Hunger is an all-too-real part of many children’s lives in Cabot, and schools are playing an ever-growing part in ensuring those children eat regular meals, for many their only guaranteed meals.
So, what happens when schools are out for extended breaks?
Beginning with Thanksgiving, Susan Hedin of Cabot has organized the Lunch Box Connection to make sure children get at least a lunch, and sometimes a little more during breaks. She did it for the Christmas break, and is getting ready to do it again for the coming spring break, March 18 - 22.
"I am actually planning to begin on the 15th, because the kids will be out that day," Hedin said.
It all began with a prayer uttered at a fall Kiwanis Club meeting, Hedin said in an interview.
"Kids and hunger came up … and the thought of kids being hungry got to me," Hedin recalled. "I prayed, ‘God, if you open the doors, I will get it done."
Her first visit was to Cabot schools superintendent Tony Thurman where she described her idea to provide brownbag lunches during a break in school.
"He just asked which school I wanted to do it at. That’s when I really knew that this was what I was to do," Hedin said.
The sad fact is that there is large number of children in Cabot who do not get regular meals, Hedin said. Some even are given food to help get through the weekends.
For Hedin, it meant providing a simple sandwich-style lunch — but with no immediate funding it also meant doing it with volunteers and donations. Both of which have come through in the past, and what she is relying upon for the spring break.
Civic organizations have helped in the past with money, businesses have provided food, and churches and the schools have provided volunteers, Hedin said. "It cost about $125 a day during the Christmas break, and that was with donated food," she said.
During the Christmas break there were about 125 meals a day, Monday through Friday; but for spring break, she will need more, Hedin said. "I am planning to be at two schools," she said.
The meals are needed, Hedin said. "The first day I cried all day after the first people showed up. I knew we were helping," she recalled.
But she was made certain when a woman thanked her for the meal. "She said she was so glad we were doing it, she did not know what she was going to do for the week," Hedin said.
The meals do not necessarily go only to children, though they are the priority, Hedin said. After the Christmas storm, they took sandwiches out to the crews who were working to clear the damage and to the warming shelter the city opened at the senior center, she said.
Deputy superintendent Harold Jeffcoat said that the Lunch Box Connection is meeting a need. More than 65 percent of the children attending Westside Elementary qualify for free or reduced-prices meals, he wrote responding to questions of the meal programs at school.
"That is one of the reasons that the organizers of Lunch Box Connection chose that school as the central location for the meal program,’ he said.
Overall, Jeffcoat added, the district has seen an increase in the number of students that qualify for assistance.
The district offered a summer lunch program at two locations in 2012, both funded through grants, Jeffcoat said. "The high number of students and parents participating this summer was validation of the fact that we have families that are struggling and anything that we can do as a school district to assist is worthy. Allowing the use of Westside Elementary as a central location for the Lunch Box Connection was something our school board is pleased to be able to provide," he wrote.
"We have been fortunate to have many wonderful individuals like Susan Hedin who want to do good things for people. She and the other volunteers give of their time during the holidays to make sure that people are being taken care of in a positive and supportive environment. We are providing the facility but Mrs. Susan and her team are providing the food and a lot of love," Jeffcoat wrote.
Hedin said she is now looking for help to have two meal locations operating. Anyone wishing to volunteer or donate can call Hedin at 501-786-3589, email to email@example.com, or through the Lunch Box Connection Facebook page.