The elementary school boy, wearing shoes two sizes too small and the same outfit day after day, wanted to help.
He’d stay late at the East Hills Village Community Center Kids’ Café program and start cleaning. He always wanted to know what else he could do.
Organizers knew something was up. Just a year ago, the boy often acted out and never offered to clean. He wasn’t what you would call a helper.
But now, he wanted to stay every night to do anything he could. When he stayed — after all the kids had gone for the day — he’d ask whether he could take an extra meal home.
Finally, staffers realized what was going on.
“He was bargaining, saying, ‘I’ll help you clean if I can take a snack home, take home another meal,’ ” says Megan Sturges of Phoenix Family Housing, which provides social services for 33 affordable-housing complexes in the area, including East Hills near 75th Street and U.S. 71. “It was heartbreaking.”
More than 100,000 kids in the six-county metropolitan area often don’t have enough food at home, according to Feeding America's Map the Meal Gap study. In some cases, the food insecurity is severe.
That’s why The Star is partnering with Harvesters for a second year on a virtual food drive to raise money and awareness for our hungriest children. Last year, readers donated $235,000 for the Harvesters’ BackSnack program, which provides packs of food each weekend to roughly 15,000 students in the 26-county area.
When staffers at East Hills realized that the little boy needed food, they asked more questions and researched his home life. They realized he wasn’t enrolled in school this semester. He wasn’t always being supervised or getting meals.
So when he went to the community center each afternoon, and devoured the light after-school meal provided to students, he still wanted more.
When he went home, he faced what many kids who live in poverty do, Sturges says. Their parents or guardians work long hours and spend little time at home, so the children often must fend for themselves.
“There were a lot of people in and out of his apartment,” Sturges said. “He was getting lost in the mix.”
Staffers with Phoenix Family made sure the boy was enrolled in school and had a more stable home life. They made sure he had shoes that fit. And they made sure the family had food.
“He’s not starving now,” Sturges says.