WATERVILLE — Children walk into George J. Mitchell elementary School Monday mornings with stomach aches because they are so hungry.
In many cases, they have not had breakfast, let alone supper the night before, because there’s no food in the house.
“It would break your heart to see these kids Monday at breakfast,” said Principal Allan Martin last week. “It’s like they haven’t seen food. The Friday before a vacation, these kids are panicking because the structure is gone. They know it’s going to be a week, and where is the food going to come from?”
His concern is real. Some 72 percent of the kids at the school get free or reduced lunches — 404 students out of 557 enrolled.
The school is able to provide breakfast for the students through the National School Breakfast and Lunch Program, which provides federal and state money to participating schools. The Mitchell School also received a grant to feed children fresh vegetables and fruit every day.
Staff pitch in, too, and with more than food. Not only do they provide snacks, but teachers keep socks, underwear and other items in their desk drawers to give to kids who need them.
Now, a new group of community volunteers is taking it a step farther. The school will join a growing number of schools in Maine that send food home with children as the group opens a food pantry at the school.
Volunteerism and community involvement has become an integral part of the school — and necessary to help ensure children’s success, according to school officials.
The school environment is different from when Martin, who’s been principal for 16 years, started 39 years ago.
“Talk about changes in society,” he said. “There was poverty back then, but poverty meant lack of money. Now, poverty can mean lack of money, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, depression — so many other factors.”
Teaching and caring for kids means adapting to the changes and changing how you work with them, according to Martin.
“We, as a staff, said we can’t even begin to do writing, reading and math until we take care of their social-emotional needs. It’s making sure they are hardy, mentally and socially. If we don’t get to them at this age, we’re going to lose them. It’s a sad statement to make, but they become the dropouts.”
Students in the school district also are homeless and the number has tripled in the last two years, according to Eric Haley, superintendent of Alternative Organizational Structure 92, which includes schools in Waterville, Winslow and Vassalboro.
He said 68 families with children in the district registered as homeless at the end of the 2012–13 school year.
This week, 21 children were living at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville, according to shelter officials.
Help is here
Martin and his staff are lucky in that help has arrived at the Mitchell school in a big way — in the form of Jennifer Johnson, Cathy Ribbons and other volunteers who are trying to fill a big gap.
Johnson launched a new parent-teacher organization and is raising money for and planning to open a food pantry in the school with help from Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn.
“There’s so much poverty — it’s astounding,” said Johnson, who has two children enrolled at the school. “I contacted Good Shepherd Food Bank and said, ‘Do you have an interest in working with us? You have a program in schools.’ They looked at the demographic information of the Mitchell School and said ‘my gosh, absolutely.’ ”
Johnson is trying to raise about $100,000 for the food pantry and says the cost to operate it will be about $4,000 a year. Food will be bought from the food bank for about 16 cents a pound and students will be able to take food home, or parents may come in and get it. The volunteers also will provide clothing to children in need.
Ribbons, who taught at Mitchell for 36 years before she retired a year ago, is a master gardener who helped develop gardens at the school and is helping incorporate gardens and gardening in curriculum to help teach children math, science, social studies and literacy. The children also eat the produce grown in the school gardens.
“Our little ones need concrete evidence when they are learning something,” Ribbons said.
Johnson and Ribbons see a great need, not only for food and clothing for the children, but also for help for teachers who need support in the classroom.
The volunteers assist other school staff who are working with smaller budgets and fewer hands to do the work.
In recent years, the number of students in a class has steadily risen from about 15 to 18 students.
“I have lost five staff — five teachers — in four years in budget cuts, so our class size went to 22, 23,” Martin said. “It’s critical that we have volunteers doing the extra stuff — going into classrooms, being there to help the teachers. They’re coming in to the library to read with kids. The kids are aware that there are some caring adults out there.”
Johnson alone logged more than 100 volunteer hours at the school last year, including shelving books in the library, reading with children one-on-one, helping them practice math skills, making copies for teachers and assisting them in classrooms.
She helped Ribbons, who got a $350 grant from University of Maine Cooperative Extension, revive and expand flower gardens at the school. Johnson, a gardener herself, added vegetables to the mix. Martin is grateful for their work, as well as that of other volunteers.
“Thank god we have people like Jennifer willing to get out there and find people to volunteer and bring them in,” he said. “She’s just been a trooper, getting people to donate.”
School food banks opening
Clara Whitney, communications manager for Good Shepherd Food Bank, said there were eight food pantries in schools statewide by the end of the 2012–13 school year. Currently there are 13, and that number will increase to 16 by the end of this school year.
Good Shepherd officials help develop pantries in schools based on what they consider the highest need areas, as well as the poverty rate and whether there is local support for such pantries, Whitney said. Schools considered priorities are those that have a 50 percent or higher rate of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, she said.
“I think most of the schools that we’ve started pantries in so far have a higher rate than that,” she said.
Portland High School last year opened the first school pantry in the state after members of the Key Club there recognized the need, Whitney said.
“It’s run very similarly to any other food pantry,” she said. “They do fundraising and have a budget to work with and they’re getting food from Good Shepherd Food Bank. They’ll access donated food and have the ability to purchase produce.”
Whitney says Good Shepherd, which gets its major food donations from retailers and manufacturers such as Hannaford and Walmart, gives school pantries fresh produce, baked goods and other items — for free.
The number of people who do not have enough food to eat continues to increase statewide and thus the need for food donations has increased, she said.
“We experienced a huge increase in need following the recession, so ever since about 2008, the numbers spiked and they’ve remained at that very high level,” Whitney said. “More than 200,000 people in Maine are facing hunger and one in four children are not getting the food that they need and that will affect them for the rest of their lives.”
Good Shepherd distributes food to 600 local nonprofit organizations, including food pantries, meal sites, senior citizen centers, youth programs and schools, Whitney said.
Founded in 1981, Good Shepherd has 50 paid staff and many volunteers.
Whitney said she is encouraged by the success of school pantries, which supply needy families in a place that is accessible to them, as their children are there five days a week.
“We’re meeting families where they’re at,” she said. “Many people are holding one or two jobs and can’t get to food pantries.”
Value of volunteerism
Rachelle Tome, chief academic officer of the state Department of Education, recognizes the importance of volunteerism in schools and praised Johnson’s efforts at Mitchell School.
“Hats off to Jennifer and the work that she’s doing,” Tome said Thursday.
Tome worked 20 years as a teacher and principal in Richmond and Randolph schools before moving on to the Education Department 10 years ago. She recalls the critical role parents played in those schools, not only in classrooms, but also at home.
“One parent was like a godsend,” Tome said. “She collected labels — Campbell’s Soup labels or the top of cereal boxes and when you collected enough you could get free school supplies, playground balls and other items. This is the way she contributed.”
If a school receives federal Title 1 funds for children who are economically disadvantaged, parental involvement in schools is required by law, according to Tome, who oversees learning systems, department teams, career and technical education, adult education and other programs.
Haley, AOS 92 superintendent, said that with loss of staff and not enough time to do enrichment activities with children, volunteers serve a critical role in schools. Every year, Edie Keller, librarian at the Mitchell School, holds a volunteer luncheon to recognize all the people who help.
“One of the things I always tell them is that you provide lifelong memories for kids,” Haley said. “Kids don’t remember textbooks; they always remember those enriching activities they do after school. Volunteers serve an unbelievably important function.”
Haley said he gives credit to the Mitchell School staff, who objected to the idea of having a two-week Christmas vacation during years when the calendar falls in a position to allow that. They told Haley it was too long a stretch because many children will be without food and other support they get at school.
“I was pretty impressed — I said, ‘You’re absolutely right.’”
Amy Calder — 861-9247