The power of change Fifth-grader’s crusade against child hunger gains national recognition

Advanced Studies Haut Gap Middle School student Jackson Silverman, 10, was recognized at the Charleston County School District board meeting on March 21.

In the three years since 10-year-old Jackson Silverman co-founded the volunteer organization I Heart Hungry Kids with his younger brothers Gabriel and Riley, an army of children has packed more than 20,000 bags full of food for Lowcountry students living in poverty.

Once a month, about 180 young volunteers travel to the Lowcountry Food Bank’s North Charleston warehouse to pack plastic bags full of nonperishable food items for the BackPack Buddies program, which works with select area schools to send food home with children from food-insecure homes on the weekends.

According to Kara Moore, the food bank’s child and senior hunger program manager, BackPack Buddies currently serves more than 3,100 students a month.

“I’m just in awe of his commitment to this and all he’s done,” Moore said. “It’s inspiring to hear him speak, and you know how much it means for other kids to hear that coming from someone their age.”

Jackson, now a fifth-grader in the Advanced Studies Magnet at Haut Gap Middle, was recently honored for his leadership. He was named South Carolina Middle Level Volunteer of the Year in the 2016 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, and he was also the youngest of five national winners of this year’s Stephen J. Brady Stop Hunger Scholarship from the Sodexo Foundation.

At a March 21 Charleston County School Board meeting, school district spokeswoman Erica Taylor applauded Jackson for his work.

“Even after being told the food bank would not take volunteers his age, Jackson would not take no as an answer,” Taylor said.

Prior to the founding of I Heart Hungry Kids, when Jackson was just seven years old, volunteers younger than age 14 were not allowed at the Lowcountry Food Bank, which serves South Carolina’s 10 coastal counties from Beaufort to Horry. But with help from his mother and the food bank’s volunteer coordinator, Jackson made it happen.

Jackson has also led T-shirt sales and other fundraising efforts to help stock the bags, and he has traveled to several area schools to recruit more volunteers. He’s been so successful in recruiting that his organization often has a volunteer waiting list.

They’re helping to address a dire need. The Lowcountry Food Bank estimates that one in four children in its coverage area is at risk of hunger, with poverty rates as high as 44 percent in some pockets. Childhood hunger has been linked to impaired cognitive functioning, decreased resistance to illness and academic difficulty stemming from absenteeism.

With a few key facts and figures memorized, Jackson is always ready to make the pitch for volunteering with I Heart Hungry Kids.

“It’s hands-on work that kids can do. The kids have power to change everything, and they can change anything they work hard enough on,” Jackson said. “All they need to bring to a packing party is their hands and their heart.”

Service is a way of life in the Silverman family. According to Tiffany Silverman, her son’s first experience volunteering was at age 3, when she helped coordinate a food packing event with the Food Bank at their church, Grace Episcopal. She said she and her husband Josh have worked to instill a spirit of service in their children from a young age.

“It’s just an integrated way so that service isn’t something special or set off to the side. It’s part of his everyday life,” Silverman said.

Over the years, Jackson said he has gotten to meet a few of the children who receive food through the BackPack Buddies program. He described the encounters as “amazing.”

“They received the bags and wanted to help other kids so they could get bags of food, too,” Jackson said. “It was really beautiful.”

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.