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Putting food in hungry young stomachs

When a student told her he was hungry, Eliana Jorgensen gave him her own lunch.

Then she and others got busy organizing food donations for hungry children that has now become a highly organized and well-funded food pantry at Highland Elementary School in the Ambridge Area School District, Beaver County.

The Highland Helpers Food Pantry’s roots started one day during the 2017-18 school year when a student told Jorgensen, a school social worker at Highland, that he was really hungry. She then went back to her office and gave him some macaroni and cheese she had brought for herself.

Highland has free breakfast and lunch programs so Jorgensen said she put “two and two together’’ and realized the student probably wasn’t eating on weekends because of financial struggles at home.

“If your stomach is hungry you probably can’t focus on math, science, writing, reading, and your activities at school,’’ Jorgensen said. “You are in survival mode. You aren’t worried about learning math.’’

Given the high number of low-income families at Highland and the Ambridge district overall, as well as a large transient population, Jorgensen said she also realized there were probably many other children in the same situation.

Brandie Skonieczny, an academic and behavior coach, and Dana Burns, a first-grade teacher, were interested in helping. They and Jorgensen got together with a local organization, the Good Samaritan Ladies of Charity, to give away a limited number of weekend food bags for the rest of the school year to students who expressed a need. They identified them by sending home parental permission slips asking if it was OK to provide food items for their children to eat on weekends.

Other staffers and members of the community got involved to provide donations and help bag the items. Nearly $1,100 was raised through the Highland Elementary Halloween Dance.

When a new principal, Laura Burns, took over at Highland this school year, she was not only highly supportive, she helped connect the program to the Center for Hope, a local community service group. After making that connection, the food pantry really took off.

Center for Hope raised $10,000 for the food pantry at its annual auction and luncheon last December. Then another group, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, started lending a hand in getting the food to the school.

The Center for Hope provides the Highland Helpers team with a monthly list of items available through the Pittsburgh Food Bank that the team can order at very reasonable prices. Tzu Chi volunteers help get the food from the Center for Hope to school and help put the food in brown paper bags, which are then placed in students’ backpacks to protect their privacy.

As the program progressed during the school year, Jorgensen brought in fifth-graders to come to the room where food items are bagged to volunteer their time.

“That has been really cool. We get to talk about community service, and they have been really excited to do the volunteer work,’’ she said. “This has truly been a community and school effort. Everybody recognizes the importance.”