The 11-year-old Florida girl loads backpacks full of food to feed her peers
Brooke Thomas remembers being just seven while going through the lunch line at Centennial Elementary School in Dade City, Florida, and catching her friends staring at her full tray.
“They didn’t have money in their account and I felt bad so I bought them food, she tells PEOPLE exclusively.
Her mom, Dianna Thomas, had no idea what was going on.
“Brooke was going through the lunch money in her account so quickly – quicker than you normally would – so I started asking her what she was buying,” Dianna, 42, tells PEOPLE.
“It turned out she was buying food for some of her peers at school,” she says. “I realized it was happening on more than one occasion, and that’s when we realized the issue with hunger in the area.”
It turns out more than seventy-five percent of the kids at Brooke’s school are on free and reduced lunches, so the family decided to do something more permanent to help.
They came up with the idea for what is now The Thomas Promise Foundation, a non-profit that has packed 200,000 meals – about 1,000 every week – for schoolkids in the Tampa area since its inception in 2012.
Brooke, now an 11-year-old who takes dance and horseback riding lessons, also spends several days a week at The Thomas Promise headquarters helping load backpacks full of food.
Her teachers say the adorable and bubbly blonde is an inspiration to her classmates.
“I wish I had more students like Brooke in the building that looked at life like she does,” Peggy Gilbert, her third-grade teacher, tells PEOPLE.
“She is the student that the other students know they can go to if they need anything,” she says.
“I think the foundation is remarkable,” she says. “I watch these kids go home with food that they might not have access to on the weekends and to know this all stemmed from Brooke’s young mind, it just blows me away.”
Each week, volunteers at The Thomas Promise Foundation pack and give away about a thousand backpacks filled with enough food to get students at 19 elementary and middle schools through the weekend.
They also offer a food pantry to the high school students in the area.
Dianna now runs the foundation. Brooke’s father, Wade Thomas, 44, the owner of a local car dealership, donated an empty building on his property that now serves as the foundation’s headquarters.
Area businesses donate money that the Thomas Promise then uses to shop with their partner, Feeding America, getting food at drastically reduced prices.
When Christy Cook, a mother of two boys, lost her husband – her high school sweetheart and the family’s sole provider – she could barely pay the bills.
The Thomas Promise gave the family food and school supplies for weeks.
“They helped us in our time of need,” Cook, 40, of Zephyrhills, Florida, tells PEOPLE.
“We lost everything,” she says. “They didn’t have to help us. They went above and beyond. What an amazing little girl.”
Dianna is amazed at how her daughter has stayed so involved in the cause over the years.
“I’m very proud of her,” she says. “It was very nice to see that she was so compassionate and so concerned at such a young age.
“You hope you’re raising them to be compassionate,” she says, “but to really see her want to make sure kids are receiving everything they need, she is just a great kid.”
As for Brooke, she’s just glad she’s able to help other kids.
“I feel good knowing they have food to eat over the weekend,” she says.
More Heroes Among Us: