Carol Porter was celebrating her daughter’s birthday party at a fast food restaurant in Houston when she happened to glance out the window. She describes a scene “straight from Dickens.” Children stood outside, staring in hungrily at the food-laden tables. So Carol invited them to join the party. The next day, the restaurant manager told Porter the children she had invited in were rummaging through the restaurant’s dumpster.
Porter, who had been feeding poor people in Houston for several years after she and her mother persuaded a local grocery store to donate food still good but about to be tossed, set out to investigate. Though it was a raw December day, some of the children wore only diapers and wandered around barefoot. She learned they lived in an apartment complex next to the restaurant and decided on the spot to try to feed them. Porter began depositing bags of beans and rice at apartment doors. But residents shunned her and pulled their children back inside when they saw her coming.
One day, Porter decided to bring her youngest daughter along on her rice-and-beans rounds. As her daughter played with children at the complex, doors started swinging open. Moved by the profound need she witnessed, Carol and her husband Hurt Porter III, “adopted” the complex, eventually pumping their own savings, including a $90,000 inheritance, into feeding up to 70 families. They were hooked. Carol quit her well-paying nursing job and her husband, a radio announcer and public relations consultant soon followed suit so they could devote themselves full-time to their cause. “I’m no martyr,” Carol says. “If I had seen what I was up against, I would have run away.”
But the Porters stuck with it, growing their two-person tag team into Kid-Care Inc., a non-profit with a $500,000 annual budget that provides up 20,000 meals a month for poor children in Houston and coordinates other projects that include health fairs, tutoring, and furniture donations for needy families. Kid Care receives no government funding and runs on loads of volunteer power and private donations, most of which the forthright Carol rounds up herself. As the nation wrestles with enormous social problems like hunger, Carol and Hurt Porter are among those rolling up their shirtsleeves to address them.
Though most of the kids in the poor neighborhoods the Porters serve have problems a sandwich or a bowl of soup can’t fix, helping parents feed their children can go a long way, Carol says. “In a home with no money, there’s stress,”‘ she says. “Guess who gets beat up on? The little ones. If we can go in and ease some of the pressure… we’ve lessened the abuse.” Hunger activists estimate that about 30 million Americans don’t have enough to eat and that more than 12 million of them are children. Hunger is especially devastating to children: Malnutrition is linked with problems that range from developmental delays to a higher risk of infection and disease, all of which only spell more trouble down the road.
Though there are no firm counts of hungry people in Houston, the Houston Food Bank estimates that at least part of every month about 300,000 children in the several Gulf Coast counties it serves don’t have enough to eat. According to Porter, on any given month about 1,000 Houston children can count on two meals a day, five days a week, from Kid Care.
The day starts early in the Porter’s modest ranch house as the Porter’s son, Hurt Porter III, hauls in trays of whole wheat bread. Volunteers working assembly-line style assemble hundreds of turkey sandwiches in the Porter’s small kitchen and family room. The mood is light, energetic, and purposeful. By the time the sun has cleared the Houston skyline, skyscrapers of sandwiches tower on the Porter’s kitchen table. The entire family pitches in, even eleven-year-old Jamilhah, whom the Porters adopted as a malnourished infant. Now, when she’s not in school, Jamilhah helps on the food line, stuffing sandwiches into plastic bags. When asked why she does it, she ponders the question for quite a while before replying in a shy voice, “We’re helping other children.”
Volunteers load the bag lunches into a white van and Hurt Porter III hits the road. Children pour out of houses when he honks the horn, the way they would at the sound of the ice cream truck’s bell in better-off neighborhoods. But instead of popsicles, Porter hands out healthy bag lunches: typically a sandwich or a hearty soup, plus fruit, cookies and juice. Food is not the only thing the Porter clan dispenses for free. Love is also on the menu as the Porters hug and greet parents and children alike. “One-on-one is important,” Hurt Porter Sr. says.
Like other organizations fighting hunger, Kid Care has not escaped scrutiny, and the Porters have their critics. In 1994, Houston health officials found Kid Care in violation of several regulations for food preparation. The Porters lacked a separate sink for washing out mops and a vent hood over the stove, and they needed to cover an exposed ceiling beam. Carol contended that to comply would mean closing down Kid Care for several days, something she was unwilling to do.
“I’m endangering the health and welfare of children who were eating out of garbage cans? Give me a break,” she retorted to the health department’s allegations. “They didn’t understand that our refusal to do what they asked was because we couldn’t stop feeding the children, pure and simple.” Finally, after weeks of dispute, Kid Care settled with the health department. They agreed to correct the problems they could without closing down their operations and the health department dropped other charges.
Still, the conflict generated a flurry of articles in the Houston press as well as coverage from as far away as Los Angeles. Some observers say Porter used the conflict and the media to portray her organization as the victim of government bureaucracy. A public health official says the Porters refused donations of items that could have helped them meet the federally mandated health codes. “In this political climate, suddenly she becomes Mother Teresa fighting the establishment,” the official says, adding that a recent Wall Street Journal editorial by Porter’s friend Arienna Huffington cites the incident as an example of the government suppressing free enterprise.
The outspoken daughter of an activist/homemaker mother and a serviceman father, Carol Porter has no qualms about doing things her own way. Her fervor practically snaps the phone lines. Porter raises all of Kid-Care’s money from private individuals and corporations and eschews funds from the government and such organizations as the United Way. “I don’t want any restrictions or anyone telling me when to feed, how to feed, how much to feed, or limiting my fund raising potential,” she says. “I don’t want anyone interfering in what I do for my children.”
While serving a stint for a state government program that fed poor kids in Houston, Porter grew frustrated at regulations that prohibited her from feeding their mothers. “One day this woman came to my facility with her six kids,” Porter recalls. “When she realized she couldn’t eat, she began running around the table, eating the food that the children had left. The woman was ravaged. I’d never seen anything like it before.” The next day the woman arrived minutes before the program closed and began rummaging through the garbage. In front of two state agents visiting because Porter’s site was considered among the top in the state, she served the woman a heaping plateful of food. “I told my husband, ‘We’re getting ready to get shut down because I’m going to feed her.’”
From that moment on, Porter says she swore off government programs–though she and Hurt support themselves in part with a government contract to inspect day care centers. Today, corporate sponsors and individual contributors support the Porter’s organization and as do companies like Total World Telecom, which has kicked in thousands of dollars to pay for day care for Kid Care clients so their mothers could look for work and picked up the tab for Kid Care’s long distance calls. Most of Kid Care’s money comes from individual contributors, who range from ordinary folks sending in a few dollars to larger donations from the likes of talk show host Rush Limbaugh ($5,000). Kid Care’s biggest sponsor is Houston oil magnate Roy Huffington. At a point when Kid Care’s bank account dropped below a thousand dollars, the Huffington Foundation presented Carol with a check for $50,000; half to maintain the operations and pay salaries, and half to start an endowment.
Porter says 82 percent of contributions goes directly towards feeding kids, and she draws no salary from Kid Care. “I’m no poverty pimp,” she says. “There are groups of people who don’t want to end hunger and don’t want welfare reforms because they get to keep their cushy jobs. For example, I’m sick of children advocate organizations turning out welfare studies. Stop with the welfare studies and start making sandwiches.”
More than a decade has passed since Carol Porter began making sandwiches and serving soup from her car in run-down parks. Over the years it dawned on the Porters that food wasn’t enough. “I would have fed the kids forever,” Carol says. “But Hurt kept saying, ‘Carol, we’ve got to teach these people to fish or we’re going to be just like welfare.’ That term, ‘just like welfare’ scared me,” says Carol, “because I didn’t want to be like welfare.” So the Porters began organizing health fairs, sending kids to summer camp, and reaching out to families with Kid Care Academy, to provide tutorial services and teach English as a second language.
The Porters also have teamed up with local businesses to help Houston’s poor children. Last Christmas, the Medallion Hotel Chain in Houston served 100 Kid Care kids a buffet dinner in the hotel while Ms. Universe, Chelsi Smith, also a Kid Care volunteer and Houston native, mingled among them. During the holiday season, Kid Care fed more than 2,000 kids and gave away 10,000 gifts collected through the Bank One Christmas Drive and private community donations.
Since Carol’s background is in nursing, Kid Care also sponsors an annual health fair, usually in an abandoned apartment building in a poor neighborhood. As the kids wind through each station they receive a free health screening, dental screening, and immunizations. At the end of the obstacle course, the kids receive a treat donated by companies such as Toys R Us, which once supplied 500 Easter baskets.
On firm financial ground, and with the help from the Huffington Foundation and Houston companies, Kid Care is moving into an 11,500-square foot building this year that the Porters purchased on foreclosure. Houston companies, led by Pickett Plumbing and Plumbing, recently laid more than $35,000 worth of donated plumbing, and Toys-R-Us contributed $25,000 to furnish a playroom. Porter says the new kitchen will be able to crank out 4,000 meals a day, allowing Kid Care to expand its meals-on-wheels style program to more children. The facility also will house tutoring programs, Kid Care Academy, and other services under one roof and add services over time for parents that range from job training to preparing nutritious meals on a budget. The facility will stay open in the evening for use by such groups as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and Alcoholics Anonymous.
Hunger activists and other observers agree that the Porters excel at publicity. But staff at several Houston hunger agencies say they have little to go on when it comes to gauging Kid Care’s impact on the city’s poor children. They say they know little about Kid Care’s actual on-the-ground work aside from what they read in the local press, and question whether the organization undergoes audits that would back up the numbers they cite and hold them accountable to certain standards. The Porters are reputed to keep to themselves about their work, where other hunger activists in the city tend to network with other agencies. Says one hunger activist of Porter, “She’s a lone ranger. That’s not bad, it’s just different.”
As word of Kid Care has spread, the Porters have received awards from two U.S. Presidents and a national award from the Washington, D.C.-based Caring Institute. Letters have poured in from all over the country and from as far away as Malaysia, South Africa and New Zealand; most are from people asking Porter how to start a Kid Care type program in their area. So far, programs have been launched in Nassau, Bahamas and in Los Angeles, where 350 meals are given out each day.
Porter, who speaks in exclamation points, calls strangers “honey,” and like her husband is deeply religious, says finding ways to help children is simple. “Start in your neighborhood,” she says. “Find one kid other than your own that you know needs you to make a difference in his or her life. Check with local churches if you don’t know where the kids are. It’s not about numbers, you start with one. We’re never going to have buildings named after us, but what greater legacy can you leave behind than to have changed one child?”