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Schools, community members step up to help families in need

Food pantries, hygiene packages and clothing closets open in schools across southeast Iowa to help students at home

Union photo by Gretchen Teske

Teachers in the Washington Community School District saw a need for clothing, school supplies and food and decided to do something about it. Together, they created the Kindness Kloset which operates out of Washington Middle School. The closet has clothes, hygiene products and school supplies for students and families in need as well as a food pantry. Other local districts have been following suit as well as the need has slowly grown over the last few years.
Union photo by Gretchen Teske Teachers in the Washington Community School District saw a need for clothing, school supplies and food and decided to do something about it. Together, they created the Kindness Kloset which operates out of Washington Middle School. The closet has clothes, hygiene products and school supplies for students and families in need as well as a food pantry. Other local districts have been following suit as well as the need has slowly grown over the last few years.
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As the need for hygiene products, food and clothing has become more apparent, local schools and food pantries have stepped up to offer students and their families free access to these products.

For Pat Williams, of Winfield, it all started with volunteering. While filling in for the school nurse in the Winfield-Mt. Union Community School District, Williams realized there was something off about the students coming into the office who complained of being sick.

The students had the classic symptoms of the flu; upset stomach, light headed and feverish, but she quickly realized what a lot of them had in common was that they were hungry. She recalled one child was not able to tell her what they ate all weekend.

That night, she went home to her husband Dale and told him about what she experienced. Together, they decided to do something about it. That something was contacting then superintendent Pat Coen who jumped at the chance to join their mission right away.

Coen was able to secure a conex box - a hard metal shipping container - which was placed outside the school. The box was lined with shelves for food storage, has heating and cooling and two refrigerators inside to keep frozen and refrigerated products. Williams calls it “the grocery store” and its become the headquarters for their campaign to keep area kids and families well fed.

When they first started the program, 32 backpacks were going out every weekend, Williams said. Now, they are down to 17. Each backpack includes enough food for at least two meals to help the families last the weekend.

“When we first started what we packed was pretty limited,” she said explaining Dale helps fund the program by picking up scrap metal in the area. Eighty percent of the food is paid for through this venture.

The food is either donated or purchased with donations in addition to the money Dale collects. He presents a handmade businesses card to everyone he meets along his journey. On the card it says that for $40 the Williams’ are able to pack a bag.

Since 2013, the program has grown and more and more businesses have continued to support their work. Seeing the small town come together to help out those in need has been humbling, she said.

“It’s been very encouraging to see how a community can rally to support those who need some temporary support,” she said.

Lisa Greenig, a math teacher at Fairfield Middle School, noticed a similar problem with some of her students. Although many families are able to take part in the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, she noticed many of the families did not have enough money to purchase basic necessities for hygiene products.

This prompted her into action to begin the hygiene closet. Students receive a newsletter to take home that explains there is a hygiene closet available for those who need extra help.

Once the form is completed, students drop it off in the school office and word gets back to Greenig. She packs a bag with all the items needed and puts it in the student’s locker, she said. Items available are for the whole family and range from toothbrushes to nail clippers to laundry soap.

The goal of the program is to help students and families in an anonymous, supportive way by alleviating the embarrassment of having to ask for help but still showing it is OK to need a helping hand.

Teachers at Washington Middle School in Washington saw a need for a food pantry, hygiene closet and even clothing and decided to create all three. A group converted a spare room in the building into the Kindness Kloset, which has clothes, school supplies and personal hygiene products available for students and their families.

Angie Shrader, a physical education teacher, said since closet opened its doors in August, it has served 50-60 students. Rachel Meyer, a social studies teacher, said students who would like something from the closet have a form to fill out or can be referred to by a teacher.

Meyer said it is heartbreaking to know there are students that need this assistance but she is glad to able to offer them support and has seen a difference in the confidence level of students. The food pantry at the school is also in operation, said Shrader. Students help fill backpacks which are then sent out to students at Lincoln Elementary who need the food stability support.

The Mt. Pleasant Community School District refers their students to the Fellowship Cup, a local food pantry that provides food, clothing and shelter to anyone in Henry County. Director Ken Brown said specifically for students, the fellowship cup has a summer lunch program that serves about 180 kids a day five days a week.

During the Christmas season, it adopts about 80 students and provides them with gifts as well as hosting a special pantry day during the Christmas and Thanksgiving seasons for families to come in and collect what they need to make a holiday meal.

The WACO school district in Wayland also has a backpack program that is free and open to any student and family in the district, according to the school website. The program is run by school staff and volunteers who work together and is completely funded by the community.

The New London Community School District considered adding a backpack program but instead decided to implement a food pantry in the school in January 2019, according to a previous article printed in the Washington Evening Journal. According to the article, about 38 percent of students in the district at that time qualified for free or reduce lunches.

According to the school website, Mid-Prairie West Elementary in Wellman also has a food pantry available for use by students and families. Anyone interested in donating to any of the programs may do so by sending cash or check to the school and dropping off donations in the school offices or at the Fellowship Cup in Mt. Pleasant.