EV students rally in the fight against hunger SanTan Sun News

EV students rally in the fight against hunger

September 15th, 2018 | by SanTan Sun News
EV students rally in the fight against hunger
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By Coty Dolores Miranda, Contributor

Food drives are a major weapon in the war against hunger in the East Valley, and among the greatest contributors are area schools.

From elementary levels to high schools, students in the region have risen to the call for help in reducing food insecurity.

“Nearly 30 percent of our neighbors are struggling with hunger,” said Tyson Nansel, United Food Bank spokeswoman said.

Added Melissa Forrester, United Food Bank’s community engagement manager:

“Food insecurity is when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. It’s children in school who are hoping they’ll get something to eat when they go home.”

Both women have witnessed the ongoing generosity of East Valley communities, especially area schools, and remain optimistic that the new school year will see kind souls with open hands helping to fight hunger.

For many, it has become an annual race to win the coveted “Tin Can Trophy’ for their school in United Food Bank’s Kids in Need competition.

This competition runs through March, and can be joined at any time. It can run only a week, a month or be tied to just one event of gathering canned foods.

In the junior high/middle school division, one school is a regular winner through student and staff efforts that have the office area entry massed with barrels overflowing with food items.

“Desert Ridge Junior High School is absolutely phenomenal,” said Forrester.

Desert Ridge, a Gilbert Public Schools facility located in Mesa, serves only seventh and eighth graders.

But its front office credenza sports more than 20 Tin Can Trophies amassed from its annual efforts since students became seriously involved in the fight against hunger during the 2001-2002 school year.

It shares the space with a green ceramic Rattler, the school mascot, while nearby hangs a wooden plaque containing the school’s annual can food drive tallies.

“I am extremely proud of our students, staff, and families for their continued efforts to support the East Valley United Food Bank,” said Principal Jean Woods, who was named Administrator of the Year in 2017 by the Arizona Association of School Psychologists.

“The first food drive in 2001 netted 3,500 pounds of food,” Woods said. “This year we had our biggest collection ever with 60,314 pounds of food. That is 30 tons of food – which required one semitruck and two large delivery trucks to haul everything away.”

The average student population at Desert Ridge is 1,200, and Woods said no one “dreamed our students could, year after year, break their own record while helping so many”.

“Everyone contributes to this most worthy cause,” she said. “The generosity of our families is beyond compare. Everyone knows this is what DRJHS does and all of our families support us beyond our wildest expectations.”

Woods, who has been at Desert Ridge since it opened in 2001, encourages other schools to get involved in putting together a United Food Bank Drive, even if it begins humbly as a one-day event.

“Our food drive is proof that when a school community comes together, it is possible to do the unimaginable. We’ve earned 13 Overall Winner and Most Pounds per Students awards.

“But it’s not the trophies that motivate us,” she added. “It’s knowing that we are making a difference for families right here in our own community.

“We know that if every school just committed to half of what we do every year, the students and families in Arizona could make a giant leap toward stamping out hunger in our state.”

Williams Field High School in the Higley School District also takes gathering food for the less fortunate seriously.

Students name November “Stuff the Bus Month” for United Food Bank and are often winners in the competition.

Mary Buscema, a school career center specialist, said she’s proud of her students.

“Williams Field High School is preparing to Stuff the Bus for the eighth year in a row. This is a school-wide project of love. Each year we come up with creative ways to reach out to our community for donations,” she said, adding:

“Our students are aware of how many families go to bed hungry and they want to make a difference. When the bus is packed, a group of students are driven to the United Food Bank to unload the bus and receive a tour of the facilities. They leave with a better knowledge of how the food is distributed to those in need.”

Buscema bragged, “We were thrilled when, on Dec. 19th, 2013, we were mentioned on the White House Blog regarding our success with this project.”

The school instituted the Stuff the Bus concept when Buscema was having lunch with transportation Supervisor Josh Crosby.

“We were discussing the lack of community service projects and this was a slap-my-forehead moment,” laughed Buscema. “I truly love being a part of this campus.”

Another successful food drive is held at Gilbert’s Carol Rae Ranch Elementary School, spearheaded by student council advisor and music teacher Carolyn Wilson.

“It is really important to me that our kids have the experience of helping others, and it correlates with our Character Counts program in the district,” said Wilson, who has taught music in Gilbert for 18 years, and opened Carol Rae Ranch Elementary in 2000.

Each year she and council members set a school-wide goal on the number of cans to collect, and establish classroom goals. The drive continues for up to nine school days.

“I always talk with my students about what the Food Bank does, and how important it is for us to help others,” she said.

“You never know what life may bring in your future, and I’m a big believer in the Golden Rule – treating others the way you want them to be treated,” Wilson added.

Wilson said she learned from experience how life can throw individuals and families a curve ball.

“I’ve had a time in my life when I needed help and it was very difficult for me to ask for it. I feel its our responsibility to help take care of others who need our help. I want my students to learn the importance of building each other up, and that there is strength in numbers when you’re helping others.”

According to Forrester, there are 300 or more schools within the United Food Bank service area that incorporates all of Pinal and Gila Counties and portions of Apache, Navajo and eastern Maricopa.

With 120 schools participating in food drives, she is hopeful other schools will become involved.

The annual competition is divided into elementary, middle school or junior high and high school categories.

To level the playing field, awards are based on collected pounds per student, with the school population determined on the 100th day of school.

“There are so many ways in which the schools can help host food drives,” she said. “Some specify a month for a drive like Thanksgiving or Christmas, others prefer to wait until February for a Month of Love drive.

“It can even be a one-time drive. Westwood High School hosts theirs at their preseason scrimmage games, requesting a can of food as admission,” said Forrester.

When asked how, after 10 years with United Food Bank, she maintains optimism, Forrester didn’t hesitate before replying:

“I feel blessed when I see our community choose to step up and help. I always share that no one is forced to donate; it’s not a mandatory thing.

“People choose (emphasizing the verb) to help those around us and I get a real feeling of greatness in our community when I see people donating their time and/or treasures. I get the privilege to watch people do good things for each-other for a living. Doesn’t get better than that”

Special; to SanTan Sun News

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