Local food pantries benefiting from school volunteers
Local food pantries benefiting from school volunteers
Walk into one of the myriad food pantries scattered across northeast Massachusetts and you’ll see a small cadre of volunteers sorting, packing, and handing out food. Look closely, and chances are you’ll notice some of the helpers are under 18.
Some may be there to fulfill community service projects; others may be as young as 7 and have just learned to read. If you take them aside and ask why they help, most will say the same three words: It feels good.
“It builds confidence and makes you feel good,’’ said John Markowski, who is 11 and lives in Manchester.
Markowski, along with 15 of his classmates from Shore Country Day School, arrived at Beverly Bootstraps’ food pantry last week with 773 pounds of food that will be given away for Thanksgiving. Carrying bags of olives, stuffing, sauces, and cake mixes, the students quietly handed the bags to pantry workers who weighed the food and thanked the volunteers. Over the last month, this scene has been repeated across the region as food pantries gear up to provide fixings for the Thanksgiving holiday.
“In the old days we used to send a check to a far-away organization,’’ said Elizabeth MacCurrach, head of the lower school at Shore Country Day, a private school in Beverly with 435 students. “We now feel it’s very important for the kids to be involved - to get their hands on, to talk to people, to learn about their community and what’s needed so that they understand the importance of giving back.’’
Shore is one of the many schools in the area that have helped out the Beverly food pantry for more than a decade. For the last 20 years, students at Glen Urquhart School - another private school in Beverly, with 220 students - have collected food each month for the pantry. The collection is organized by second-graders, who urge classmates to bring food monthly to the school lobby. There, second-graders cart it into their classroom, sort it into food groups and, along with their teacher, count the individual items. According to the school’s director of admissions, Leslie Marchesseault, the community service project teaches them to give and to count.
“It’s a learning experience for the kids,’’ said Marchesseault. “They make a chart every month of what they’ve received and they keep a tally of what they’ve collected.’’
Last month, the school’s second-graders collected 274 pounds of food for the Beverly pantry. The school, which includes community service in its curriculum, also raises about $8,000 every year during Christmas for the pantry.
Glen Urquhart second-graders Margaret Patrick and Gannon Costello believe that it is natural to help others. Patrick says she thinks about people who lost their jobs when she packs the food; Costello says he feels sad that all people don’t have access to food.
Marchesseault thinks the experience empowers children and gives them a glimpse of their community.
“I think the first-hand experience is critical,’’ she said. “As parents, we tell kids they should be appreciative and it’s hard for kids to understand that until they go and have their own experience and see that people don’t have enough to eat. It brings the message home much more than talking to kids. They learn by doing.’’
For over a decade, teens from Cape Ann YMCA have arrived each week to stock shelves, take out the garbage, and give away bags of food at the Open Door Food Pantry in Gloucester. Each year, dozens of teens take part in a drive that raises $2,000 and 8,000 cans of food for the pantry. Rick Doucette, who oversees the YMCA teen program, says the volunteer experience is invaluable. “As much as the kids are helping, I think they’re also being helped by having a place to go and be of service,’’ said Doucette.
On a recent afternoon, Alex Jones, Shannon Gallagher, and Heather Boudrow formed a line in the pantry’s stock room, unloading cartons of tuna fish and canned gravy. Within minutes, they shifted to the pantry’s front desk, where they filled refrigerators with milk and eggs, and straightened out shelves filled with canned vegetables, cartons of macaroni and cereal, and juice boxes.
Gallagher, who is 16 and a junior at Gloucester High School, says the volunteer time is a welcome change from the barrage of electronics - such as cellphones, texting, Internet surfing, and iPod listening - that most teenagers indulge in daily.
“This is where I let go of the small problems that don’t mean much; the normal high school drama,’’ said Gallagher. “Here, it’s just so real. You take a step back from the comfort of your house and school and you see a different side of things. I like that.’’
Jones, 17, also from Gloucester, has volunteered several hours at the pantry each week since 2009. After stocking shelves, flattening cartons, and working in the pantry’s kitchen to prepare community meals, he says he feels better about life. “I’ve learned good work ethics. I didn’t do much work before I got here,’’ said Jones.
Boudrow, 16, of Gloucester, believes more kids would volunteer if they were asked. “I think a lot of kids want to do it. They just need someone to show them the way,’’ she said.
Each Saturday morning, Samatha Castillo spends a couple of hours handing out bags of food to guests at the All Saints Food Pantry in Haverhill. Last month, she decided that the pantry could also use a literary component and huddled with teachers and students at Haverhill High School, where she is a senior. Since then, she’s collected hundreds of adult and children’s books for the pantry.
Castillo, 17, said the experience has taught her that she can make a difference. “It makes me feel like I’ve done something instead of sitting at home or watching TV,’’ she said.
Catherine Murray spends her Wednesday nights unloading a bread truck at the Tree of Life Food Pantry in Lynn. Murray, 17, and a senior at Lynn Classical, said there’s an ineffable satisfaction that comes with the responsibility of volunteering. “The whole point of volunteering,’’ she said, “is to do stuff and not expect anything in return.’’
Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@WriteRosenberg.