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Tallmadge -- A program that started out as a one-time food giveaway to 19 in-need elementary school children is now helping to feed them every weekend during the school year.
The Blue Devils Dare to Share program, a joint creation of a group of students at Tallmadge High School, the Tallmadge Rotary Club and Tallmadge United Methodist Church, launched in January. The idea is to ensure the students have enough to eat on the weekends so they return to school on Mondays ready to learn.
"We cannot eliminate hunger entirely, and there are other agencies much better equipped for that role," said Kelley Smith, advisor of the career tech organization for family and consumer sciences at the high school, the Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA). "We are just trying to be sure all children in Tallmadge have the best chance at being successful in school every day. If this program eases the burden for some families, that is a real bonus."
Students involved with the club manage the program. Nonperishable food and monetary donations are collected at each school building within the school district, and students in the club organize and stuff backpacks -- called "Nutrition on Weekends (NOW) Bags" -- with the food each week.
Adult volunteers from the Rotary and the church pick up the bags and deliver them to Dunbar Primary and Munroe Elementary schools to be distributed to participating students.
The bags are filled with enough food for two breakfasts, two lunches and two snacks, which helps to supplement food intake over the weekend.
"We try very hard to make the food items healthy options and include fresh fruits," Smith said.
Twenty students at the elementary schools now participate in the program. The school district contacts the parents of eligible students, who must agree to participate before their children receive the bags.
"The decision on who receives the NOW bags is based on the immediate level of need as determined through the guidance counselor in the building," Smith said. "While students may qualify for free or reduced lunches, we certainly cannot serve that many students. There must be additional extenuating circumstances that impact the family's ability to provide food."
The students involved with the FCCLA hope to grow the program even more next school year to include students in each school building, but the possible expansion depends on donations from the community.
Tallmadge not immune from hunger
According to Rotary member and City Councilwoman Kim Ray, the Dare to Share program was born from discussions between herself and Superintendent Jeff Ferguson after they watched the movie "A Place at the Table" last October, which the League of Women Voters sponsored.
Ferguson told Ray about a program in the Nordonia Hills City School District that gives kids backpacks of food for over the weekend, and Ray thought a similar program could be replicated in Tallmadge. One in four students in the school district qualifies for free or reduced-price meals while at school, according to Business Director Steve Wood.
Ferguson enlisted help from the FCCLA, and around the same time, the church contacted him about working with the school district on some sort of project involving students in poverty. Ray secured a $350 grant from the Tallmadge Foundation for supplies and other anonymous donations to turn the idea into a reality. Spellman Electric collected food items during the holiday season last year.
"People are often surprised to learn that hunger exists in every community, even Tallmadge. In terms of learning, it is a real challenge for students who experience hunger to focus on school work and perform to their best abilities," Smith said. "Tallmadge Schools are able to provide free or reduced [price] breakfasts and lunches on school days but that doesn't help on the weekends."
The program is designed to help youngest students in the school district because of their age, and it aims to feed them on weekends because of a lull in available meals.
"They are most at risk for food insecurity due to their inability to independently access food. Since the students don't attend school to receive a breakfast or lunch, the weekend is a very vulnerable time. In addition, a lot of the food pantries aren't open on weekends," Smith said.
The Rev. Bill Liming of the church, who was appointed to the church last July, said he was looking for ways to get the church involved with the community.
"I wanted to get our church outside of our doors and be committed and connected to our community around us," he said. "What a better way to start helping kids out and building a better foundation for their futures than to start with the main issues of poverty and hunger."
The father of two young children, Liming said, "It breaks my heart to know that children go hungry at night."
Children helping children
The Dare to Share program not only helps hungry students with a basic need but also affords students in the FCCLA with an opportunity to grow on a personal level.
"Participating in the program makes me feel like a good person because I feel like I'm doing something helpful and making someone else happy. I get a feeling that I'm doing something right by being a helpful, caring person," freshman Alisa Hasanagic said.
Anna Guagliardo, also a freshman, said she, too, feels satisfied when she thinks about making someone happier by giving them food.
"I hope that the community of Tallmadge would be involved and could help to keep the program running so we can help as many children as we can," she said.
Smith said the opportunity to have students in the club participate in an endeavor such as this is worthwhile.
"As educators, our purpose is to do everything we can to help children learn and have fulfilling futures. This is just one more piece in that puzzle," she said. "At the same time, it is another lesson for our students in becoming good citizens and community leaders by sharing and working to solve a community issue."
The Blue Devils Dare to Share program is requesting donations of the following nonperishable food items:
Milk: shelf-stable packs of 6 such as TruMoo 1% low-fat milk
Tuna: 3-oz. pop-top cans
Beef sticks/beef jerky
Peanut butter: Jif-to-Go
Cereal: whole-grain varieties low in sugar, such as Cheerios
Oatmeal: instant packs of microwave cups
Sunflower and pumpkin seeds
Beans & franks: pop-top cans
Beef stew: pop-top cans
Uncle Ben’s Rice Cups
Hormel Kids’ Kitchen Microwave Cups
Whole wheat and whole-grain crackers
Individual servings of fruit cups, applesauce, pudding cups, bags of baked chips, pretzels, nuts and snack mixes
Granola bars, cereal bars
Food and monetary donations can be dropped off at any school building within the school district.
Contact this reporter at 330-541-9428 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Facebook: Holly Schoenstein, Record Publishing Co.