On a regular Saturday, the parking lot at Victoria Soto Elementary School in Stratford’s south end sees some 150 families come through for a monthly food pickup from the Connecticut Food Bank. Lately, however, those numbers have nearly doubled. And the same teachers who have spent the first Saturday of every month this school year volunteering to distribute food have stepped it up to accommodate the growing number of families struggling to make ends meet.
Back in September, Victoria Soto kindergarten teacher Judee McMellan spearheaded the food donation effort with the Connecticut Food Bank. Her school, which serves grades K-1, shares a campus and driveway with Stratford Academy Johnson House, for grades 2-6. Colleagues from both buildings as well as Franklin Elementary and other Stratford schools joined in the project, forming a corps of nearly 30 volunteers whose ranks also included custodial staff, administrators, family members of teachers, a board of education member, a town official, and local high school students.
“My school is in a low-income neighborhood,” says McMellan, who has spent the last 37 years of her 40-year career in Stratford. “There is tremendous need in our community as well as a huge outpouring of support.”
New system for new times
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Connecticut Food Bank truck would set up in the school parking lot on the first Saturday of every month. Teacher volunteers would arrive early to set up tables on either side of the truck and prepare for the influx of families, many of whom have children at Victoria Soto or Johnson House.
“The truck would be filled to the gills with fresh produce, milk, bread, and canned goods, and teachers from the various schools would fill people’s reusable bags with groceries,” explains volunteer Robin Julian, a 36-year veteran who also teaches kindergarten at Victoria Soto.
When the pandemic hit, the food bank contacted McMellan and asked if she wanted to cancel the program. The truck would no longer be able to park and stay in place. The alternative was to come up with a way to handle distribution with social distancing restrictions.
“I sent an email blast to our volunteers, and the response was overwhelming,” McMellan says. “Teachers wanted to continue. So we came up with a new game plan.”
These days, the truck drops pallets of food in boxes and leaves it in the driveway. Wearing masks and gloves, teachers, custodians, and other volunteers arrive earlier than usual to set up tables. Some serve as packers, bagging up food in plastic bags donated by a local supermarket.
McMellan and colleague Kathy Signore, a Victoria Soto first-grade teacher and 36-year veteran, keep track of the number of people coming through, letting cars come in a dozen at a time and providing direction on how food is being distributed. Families are required to stay in their vehicles and pop their trunks.
“We have a loop system,” McMellan explains, “where several volunteers serve as distributors, packing bags of food into each car trunk and then closing the trunk so that no one has to come in contact with anyone else. We go through several pairs of gloves, and one teacher has even supplied us recently with plastic shields for our faces. This is such a successful program that couldn’t run without our teachers, who form the majority of our volunteers.”
Although her asthma puts her in a higher risk category, McMellan was determined to continue helping during the pandemic. “Right now, I serve as a car monitor,” she says. “I have a clicker that counts the vehicles coming through.”
No break from hunger
On May 2, the most recent food distribution day, 285 families turned out—a significant bump from the usual 150-170 families normally served. Enough food was distributed to feed an estimated 1,000 adults and children.
It was that recognition—that the need is increasing, not abating—that led Stratford teachers to continue their volunteer efforts beyond the school year and into the summer.
“We will be doing this throughout the summer months,” says McMellan. “The food bank has been giving us more food every time, because the need in our community is so great.”
Signore, who plans to volunteer all summer, says, “I think the most important thing now is that we’ve seen the increase in the number of people coming, and that led us to our decision to continue. We’re reaching out to all members of our community, all age ranges, from large families to seniors who live alone. We’ve seen many new people coming through. The decision to do this has brought staff members from our various schools together, so we are getting to know each other better as a school community.”
In addition to building camaraderie among teachers, the effort also allows them to see many of their students, if even from a safe distance.
“We have actually gotten to say hello to some of our students in the backseats of cars,” says McMellan. “Seeing their faces is a treat for us. And the gratitude from their families is overwhelming. We have heard ‘thank you’ and ‘bless you’ on the way in and on the way out of the parking lot in English, Spanish, and Arabic!”
Julian, whose daughter also teaches kindergarten—in Bridgeport—says, “You can’t imagine what it’s like for us and for our students, not seeing each other face to face in school. We miss each other. This is so hard for all us. It’s very difficult for kids to see us at a distance, with our masks on, just waving. Their faces light up when they see us and realize we don’t actually live in our classrooms. Seeing the looks on their faces warms our hearts. One of my kindergartners was practically falling out the window last week, calling out, ‘Mrs. Julian! I miss you!’”