Big hearted tradie giving brekkies and smiles to vulnerable kids

"I’ll never forget one little girl. She was only five, barely old enough for school, and she turned up in a soaking wet uniform. When I asked her about it, she told me she only had one uniform and it was dirty, so she tried to wash it. It was still wet in the morning, but she had to wear it because she had nothing else,” said Ian Steel founder of Kickstart for Kids.

“I went to her house and found out she had zero belongings, zero clothes and zero love. She was living in a burnt-out car too scared to go inside her own home. I was horrified. That was the turning point for me.” 

Ian Steel was a big hearted tradie and a dad that loved coaching kids footy. He had always been interested in helping young kids, especially those doing it tough, and for him it was a no-brainer to respond to a local advertisement calling for mentors. Little did he know how this decision would change his life and the lives of thousands of children.

When Ian started mentoring, he found kids that couldn’t concentrate, that were anxious, angry, unable to make friends and struggling to sit still. They were nothing like his own kids and he wondered why. He began speaking with the kids, their teachers, principals, social workers and the parents he could find. He soon began to uncover the shocking realities of the tough and often hidden battles of children living in poverty in suburban Australia.

“There were 11-year-old boys coming to school with needle marks in their arms. Girls the same age, that hadn’t even hit puberty, talking about getting pregnant so they could get the baby bonus. These were just kids,” said Ian.

“There was one young boy that was so starving that he was eating dog food and going through the bins at the local park just to try and find food scraps for his brothers and sisters. It was just devastating and it totally changed my world. We actually ended up fostering this boy, but I couldn’t take them all home.”

Ian quickly realised that all these kids were hungry and he knew how much better they would feel with a full stomach in the morning to help them get through a day at school.

So before work Ian would load up his ute with cereal and milk, that he had bought himself, and head to one school to give breakfast to the kids who had gone without.

That was the start of Kickstart for Kids - a not for profit charity that helps children through breakfast, lunch and mentoring programs.

Almost 10 years on, Ian and his team of 600 volunteers are now giving breakfast to 50,000 children in 350 South Australia school every week.

“Every kid needs to have breakfast no matter what socioeconomic area they are from,” said Ian. 

“We offer breakfast to all the kids at the school, so those at risk don’t feel singled out and aren’t too scared to step forward. We fill their bellies and have a good chat. They can relax, be warm, feel safe and have fun. You immediately notice the kids become happier, friendlier and the teachers tell us they are able to concentrate and have a much greater ability to learn.

“With 50,000 serves of brekkie a week, I think we are almost there. We are making a big difference to local kids living in poverty, but then just last week I had another three schools sign up for the program.”

As well as brekkie, each week 10,000 cheese and spread sandwiches are packed, ready to give away for lunches, because Ian discovered that most kids who come to school without breakfast also have no recess or lunch.

Kickstart for Kids has also started a reading program, camps for the school holidays when many of these kids are at the greatest risk, and it is about to begin nutrition education too.

Ian is excited about starting tours at the Central Markets, Adelaide’s produce markets, to teach the kids the money they might spend on an energy drink or soft drink could go a long way when it comes to buying some fresh fruit and veggies - food that will not only fill them up for longer but will help give them the energy and goodness they need to feel better.

Ian never imagined that what started as one bloke doing what he could, by serving brekkie from his ute, would grow into a state-wide program helping thousands of children. He says he could not have done it without his dedicated army of volunteers and donations from individuals and businesses.

Kickstart is a partner of Sanitarium’s Good Start Breakfast Club program and Sanitarium provides 420,000 serves of Weet-Bix, So Good and other Sanitarium products each year to Ian and his team.

“It makes a massive difference. I don’t have to worry about feeding the kids because I know Sanitarium is always there to support us,” said Ian.

Kickstart for Kids is just one of many school breakfast club programs supported by Sanitarium across Australia. In 2001, the company started its Good Start Breakfast Club program and has partnered with Kickstart for Kids, Foodbank and the Red Cross to deliver more than 15 million serves of Weet-Bix to 2,200 school run breakfast clubs in every state.