By Abby Hoover

To be a student at Kansas City Public Schools’ (KCPS) Northeast High School, one of the urban district’s most diverse schools, is to have someone always in your corner – whether a coach, teacher, alumni, or Principal Waymond Ervin.

Northeast High School, although steadily declining in enrollment for the past five years, is bolstering programs to help students succeed, including cultural luncheons, connecting with parents and guardians, a weekly coffee hour with teachers, or filling in the gaps outside of school.

The student body at Northeast is not only ethnically diverse, but has a range of life experiences and traumas. With 577 students, more than 40% of students are Black, 36% are Hispanic, nearly 12% are Asian, almost 9% are white, and 1.6% are Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. The number of students who are refugees or undocumented immigrants is not recorded, but they are there.

Over the next few weeks, the Northeast News will highlight some of these programs, beginning with the Northeast High School Alumni Association’s food pantry and clothing closet.

In 2021, 100% of the student body qualified for free/reduced lunch. KCPS provides breakfast and lunch to all students, free of charge.

The Northeast High School Alumni Association is one of the strongest in the district, if not the region when it comes to helping current students. Alumni of the Historic Northeast school pulled back to help those who walk the same halls, sit in the same classrooms, and face the same struggles that they once did.

After realizing a need for students and their families, the association created the Viking Village Pantry at the high school nearly five years ago. Its first location was the size of a bathroom with a bookshelf of dry goods. Eventually, they began collecting shelving from donors and a variety of gently used clothes. 

Now, the alumni association runs a food pantry out of its third room. They get supplies free or at a reduced rate from Harvesters, paying for it with funds raised from the alumni.

In January 2022 they served 474 students and more than 100 families and teachers.

“Sometimes when you have limited money, you pick out a cause, and for a lot of our alumni, the pantry is that cause,” said pantry supervisor Roberta Holt-Kipper, class of 1969. “When I go shopping on the internet at Harvesters, I always check ‘free’ first. I have three freezers, so if I can get hamburger or ground beef for free, then I can pay for the vegetables.”

The group has put together a little cookbook, with the help of a district social worker, to help families put together meals with the ingredients they pick up at the pantry. Holt-Kipper said it really helps stretch the food they’ve got further.

“For the most part, they have food, but what they have is they have too many people for the food they have,” Holt-Kipper said.

It’s important for the pantry volunteers to stock meat and fresh vegetables because the protein and nutrients help students learn and give parents energy to go to work.

“We have a gentleman who is an alumni – because almost everybody involved in the pantry is an alumni – who started out as a street minister, Dale Lightfoot,” Holt-Kipper said. “Dale picks up from the Hy-Vees and the Sprouts and CVS, he does that five days a week. And then he spreads that out among places here in the Northeast area and then people up north, where the church is located that he worked out of, and so every week he brings us sandwiches, salads – sometimes it’s out of date so we’re real careful – but milk and cereal. He brings us all sorts of things.”

Holt-Kipper said Wednesdays, when Lightfoot delivers, is what the teachers are most excited about.

“Our teachers don’t make a lot of money, and so it just supplements everybody,” Holt-Kipper said. “We do have people who are homeless people who come in – I shouldn’t say they’re homeless, they’re with several organizations – and that we have to be real careful about because sometimes they’re not always appropriate to be around children, so we kind of limit that.”

They have a wide variety of people from the community who come in or call and inquire about the pantry, but if they’re not students or families of the school, pantry visits are by appointment only.

“They’ll say, ‘You know, we don’t have anything. Can we get groceries?’ We don’t turn down anybody,” Holt-Kipper said.

The pantry has drawstring bags from Harvesters that they pack with a few days’ worth of meals that they can send home with students before potential snow days, weekends and other times they’ll be out of school.

“We’ll put spaghetti in it because when we – usually, unless we can hand it out to a student, we won’t put meat in it because we don’t know whether it’s gonna get left in the hallway – but what we’ll do is we’ll put maybe chili in it with crackers,” Holt-Kipper said. “We’ll put beef stew, put vegetable soup, we’ve tried to put things that make a meal. If we have fresh fruit we’ll put fresh fruit in, but if we have canned fruit, maybe we’ll stick a cake. We will always stick in oatmeal and cereal and pancake mix because it goes a long way.”

They try to make sure students are covered for an unexpected situation. If a student has a death in their family, the volunteers try to put together something for the family.

All of their adult volunteers are alumni of the school, but they also get help from student volunteers. 

Dr. Elvin

“Because Dr. Ervin’s been very nice to us, you know, when a student comes because they need community service for graduation, it’s kind of like, ‘Okay, we can use you, but on the other hand, we need to go through the process,’ and he sets the rules for them,” Holt-Kipper said. “They can work during their lunch hour. A lot of times, I should say, if they have a sub or if they’ve passed the test or something then they come down. I’m happy to say that most of our volunteers from last year were all scholarship winners, and they all were in the top ten. So I don’t know whether we learn from them or they learn from us.”

Students mainly work in the clothes closet space run by Pat Roberts, class of 1959.

“She was a secretary, which is amazing to me, but she teaches them how to fold clothes. She teaches them how to properly put it on a hanger, how to sort, how to label, and so I kind of think that gives them the opportunity to get a job in a shoe shop or dress shop. I think it makes them sellable.”

The clothes closet is always kept stocked with dress clothes so students can look good going to an interview, or a funeral.

“A lot of times we go out and shop for specific kids,” Holt-Kipper said. “We’ve got one young man who needed a 56 and most of our clothing comes from teachers, it comes from alumni.”

They often post on the pantry’s Facebook page asking for specific donations.

Last year, they had a student going out for track who didn’t have shoes, and the coach called on Holt-Kipper for help. 

“He goes, ‘Ms. Roberta, got this young man, he’s never run track before. Can we find him shoes?’ I went out on Facebook and I said ‘Can somebody help support?’ Three ladies sent me $20, and with that I got him nice shoes and now he ended up being I think 13th in state.”

The athlete ended up being the first from Northeast High School to qualify for State track in nearly a decade.

After five years, it’s hard to measure the impact the pantry and closet have had on the student body. It’s not just necessities, though. The pantry recently supplied cakes and ice cream for a Valentine’s Day party for student volunteers in the school library.

“The nice thing is, it didn’t cost us anything. The kids are getting a treat they don’t normally get, and I keep the freezer full of cookies and things so that if the teachers – we have some teachers who like bar chocolate – if it’s a math test and they’ll be doing a verbal test and they’ll go, ‘Okay, who’s got the answer?’ with chocolate.”

In addition to Roberts and Holt-Kipper, the closet and pantry are often staffed by Dick and Helen Shores – high school sweethearts and retired teachers, whose grandson is now a math teacher here – a pair of twins from the class of 1968. 

The alumni feel it’s their duty to now provide for students of their beloved neighborhood school.

“I kind of think that that’s what started it was that we were some really blessed students,” Holt-Kipper said. “I mean, we’re all middle class. I tell my brethren, you know, I remember hearing students complain about the food, and when we were in school, the cooks were our grandmothers, our mothers, our aunts. Food was cooked fresh. It wasn’t brought from one location to another location and heated up. It was cooked fresh, and yet I know there were students who complained about the quality of the food, and there’s always been somebody who can’t afford to eat.”

Holt-Kipper has been volunteering her entire life, whether working at various soup kitchens or making a dozen trips to El Salvador during the war in the 1980’s.

“I’ve always been involved in the  community, I do the forensics tournaments for Hickman Mills, Ruskin,” Holt-Kipper said. “I’ve always done something, and my mom passed away three years ago. My mom had lived with me for 33 years, my mom was one of my first volunteers. My mom didn’t even finish high school, but she came every day and I always tell the story that my mom was 92 years old, she still wanted to come. She wanted to know what I did.”

Her mom would “hold court” in the food pantry, settling disagreements between students, or just listening to their problems – even if she didn’t understand their language.

“A lot of our students are immigrants and one of them would just be bending her ear, and Mom would just be eating her breakfast and would just be patting their hand,” Holt-Kipper said. “We get in the car to go home and my mom would look at me and she’d go, ‘What the hell did that kid say?’”

It wasn’t about understanding, it isn’t just about providing sustenance, for the alumni of Northeast High School. They return to their alma mater each week to let students know they have support.

“We just need somebody to give a hug to or tell you it’s going to be okay, or give you a piece of candy to make it okay,” Holt-Kipper said.

The Viking Village Pantry and Clothes Closet are open Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Follow them on Facebook for more details and ways to donate.