By Rebecca Schmitz
Although they left the classroom three years ago, two former first grade teachers are still making a big difference in children’s lives. Sara Parkins and Jessica Reon, both mothers of three young children, stopped teaching after having their third and second children respectively, and have now founded a program that will provide free lunches to all summer school students at both Brownsville and Crozet Elementary.
Their desire to serve hungry children was inspired by what they witnessed in the classroom. “Since we come from a classroom perspective, we have hands-on experience with children whose families may not have the opportunity to attend PTO meetings and functions, and despite the efforts of the PTO to provide yearbooks, coats, and other things to these children, they are not always seen by the majority of the school community,” Parkins said.
“There are kids in our community who have no running water,” Reon added. There are kids who have nothing to eat for lunch when school is not in session, and those kids need to be taken care of, because they are part of our community and they are part of our future.”
The lunches will be funded entirely by private donations. Volunteers will pack the lunches the night before each school day, and Reon and Parkins will deliver them the next afternoon. Each child will be given a lunch when he or she leaves summer school at noon. (Summer school runs from 8:30 a.m. to 12 noon and lasts for three weeks.) Although they don’t have exact numbers yet, Reon and Parkins anticipate feeding about 125 children. The lunches will include food such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; turkey, ham, and cheese sandwiches; chicken tenders; yogurt; fruit cups; and crackers. Standard Produce Company is giving them two cases of apples, and Reon and Parkins have contacted local orchards in hopes of securing more donations of fresh fruit.
The idea for the summer lunch program grew out of a conversation over coffee between the two friends. Reon began telling Parkins about an article she had read describing a school district that provided lunches to underprivileged children each day in the summer.
“It was just an idea at first,” Parkins said. “We were joking about how we might do it, driving around in our vans and delivering the meals ourselves. Then we started to get serious and said, ‘OK, let’s really do this!’” They started texting back and forth during the days that followed, brainstorming and sharing ideas. “We were dreaming really big,” Parkins said.
They secured a meeting with Brownsville’s principal, Jason Crutchfield, and assistant principal, Nancy McCullen, to present their ideas. “Once we met with them, we kind of reined in our expectations to make sure we could be successful,” Parkins said, noting that the principals were “incredibly supportive.”
“We were more realistic, since it was only a month before school was out and we had this daunting task and no money,” she said with a laugh. “So we decided in our first year to just provide lunches during summer school, rather than all summer.”
They began fundraising immediately by visiting businesses personally and sending letters and emails. “We started going to businesses and we weren’t really having much luck. We were feeling very defeated… then Virginia Asphalt Services gave us a very generous donation,” Parkins said. They also secured a donation from Delivery Agent. “Without those two donations, and the donation from Standard Produce, we wouldn’t have anything.”
Next up was getting on the agenda at the next Brownsville PTO meeting to ask for help publicizing the program and soliciting volunteers. Their idea was enthusiastically received, and PTO members offered to get the word out to potential volunteers through the Brownsville Online newsletter. Parkins and Reon also met with members of the Crozet Elementary PTO, who were enthusiastic about the idea and eager to help. Parkins said that “the Crozet PTO has been incredible, they’ve been so supportive. They’re already brainstorming joint fundraisers for the fall…. They really want to create that community bridge between the two schools.” Reon is also thankful for their commitment, saying, “It’s been wonderful to work with Crozet, and hopefully this will be a program that will bring our schools together.”
Several groups have already offered to volunteer by packing lunches, and Parkins says that “a lot of that came out of the willingness of the PTOs from Brownsville and Crozet to get the word out as a way to support us.” One Peachtree Little League team will ask its players to show up 15 minutes before practice one day to help bag lunches. The Crozet Gators Swim team, Brownsville’s Gymnastics Team, and the Girl Scouts have also expressed interest in helping.
Reon and Parkins believe that it’s important to get children involved in the volunteer process, and that having students pack lunches for their classmates is another benefit of the program.
“We feel that it’s so easy—and I’m guilty of it also—to just write a check and donate, but our kids aren’t really seeing us do it and understanding what we’re doing,” Parkins said. “At this age, it’s really important for them to be a part of that giving back. We don’t just want to do a good job feeding children, we want to help other children learn to give back.” Different teams can volunteer each day. Parkins said it can be as simple as a parent sending an email to other parents, asking them to meet somewhere, bag some lunches, and then swim or play afterwards.
Reon and Parkins are eager to get started, but also realistic about the learning curve they face. “We’re probably going to be micro-managing a little this summer, because we really want it to be successful,” Parkins says. Reon agreed: “It’s our first time doing it, and it’s the first time the community has had this happen, so we’re piloting this and our community is piloting this with us. We’re all in this together for the first time. We’re both learning, and we want this program to be the best it can be so we can grow it with the community.”
The two women believe that the more the community becomes involved, the more successful the program will be. “This is not an Albemarle County-provided lunch,” Reon says. “This is our community supporting children.” They are still seeking volunteers and monetary donations, as well as donations of non-perishable food items (such as goldfish crackers and fruit cups) and gift cards to local grocery stores.
Reon said, “We really want to grow the program each year and reach more and more kids.” In the future, they hope to be able to provide lunches to all hungry children in the community, not just those who attend summer school. Reon sums it up simply: “We need to take care of each other. It’s just the right thing to do. It’s our community, and we’re a family. Nobody can learn when they’re hungry, so we want to nourish their bodies as well as their minds.”
Parkins and Reon are currently looking for team leaders to facilitate lunch packing for each day of summer school. A team leader will be in charge of recruiting a team. A team can be a sports team, a scout troop, or any neighborhood group of adults or children that will gather together in the evening. All of the food and supplies will be delivered to the team to pack the lunches. If you are unable to volunteer your time you can still contribute monetary donations or nonperishable food items and supplies. Please contact Sara Parkins and Jessica Reon at: [email protected] for more information.