Donors take on hunger and poverty with a flash food drive

Once the other students had left the tables, done with their lunches, the little girl walked along and gathered up what was left. A couple of apples, a cup of peaches.

She cradled the food in her arms, trying to tuck it out of sight. She didn’t want anyone to know how much she needed it for later.

But Maria Sanchez-Chastain, the secretary at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic School, noticed the armload of fruit. Had to say something.

“This is going to be dinner for me and my mom tonight,” the little girl told her.

What happened next is something that happens so many times in Kansas City.

It’s happened for the past two years during three KC Challenges, as Star readers have read about hungry children and struggling families and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide Harvesters’ BackSnacks, weekly packs of food to tide children over the weekend.

It happened last week when readers touched by one Kansas City mom’s story provided money to get her gas turned back on for Christmas.

It also happened when a group of teenage boys in the Blue Valley School District learned earlier this year how bad childhood hunger is in this area and then formed a business that will send the majority of its profits to Harvesters.

And, yes, when Sanchez-Chastain encountered the girl at Guadalupe with the fruit, it happened once more.

The community saw a need. The community stepped up.

At Guadalupe, school faculty and staff knew that many of their students’ families struggle and that some of them are so poor that many times they go days without dinner.

About a third of the school’s 70 students, in kindergarten through fifth grade, come from homes where “sometimes there’s food and sometimes there’s not,” said Principal Joe Schramp. “The breakfast and lunch they get at school are often the only meals many get each day.”

Although Harvesters provides 17,000 BackSnack packs each Friday to students in a 26-county area, the program serves only public schools; it doesn’t go to schools that charge tuition, even when many students’ enrollment fees are paid by scholarships from other nonprofit agencies, as is the case at Guadalupe.

Sanchez-Chastain grew up in Kansas City’s Southwest Boulevard area. Her children went to Guadalupe, and she’s been the secretary there for about two decades.

Though she and others knew many of the families’ stories, they didn’t realize just how bad things were for some of them. What they discovered was that in the week before Thanksgiving, 25 families didn’t have enough food to get them through the long break from school.

At a school board meeting the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Schramp told a friend the story of the little girl smuggling fruit from the cafeteria because she was hungry.

The friend, Jeremy Lillig, is the director of Bright Futures, which raises scholarship money for needy children to attend urban-core Catholic schools in Kansas City, including Guadalupe. He pulled out his cell phone and posted the tale on his Facebook page.

He wasn’t sure if anyone would respond.

Chasing away winter’s cold

Across the metro area, stories of families going without — food, electricity, gas, water — play out every day, in every county.

That’s why Kelli, a mother of two featured in The Star’s hunger series this month, couldn’t believe it when people read about her family and were touched. She and her kids live in a rented three-bedroom home on the East Side.

Their gas had been turned off for months, and with winter coming, all she could do was plan to get more blankets from a food pantry to cover the windows. How would she keep her children warm when the weather turned frigid?

And when it comes to food, she’s never sure if they’ll have enough, especially if she can’t get to a pantry.

She told her story to show what some families go through, to share how much her family is helped by the weekend BackSnacks from Harvesters and the guidance and support of Operation Breakthrough’s Sister Berta Sailer. Never did Kelli think people would respond.

But this is Kansas City, Sailer said.

“People do want to help,” she said. “And they did.”

One woman wrote: “I would love to stock their pantry or fridge or just donate cash.” Another reader said: “I have this $50 bill burning a hole in my pocket. How can I get some cash to Kelli’s family?”

Others asked if she could use help with her gas bill. How about gift cards for food? Or Christmas presents for her son and daughter?

“To me, this is my daily life, how we live,” Kelli said recently. “But I guess it shocked them.  When you tell someone you’re working, they think you’re fine.”

Sailer said she has many working families who are trying to pay all the bills and put food on the table. Too often they run short.

Sailer spoke with people who dropped off money to help pay Kelli’s gas bill. Some talked of the food insecurity described in other stories.

“One woman told me she just didn’t know that kids were going hungry,” Sailer said. Another woman offered to help moms at Operation Breakthrough prepare to take their GED.

Within a week or so after Kelli’s story ran in the newspaper, people had donated enough to pay her $512.89 gas bill. The utility turned Kelli’s gas back on Thursday, but then she discovered the furnace didn’t work. Now she hopes her landlord will fix the furnace by Christmas so the family will have heat.

“We’ll be together and warm,” said Kelli, adding how grateful, and surprised, she was for the help from strangers. “I was in shock, really. I thought my situation was helpless.  This will brighten our Christmas.”

Soccer for a cause

When the holidays come around, Lori Mallory of Overland Park likes to give her triplet sons money to help other people. They can pick a family to help or give money to a nonprofit. Last year she called it The Big Give.

“I’ve always wanted to teach them it’s important to give back,” Mallory said.

Last Christmas, she and her teenage boys decided that maybe they could do something bigger with the money, something that would last longer than the Christmas season.

Mallory and her boys got to thinking. Maybe they could create an organization, a nonprofit corporation, that would raise money they could give to Harvesters. They could call it justONE, Mallory suggested, going off the idea that just one person can change things.

“My mom is a big thinker,” said her son, Sam Mallory, 16. “She thinks of big ideas.”

The three brothers, Sam, Joe and Tucker, took it from there. Each called up a couple of buddies and told them the idea. Before long, nine teenage boys from the Blue Valley district were researching the biggest issues facing families and young people.

Whatever they raised through soccer tournaments would go to a specific charity.

The causes that topped their list? A healthy water supply. Homelessness. Hunger.

In their research, the teens discovered that thousands of area children often don’t have enough food at home. That’s even the case for parts of Johnson County, where the teens live.

Childhood hunger ended up winning out.

“What we realized is we live in a very privileged area where we don’t see hungry kids,” said Tyler Kunkel, 16. He andSam Mallory are co-presidents of justONE. “Our friends aren’t hungry, we’re not hungry, but 1 in 5 kids in our region is.”

The teens’ first soccer tournament is scheduled for Jan. 2. This is where they’ll work the kinks out and learn what running a tournament will entail. They don’t think they’ll make a lot on this first one, but 100 percent of the profits will go to Harvesters.

The teens (eight of them are active in the organization) have applied the paperwork to make justONE a 501(c) 3 tax-exempt organization.

As their tournaments get bigger, they plan to give 55 percent of what they make to Harvesters and soon will meet with the food bank to discuss how the money can help young people. They’ll put most of the rest back toward growing justONE.

“We’re kind of giving back to people our age,” Sam Mallory said.

Tyler said they couldn’t turn their backs on hunger.

“We live in such a great area, things like this shouldn’t go on,” he said. “Kids shouldn’t be going hungry.”

A flash food drive

And at Guadalupe?

When Lillig put his post on Facebook, he couldn’t accept the idea that at least 25 families were heading into a five-day Thanksgiving weekend without enough food.

But would anyone else care enough to lend a hand?

Within seconds, he had his answer. His Facebook page exploded.

“It breaks my heart,” one friend posted. “If they (students) aren’t eating, that means their families aren’t either. Let me know how we can help.”

Within minutes, the Facebook friends had hatched a plan to collect a few bags of food to drop off the next day.

Lillig’s friends posted on their Facebook pages. Their friends posted it on their pages. Before Lillig knew it, he and his friends — a virtual community — had launched a flash food drive.

“About 1 a.m. that night one of my colleagues, Allison Hiatt, called and woke me from a dead sleep to tell me people were still ringing her doorbell to leave food for the children on her porch,” Lillig said.

School secretary Sanchez-Chastain, who was supposed to be off that Wednesday before Thanksgiving but went in just in case anyone brought food, set the first dozen bags of groceries on a table in the lobby.

Jan Kohl of Overland Park, one of Lillig’s Facebook friends, had stopped by the school on her way to work in downtown Kansas City and unloaded bulging bags from her car. After reading about the children at Guadalupe, she had shared the story on her page. Friends quietly showed up on her doorstep with sacks of food.

“I had never seen anything like this,” Kohl said. “But I was thrilled that it was happening and thrilled it was happening locally.”

The one table that Sanchez-Chastain had set up for the food was quickly overrun. Nine tables couldn’t hold all the food.

People from as far away as St. Louis stopped by Our Lady of Guadalupe that morning with bags of groceries. They came by car, truck and van with loads of groceries, stuffed animals and toys. Some dropped off checks or dug into their pockets and handed Sanchez-Chastain $10 and $20 bills.

Fruit, vegetables and bags of rice, beans and dried pasta eventually filled an entire classroom.

“I was blown away by the response,” Sanchez-Chastain said. “We started with the tables, then filled the hallway, then the classroom.”

Only 18 hours had passed since Lillig made that first cellphone post.

Sanchez-Chastain and other volunteers called school families that they knew needed food. Many of those families called the parents of other needy children at the school, and they also got food for the holiday weekend.

“It was very eye-opening to see just how many families needed the help,” Schramp said.

Christina Hernandez, who works in the mailroom of an area company, got a call from a friend, and after work she rushed to the school hoping there would be food left.

“I couldn’t believe it when I saw that classroom,” said Hernandez, who has a kindergartner attending the school and five other children — ages 2 to 17 — whom she wouldn’t have been able to feed that holiday.

“I came late and the classroom was still full of food,” Hernandez said. “I’m so grateful. Sometimes we get so caught up in our problems that we forget the goodness of people.”

Volunteers delivered some of the food to families who had no way to get to the school.

At one house, Sanchez-Chastain found “a family so poor there were no locks on the doors, so you could just push the door open,” she said. “There were no lights, no heat. They were cooking on a battery-operated burner.”

That evening Lillig made another post.

“We were able to serve over 25 families, start a food pantry in the school, and start a backpack program for our students in need. All in less than a day! Everyone was beyond overwhelmed at the response. Families with hungry children sobbed in gratitude knowing that someone out there cared.”

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