What were you doing in sixth grade? Austin Gontarski was holding a food drive, raising money for those in need and laying the groundwork to create his own nonprofit. Gontarski, a St. Michael Catholic …
What were you doing in sixth grade? Austin Gontarski was holding a food drive, raising money for those in need and laying the groundwork to create his own nonprofit.
Gontarski, a St. Michael Catholic High School junior, has grown up with two parents heavily involved in the community whom he credits with his desire to help others. When he was in sixth grade, as Christmas was discover ways he could help. The growing boy with a passion for food couldn't imagine going without a meal. He learned about the Backpack Program for Students and decided to get involved.
"I love food, so it is hard for me to think about kids that don't have food. I had three honey buns on the way here because I was hungry," Gontarski said. "I can't imagine going home and having to wait until the next day to have my dinner, which was the school lunch of the day."
He decided to hold a food drive in his neighborhood. He pulled a wagon and collected $400 in cash donations and enough food for 1,200 meals from his neighbors. He delivered the food items to the Catholic Social Services and got to work thinking about how to improve for the next year.
At the start of seventh grade, Gontarski added to his efforts by writing letters to business leaders in Baldwin County asking for donations. His school, St. Patrick Catholic School, also held an out-of-uniform day where students could donate money to Gontarski's efforts. In the second year, he raised over $9,000, which provided 18,678 backpack meals.
Between his seventh- and eighth-grade years, his only birthday wish was to form a nonprofit foundation, Developing Futures Foundation.
"Why that name? It is scientifically proven that when a kid is sitting in class hungry, whatever the teacher is talking about it is not on their mind at all. They don't care about what the teacher is saying. The only thing they care about is when am I getting food," Gontarski said. "Developing Futures is named that because when you feed the kids you are developing their futures. By feeding them they can focus on their work and learn."
Through the foundation, Gontarski, with his mother Jennifer's help, can purchase food through the Mobile Food Bank for less than retail cost. This allows them to purchase more food.
"We don't raise enough money to supply the demand in our area to cover the entire school year," Jennifer Gontarski said. "That is where Catholic Social Services must kick in. We help them purchase food and supplement what they are doing."
Since starting his efforts, Gontarski has raised over $45,000 that has provided an estimated 115,000 meals for food-insecure students. He has also done a lot of public speaking for local organizations and was even featured on a podcast.
"We have this program where we give food to these children that need it. It happens weekly whether we are ready for it or not and Austin makes that possible," Gore-Hickey said. "We build together but his contribution is a big one. It is vital for what we do for the kids that are food insecure."
Each month, Catholic Social Services of Robertsdale packs 800 backpacks for students at risk of food insufficiency on the weekends when they are not fed at school. Each Friday, the child is provided with three meals and snacks for the weekend.
Gontarski, now a 16-year-old, is finishing up his junior year at St. Michael's Catholic High School. He is already trying to figure out how to balance the demands of his senior year with his fundraising efforts.
When asked what his plans are for the foundation while he is in college, he laughed.
"This might be the most-asked question I get, and it's the only question I can't answer. I am going to try my hardest to cover next year and four years of college," he said. This foundation was never on my to-do list when I grew up. I added it to the list when I did it and crossed it off. I never would have thought in a million years I would do this until it happened."
For Angela Gore-Hickey, what Gontarski has done gives her hope for the future.
"There are not a lot of kids that are 11 or 12 years old that would think about it. That shows you there is a giant heart in that giant boy's body. He is just a good kid and it is encouraging," Gore-Hickey said. "He has his mindset, largely because his parents encourage him to be generous. But your mom and dad can encourage you all day long but if it's not what is in your heart you don't do it or it won't be important to you. It is important to him and that speaks volumes to me."