Pat Bellinghausen: 8th-graders show community how to feed hungry teens

2014-04-06T00:00:00Z Pat Bellinghausen: 8th-graders show community how to feed hungry teensBy PAT BELLINGHAUSEN The Billings Gazette
April 06, 2014 12:00 am  • 

More than 220 pounds of food has been distributed to more than a dozen needy families since March 12, and a new pantry is stocked to help more. The Lewis & Clark Teen Pantry is the brainchild of eighth-graders Paloma and Sophia Whitaker.

I first heard about the teen pantry in an email from Sophia and Paloma — the best email I’ve ever received.

“My sister and I were inspired by a story you did in November about our school,” the girls wrote. A column from my Educator for a Day visit mentioned that 42 percent of students at Lewis and Clark were eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Sophia and Paloma were looking for a community service project. They had each received $100 from the Two Roads project to do a service project. Lewis & Clark geography teacher Jamie Jarvis created Two Roads several years ago.

“Your article took us on a journey!” the sisters wrote. “Along the way, we have met some wonderful people in our community who care about hunger and food insecurity related to children in our community. With the support of some wonderful teachers and counselor, the Lewis & Clark Teen Pantry is up and running! Our counselor, Mr. Kevin Brook, is getting food into the backpacks of our peers.”

The girls researched food programs in other schools and consulted Ginny Mermel, a dietitian who runs the Backpacks for Kids program in elementary schools and assists with food pantries in high schools. The twins learned that Riverside and Castle Rock had food pantries.

They decided to start one at Lewis & Clark. A previous pantry project didn’t work out several years ago, according to Principal Steve Pomroy, who was doubtful the middle schoolers would respond to the latest effort.

Pomroy has been pleasantly surprised. Students in need are using the pantry.

“It’s a great thing,” Pomroy said last week.

Pomroy says the latest count on free/reduced meal participation is 46 percent at his school. That means 321 of 696 students are from families of low income. Not all are at risk of going hungry at home, but some are. Lewis & Clark also has at least 21 homeless students.

The twins organized a school food drive that helped stock the pantry.

“That was a good way to get the word out,” Paloma said.

“We did a lot of fundraising,” Sophia added.

As of last week, they had raised more than $2,300 from family, friends, speaking at service clubs and First Presbyterian Church and a $500 grant from Sodexo Youth Foundation.

One requirement of that grant is holding an event during Global Youth Service Week, so the sisters got help from friends at St. Francis Upper. Jack Leuthold, Ben Stiles and Sam Gray are organizing a food drive at St. Francis on Tuesday. Donations will go to the Lewis & Clark Teen Pantry.

“Mr. Brook was instrumental to our project,” Paloma said. “We really needed a teacher to back it up because we’re not going to be here next year.”

For his part, Brook credits health enhancement teacher Alina Chirrick for her work on the pantry.

“A lot of students don’t want people to know they don’t have food at home,” Sophia said.

To protect student privacy, Brook talks individually to students he thinks may need food assistance. If the student wants help, he fills the student’s backpack with more than enough food for a family meal. In the first three weeks, the counselor has already filled some backpacks twice.

Sophia and Paloma have provided an important service to students at their school. But their pantry project is much bigger than that. These teens have touched hearts across town and helped countless other people serve our community through donations and food drives. Kudos to the Sophia and Paloma and their eighth-grade friends at St. Francis.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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