October 14, 2013

Volunteers playing critical role in feeding kids at Waterville school

George J. Mitchell Elementary School will send food home as food pantry is established

By Amy Calder acalder@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE — Children walk into George J. Mitchell elementary School Monday mornings with stomach aches because they are so hungry.

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Volunteer Haley Ker reads to second graders at the George Mitchell School in Waterville on Thursday. Ker is among several who donate their time and talent at the school.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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Volunteer Jennifer Johnson harvests tomatoes at one of the vegetable gardens at the George J. Mitchell school recently.

Staff photo by David Leaming

Additional Photos Below

Meeting of the George J. Mitchell School parent-teacher organization

Jennifer Johnson will host a first meeting of the George J. Mitchell School parent-teacher organization at 6 p.m. today in the school library. She encourages volunteers, prospective volunteers, parents and anyone else interested to attend or email mitchellschoolPTO@gmail.com

She asked that monetary donations for the food pantry or other volunteer efforts be dropped off at or mailed to the PTO at George J. Mitchell School, 58 Drummond Ave., Waterville, ME 04901, with PTO written on the check’s memo line. The school is also accepting donations of children’s coats, socks and other clothing.

“A $100 donation is going to buy about 625 pounds of food,” Johnson said.

Maine schools that have food pantries, and percentage of those school populations that get free or reduced lunch:

Franklin Alternative School, Auburn, 100 percent

Kingman Elementary School, 92

Indian Island School, 85

East End Community School, Portland, 74

Southern Aroostook Community School, Dyer Brook, 67

Ashland District School, 63

JFK Elementary School, Biddeford, 61

Portland High School, 53

Fairfield Elementary School, Saco, 52

Whitefield Elementary School, 52

Edward Little High School, Auburn, 48

Wiscasset High School, 47

source: Good Shepherd Food Bank, Auburn

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.’ ”

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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A pile of socks are available for students that need them at the George Michell School in Waterville.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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As students play in background, Cathy Ribbons shucks an ear of corn to see its progress in one of the gardens at the George J. Mitchell school in Waterville.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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George Mitchell School Principal Allan Martin at the Waterville school.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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