True Neighborhood Connections Bring Community Solutions
by Dawn McLain
To define a neighborhood as just an area with a number of people living in proximity to one another, or a connection as simply having an association or relationship that results in the state of being connected would be as disjointed in concept as it is in this sentence. Fortunately, people are what truly connect neighborhoods to communities, and the people of southern Utah are known to band together to connect those in need within our community to programs and services that will impact and change their lives for the better.
Case in point, Donna MacBean and Martha Heuer are the founders of Neighborhood Connection, a new nonprofit organization that aims to help children who receive free or reduced-cost meals at school by providing them with food to take home over the weekends. The duo sits on eight local nonprofit boards and committees, volunteers for approximately a dozen organizations, and belong to several nonprofits. Suffice it to say, they are well connected, respected, and appreciated.
Just a few short months ago after a committee meeting, the two were enjoying some down time talking about unmet needs in Washington County, and how they could get more involved and make a greater difference. Having worked with the Community Soup Kitchen for years, coordinating holiday food boxes for several local organizations, serving Christmas Dinner to 450 hungry locals, clothing 750 deserving Washington County School District (WCSD) Title I students, providing more than 800 books and 500 hours of story time through local organizations, the two are well versed in the needs of local children and have a passion to make a difference.
Other community leaders pledged their support, including board members, Dr. Erin O’Brien, PhD, Dixie State University (DSU) Department Chair of Biological Sciences; Jennifer Anderson, Community Soup Kitchen Manager; Karla Sippel, CPA, Vice-President of Sippel & Company; and Jim Sippel, CPA, CFA, MBA, President of SCO Financial Advisors, Inc. and Sippel & Company.
The one hundred percent volunteer team is working diligently to provide children with backpacks stuffed with food to take home each Friday during the school year. Backpacks will include two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, and four snacks to help ensure each child has adequate nutrition because they believe, and I wholeheartedly agree, no child should go hungry.
The struggle for adequate food is an increasing concern both nationally and locally. Many times this struggle hits the most vulnerable members of the community, our children. In fact, the 2015-2016 WCSD Demographic Report reflected that of the total 27,509 student population, 9,382 students participated in the free lunch program with an additional 2,558 receiving reduced-cost lunches. Although these students do receive a hot meal at lunchtime, all too often this may be the only full meal they eat all day.
And then the weekend comes.
With 11,940 students participating in school-based meal programs, it is easy to assume how many local children may go without food over the weekends, right? Or is it?
The short answer is no. Although the fledgling organization would love to be able to help all hungry students, there are more than most of us realize. Last year, 8,878 students, nineteen percent, fell below the poverty line, 1065 students were homeless, and some district elementary schools served more than eighty-five percent of their students a free or reduced-cost lunch. According to the Feeding America Survey Map, the Meal Gap 2017, the food insecurity rate in Washington County is just under fifteen percent of the total population. However, the survey notes that it is likely that up to fifty-five percent are eligible for some Food Nutrition Assistance. This year, the Community Soup Kitchen (meals served Monday through Friday, 11:45 am to 1:00 pm) will serve approximately 40,000 meals, and six to eight percent of them will be to children under the age of eighteen. If these numbers scare you, they should. They are increasing every day.
According to Jim Weill, Food Research and Action President regarding the $800 billion in proposed federal budget cuts, “The SNAP cuts are proposed alongside other brutal cuts…Shredding [these] programs, which, along with SNAP and the child nutrition programs, serve as the primary components of our nation’s safety net, will have a devastating domino effect on the food security, health, learning, and productivity of Americans in rural, suburban, and urban areas alike.”
“The current budget proposes to cut funding to SNAP and school lunch (Title I) programs. We are trying desperately to fill the existing gaps for these children, but widening those gaps isn’t going to help. Local nonprofits and charities can’t do it all,” explained O’Brien. “[More than twenty-eight percent] of all children in Washington County are eligible for SNAP and other benefits. We cannot let children slip through the cracks.”
Statewide, there are 164,440 food-insecure children, and meals provided at school during the week are often their primary source of food. Donna MacBean said, “Weekends should not mean hunger. Without our help, these kids struggle to access the food they need to sustain them until they can return to school and their meal programs. A weekend of hunger leaves the kids distracted, at best, on Mondays. In reality, they feel irritated, weak, tired, sick, and scared.” Added Heuer, “Simply put, food helps children return to school refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to learn.”
During its inaugural year, Neighborhood Connection will focus their efforts on a single area school chosen in consultation with the WCSD Homeless Student Liaison, Mike Carr. The first partner school is Sunset Elementary, one of thirteen schools in the district with at least sixty percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunches.
Sunset Elementary had 498 students last year, 319 (sixty-four percent) of which qualified for the free or reduced-priced lunch program. By year’s end, 34 (seven percent) students were homeless, and only half were performing at or above grade level on standardized tests. “These students are definitely in need of and deserve our support,” shared Donna.
“To make this program happen for Sunset Elementary this year, and to grow it in the coming years, it will take all of our neighborhoods and every connection we can collectively make,” said Heuer. “But we all have a real opportunity to make a difference. For just twenty dollars a month or two hundred dollars a year, you can sponsor and feed a child every weekend. It is an easy decision to help a child in need.”
Get Involved! Donations, whether monetary or food items, are invaluable and what enable this vital work. Volunteers are also needed to help pack food bags during the school year. Visit neighborhoodconnection.net to learn how you can help today.