Like many non-profit organizations, Food For Students relies on help from a number of volunteers to keep its mission to feed Emporia kids alive. A special partnership between the nonprofit and students from the Transitions program has blossomed into something that perfectly exemplifies the “circle of giving.”
Transitions is a community-based program of the Flint Hills Special Education Cooperative designed to assist high school students through age 21 develop the life skills needed to work and live independently. While the program is housed in the Jones Education Center in Emporia, the Transitions program can work with students from all of the seven area school districts served by the cooperative.
Food For Students is a 100 percent volunteer-led program that provides more than 350 weekend to-go bags of food to children around the Emporia Public Schools District who come from food-insecure households every month. The bags are filled with nutritious items that children can prepare themselves. The bags are given out on Fridays so kids can have nourishment over the weekends, often the toughest time for kids who come from food-insecure homes.
USD 253 Student and Family Resource Specialist Heather Wagner said the Transitions students started volunteering with the program about three years ago when Food For Students was struggling to find a consistent solution for delivery days. Food For Students Board Members Chris and Ashley Walker had approached the district for help in organizing the deliveries.
“Packing never seems to be an issue, so it was kind of the delivery part that was causing some stress,” Wagner said.
Superintendent Kevin Case, who had just started his position with the district in 2016, suggested getting student groups involved. That’s when Wagner reached out to Transitions Program Director and Teacher Kari Wallace, who jumped at the chance.
Wallace said every student in the Transitions program — of which there are currently 20 — is able to participate in some capacity.
“Everyone of our students can do something there,” Wallace said. “It may not be lifting a heavy tote, but it might be that they can count bags of rice to help replenish things on shelves or they can help carry things. Every single one of our students goes and helps participate, and we’ve really got it down to a system.”
Sorting and delivering hundreds of bags of food to nine school buildings around Emporia is no small feat, and requires a number of different jobs.
“We get the totes, load them up into the cars and take them to the different schools,” Tony, a Transitions student, said. “If you’re at the loading zone, you get the totes ready in the back.”
Tony said he and the other Transitions students work in all weather conditions — rain or shine — but he doesn’t mind that too much.
“The totes really aren’t that heavy,” he said. “There’s eight bags in each tote.”
Wallace said sometimes they will run out of bags and students will help pack new ones to make sure orders are filled for each school. Each bag supplied from Food For Students includes: instant oatmeal, macaroni and cheese, granola bars, tuna pouches, crackers and fruit cups. Peanut butter, dry rice and beans also go out to many students in town. That’s always a good challenge, she said, and usually doesn’t slow them down.
“We can hit all of the schools in Emporia in an hour-and-a-half,” Wallace said. “It’s kind of a well-oiled machine back there sometimes.”
Cheyenne, a part-time student at Transitions, said volunteering for Food For Students makes her feel good because she knows she’s helping out other kids in the community. She, and the other Transitions students, take ownership in the Food For Students program.
“It does feel good,” Cheyenne said.
“We try to do a lot of things to give back, because our students do get a lot of support from the community,” Wallace added. “Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our daily life that we forget to give back a little bit.”
Wagner said the “giving” aspect is so important in Emporia, leading up to the Emporia Community Foundation’s 6th annual Match Day event, which will be held from 9 a.m. - 7 p.m. Monday at the Flinthills Mall.
Food For Students is one of 25 charitable organizations participating in Match Day again this year, and without donations, the partnership between the organization and Transitions would not be possible.
“We really very heavily rely on Match Day funds to sustain the Food for Students program every year,” said Ashley Walker, one of the coordinators. “It’s been vital to sustaining the program since we started participating in Match Day several years ago.”
Food For Students has no overhead costs, no paid staff and is 100 percent volunteer operated. Every dollar donated to the program goes directly to buying food products. Each bag costs approximately $10 and the annual budget is around $35,000.
“We are so grateful for those who take advantage of Match Day to help their donation go even further and to help feed kids in Emporia who are often hungry on the weekend,” Walker said.
“It really is the full-circle of giving and we really are teaching those kids and everyone involved to give back to their community and care for others,” Wagner said. “To me, that’s what makes me so joyous and happy about all of our programs is we are able to get everyone involved. Even if you don’t need any of the resources, you’re able to give in a way that provides to someone who does need those resources. That’s, ultimately, my goal in everything that I do is to teach everyone that I come into contact with to do their part. And really, their faces when they’re back their helping out — they just get so happy. It makes me happy.”