By: Allison Stevens | September 28, 2023
Kaitlin Nelson, a mortgage supervisor at Navy Federal Credit Union in Pensacola, Fla., understands the gift of receiving.
When she was young, her parents struggled to cover medical care for her sick brother and, at the same time, meet their needs—even those as basic as food. The choices her parents faced were wrenching, such as whether to travel to a children’s hospital in a faraway city or use those precious funds to feed the family that week.
Nelson’s family made it through an especially difficult year, thanks in part to Feeding the Gulf Coast (FTGC), a nonprofit organization that collects food, inspects and packages it and delivers it to coastal communities in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi—a region with a high concentration of military families. Getting the organization’s food boxes “was how we ate” most days that year, Nelson told FTGC. “It was all we ate.”
Now, decades later, Nelson is paying it forward.
She and a team of Navy Federal coworkers regularly volunteer with the food bank—the very one that helped her family stay afloat all those years ago. At FTGC’s massive warehouse in Milton, Fla., they organize food and pack backpacks and boxes that go to people facing hunger, including military families. Nelson has volunteered 7 times this year and has 3 more slots scheduled—and plans to continue “as long as they will have me.”
Nelson’s volunteer work began last year after Robbie Leggett, a Navy Federal analyst in Pensacola, posted a notice on an employee service portal. Leggett, who also experienced hunger as a child, acts as a liaison to FTGC, connecting fellow employees with volunteer opportunities at the warehouse. “I saw the struggle that my mom went through and wanted to take my experience and my passion to give back,” he says of his work.
Give back he has—and then some.
Leggett had volunteered for FTGC off and on for years—a commitment that won him three $1,000 grants from Navy Federal to donate to the organization through its Dollars for Doers program, as well as a perch on Navy Federal’s Community Service Council.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Leggett leveraged his position on the council to scale up Navy Federal’s volunteer work with FTGC. Initially, he recruited a handful of fellow team members to volunteer in small groups at FTGC’s Milton branch. The group enjoyed the experience so much that many went back again. And again.
Soon, word spread about the team-building volunteer opportunity, and participation snowballed. Today, 2-3 groups of up to 12 employees volunteer at the warehouse every week. The schedule is booked into December, and Nelson is often among those packing boxes.
Navy Federal is now FTGC’s top corporate sponsor, and employees comprise about 75 percent of its volunteer force. Another active volunteer is Taylor Thorpe, assistant manager of loan operations at Navy Federal in Pensacola and a recipient of a statewide award for volunteerism.
All told, Navy Federal team members have contributed about 3,500 hours during more than 1,700 volunteer sessions since 2020. This has helped provide more than half a million meals to people in need—many of whom are current or former servicemembers.
Nationally, 1 in 6 military and Veteran families lacks access to an adequate supply of food, according to the Military Family Advisory Network. As a result, many are forced to make impossible choices between food, rent and other needs. As inflation and interest rates climb, more Active Duty families are reportedly seeking help at food pantries near military bases. One in four Active Duty servicemembers experienced food insecurity in 2020—far higher than the general population.
People often incorrectly assume that Active Duty families have what they need, but that’s not always the case, says Michael Ledger, a Navy Veteran and president of FTGC. Active Duty members stationed in expensive cities may struggle with off-base housing expenses and higher costs of living, and few qualify for federal food assistance programs. Spouses also struggle to find consistent work due to frequent base changes, Ledger notes, and childcare and other expenses often eat up income before the month’s out. “It’s a cocktail for food insecurity,” he says.
Beyond Direct Service
Navy Federal’s volunteer work at FTGC goes beyond food packaging and distribution. The credit union recently financed the construction of a new outdoor volunteer space that gives FTGC volunteers and employees a defined place to work and relax. The organization’s larger involvement has created a “ripple” effect in the community that inspires others to volunteer for the cause, Ledger says.
Navy Federal’s involvement with FTGC is a small slice of a much larger effort to combat hunger nationwide. In observance of Hunger Action Month, Navy Federal and Feeding America® launched No Plate Left Behind to connect military families with needed food. The campaign, which runs through Oct. 31, directs donations to the Feeding America network of local food banks with large military populations in their service areas.
The credit union is also collecting nonperishable food donations this month at bins on its main campuses and in Navy Federal Branch locations. And the credit union is encouraging employees to donate or use their paid leave to volunteer to a food bank in their community. Earlier this month, Navy Federal raised awareness around hunger in military communities and solutions to it on Hunger Action Day with virtual and in-person learning opportunities.
And that’s just September.
Year round, Navy Federal supports Feeding America and its affiliates through food drives, and employees use paid volunteer leave to volunteer at food banks and organizations that combat hunger in their communities. Many employees, like Leggett, have received grants to donate to organizations fighting food insecurity. This year more than a dozen employees donated $1,000 awards to food-related organizations through the Dollars for Doers program.
“We’re always working to create a culture of community among our team members,” says Jennifer McFarren, head of corporate social responsibility at Navy Federal Credit Union. “We take a holistic approach to service, connecting employees to causes that most concern them and providing multiple avenues to give, whether through their time, treasure or talent.”
The full impact of these contributions is sometimes hard to see, Leggett says. But it’s real. “There's really no better feeling” than knowing you’ve helped someone sleep better at night. Nelson, for her part, says her life has come full circle. “I’m grateful to work for a company that allows us to give back to such an important cause—and one that assisted my family in our times of need.”Author Bio: Allison Stevens is a writer, editor and communications professional who specializes in strategic storytelling. A member of Navy Federal’s Corporate Communications team, Allison tells and shares stories about members who achieve their goals with the help of Navy Federal’s products and services and supports the team’s external communications and media relations initiatives. A former reporter, she holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a master’s degree in journalism.
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