as Highland Park’s High School owl mascot, the “Highland Park Gives a Hoot” program is a new community charitable initiative that exists to strengthen the health and well being of Highland Park’s youth.
Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler started the program during the summer of 2015, when she gazed out the window of her office. What she saw had no connection to daydreaming, but rather harsh reality. Throughout the summer, she would see a group of kids hanging outside of her office in town hall, dancing and playing and just hanging out. The mayor noticed that the kids were outside all day long without supervision and without any food. She and other town hall personnel would go out to talk with them and give them food. But the mayor still wondered what she could do to help those children lead a well-rounded life -both from a nutritional and physical-activity standpoint.
The group of kids playing outside of the mayor’s window reflected an unpublicized characteristic of the Highland Park student body. Over 35 percent of students in the district depend upon free or reduced-cost lunches during school days – “a large number of kids,” according to the mayor.
“Seeing them got me concerned, and it started me thinking: it’s the summer, they’re not in school, they have no place to go, and they’re not being fed properly. What do we do? What can we do?”
The mayor and her colleagues in town hall decided to act. They “gave a hoot” and formed HP Gives a Hoot. Each member contributed money to start a lunch program. The Gives a Hoot volunteers prepared lunches and then served them to the children who showed up at the senior/youth center adjacent to town hall. New Brunswick food pantry Elijah’s Promise provided the group with lunches and additional donations came from Stop and Shop. The lunch program still is going strong. During the school’s spring break, volunteers handed out lunches to students in the senior/youth center. Entertainment also was present – from Harry Potter films to board games.
“We need to ensure that our children are getting a nutritious lunch when school is not open and when parents aren’t home,” said the mayor.
But HP Gives a Hoot is more than a lunch program. “HP Gives a Hoot is anything we can do to help our children,” the mayor said. “It is a program that is extremely important to me.” Money raised has gone to purchasing backpacks and school supplies at the beginning of the school year. It offers financial aid and lunches to youngsters whose families are unable to afford tuition to Highland Park’s Summer Camps. And finally, it supports the Highland Park ROOTS program, which is a week-long sleep-away camp for high school students that promotes inclusion and solidarity. (The ROOTS Project is about inclusion. An individual who has found his or her whole voice feels little need to bully, harass, or act on bias. Reconciling with one’s roots, both the beautiful and the painful, is the first step to taking responsibility, maintaining integrity, committing to self-reflection, and cultivating compassion in those roots.) A recent fund-raiser for the Highland Park ROOTS attracted about 40 people, raised $1000 towards the goal of sending five high school students to this “inclusion” camp which costs $750 per student www.inclusiveroots.org
The mayor encourages the local community to contribute to the HP Gives a Hoot program by attending and/or helping to organize and run a potpourri of fundraising events or by just sending in a donation. The HP Gives a Hoot Fund receives no funding from the borough. The fund comprises donations from individuals. Money is kept in a separate bank account that is handled by Highland Park’s chief financial officer, Kathleen Kovach.
During Highland Park’s annual Independence Day/ParkStock celebration this year, HP Gives a Hoot will be in major fund-raising mode – collecting donations and running activities for children.
“We are looking for volunteers to help us walk through the crowd that evening (Sunday, July 3, 2016, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.) to collect donations and give out glow-in-the-dark bracelets to all donors. We are running a Children’s Activity Tent that evening, and are looking for volunteers (for a half hour, one hour or longer) to help run this tent from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. We are happy to provide letters for teen volunteers who require volunteer hours at school. All volunteers will get complimentary t-shirts as well,” said Stacy Kaplan, assistant to the mayor, who urged wannabe volunteers to call her at: 732-819-3781.
Despite all the positive ways the fund is supporting the youth in the community, there is room for growth, said the mayor. The group is working with the school district to find confidential ways to provide information to more families in need.
“I am hoping that we can reach all of the families that might have this need,” said the mayor. “It broke my heart to watch those kids in the summer find ways to keep themselves busy and not be able to eat, while the rest of us are able to feed ourselves and our children….The future of HP are the teenagers and children that are growing up here. So we need to do everything we can to give them all the building blocks for success, including a healthy living style, education, and proper nutrition.”
HPP reporter Amiri Tulloch was the major contributor to this story.