Generally, when anyone thinks of high school they inevitably dwell on unpleasant memories. Although for me high school wasn’t like an episode of “Party of Five.” I had my moments of angst where I wallowed in self-pity. Most teenagers share these characteristics and have a tendency to overlook the truly important matters in life. For the average student, the issue of hunger is a distant worry and the thought that a fellow student would personally deal with hunger on a daily basis is unthinkable, but for many students, hunger is a reality they face every day.
Fortunately, programs like the W.H.I.R.E. provide hope and resources to students and their families. The program is based out of the Western Heights Public Schools district and provides services, like a food pantry, clothing closet, counseling and DHS benefits; it’s a program started in conjunction with School-based Social Specialists, or the SBSS. It also features the summer feeding program that provides students with meals during the long summer months. The entire resource center is the only one of its kind in the area and largely operates on its own, providing social services to anyone living within the district. When I visited the school pantry at the Western Heights Resource Center, I was really amazed at the diversity of resources offered by the school. I spoke to Angel, Jean and Jason who are the coordinators for the program. On average the school serves almost 30 to 40 families a month and has seen an exponential growth in the number of families needing assistance. The school’s student population is approximately 4,000 and of those students, 85 percent rely on free and reduced price school meals. The pantry itself has been in existence for six months and started after students asked about getting food assistance when visiting the clothing closet. The program’s coordinators also realized that there wasn’t a school pantry available to students and their families on their side of the city, thus, the pantry was born.
Since the summer, word of mouth about the pantry has spread, and clients include non-students who heard about the program and its services. It’s a unique feature of the pantry, the fact that anyone who lives within the district can have access to the services provided by the pantry. Students who utilize the service also have the chance to interact with social workers from the SBSS. Each school within the district is assigned with a social worker and this connection emphasizes the school’s mantra of providing the resources necessary for a child to thrive in his or her environment. Students who need extra help outside of receiving food and clothing get referrals to DHS or organizations like Infant Crisis Services. According to Angel, it’s not uncommon for a student to be the head of a household and serve as the main provider for the family, and they will often ask to be referred to resources outside of the pantry. When I asked about what drives the ethos of the program, Hayden the school coordinator, noted that the pantry serves as the nucleus of the program; students can report to the pantry for food assistance and find other sources of aid if it’s needed. I was really impressed by the W.H.I.R.E.’s ability to serve their community (and admittedly, I was also impressed with his use of the word nucleus and vowed to somehow incorporate the word in my own vernacular).
I asked Angel to give me a brief tour of the facility. The food pantry and clothing closest occupy a small amount of space within what was once the middle school, now converted to be the resource center. As we passed through the pantry, I noticed old chalk boards and other remnants from the school’s past. Angel makes sure to show me the walk-in freezer, now nestled towards the back of the old stage. She proudly picks up some vacuum-sealed frozen meats and mentions the impact having refrigeration and storage for perishable items has had on the pantry. The pantry does provide a wide range of what students and their families can have access to, beyond nonperishable items like dry pastas and canned goods. The freezer is piled high with the frozen product, most of which is donated by the Regional Food Bank. She also mentions that the food bank provides fresh produce for the pantry and shows me another cooler used to store fruits and vegetables.
I asked Angel about the students and their families who came into the pantry for assistance. She told me about one family who recently came in after being evicted from their home and were forced to spend a couple of nights living under a bridge. When the family was able to seek shelter at a nearby motel, they went to the school pantry for assistance. Other stories include that of a student attending Western Heights High School who often visits the pantry to get groceries for his mother and three sisters. He’s the main provider for the family and also lends his time to the pantry, volunteering to help the coordinators with the spare time he has.
The Western Heights School District’s W.H.I.R.E. program has grown substantially since its inception fourteen months ago; from its humble beginnings as a clothing closet to its present state as the district’s primary resource center. And the coordinators show no signs of slowing down their rampant progress. They hope for the program to become a fully operational “one-stop shop” for its clients within the year. The biggest challenge for the coordinators is facing the prospect of the food pantry’s inevitable fate of reaching capacity, when there are too many clients to serve and not enough food to hand out. Judging by what the program has accomplished so far, it’s a challenge they’ll meet head on.