More than 10 years ago, a news report on hunger among American children shocked Bob Barnes, sparking a vision to provide Brevard students with food when school was out on weekends.
Barnes began with one school and 27 children; today, the ever-growing Children's Hunger Project weekly feeds 2,600 children from 45 schools. It employs three office workers and an executive director, has a budget of $600,000 yearly and draws in around 40 volunteers weekly.
Now, Barnes has another vision, this time for feeding children's minds: The Aspiration Academy, a nonprofit venture aimed at supporting above-grade level students from lower-income households through after-school mentoring and Saturday programs.
Many details are still in the planning stages, from approval of the group's nonprofit status to exactly who'll be mentoring the students, and the sites for that instruction.
But Barnes' track record of getting things done already has donors and supporters lining up to stand by Aspiration' Academy's mission statement: "Transform lives of young children by creating an environment of intellectual fervor, creativity, humanity, and pride."
"I've learned never to doubt him when he approaches you with an idea. Just listen," said Alberta Wilson, a longtime local activist and founder of the Space Coast chapter of the National Congress of Black Women who counts herself among Barnes' supporters.
The venture's name is, obviously, based on the word aspire — but for Barnes, it means much more.
It means a person can have hopes and ambitions "toward something better in life no matter their ZIP code," said Barnes, who is retired from careers in the broadcast field, advertising and promotions, the mortgage industry, and as an independent businessman.
"What Aspiration Academy will do is take those students who are above grade level and give the same powerful mentoring and coaching to their mental development that a student-athlete would receive if they showed athletic prowess," he said. "All this will be done after regular school hours and on weekends."
Aspiration Academy will kick off in Cocoa, and initially work to attract and enroll third-graders, said Barnes, a West Melbourne resident. Those students will stay in the program through sixth grade, with a new class each year joining current students.
The germ of an idea for such a venture came to Barnes six years ago at Lipscomb Community Center, volunteering with United Way of Brevard in their summer Feed and Read program.
A young girl, one of three inner-city children with whom Barnes was working, showed great understanding of a book passage "that seemed well above their age for comprehension of what I was reading," he said.
When Barnes thought about her family's financial circumstances, he said, he concluded that her chances for scholastic success, although not thwarted, "were keenly diminished."
And many families simply can't afford, he said, the kind of "mind-expanding" trips Barnes envisions Academy participants could eventually enjoy, such as outings to the Brevard Zoo or area museums.
"I did not dwell on this until a few years later when other things happened that made me correlate low income with low scholastic and life outcomes," he said.
"I realize now that the two most important keys to success in school and later in life are ZIP code and opportunity. I cannot change a child's ZIP code but I can change their opportunity."
Initially, staff will be community volunteers with paid teachers — preferably retired school teachers — taking over when funding becomes available, Barnes said.
"As we prove ourselves, state funding will flow to our nonprofit with funds to be used for expansion first to Palm Bay and then to Melbourne," he said.
The plan calls for all costs to be borne by the charity, with funding from donors, foundations, grants, and support from local business and industry leaders. The IRS has scheduled a final review of the academy's nonprofit status for this summer. Before that date, Barnes said, "we should be organized as to who will be making the decisions for our young scholars."
There will be no costs to any taxpayer or Brevard Public Schools, where the need for the Children's Hunger Project has skyrocketed over the past decade.
When Barnes conceived of the Children's Hunger Project, he was 70. Now he's 80 and committed to taking on this new challenge.
Children's Hunger Project began by delivering food packets to 27 children at Riviera Elementary School in Palm Bay. Now it's in more than half of Brevard County schools.
More than 50% of Brevard's children are on a free/reduced lunch program
"The Children's Hunger Project — it was merely a vision," Wilson said. "This vision has fed hundreds of thousands of Brevard County children. Need I say more?"
As a grandparent and community member, Wilson hopes to see Barnes' new idea welcomed countywide.
It remains to be seen how critical the need for such a project is, she said, but she knows "it cannot hurt ... if embraced by the school district and the community, it just might be a way to bridge the educational divide."
The Brevard school district, too, is expressing support in the academy's early stages.
“BPS has a variety of programs that help our students achieve their goals, one of which is our Before and After School program inside our schools," said Russell Bruhn, district spokesman.
"These programs are a great way for students to get extra help with their school work or can be a way for them to work ahead on their studies. What Aspiration Academy is trying to accomplish has potential to help our entire community; we look forward to seeing how their organization develops.”
Contact Kennerly at 321-242-3692 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @bybrittkennerly Facebook: /bybrittkennerly