WARRENTON — Parents, students and other volunteers gathered in a mostly empty Warrenton Grade School cafeteria Tuesday morning. They filled Home Depot boxes with all the makings of Thanksgiving meals.
Warrenton-Hammond Healthy Kids, a nonprofit supporting the Warrenton-Hammond School District, sent out 100 Thanksgiving meal boxes, part of a continuing effort to feed kids in need on weekends and breaks, a growing trend among schools.
In 2011, the Windermere Foundation provided seed money for Warrenton-Hammond Healthy Kids. The nonprofit added to an ongoing weekend food box program co-director Pam Ackley said now discreetly provides breakfasts and lunches each weekend to about 300 kids.
Feed the need
Warrenton has consistently led the region in rates and total number of homeless students, despite having a much lower enrollment than Seaside and Astoria. The district reported 125 homeless students last year — nearly 40 percent of all homeless students reported countywide, 12.5 percent of Warrenton’s overall enrollment and the 12th-highest rate in Oregon. The vast majority of students considered homeless share housing with friends or acquaintances out of need.
Debbie Morrow, chairwoman of the Warrenton-Hammond School Board and director of Healthy Kids, said the Thanksgiving food program started around the same time after the group learned a stark reality for some of the district’s kids.
“We were told by a teacher that kids absolutely hate and are absolutely fearful of a week off of school, contrary to what we think, because they weren’t going to have a meal,” Morrow said.
Donated dinners, time
At Walmart’s groundbreaking in Warrenton this summer, the company donated $5,000 to the Clatsop Community Action Regional Food Bank and another $2,000 to Warrenton High School programs. Ackley connected with a Walmart manager at the event who asked how the company could help with Healthy Kids, she said.
That resulted in 100 free dinners worth of Thanksgiving staples such as whole turkeys, precooked turkey breasts, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing, buns and brownie mix assembled at the Walmart in Longview, Washington.
“We didn’t have to buy anything,” Morrow said, adding some of the dinners were tailored toward families without adequate kitchens.
Helping pack the meals into boxes Tuesday were Ian McCormick and teammates from a Warrenton Grade School youth basketball team. His team’s travel costs were covered by a private donor who only required “that we do something for our community,” McCormick said.
As a registered nonprofit, Healthy Kids can act as the fiscal agent for other efforts, such as a food backpack program Morrow said the group is helping students start in Knappa. Beyond food, Healthy Kids helps provide clothing, toiletries and other staples for students in need.
The schools open early to allow kids time to take showers and do laundry, Morrow said, and Healthy Kids has started a snack locker for students at Warrenton High School.
“We really have at Warrenton made a strategic effort to not only identify homelessness, but kids dealing with all issues,” she said. “You can’t educate a child when their social and emotional needs are not being met.”
Such programs have become more commonplace around the county, which has suffered from a continually increasing rate of student homelessness. Astoria and Seaside school districts both offer food backpack programs at elementary and middle schools. Schools have also been offering lockers and other areas for students to get food and clothing discreetly.
Broadway Middle School raised money and provided 30 Thanksgiving dinners for its students. The school also provides an area for kids to go grab food or clothing discreetly. Principal Robert Rust said he is always impressed by how the community steps up.
After the holidays end and before the tourist-based economy picks up for the summer is when the need becomes particularly acute, he said.
Christine Smith, a mother of a student and board member on the nonprofit Food for Kids that serves Seaside students, said the group now provides weekend food backpacks for more than 180 kids weekly on average. Like other food backpack programs, theirs does not extend into high school, where Smith said another challenge is getting past the increasing stigma students face in getting assistance. “It’s an issue just getting them to take it, even when you know kids are sleeping on friends’ couches,” she said. “There’s a pride you have to respect.”