(Photo by Randy M. Cauthron)
For the second school year in Spencer, volunteers at Hope Reformed Church and Living Word Outreach Ministries have partnered to try and curb the hunger issues faced by students in the school district.
Volunteers package some basic, easy-to-prepare items for young people to take home and eat over the weekend. Organizers think people would be shocked to know the hunger issue many students face.
"Joan Ebeling (former Spencer School District Superintendent Joe Ebeling's wife) was made aware of some kids who were actually scavenging dumpsters, looking for food," Rev. Al Dean, with Living Word, recalled.
He continued, "We do Club Armadillo at our church on Saturdays. We had kids eating three or four times what you would think a kid would eat. We started sending leftovers home with the kids. We still do that."
Rev. Russell Muilenburg and the church's Worship and Outreach Director Jean Blok had the same concern. The two church representatives got together to begin exploring a solution.
"Teachers said they had students come up to them during the week saying how hungry they were. The kids would ask other kids for their leftover food after they were done eating," Blok said.
"We researched for a year-and-a-half before we started the program. The only thing we wanted to do is make sure if we were going to do it, we were going to do it right."
Through the local Feed Our Children program, 113 students in the district were served during the 2011-12 school year, more than a 35 percent increase from the first year. Numbers ranged from 75 to 90 students served on a weekly basis when the program began.
With the addition of the district's summer meal program for students at Fairview and Lincoln elementary schools, the Feed Our Children program had the outlet it needed to continue providing children with food to help them get through the weekends. While not a perfect solution, it allowed the greatest access to those with needs.
This summer, bags are being prepared each week and distributed to the two school sites.
"Word is just getting out that it's available," Blok said. "To get themselves there to the school to pick them up is a little different this summer."
She added, "We are packing 50 bags a week. This is kind of an experiment this summer. We don't have specific names. We split them and drop them off at the schools and the people providing the lunch guide the disbursement."
"One of the dilemmas in the summer time is kids don't have to be there like they do during the school year," Dean said.
With a growing need among kids, the growing need for helpful hands, and supporting funds, continues as well.
"Virtually it's turned into a year-round project. Because of that we would encourage any financial support people would want to contribute," Dean said.
"The first year was a piece of cake. People came out of the woodwork," Dean said of the local commitment of volunteers and financial resources. "The second year we made it. We never had a shortfall. Our budget for the second year was $26,000."
The Living Word pastor said dollars were running short as the new year approached last December.
"At the end of the year we were virtually down to pennies and we still had the need. Someone walked a check in for $5,000 and that got us into the first of the year, and the money just started coming in and kept us going," Dean said.
Contributions have provided the two churches with funds they need to cover provisions through the end of July. But when school resumes in the fall, new dollars will be needed to meet the needs.
"It's not going to get any less the way things are. I don't want to be negative, but that's the reality right now," Dean said. "When we got things going, Faith Lutheran, First Congregational, Sacred Heart and United Methodist churches all stepped up and provided help. We've received very generous gifts from our local business community."
The group - which meets at Hope Reformed Church to pack bags at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays - will continue providing the bags through the end of July, at which time the school summer lunch program will end and they will no longer have a way to get them to the students. Organizers are hopeful the dollars will be in place to begin serving the kids again when school starts in the fall.
"Last year we started in October," Blok said. "Since we've gotten so organized, we'll probably be ready to start by the middle of September. That all depends on the school's ability to identify the children in need."
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How can I help?
To make a contribution to Feed Our Children, send donations to:
Living Word Outreach Ministries
Attn: Feed Our Children.
PO Box 387
Spencer, IA 51301
Checks should be made out to "Feed Our Children."