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Toffee for good: A sweet treat funds transformational projects in Davenport, Uganda, points in between

Toffee for good: A sweet treat funds transformational projects in Davenport, Uganda, points in between

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It's a Sunday morning in late November, and Kevin Kellums and Stanley Thomas are using their day off to make toffee — batches and batches of toffee — at a commercially licensed kitchen in Rock Island.

Then they'll box it up and sell it to individuals online and to businesses around the area to give as customer appreciation gifts at Christmas.

And then they'll use the proceeds to help people.

They might give away food and toiletries to families in the Goose Creek Heights neighborhood of northwest Davenport. Or backpacks and school supplies to children in the Dominican Republic. Or underwrite scholarships for children in the African nation of Uganda.

Motivated by faith, Kellums and Thomas, both of Blue Grass, look around, see needs, then do what they can to fill them. It's so simple yet so unusual that one might think they're making it up. But no, their work is real.

"It's all really pretty amazing," said Roger Pavey, executive director of Community Action of Eastern Iowa, a state social service agency.

"In my world, it's the government or a foundation that does this work. But they saw a need in a community that they felt was underserved and they did something about it."

As Kellums, who has a background in engineering said, "God had a different plan for me."

How it started; the back story

Around 2005, Kellums — who now works as director of operations for Vallen Distribution, a nationwide distributor of industrial products and services based in North Carolina — was serving as a youth pastor at Vineyard Church of Davenport, located in a former roller skating rink along West Kimberly Road at Pine Street.

As part of its outreach, Vineyard provided van transportation to people wanting to attend its services. Kellums noticed in driving kids back to their homes in Goose Creek that "there were people in the streets; it was rough."

In 2005, the neighborhood bounded by Vine and Brady on the west and east and West 59th and West 67th on the south and north had the highest number of police calls of any in the city. This included shootings, robberies, sexual assaults, theft and gang activity.

Kellums and Thomas, who also was involved in the church's youth ministry and now works at the Rock Island Arsenal, felt "we gotta do something about this," Kellums said. The kids "needed more than once a week at church."

They expanded their ministry into North High School and Wood Intermediate. They provided a full meal every week, and they started going to students' events at school. "That really caused it to grow," he said.

They and others brainstormed about what would make a difference —  what would help transform the lives of people in the neighborhood so they could become productive and successful. They concluded that early education, along with recreational and social programs, was key.

"It has to start with pre-school," Kellums said. "We had been involved in the junior high and high school level, but by the time they get in seventh grade, they're so far behind academically.

"The idea is to get them plugged in at an earlier age. If they're not on track in kindergarten, in first grade they fall behind."

Kellums wants kids to have the kind of support he had from his family growing up. "That's what we're trying to build at an early age."

The group concluded that Head Start classes were a priority, but there was no place available to have them.

Nonprofit forms to build Family Enrichment Center

In 2008, Kellums and Thomas established a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) nonprofit called the Family Enrichment Center and began fundraising to construct a building that would host Head Start as well as other programs.

Serendipitously, about this same time, "a lot of good energy" began emerging in the neighborhood, Kellums said.

An investor consolidated ownership of several apartment buildings and worked with police to clean them up. And police rolled out its first NETS (Neighborhoods Energized to Succeed) unit with community policing and concentrated enforcement.

By the fall of 2013, the nonprofit had raised enough money and in-kind donations that construction could begin on a 1.6-acre site donated by the Davenport Community School District.

Now in its sixth year of operation, the Family Enrichment Center is home to three Head Start classrooms enrolling a total of 34 children ages from infancy to four years.

Without the building, there would be no Head Start, Pavey said.

And, "it's not just a daycare," Kellums said. "It has more purpose, a more structured environment. They're learning, engaging, napping and playing, doing productive things."

On a recent morning, the older children were riding tricycles around a fenced playground while younger ones were being held and talked to by their teachers.

Nakeesha Kipper Robinson's 2-year-old daughter, Daijah, enrolled in August.

Because Robinson has a 3-year-old son on the autism spectrum, Robinson didn't think she was giving Daijah enough attention to prepare her for kindergarten.

"She was ready for it," Robinson said of Daijah's experience in Head Start. "She comes home with something new every day."

The building also is used for mobile food pantries and other giveaways (hygiene, school supplies), meetings and programs to support the neighborhood.

And the ideas keep flowing. Next spring Kellums wants to install a "mud kitchen" outside, which is just what it sounds like.

He also wants to stock a Little Free Pantry with toiletries and other necessities for students at Wood Intermediate, and he hopes to sponsor a neighborhood soccer league.

Lola VanDeWalle is 'godsend'

Kellums learned candy-making in 2001 while working for a commercial candy maker in Bettendorf. When the owner sold her business, Kellums got the recipe and in 2016 he and Thomas established Wellington Toffee.

In addition to Kellums and Thomas, another mainstay helper is Lola VanDeWalle, also of Blue Grass, a woman widely known in the Quad-Cities for her work in establishing the Quad-City Veterans Outreach Center, Davenport. She also is owner of Dick-n-Sons Lumber, Blue Grass.

"When they say (someone's a) godsend, that's her," Thomas said of VanDeWalle. "She wanted to help. It was put on her heart to do so."

Among the businesses buying toffee as customer gifts is Blackhawk Electric, East Moline.

"He does so much," owner Brian Lindsey said of Kellums. "I honestly can't say enough about (him)."

In addition to candy sales, the nonprofit raises money by renting the enrichment center to Community Action, by sponsoring a summer golf tournament and through donations and grants.

And it doesn't stop there

As dedicated as the trio is to Goose Creek Heights, it has picked up on other needs as well.

• Dominican Republic: Involvement started when Kellums, Thomas, VanDeWalle and assorted family vacationed at a nice resort, surrounded by food, and, one ring out, by poor people who could use that food.

They connected with an orphanage/school of some 400 kids who needed school supplies including computer equipment.

Their goal for 2020 is to develop a food distribution network in the area.

• Uganda: This link was forged during a visit by Kellums in 2006-07 and is focused mainly on educating children orphaned by war and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Donations have paid for scholarships, solar panels and school supplies.

• Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota: VanDeWalle visited in 2016. Donations have paid for basic needs, school supplies and entrepreneurial programs.

 

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