The board of directors meeting is about to begin. The vice president calls the meeting to order with a pledge and a sharp rap on the conference room table. In the next hour, board members will recap their last fundraising event, brainstorm ideas for capitalizing on social media outreach, and discuss the status of a grant application.
The proceedings are familiar to most Tampa Bay area executives. What makes this board meeting unique is its pint-sized participants. The board members range in age from six to 17.
What I’m witnessing is business as usual for an impressive group of children dedicated to the mission of The Kind Mouse Productions, Inc. This food distribution not-for-profit was founded by St. Petersburg resident Gina Wilkins under the premise that no one should ever go hungry. It was granted 501(c)(3) status in 2012.
These kids represent tomorrow’s philanthropists. Their work is part of the Kind Mouse’s groundbreaking Mice-in-Training program, which encourages children to become involved in the business of operating a not-for-profit. Indeed, they are leading their own efforts to support and market the mission of The Kind Mouse with a combination of whimsy and wisdom.
For example, Sydney Merritt, 11, vice-president of the Mice-in-Training, recites an abracadabra pledge while wielding a magic wand to circle her head and tap on the long oak table to officially start the meeting. She’s been volunteering for two and a half years and has adopted the mouse name of Jingles. Just before the meeting, Sydney had conducted a tour of The Kind Mouse facility for a new family whose seven-year-old son, Michael “MJ” Gay, was considering becoming the newest volunteer for the Mice-in-Training group of five-to-12-year-olds.
More experienced Mice graduate to become Mice Interns, the group aimed at 13-18-year-olds. Elizabeth Hodgson, 17, president of the Mice Interns, explained how typical board meetings might go. “We look at past events, like our annual Mousequerade fundraiser, and discuss how we can make them more efficient. We try to come up with different activities for various age groups.”
Lily Schneider, 16, vice president of the Mice Interns, added, “We’ve planned a food drive at Shorecrest School, and we’re looking at ways to increase our use of social media to promote The Kind Mouse, since not-for-profits are not often part of the social media discussion.”
For example, Dexter Schneider, 13, head of media for the Mice Interns, worked on Mouse Vision this past summer, a project using videos posted on social media to help spread the word.
A Personal Connection
The Kind Mouse was the brainchild of Wilkins, who has a very personal connection with this mission. As a self-employed certified architectural draftsman in St. Petersburg, after the economy hit hard times in 2006-2008, she made the difficult decision to close her firm. She also witnessed firsthand the hardships endured by many of her peers and friends—hardworking people who were too proud to ask for any help.
Wilkins hustled to mobilize resources to help feed hungry kids in her own neighborhood, whose families were going through tough times financially. “The more I learned about people in need, the more I was determined to expand my efforts,” she said.
The Mice-in-Training program was initially born of necessity. As The Kind Mouse took off, the process of sorting food donations, clearly marking expiration dates on individual items, and packaging an array of nutritious snacks into bags became a never-ending job. Extra hands were needed, and Wilkins called upon her own daughter and the kids of other volunteers to help package the nibbles for distribution.
It didn’t take long to see that these children took their responsibilities seriously. They recruited more friends to join in and, soon, the Mice-in-Training program took on a life of its own.
Rachel DeBruyne, 13, said, “I found out about the opportunity to volunteer at The Kind Mouse through my mom’s work programs for community service.” For almost one year now, Rachel has been part of the busy group that sorts, dates and packs healthy snacks.
Wilkins said, “In addition to providing packaging help, the youth volunteers also gain skills in public speaking, raise awareness of the importance of eradicating hunger, and learn how a not-for-profit operates. Their newest project is a grant proposal the youth have developed for addressing ‘food shaming’ in schools. In 2018, the two boards will have joint meetings so the younger Mice-in-Training can learn from mentors in the Mice Intern group.”
The program has continued to grow and today, “The Kind Mouse provides ‘mouse nibbles’ every Friday to some 350 Pinellas County schoolchildren who might otherwise return home to a weekend of insufficient healthy food options,” said Wilkins.
To learn more about The Kind Mouse Productions, Inc., donate or volunteer, visit www.thekindmouse.org. Contact Gina Wilkins at Gina@thekindmouse.org or 727-518-5575.