How is any student supposed to learn with a pit in their stomach?
This question – and several others like it – swirled in the mind of Northeast High School Principal Doug Bolden this winter, as he witnessed the dire needs within his building. So he reached out to prominent alum Roberta Holt-Kipper with a question of his own: what if Northeast High School organized its very own food pantry?
“I approached Ms. Kipper with it a couple of months ago,” Bolden said. “That thought actually turned into action, and a lot of credit goes to her for taking that idea and making it something real.”
For Holt-Kipper, the direction from Bolden, combined with her personal experiences with students and teachers, painted a clear picture of an ongoing problem at Northeast High School: students weren’t getting the sustenance they needed.
“Shortly before Christmas, one of the teachers came to me and told me that we were having a serious food shortage; that we had up to five pages of students living on the streets, or living in their cars, or just living in places where they weren’t getting food,” Holt-Kipper said.
Stakeholders organized a food drive in response, but it soon became clear that the need remained tremendous. The idea of organizing a food bank loomed as a bold strategy for addressing the problem, and with Bolden’s blessing, Holt-Kipper hit the ground running. What she found was an engaged alumni base that was eager – almost too eager, in fact – to assist in the effort.
“This sounds crazy, but I had alumni from as far as Arizona sending Amazon food packages to my home,” Holt-Kipper said.
When space in her home proved limited, Holt-Kipper began moving the donations to Northeast High School’s alumni room, which she manages. Shortly thereafter, Bolden proposed creating a dedicated food pantry in the school’s former teacher’s lounge. In addition to food, Bolden wanted to see a pantry that could blossom into a go-to resource for students and their families.
“I really want to open this up to not just the school, but to the entire community,” Bolden said.
Holt-Kipper’s dogged efforts helped her bring the idea to fruition faster than Bolden could have ever anticipated. When news of the food pantry spread throughout social media, she found herself inundated with messages of support and offers of assistance. A key development was the early involvement of fellow alum Dale Lightfoot, who has spent a lifetime involved in charitable activities around the Kansas City metropolitan area.
If Holt-Kipper is the general of the food pantry operation, then Lightfoot is the charitable mercenary. He donates food and volunteer hours to organizations like Harvesters, Betsy’s House, Children’s Memorial Lutheran, the Cherith Brook Catholic Worker House, Redeemer Lutheran, Hillcrest Ministries, and Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. Meanwhile, Lightfoot has also has developed donor relationships with grocery outlets like Hy-Vee and Sprouts Farmers Market.
In short, Lightfoot’s reputation for giving precedes him.
“Somebody will say, well I could use this or I can use that, but how am I going to do it?” Lightfoot says. “They’ll say, ‘Call Dale Lightfoot.’”
In this instance, Holt-Kipper’s call to Lightfoot proved especially fruitful, as it provided a consistent method of re-stocking the food pantry’s shelves. With that aspect in place, buy-in from Northeast alumni started to take off.
“Dale Lightfoot is getting bread and pastries from Hy-Vee three days a week; fruits, vegetables, and meats from Sprouts five days a week,” Holt-Kipper said. “The Northeast alumni brought a refrigerator – somebody loaned us a deep freeze.”
To Bolden, Lightfoot’s contributions have been a blessing.
“I really can’t articulate it well enough; when Dale came on board and he shared with us the things that he could bring to the table, I was just simply blown away,” Bolden said. “Because now we’re talking about a consistent way that he can bring food into the school.”
On a brisk April afternoon, the Northeast News found Lightfoot in his element, piling boxes of food onto a four-wheeled cart on the north side of the school building. Clad in a yellow Missouri University sweatshirt and sporting a pair of sunglasses on top of his white, shoulder-length hair, Lightfoot carries himself with a decidedly affable demeanor. He jokes with security officers and maintenance staff, maneuvering the halls with a knowing comfort usually reserved for students.
That comfort at Northeast High is likely the result of frequent visits; Lightfoot has added the stop to what appears to be a jam-packed schedule of charitable distributions. On this day, Lightfoot loads up an assortment of pretzels, cookies, chips, and more confections onto the cart. He squeezes the cart onto a service elevator and takes it to the second floor, where he proudly wheels the bounty towards the converted lounge.
The food pantry only opened on Monday, April 2, but when the Northeast News stopped by to monitor the progress on Wednesday, old library shelves being utilized for food storage were already stuffed with donated loaves of bread, bagels, and other assorted pastries.
The swift collection of donated food caught even Bolden by surprise.
“We were so surprised; we weren’t ready,” Bolden said. “I had no idea to what scale they were talking about.”
That scale is only expected to increase with time. Eventually, the hope is to keep the food pantry open daily – even throughout the summer. From there, the goal is to continue to engage community partners, from Harvester’s to Northeast alumni and beyond. Ideally, Holt-Kipper says, the food pantry will be a place where students can earn community service hours; parents, meanwhile, could come volunteer as a form of repayment for goods and services provided, in a sort of cooperative arrangement.
“What I’m hoping is that it becomes a giveback,” Holt-Kipper said. “When you get something, maybe you give us a couple of hours.”
Despite his own involvement, Bolden is quick to credit Holt-Kipper and Lightfoot for taking the lead on the project.
“We have two great alumni here who are now working together towards this one great cause,” Bolden said. “I just feel so very blessed to have those types of spirits and those types of people as part of our cause.”
Already, Bolden is working to expand the space provided for the food pantry. Preliminarily, the plan is to commandeer a classroom just a few doors down from the current base of operations. Holt-Kipper remains grateful that Bolden has been so supportive of the efforts.
“(Bolden) took my hand and he goes, ‘Here’s your new food bank. I want it to be not only a food bank, but also a food store. I want it to be a place where students can get whatever they need,’” Holt-Kipper said.
Though she is still working on creating a seamless method for the community to donate to the pantry, Holt-Kipper noted that anyone interested in the project can go to the Northeast alumni website (www.northeastvikings.org) or the Northeast Alumni Facebook page to learn more. Checks can be mailed to school with ‘food pantry’ written on the memo line; donations can also be sent through PayPal on the alumni website.
The funds and donations, Holt-Kipper promises, will be immediately directed to students in need.
“I have personal care items – razors and shampoo and sanitary products – things that kids living on the street need, and they don’t always get from the shelter,” Holt-Kipper said. “It’s only been open for two days, but our plan is for it to evolve into whatever the students need.”