Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many students attending Broadview Middle School participated in the “Backpackers Program” of the Connecticut Food Bank. Through this program, students at risk of hunger over the weekends were supplied food that was delivered in prepackaged bags. In addition to this program, Broadview created “The Broadview Boutique” to provide gently used clothing and shoes, recycled gym uniforms, school supplies, and toiletries to students in need.
“We often added to the food bank with donations from teachers and a few others,” says Christine Miller, a social skills counselor at Broadview. “The mother-in-law of one of our behavior analysts is an amazing couponer, and she often contributed to our supplies.”
At the end of last school year, however, the Connecticut Food Bank ended the Backpackers Program and replaced it with an additional mobile pantry on the third Thursday of each month at Rogers Park Middle School.
“We quickly realized that many of our students’ families would not be able to access the mobile pantry for lack of transportation or because of work conflicts,” Miller recalls. “We knew we needed to continue with what we called our ‘Friday food’ but had no idea how to provide for over 20 students every week.”
That’s when Alexandra Cruzado Clarke, a new teacher, began marketing the school’s need on social media and created an Amazon wish list.
“We set up half of our boutique as a pantry, and every Friday, we called students with passes down to ‘see Mrs. Miller and shop.’ It was both heartbreaking and heartwarming to see students so grateful and happy to get what many of us take for granted.”
The program continued to work well until mid-March, when it was announced that schools would close due to the pandemic.
“Alex and I had all of the kids come down, and we gave them as much as they wanted or could carry,” says Miller. “I also gave them business cards with my cell phone number on the back and told them I would continue to help them somehow.”
Almost right away, students began texting, emailing, and calling to let Miller know they needed food.
Many teachers began delivering school-based meals to students, but the need continued through the weekends.
“I was sort of piecing together donations, picking up food, and collecting it at my house or from others’ doorsteps,” Miller says. Her colleagues stepped in again.
“Teachers knew something had to be done, because for some of these students, school-based meals are practically all they have,” says NEA-Danbury President Erin Daly, a third-grade teacher at Pembroke Elementary School. “It’s the only food they’re getting all week.”
To complicate matters, Broadview is situated near the city’s hospital, with a number of families connected to it, Daly says. “Several students have parents who have tested positive for COVID-19 and cannot get out and shop for groceries.”
Miller spearheaded the extra effort to get them the food they needed, and a system was created almost by happenstance.
Down on the farm
“One of our regular donors, art teacher Jeanette Draper, wanted to get a donation to me and said she’d leave it at a local farm operated by Laura Halas, who is a special education tutor. This led to me ask Laura if other people could drop donations there (I live in Sandy Hook). Soon, with Laura’s blessing, Alex Clarke redid our list, and we were having Amazon donations shipped directly to the farm. Halas Farm has generously given us space in a greenhouse to store our nonperishable food, and we bought some big plastic tubs to keep it safe. Laura is putting in HOURS helping us. She disinfects boxes as they arrive and organizes donations into sections, like in a supermarket. Sometimes she slips in special candy bars and notes for students.”
Miller also set up a special account for donations, with teachers contributing their own money to the cause. The cost of providing these essentials, she says, runs between $400 and $600 a week, and families who are part of Danbury’s preschool program are now being added. Teachers are shopping on their own time to supply fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, and other perishable foods, and every Friday, after a long week of providing distance learning from home, they get in their cars and drive groceries and items stored at the farm’s greenhouse to the homes of 31 different Danbury families. Each teacher has a regular route.
“This is totally teacher-driven,” Daly notes, “and our local association is making a donation this week to keep the fund going.”
“Most of the families we help,” says Miller, “were struggling financially before the quarantine and had at least one child at risk of hunger over the weekends. I know every one of these kids, and I miss seeing them on Fridays when they would come to ‘shop’ in our boutique.”
Teamwork makes the dream work
Although Miller has taken the lead on this program, she says coordinating donations and deliveries can be extremely challenging, and she credits many other teachers for making it work—lending their time and skills to keep the effort going.
“Every time I wished out loud, someone stepped up. Spanish teacher Lisa McCarthy has always donated regularly to the boutique, and she said it was time to recruit help. She’s now known as the ‘taskmaster’ in our group. School psychologist Carole Nielson has been a sounding board and has also helped put this whole thing together. And now we have so many volunteers and donors, I literally can’t keep track of everyone’s kindness and generosity. Because of them, I am able to keep my word to our students.”
“Our teachers continue to go above and beyond to care for our students,” says Daly. “The Broadview Food Pantry is a wonderful example of this. The amazing teachers at Broadview Middle School and other schools, along with support staff, have formed an army of volunteers to ensure that our families who are most in need are being fed. NEA-Danbury is so proud of all of our hard-working members who are dedicated to serving our community during this crisis. We are so fortunate to have the most giving support staff to make this work a reality as well.”
Like many of their colleagues across the state, NEA-Danbury teachers have also organized parades through students’ neighborhoods so that they can stay connected and remind them how much they are missed.
This past week, 31 families in Danbury’s teacher-sponsored food program received a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, frozen chicken, strawberries or bananas, rice, pasta, sauce, snacks, and nonperishable staples.
If you are interested in making a donation, you can contribute via this Amazon wishlist.