Vero Locals Pay It Forward

Their goal? To do good deeds. Their completed mission? Paying off school lunch debts at 11 Indian River County elementary, middle, and high schools. Why? Because that’s just who they are and what they want to do. No catch. No scam. Just positive, giving, grateful, and humble individuals – they really do exist. And anyone is capable of giving, even if it’s just sharing a cause via social media.

(Photo courtesy Cristen Maddux.)
Members of the Indian River County School Board acknowledged Danielle Wynkoop, Vero Beach Neighborhood, Inc., and Joe Semkow, Inspire Kindness for the funds they encouraged the community to raise to help pay off school lunch debt at 11 Indian River County Schools.

At the Indian River County School Board Meeting on Dec. 10, a check for $3,625 was handed over to the school board and acknowledged by board members.

Organizers of the fundraiser are locals Joe Semkow (Inspire Kindness), Danielle Wynkoop (Vero Beach Neighborhood, Inc.), and Elysia Brennan (Majesty Title Services). The idea originated with Joe, who then reached out to Danielle and Elysia, two women who have social media platforms that are well-followed and attract attention from all areas of the community. The three put together an initiative that invited members of the community to help clean up school lunch debt. Over the course of a few weeks, they encouraged and spread the word about their cause, and local small businesses even came together to award prizes for certain amounts given, where donors were selected to win

“This is who we are as a community, this is how we come together – when we take care of each other, when we take care of our kids, this is what we do,” School Board Member Mara Schiff said. “Thank you for showing us what it looks like when we come together and we support each other. I appreciate, I acknowledge, and I am grateful and humbled by what you’ve done.”

Two more schools’ debts, Sebastian River High School and Vero Beach High School, were also cleared of their lunch debt in the amount of $161 and change, an amount Schiff handed over at the Dec. 10 meeting.

“Inspire Kindness” is Joe Semkow’s view on life – and he tries to instill that mentality in those he encounters on a daily basis.

When asked why he started this gesture of generosity, Semkow responded, “Because it’s what’s supposed to be done. Life is about doing the right things and giving back to your community.”

Both Wynkoop and Brennan share similar outlooks on the concept of giving back.

“I instantly thought it was a great idea because it was something that could really benefit our kids and families in Indian River County,” Brennan explained. “I have a son, Cole, who is in third grade at Osceola Magnet School. We have struggled with his ADHD since he was a toddler and I know how important it is for him to get his meals in, or his challenges will be amplified. In saying that, no child should ever have to go hungry regardless if they have the money to pay or not to pay. It certainly can affect their cognitive function as well as esteem issues and overall well-being.”

Brennan, who works in sales at Majesty Title Services, has a weekly “Five on Friday” video that she posts online and has done so for the last two years. The weekly video features five events going on over the weekend in Vero Beach, though anyone who lives in the area knows there’s a plethora of things to do on any day at any time and for any occasion.

To find out more about how you can help pay it forward to the children in Indian River County, visit the Vero Beach Neighborhood, Inc. Facebook page, or contact Danielle Wynkoop, Joe Semkow, or Elysia Brennan.

In October, a Palm Beach County man zeroed the debt for approximately 430 students in Jupiter, as described by an article in People magazine. His generosity sparked many others in the community to hop on board the giving train. The total debt in Palm Beach County for their school district is $51,000, according to their website.

Susan Parsons, a donor toward the cause, commented, “I love this community and the old cliche – it takes a village to raise a child – was never a declaration of a lack of parenting skills, as many have perceived, but a declaration that parenting is not for the lazy, and helping hands are freely available and purposely there to be used to bring moments of reprieve.”

In 2016, 30.4 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program – receiving free or reduced-cost lunches – according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946. It is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. At the beginning of and throughout each school year, parents are welcome to apply for the program, which is designed to lessen school lunch debts. If you need assistance filling out this paperwork, please contact your child’s school. If the paperwork is filled out, covering the cost of a full student lunch for qualifying families, is taken care of. Parents are urged to apply.

As previously stated, the issue can be political, legal, ethical, economical, or one of many other topics of discussion, but those who are contributing to the cause locally in Indian River County have no agenda in mind, other than “inspiring kindness.”

“It’s a great community builder,” said Danielle Wynkoop, who admins the Vero Beach Neighborhood, Inc. Facebook page and is a parent of a student in the Indian River County School District. “Kids need to eat while they’re at school and not feel bad about it, regardless of what their parents do or do not do, or can or cannot do. Debt isn’t something that kids need to worry about, ever.”

In addition to the success with paying off school lunch debt, the Vero Beach Neighborhood, Inc. Facebook group has also been promoting Christmas giveaways that not only help advertise small businesses, but also give community members a chance to be involved and come forward to win exciting prizes.

“I do this every year,” Wynkoop said. “It’s fun to get people together, especially at this time of year, and attract positive energy.”

(Photo courtesy Joe Semkow.)
One of 25 bikes that were left around the City of Vero Beach by Joe Semkow, another act of kindness that others in the community collaborated with him on to inspire kindness this holiday season. Semkow left photos on the Vero Beach Neighborhood, Inc. Facebook page and gave clues as to where each bike was left.

And as another inspiration of kindness, Joe Semkow has been leaving brand new bikes throughout Vero Beach, and posting photos of where the bikes are located at, giving hints for those who find them and asking once found, that they contact him for the lock combination to get the bike.

“I encourage the concept that it’s only for those who truly need a bike, not just for anyone to have,” Semkow said. “I hope that by doing things like this, it inspires others to do the same. This is what life is about. Acknowledging, understanding, and doing what’s right.”

With good gestures such as the aforementioned, Vero Beach will always be a loving, caring community that so many enjoy to be a part of.

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