Ten years ago, New Canaan’s Shawnee Knight and Tina Kramer were looking for something worthwhile that they could do on their own.
On learning about the national Blessings in a Backpack program, they connected with an area summer camp to kickstart a food-packing program. It was funded entirely by themselves, and the friends not only learned a lot about the logistics of such an undertaking, they saw a very real need up close. That Christmas, they arranged to deliver, themselves, special holiday backpacks for the 100 kids at Stamford’s Domus—kids on free or reduced lunch at a school that serves some of the city’s most at-risk youth.
That was in 2013.
In the decade since, the organization has delivered more than 2 million meals.
Filling in the Blanks now operates out of a 7,500-square-foot warehouse and employs 10 people, including eight full-timers. It serves 5,500 kids per week at 200-plus sites, from Greenwich to Bridgeport. FITB is also in schools in Danbury and in Mt. Kisco and Bedford Hills, N.Y.
Asked for their thoughts on the occasion of the 10-year milestone, Kramer said, “We don’t really get the moments to think about that.”
Because they’re busy leading a vast and ever-growing team of staff and volunteers that helps feed people.
They have someone at the warehouse receiving food and keeping the space organized, two drivers who are out delivering meals Tuesdays through Fridays, another person at the warehouse covering FITB’s Saturday “packing” events, a director of operations and assistant director of operations, an office manager who coordinates volunteers and a community outreach coordinator who “is really integral to our growth, because he speaks Spanish,” Kramer said.
“He’s been going out to all the community events and speaking directly with parents and kids and even helping with the online registration, because what we’re finding is a lot of the parents, even though they speak Spanish, they may not be able to read it,” she said. “So he sits there and literally signs up the kids with their parents, this young man. I think he’s signed up about 1,500 kids on his own, just because he’s out there.”
Filling in the Blanks has come to occupy a unique and special place in the community, drawing in scores of volunteers who give of their time year after year to realize the vision of the founders. There’s even a Filling in the Blanks Club at New Canaan High School.
“It’s the youth groups in New Canaan just keep coming back—they are the cornerstone of the whole organization,” Kramer said. “And we’ve said this before: Our first intern, he’s in law school now. He just keeps coming back to help in any capacity he can. They get it. The kids get it, specifically, in this town. That we’re living in a bubble, and they’re very fortunate, and the kids around them aren’t as fortunate. And that’s why they keep coming back, I think, just to help. They love it.”
Locals can help support Filling in the Blanks by registering for its 4th Annual Plates with a Purpose event, to be held Sept. 23 at The Loading Dock in Stamford. Tickets are available through Monday, Sept. 18, and one of the participating chefs is Luke Venner of elm restaurant, a steadfast supporter of Filling in the Blanks since its inception, Knight and Kramer said.
They’ve also had great support from Manfredi Jewels, Elm Street Books, New Canaan Ski & Sport, TOGS and Dunkin and Cain Management.
“The merchants have been amazing, opening their doors to different fundraisers for us,” Kramer said.
The organization also has its Holiday Backpack Program coming up, providing children in the weekend meal program with a new full-sizes backpack during the holiday season. Individuals and companies interested in purchasing wishlist items, volunteering, holding a drive or otherwise supporting the program can find more information here.
Astoundingly, by the end of this year, she said, Filling in the Blanks likely will have 7,000 kids that it serves each week, and will have surpassed 3 million total meals delivered.
The past 10 years has “gone by quickly,” Knight said.
“We never anticipated this,” she added. “I think we just dove in and started trying to feed kids in the community and never really said, ‘OK, we’re going to turn it into this massive organization.’ It just happened. We just kept putting one foot in front of the other, trying to meet the need that we saw growing in the community.”
Though the women admit that they didn’t know just how quickly and how large Filling in the Blanks would grow, they also have an eye on rising to meet future needs. One idea that Knight and Kramer are considering is a mobile food pantry to bring items such as fresh produce, meat, dairy and vegetables to their clients’ families. The need is greatest for most families toward the end of the month, they said, so the mobile food pantry likely would look to serve people in Norwalk and Stamford in the third week of each month, they said.
Asked whether they’ve considered other ways of expanding, Knight said that because there’s a staff on hand, she and Kramer “now have free time to think about other ways we could get food out there.”
“And we’ve talked about playing with dropshipping or working with DoorDash or trying to figure out how to replicate our model in the tri-state area,” she said. “We’re always tossing around those ideas. They’re in rough form. But we’d like to figure out how can we get more food out to ‘food deserts’ where kids don’t have it. Because it’s such a small thing, but I really think it impacts a child’s life. If they have food, they’re not hungry. They can learn. And then hopefully, through learning and education, they end up having a better future for themselves.”