PHOENIX - A reality of life is that hunger happens every day, all year long. Also, in Phoenix, there is a deeply felt awareness of how it can impact childhood growth and education… once even cutting life short in full view of a community that cared. So when the Phoenix Class of 1968 found themselves with a funding overage after their recent high school reunion, their hearts turned towards helping at home. They found the perfect opportunity to give back in a way that hits hope head on, by contributing those funds to Erin’s Angels – an organization that fights food insecurity for elementary students in the Phoenix Central School District in order to ensure students focus on academic success.
Charles Marks is among the class members who has regularly attended the class reunions. He explained that there had been a little money left over after their 45th reunion. Knowing that they typically drew in about 80 people to the reunions, all planning estimates worked with those numbers. When a higher number – about 30 extra - signed up to come to the 50th, it left them with some extra and somewhat unexpected funds. “What can I say? We are children of the ‘60s, that kinda stays with us,” says Marks, “We lived here and we loved it, and wanted to do something to give back to the community.”
Since many class members maintain local connections, many were familiar with the history of Erin’s Angels… and the heart of the mission – to somehow honor Erin Maxwell, who suffered from food insecurity in her life, and also lift her devastating death towards a greater good. “Erin was one of ours,” says Marks, “It’s been almost 10 years since Erin died. Some were aware. Others hadn’t known the whole story of her life, or how Erin’s Angels works to help other children and families”.
That ongoing reality acknowledges that 53.4% of students in the Oswego County public school system receive free or reduced price lunch during the school year. Many of these students rely on these meals as their main meals throughout the week. When some of these students go home for the weekend, their meals are very uncertain. Over extended breaks, like spring break, which can last 10 days or more, the amount of food and number of meals is severely affected.
According to information on the Erin’s Angels website, hunger can greatly affect a student’s performance in school. It states, “Children who skip meals and are hungry perform poorer than their peers who have consistent access to food. Hunger has been linked to lower math scores, increased potential to repeat or fail a grade, and affected attendance to class. A study in the impact of similar backpack food programs displayed a change in elementary students: teachers indicated that students receiving food packages were better behaved, more attentive, and engaged in lessons.”
With the help of volunteers, Erin’s Angels collects and packages meal items – including breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, each week. With local donation support and partnership with the CNY Food Bank, the organization has been able to meet those supplemental needs over long breaks and the summer as well. Currently, Erin’s Angels works with 70 district students weekly to ensure they are sent home with food to supplement and provide meals while they aren’t in school.
“It’s a food to tummy pipeline,” says Marks, “It was a perfect choice.”
To make the donation, the class connected with Sheila Dion, founder of Erin’s Angels and agreed to raise even more awareness by making the presentation at one of the concerts in Henley Park – the night The Tom Hendry Band was playing to a packed park.
During intermission, after a subtly notable song of haunting lyric (“Oh where oh where can my baby be, the Lord took her away from me …), Jeannie Garrett Natalie came forward from the Class of 1968 to make the donation – of $1,015.00. Dion expressed the gratitude felt for what those funds can do, and then, well known for working a crowd, got that concert crowd’s attention with one line.
“I want you to think about this number – 65,” she said, and then paused for several seconds. “Yes, I wanted to give you a little time – a pause to think. That number, 65, is the number of hours some children experience between eating. 65 hours is the number of hours between lunch on Friday and 9 a.m. Monday morning. I want you to think about that.”
Dion went on to share the stories … one of a little girl who brought half her lunch back to the classroom. When the teacher offered to give her time to finish her lunch, the children said, ”No, I’m keeping it for when I get home, cuz we have no food”. Unfortunately, said Dion, “these stories happen far too often. But we can make a difference.”
Thanking the class of alumni again for their donation, Dion also took the chance to challenge the concert-goers, pointing out a basket of envelopes for donations. “Don’t just take one for yourself … take two and give one to your friend or neighbor. Everyone can help spread awareness and share the message,” said the Erin’s Angels founder.
In Phoenix, they are already seeing the difference with what both the food content and constant awareness makes through Erin’s Angels. “People are generous. And every time people come together to share their time, talent and resources with Erin’s Angels, we honor that little girl,” Dion says.
Not only does it give meaning to Erin’s life, but also gives hope and meaning to the lives of those who now receive support through the year. It is through these community donations, like the one from the class of 1968, that every child, “comes to know that all of you care,” Dion added. “We are feeding not just the physical but an emotional need as well.”