Volunteers at Lamar Elementary

On an early summer evening, one of the vacant classrooms at Lamar Elementary School is bustling with activity. It’s hot, with only one window air conditioning unit to cool more than 40 volunteers moving among an assembly line of boxes and bags. Each box is filled with food staples. Volunteers are sweating, but they also are smiling.

This is Loving Lamar, a ministry of Grace Fellowship Church (full disclosure, my family attends this church). The goal is to pack enough boxes to supply weekly staples every week of the summer to Lamar students suffering from food insecurity.

Volunteers at Lamar Elementary
Volunteers at Lamar ES. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Loving Lamar is a manifestation of Snack Pak 4 Kids, an Amarillo nonprofit that works through schools to fight food insecurity among kids. For the program to work, it needed a team committed to supplying the funds and volunteers to compile weekly bundles of food to be sent home with qualifying kids over the weekend.

Grace Fellowship Church wanted to lead that team and committed to providing financial and volunteer sustainability for three years, beginning with the 2012-2013 school year. The commitment was intended to be a minimum time span, likely to be extended, and a catalyst to spur involvement of members of the school community and other entities, like Overland Partners Architects, to get involved.

The church already was serving the Lamar community by hosting a Halloween Party at Kiddie Park and providing Christmas gifts for families. But church leaders knew that once-a-year efforts would not get at the most chronic challenges facing these families. They called the ministry Loving Lamar, because they believe that love is played out over the long term.

It is quite easy to found a community. There are always plenty of courageous people who want to be heroes, are ready to sleep on the floor, to work hard hours each day, to live in dilapidated houses. It’s not hard to camp—anyone can rough it for a time. So the problem is not in getting the community started—there’s always enough energy for take-off. The problem comes when we are in orbit and going round and round the same circuit.

A community which is just an explosion of heroism is not a true community. True community implies a way of life, a way of living and seeing reality; it implies above all fidelity in the daily round. And this is made up of simple things—getting meals, using and washing the dishes and using them again, going to meetings—as well as gift, joy and celebration; and it is made up of forgiving seventy times seventy-seven.

 A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes, but simply live each day with new hope, like children, in wonderment as the sun rises and in thanksgiving as it sets.

– Jean Vanier, Growth and Community

By providing weekly food assistance to students identified by school teachers and counselors as suffering from food insecurity, the program fills a serious gap. Adequate nutrition deeply affects students’ ability to focus and learn in school. That’s why the national free and reduced lunch program exists. At Lamar Elementary, 95 percent of the students qualify for that program.

But what about the weekends? What about students who show up on Monday after a weekend of poor nutrition, or worse, hunger?

Volunteers pack boxes of food at Lamar Elementary
Volunteers pack boxes of food at Lamar ES. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

That’s where Loving Lamar wanted to serve. They found that Snack Pak 4 Kids offered the flexibility that the school and the church would need to create an effective partnership. Leslie Kingman serves as coordinator for the program, and through her efforts it now functions as a well-oiled machine.

Through its contacts, the church was able to bring Labatt Food Service on board as a supplier for the Snack Pak 4 Kids program, an arrangement that worked out so well that Labatt is now supplying the program in Amarillo as well. H-E-B has contributed fruit and bags on a weekly basis. Loving Lamar supplies the volunteers to pack the bags on a monthly basis, and discreetly distribute them to classrooms weekly. The bundles take other children in the home into account as well. All of the food is packaged so as to be accessible to children as young as four years old.

A job for even the littlest helpers at Lamar ES.
A job for even the littlest helpers at Lamar ES. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

In it first year, the 2012-13 school year, Loving Lamar consistently provided weekend Snack Paks for 67-84 children.  Survey results from teachers strongly supported the feeling that the food security provided by the Snack Paks is having a very positive impact on student attention, performance and attendance. Early responses from the 2013-2014 teacher survey indicate continued success. Even teachers who were worried about the stigma attached to food assistance have found that the only problem is that other kids are jealous of those who go home with the snacks on the weekends.

The program is expanding, as people hear about its success and campaign to bring it to their school. Cambridge Elementary in Alamo Heights ISD and Madison Elementary in SAISD have both brought Snack Pak 4 Kids onto their campuses with help from local churches and businesses.

Snack Pak 4 Kids encourages the funding/volunteer organization to work through the school, and not to reach out to students directly. However, with summer approaching, Lamar ES worked with participating families to allow Loving Lamar volunteers to make the weekly food distributions directly to their homes. Hunger doesn’t take a summer vacation, and neither does love.

*Top/featured photo: Volunteers at Lamar Elementary. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

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Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.