In a suite of classrooms on the second floor of the Capt. Robert Gray School building, Astoria High School students study at their own pace toward graduation and the GED exam in the Gray Alternative High School, often in relative anonymity from their peers.
But the Alameda Avenue campus also hosts a free pantry started by seniors to provide food and toiletries for fellow students in need.
“The idea was just collecting pop cans and taking those proceeds to the store and just purchasing a few things and padding the pantry,” said Alexa Haller, the head teacher at Gray School.
The pantry was started last year as a capstone project for senior Anthony Espericueta, with help from Gray School counselor Rachel Rollins, Haller said. This year, senior Clinton Reed took the pantry on as his capstone project.
The pantry carries nonperishable food and toiletries. “Any kids that need it can come up here,” Reed said.
Haller has seen current and former students, along with their families, come in and fill up backpacks.
“They’ve been incredibly grateful that it is here,” she said. “And they only knew that it was here because they were a student last year. So there’s a need.”
Nearly 90 students in Astoria were identified as homeless last school year, most doubling up or couch surfing out of financial necessity. The school district also recorded the highest number of unaccompanied minors, with 16.
Haller and Reed are attempting to increase the profile of the pantry, which has received support from local church groups.
Reed and Fred West, another senior volunteering with the pantry, recently picked up an estimated 2,500 pounds of leftover food and toiletries donated to the Be the Light food pantry organized during the recent federal government shutdown by Coast Guard spouse Stacey Benson to support federal workers.
Be the Light spread thousands of pounds of unused food and toiletry donations around the county to Gray School, school backpack food programs and the Clatsop Community Action Regional Food Bank.
“In the beginning, it was stated that once the shutdown was over, all the food donations that were not given out were going to go back into the community,” Benson said.
Despite the abundance, Reed said, many of the food items like beef jerky, ramen noodles and bottled water can run out quickly, and collecting 200 cans for $20 can be a difficult funding mechanism to sustain.
The program is also supported by Lasagna for Learning, an event the last Friday of each month in which proceeds from lasagna sales at Blue Scorcher support Gray School.
To make the pantry less dependent on seniors needing capstone volunteer projects to meet graduation requirements, Haller is organizing a leadership team of her students at Gray School to oversee the pantry.
“When individuals have graduated and moved on with their lives, this kind of fell to the wayside,” said Evan Branton, a senior at Gray School and member of the leadership team. “Mostly we just want to make sure that doesn’t happen this time.”
The leadership team formed this semester at Gray School to take on projects to help improve the alternative education program and the school district, said Sophia George, a sophomore at Gray School. The team also supports a clothing store for young children on the first floor of the Capt. Robert Gray School building, where the school district runs a preschool, and the city has the Lil’ Sprouts day care.
Branton and George also see the projects as improving the profile and reputation of Gray School, which they said is an often misunderstood program where students from around the county largely take classes online at their own pace. The program is often used by students facing added stresses, such as raising children, working full-time jobs and being behind academically.
“It’s just to help people if they have too bad of social anxiety that they can’t be around so many people down there (on the main campus), or if they need more help than others,” George said. “It’s basically for people who do not fit in with the normal school structure.”