By Peggy Wuenstel – I wrote a few months back about a project we have begun in our small rural elementary school called The In-Out Pantry. We recognized that students who receive breakfast and lunch daily at school may face an empty table at home on the weekend. The working families among us cannot always visit the food pantry in town, which is only open during weekday daytime hours. We are privileged to work with students and families who have a true desire to help others. The leadership curriculum includes public service. Add these components together and the In-Out Pantry was born.
We started by piggybacking with our annual fundraiser for the local food pantry called Super Arts Night. The former food service director of our school district and his family provide delicious all-you-can eat soups and the kids provide the entertainment in performing and visual arts. This year we added a collection to stock our own school-based pantry with items to provide nutritious breakfasts and lunches on the weekend. The pantry has taken up residence under the main staircase in our building’s entrance where it is on clear view for all visitors and residents of our building. The guidance program created a lovely piece of artwork that now hangs above the table. Its chrysanthemum-like bloom is created with the tracings of our students’ “helping hands.”
Since its beginnings, there has never been a time when the table is empty. When I notice something is in short supply and add it to my shopping list, it invariably turns up on the table, and in great abundance. Donations are not a single can of soup, but a case. There is not a single box of cereal, but a half-dozen there in the morning. Our building secretary has informed me that when substitute teachers report for work in the morning, some of them have begun bringing items for the pantry. Kindness and generosity appear to be contagious. No donor ever leaves a name, but some do leave a note. Coffee for moms and dads has appeared with a smiley face sticker. Birthday cake mix, frosting and festive decorations surfaced the other day. People regularly check to see what is in short supply and as soon as a need is noted, it is filled.
One other thing that has grown is the pride that the participating kids have in dropping off the empty backpacks early in the week and taking them home filled to their families on Fridays. They get the sense that they are helping their families by their conscientious participation. Some have even started to ask for the specific things they see on the table because a family member really enjoys them. I keep a supply of items in my classroom for reading students to earn as incentives rather than stickers or other trinkets. This puts students who would normally be pantry participants in a position to be pantry donors and they are proud to do so.
In addition to food items, we include books at appropriate reading levels for participant families’ children. We received a very generous donation of books from a retired teacher who lives in our community. She offered us a wealth of great reads for 3rd through 5th grade students. This left a dearth of materials for our younger students. Again, the loaves and fishes miracle occurred. The Whitewater LEADS organization offered the leftover donations from our community Literacy Night to be donated in these weekly care packages. The majority of those books are for early readers.
It is always reported that the meal that is shared tastes much better than the one eaten alone. Stone soup, pot lucks, and community meals are successful not just because of what we give, but because of what we get as well. Our food pantry allows us to share in meals that we will taste only through the smiles of those who benefit from our community’s care for others.
The loaves and fishes process extends far beyond this program. Teacher requests via e-mail in the morning – for a specific book title, baking soda for a science demonstration, or saline solution for a troublesome contact lens are almost always filled by our first recess break. We cover recess duties and classrooms when family emergencies require staff to leave early to attend to matters at home. We have come to the aid of those who have experienced personal loss or disaster through weather or fire in our community. We console, support, and replace what we can, and help mourn what we cannot. Hopefully we will never forget what a miracle this is.
As I face retirement next year, I am struggling to let go of the supplies I keep on hand to be “that person” who will have what you need. Blue tagboard for a friend of my son working on a school project, a snack for a child who has none, the materials needed to enrich a lesson. I have been reluctant to part with anything that I think someone might need to ask me for. My loaves and fishes experiences this year have taught me that there is abundance all around, that I live and work in a community that cares and will provide what is needed, and that is an everyday miracle that we can all rejoice in.