Helping Hands Making a Difference

By Brad McEwen

It’s staggering to think that at least one third of the roughly 14,000-plus students in the Dougherty County School System don’t know where their next meal will come from.

But that’s the reality we are facing.

While many of those children are thankfully able to get at least two meals during each school day, once they leave the school grounds, there’s no guarantee those children, or their families, will have adequate food to eat.

For far too many of our school children, nights, weekends and school breaks mean once again having to grapple with the very real pangs of hunger.

But thanks to a new program currently being implemented in several Dougherty County Schools, those extended periods of hunger may one day be a thing of the past.

Following a successful pilot run at Albany’s Morningside Elementary School, an additional 11 county schools will soon be taking part in the Helping Hands Ending Hunger: Kids Helping Kids program that addresses the growing issue of food insecurity that’s facing so many area families.

“We know we have a lot of students who have hunger issues and who might not have enough food to eat in the house,” explained retired educator Cathy Revell, who is overseeing the implementation of the Helping Hands program in the school system. “We have such a poverty level and we have kids that have hunger issues, food insecurity. They come to school mighty hungry because they haven’t had enough to eat at home.

“And I know, from being a teacher, that they’ve got to be healthy in order for them to learn.”

Cathy, who retired from the Dougherty County School System as director of the district’s gifted education program after a 30-year career as an educator, explained that the Helping Hands program, which originated in the Trion City School District in Trion, GA, can go a long way toward combating that food insecurity problem, while simultaneously cutting down the amount of food that is being wasted in so many area schools.

Essentially, the Helping Hands program piggy-backs off the school district’s free meal program, by providing an opportunity for uneaten and unopened food to be collected each day and put to good use.

Then at the end of the week, that food is divvied up among selected students and sent home in special bags so that the students’ families can have nutritious food to eat over the weekend.

“This is a program where unopened milk, juice, and prepackaged foods are collected at breakfast and lunch,” Cathy explained. “They’re stored through the week and on Friday, bags are packed—grocery bags for the non-perishables and cooler bags for the perishable foods—and are sent home with students for the weekend.

“These are kid-friendly foods that the children can open and eat themselves.

“This is already paid-for food that once it comes out of the cafeteria, out of the lunchroom, it cannot go back into the lunchroom. This is how we’re able to keep it from going in the trash.”

Cathy explained that at each school which takes part in the program, student volunteers who have been recommended by the administration and then interviewed and vetted by Cathy, man a special cart at each meal period. Students who go through the lunch line and pick up food, can then place any of the unopened, prepackaged food they picked up, in the cart when they finish their meal.

The student volunteers, under the supervision of an adult, record what is collected each day and then store the food in a special location designated by the school until the end of the week.

On Thursday the collected inventory is tallied up so that a team of community and school volunteers can arrive after lunch on Friday and begin dividing up that food inventory among the number of students receiving the bags.

“Everybody’s bag is basically the same, but not all the same, all the time,” Cathy said. “The volunteers just pick up a grocery bag and there’s a number on the table for each week, like two cereals, three graham crackers, that tells them what goes in each bag.

“Then we do the same thing with the cold stuff. We bring down the milk and juice, the frozen fruit cups, the cheese, that kind of thing, and then put those in the cooler bag. Then we’ve got them separated by grade level.”

At the end of each Friday the students who are taking part in the program are called to the cafeteria to pick up their bags so they can take them home for the weekend.

Cathy did say that there is one caveat to receiving the bags, and that’s that the children are required to bring the insulated cooler bags with their names on them back to school at the beginning of the following week, since the bags are expensive and are provided through community donations.

“They know if they don’t bring the bag back they won’t get the food,” she said.

Aside from a few hiccups, though, the students have all made it a point to bring the bags back because the food is so important to their families.

By all measures, Cathy said, the pilot program at Morningside has been a success. She said currently there are 47 children receiving food bags, and when considering the fact that the food in each bag helps support others in those children’s families, Cathy estimates that the pilot program is impacting 109 kids per weekend.

It’s because of positive results like that, that school system officials have now opened the program up to other schools.

Cathy, along with Helping Hands Ending Hunger Inc. founder and CEO Carla Howard, recently presented the program to all area principals and 11 of them have decided to join Morningside this year and are planning to implement the program in their schools in the coming months.

“I’m very pleased with the fact that we have 12 of our schools who have already committed that they want to participate,” said Dougherty County Superintendent of Schools Ken Dyer. “Principals have a lot of things to do and this is no small undertaking.”

Indeed, in order for a school to implement the program there a multiple things that need to happen. First off, the schools have to commit to providing space to store the food and they have to provide student volunteers to man the food cart each day. The schools will also have to work with their community partners to find volunteers to help pack the bags each Friday. Additionally, there are various start-up costs associated with implementing the program.

Cathy estimates a cost of roughly $1500 for each school, which includes the purchase of the insulated bags for the cold items and the estimated cost for obtaining the refrigerator, freezers, coolers, etc.

But, Cathy said, she is committed to working with each school to find ways of mitigating those costs by reaching out to each school’s partners in excellence and other community partners that might be willing to provide support.

She said she has already found community partners willing to donate things like refrigerators, freezers, and milk coolers to store the cold items, and others willing to provide money and volunteers. Additionally, her team of trained volunteers from Albany’s First Methodist Church has agreed to handle training for students and future volunteers to get each school going in the right direction.

“What we’ll do now is, I will reach out to the schools’ partners in excellence for funding and/or volunteers,” Cathy said. “Then we’ll reach out to the community for people that might be willing to help with startup costs. I’ve already had a couple of businesses that have heard about it that have contacted me.

“The only thing the schools are going to have to do is provide a locked place to put our food and our refrigerator in, like a room or a closet,” she said. “We’ve got all the forms. We give out all the forms. We talk to the students. We train the volunteers. The schools will have to take ownership of the program eventually, but we will be there with them.”

Cathy said based on the response she’s gotten thus far, she doesn’t foresee any problems getting the program implemented in the schools that have decided to offer it.

In fact, the response she’s gotten from members of the community she’s shared the program with, mirrors the excitement Carla Howard experienced when she first unveiled the program in the Trion City School District.

“The reaction’s been great because everyone that we’ve spoken to recognizes the need, but no one knew how to address it,” Carla explained. “What we’ve gotten are open arms and people saying, ‘Thank goodness somebody’s finally doing this,’ because it needed to be done. It is making a difference.

“We’re seeing immediate results with these kids as far as their ability to focus in school and how much happier they are once they get there.”

Carla raised a good point when mentioning the correlation between hunger and a student’s performance in school, because there’s no denying that students who are facing difficulties outside of the classroom have a harder time concentrating and performing in a school setting.

Both Cathy and Ken also pointed out that one of the most important things about the Helping Hands program is that it has a definite benefit in the classroom.

“We believe in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory as it applies to education,” Ken explained. “If a kid’s hungry or a kid doesn’t have shelter, a stable housing environment, then they’re more concerned about that than they are about what’s going on in Math class or English class.

“It impacts learning.

“The Helping Hands Ending Hunger program is one piece of a larger, wraparound services program that we’re trying to implement in the Dougherty County School System. We have a lot of needs in our area and those needs sometimes impact learning. We have academic needs and non-academic needs and a lot of times the non-academic needs serve as barriers to learning.

“We have been very intentional about establishing strategic partnerships so that we can meet the non-academic needs of the students that we serve,” Ken continued. “We do a pretty good job of meeting the academic needs in the classroom, but again, a lot of those barriers that impact learning are non-academic in nature.

“The majority of students in our service area are food insecure, which means that if they’re not in a structured program, they don’t know where their next meal’s coming from. So our principals recognize that and they see an opportunity to partner with our community organizations to help meet those needs.

“Really we try to educate and develop the whole child, not just academically, but socially as well. And there’s no better example of that than programs like Helping Hands Ending Hunger.”

The fact of the matter is, the Helping Hands program makes so much sense that since its creation in Trion, GA in 2015, it has spread to multiple school districts in northern Georgia and has been endorsed by Governor Nathan Deal, the Department of Public Health and Georgia’s state school superintendent.

“The concept is spreading quickly,” said Carla. “State superintendent Richard Woods, he’s now aware of our program. I’ve met with him three times already and he really would like to see this program spread throughout the state and hopefully we’re going to be able to get together and figure out how to make that happen.”

Carla said she is very encouraged by the response she’s gotten from the schools that have already started to participate, and she said she’s excited to have schools in Dougherty County implementing the program.

“Dougherty County is the first to approach it in South Georgia, which I’m thrilled about,” she said. “It’s one of those programs that once people see it in operation, they just fall in love with it. It is easily replicate-able and made to fit any school’s process and logistics. And I think that’s what makes it something that really deserves to be in every school system that wants it.”

Of course it’s not always a requirement for people to see the program in action to know that it is something that can make a difference.

Cathy said she knew it was a good idea as soon as she heard about the program from a friend of hers who happened to strike up a conversation with someone connected to the Trion City School District while on a beach trip.

“I just felt like it was something that we needed to do to rescue the food out of the garbage and use it to feed the kids that are hungry,” Cathy said.

Although she knew it was good idea, it was another year before she leveraged her relationship with the school system and Morningside, where she’s been volunteering for years, and convinced the school and the superintendent to let her establish the pilot program.

“It’s just the way God works,” she said. “I knew about the program the summer before, but God put it on my heart this year. He said, ‘It’s something you have to do.’ So I went to see Ken Dyer the first week of school because I knew he had to get in on it. And he’s all for it.”

Now that things are up and running at Morningside and other schools are now lined up to start the program as well, Cathy said she’s excited about the momentum and is looking forward to seeing additional success.

“It is a really neat program,” she said. “It gets me excited. I’m fired up. I’m ready to get going. I’m very driven and I’m ready to get the show on the road.”

And Cathy isn’t the only one who is excited about getting things going in other schools.

It seems anyone who has seen the program in action is not only excited about the fact that students with hunger issues are being taken care of, but also thrilled to see a massive reduction in food waste.

Both Carla and Cathy feel it’s important to focus on the fact that Helping Hands stops perfectly good food from ending up in the garbage.

“It would floor you to see what was ending up in the trashcan,” Cathy said. “I mean, even the custodians have talked to me about how much less trash and garbage that they’re taking out. It’s incredible.”

As an added bonus for helping to rescue food, Cathy said that certain items that are not eligible to be collected for the students receiving bags, are still being collected and then taken to the rescue mission.

For example, open fruit cups prepared in the cafeteria and not prepackaged cannot go home with the students, but they are still collected and put to good use as a donation to the mission.

Of course, the real measure of how well the program is being received, however, is by seeing the reaction from the students and the families who are getting the food.

Cathy said the students—who are chosen on a first come, first served basis after their families have completed a non-invasive needs form and signed a release stating they understand where the food is coming from—aren’t at all self-conscious about receiving the food bags and are simply proud they have an opportunity to take food home to their families.

“They’re all very interested,” Cathy said when asked about the reaction from the students when sign up forms for the program were first sent out to the families. “They all wanted the form. I probably go over to Morningside two or three times a week and I never go over there that I don’t have a child asking me if it’s too late to turn in the form, or wanting to know, ‘did you get my form?’

“I have one, little boy, every time I see him, ‘Are we gonna get our food today?’ I’ll say, ‘You’ll be getting it on Friday.’

“And that boy’s mother did come one time and had to pick him up a little early on a Friday and we didn’t quite have the bags ready. She just said, ‘Oh, this is really so important to us. I’ll wait a few minutes so she can get it ready.’

The program also has a positive impact on those students who are chosen as volunteers to man the food cart and collect the items each day.

Cathy said those children are chosen by the school and then she conducts a little interview with them which helps them become more prepared for the future. “I had them fill out a little job application, the ones that they recommended to me,” Cathy said. “They had to tell me why they wanted to be a part of the program and why they should be chosen, you know give them a little bit of life skills.

“I got responses like, ‘I like to help other people,’ and ‘I want to help other people.’ And they would say, ‘I do my job,’ or ‘I can be trusted,’ or ‘I know how to behave.’”

Once chosen, those student volunteers—most of whom are not recipients of the food bags—not only have an opportunity to help their fellow students, they are learning important life lessons about the fact that every person is facing their own set of difficulties.

“Obviously the program impacts the students who receive the food because they get food for the weekend where they otherwise may not have food to eat, or as much food to eat,” Ken pointed out. “But even more than that, the students who volunteer to serve as captains and collect the food and make sure the food is put in the right place, those students are volunteering and they’re learning the value of servant leadership, helping others.

“They’re learning that even though you may not be in need, other people are in need. And they are learning how rewarding it is to help other people.

“So they learn the message that helping your fellow man is important. Hopefully that’s a life lesson that they’ll take with them beyond Morningside, through middle school, high school and throughout their lives. That’s an important character trait we’re trying to build with those students in Dougherty County, the concept of servant leadership.”

Ken added that while 12 schools will be starting the Helping Hands program this year, he shares Carla’s and Cathy’s hope that all Dougherty County schools will eventually take on the program.

“I’d love to see it throughout the community at all of our schools, but we asked for volunteers first because we want to grow it responsibly,” he said. “We don’t want it to get too big that we can’t manage it.

“So as we perfect the process, we can grow it responsibly throughout the school system where it makes sense. And I think it makes sense in all of our schools.

“I think once we’ve demonstrated to them the enormous success we’ll have, in terms of making an impact in the lives of kids, I think most of our remaining schools will gladly participate.

“The concept is a simple concept, but the impact is immeasurable.”

Anyone wishing to get involved or support the Helping Hands Ending Hunger: Kids Helping Kids program can contact Cathy Revell at 229.347.3425 or via email at bobcatrev@att.net.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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