Senator Joe Lieberman bestowed Amy Guerrieri, head of Old Greenwich-based nonprofit (RAMP), with a “Joe’s Hero” award during a media event held Friday at RAMP's headquarters at 187 Sound Beach Avenue.
Launched by Sen. Lieberman in 2003, the “Joe’s Hero” awards recognize the accomplishments of outstanding citizens, organizations and schools in Connecticut.
Guerrieri — who along with her husband Robert runs in Old Greenwich and recently launched a line of healthy juice drinks for children called Rockin' Waters — founded RAMP three years ago after she learned through an ABC 20/20 special called "A Hidden America" that millions of children were going to bed hungry every night in the impoverished communities of the Appalachian Trail. The flourishing organization aims to help the people of Martin County, Kentucky, through food assistance, school gardens, nutrition education, emergency response and small business loans.
Guerrieri told the soon-to-be-retired Senator — who attended the event with his wife, Hadassah — that when she saw the 20/20 segment "I woke Rob up right away and said 'We have to send some Rockin' Waters down there.'"
"I just couldn't believe that so many children were going to bed hungry at night right here in our own country — and that it is such a hidden problem," she said.
After contacting the producers of 20/20, Guerrieri was able to arrange for a tractor trailer filled with $4,000-worth of Rockin Waters, school supplies and personal hygiene products to be delivered to Martin County, which she and her employees then distributed with help from relief group Christian Appalachian Project.
"Thus RAMP was launched," she said.
Not long after she arrived in Martin County, however, Guerrieri saw a need to implement a more robust and sustainable program that would "actually make a change."
She said after she saw how poorly the some of the kids were eating, "I decided that what I wanted to focus on first was providing them with good nutrition."
"For a lot of these kids, school lunch is their only meal of the day," she said, adding that some of them go the entire weekend without eating a decent meal.
RAMP's inaugural program is its Backpack Snack program, in which backpacks are filled with nutritious snacks which are then distributed to students the last two Fridays of the month, when food stamps typically run out. This way the students have access to food through the weekend, ensuring they have something nutritious to eat before returning to school the following Monday.
Guerrieri said when the Backpack Snack program was first launched it served about 20 students — but it has grown quickly and now serves more than 360. There's still more than 500 more kids in Martin County who have been identified as being in need of the program, she said.
RAMP — which raises money through private donations and as well as via its newly-revamped Website — also offers educational programming to teach the children how to make healthy eating choices.
"Before we started this, some of these kids didn't know what a cantaloupe was, they didn't know what a cucumber was," Guerrieri said.
She said RAMP was fortunate to have formed a partnership with Whole Foods two years ago which enabled it to establish a nutrition education program — as well as gardening education program to teach the kids how to grow their own gardens. This led to the establishment of salad bars in all six school cafeterias. Whole Foods also assisted RAMP in establishing a chicken coupe for the community, as well as a food pantry serving 150 families.
Guerrieri said more recently RAMP formed a partnership with the Southeast Produce Council which will enable it to expand the food pantry to serve the entire community of 12,000 people. She said the Council has purchased two large refrigerator trailers and has agreed to pay the electricity for them, thus allowing the for a significant expansion of pantry operations.
Another recent development is the formation of a to assist county residents with repairing damage from storms such as the tornadoes that ripped through Eastern Kentucky earlier this year.
What Guerrieri is most excited about, however, is RAMP's new small business loan program, which will help foster economic development.
"Nine months ago we gave our first micro loan to a woman so she could start a quilt and apron company," she said. "Nine months later her quilts and aprons are in 40 Whole Foods stores; she employs four people in the community; and so far she has taken in $20,000…"
RAMP also plans to start offering micro-loans to high school seniors looking to launch their own businesses starting in October.
"A lot of these kids will not have the opportunity to go to college— and most of them will not leave Martin County," Guerrieri said. "So we decided to start a micro-loan program geared for high school seniors."
Run like a contest, RAMP plans to offer four seniors $4,000 each based on the feasibility of their business plans, which will be developed over the course of the school year.
In the beginning of the school year the students will be invited to submit business ideas, she explained. Then RAMP will bring in business and finance experts who will assist the students in the development of their business plans during the school year. RAMP will then pick the four best business plans and issue those students loans to jumpstart their ideas.
"The only criteria is that the student must be doing well in school," Guerrieri said. "In addition the business must be based in Martin County, to help with the economic development of Martin County."
What's more, Whole Foods has offered to buy any produce or other products out of Martin County that can be resold in its stores.
Guerrieri said the micro-loan program will also offer the students a year of business training, after they graduate, to help them get their businesses off the ground. In addition if a business starts to grow and needs an additional loan to keep up the momentum, it will be provided, she said.
"What we're really pushing for is to rejuvenate Martin County — to bring businesses back in downtown," she said. "Because it's all boarded up — there's no businesses there's no economy. The two biggest businesses there are the school system and coal mining."
Guerrieri said in offering the program, RAMP will emphasize that "kids who are focused on college should stay focused on college — because education is the most important thing — but we do want to provide this other opportunity."
Sen. Lieberman told Guerrieri that by establishing RAMP, she lit a flame of hope that should inspire others.
"My hope in giving out these heroes awards is not only to make the people who do such great things feel good and appreciated, but also frankly to get some attention to what you're doing," Sen Lieberman said as he presented a plaque to Guerrieri. "It is my hope that this will inspire others to light their own flames."
"I am coming to the end of an incredible 24 years in which the people of Connecticut have given me this remarkable privilege to be a US Senator," Lieberman said. "And the emotion that dominates me, at the end here, is gratitude — to the voters that gave me this chance, but particularly the people like you, who are extra special and extra good."
"You're not just a hero, you're a rocking' hero," Lieberman told Guerrieri. "God bless you — you're a real inspiration."