Friends of the Oregon School District

From left, Friends of the Oregon School District volunteers Erin Flanagan, Madfoe Swartzmiller, Hannah Swartzmiller and Emily Konop prepare Thanksgiving meals for students last year; one of the group’s many projects.

What started as a conversation between Oregon School District moms on solving problems soon turned into an organization that raised more than $30,000 last year to fight hunger.

Now, The Friends of the Oregon School District are looking for even better results in year two, and some more people to help them feed kids in need around the area.

The idea for the group started just over a year ago, when Christine Erickson, Krista Flanagan, Julie Swartzmiller and Karin Victorson got to talking while at a meeting for parents of Class of 2019 students, Erickson told the Observer last week.

“The subject came up of how Oregon’s an excellent community, but there are also some real disadvantaged kids who are not receiving the same opportunities,” she said.

It didn’t take long for the four to take action. Following their initial conversation, they held listening sessions with officials at all district schools over the next few months, finding a clear message from administrators on where they could help.

“Hunger came up as the top priority; the top barrier to learning,” Erickson said. “So that’s where we decided to start.”

There is a growing need for help, as well. Erickson said around 10 years ago, the number of OSD students qualifying for free or reduced lunch was around 5 percent. Today, it’s around 17 percent; more than 700 students.

This year, the group has expanded their programs to include “experiential equity” to help students participate in events they might not otherwise be able to.

District superintendent Brian Busler said the group’s work matches the district’s core value of providing an “equitable educational experience for all students.”

“Their work is a shining example that our community has leaders who are willing to support and help young people,” he said in an email to the Observer. “I view this group as a treasured asset in our community.”

Steady delivery

To help those students in particular, the Friends set up three programs last year, which will continue in the 2017-18 school year: Adopt-a-Kid’s Lunch Balance, Healthy Snacks and the Foodpack Project.

The lunch balance program lets people donate online to the FOSD Food Fund while making a deposit in their child’s food service account through OSD’s Campus Portal. The snacks program offers funding and/or snacks for students during the school day, while the Foodpack project provides food and gift cards when school is on break.

Last year, the Friends delivered 22,000 snacks, 960 food packs (during school breaks), and each school received 130 gift cards from Bill’s Food Center “so kids that would normally only eat at school those days were able to eat on days off from school,” Erickson said. For this year’s summer school, they delivered 1,950 breakfast and snack bags.

“It’s been an absolutely amazing, amazing first year,” said Erickson, the group’s spokesperson. “We really want to make a point of thanking the community for their contribution, and the way the community has embraced and wrapped its arms around these kids. It has just been phenomenal and we are so thankful for that.”

While the first year exceeded expectations, the group has set even higher goals for this school year. They will add a fourth initiative to help provide some “experiential equity” for students, Erickson said.

“It could be something as little as helping fund a yearbook, or somebody might not have field trip money or it could be cap and gown or an athletic pass,” she said. “We’re working on those details.”

To help meet the growing demand, the Friends are also looking for more volunteers, both to donate and, increasingly, to provide needed “boots on the ground,” Erickson said.

“It takes considerable financial support from the community to make it work; it’s pricey,” she said. “That’s a big thing this year — now that we have the system in place, we’re going to start asking … for people who are actually going to help us with snack delivery, or food break. We didn’t ask for that last year because we didn’t have the system set yet — this year we’ll be asking for a little more than that.”

Natural partnership

Erickson credited district officials for being receptive to the idea and “so willing to make things work” at the various schools, which all have slightly different distribution systems. All deliveries — so far — have come from the “founding four,” though.

At OHS, for instance, associate principal Dan Rikli takes care of handing out the snacks, she said, which has an added advantage.

“Kids find him, they know they’re there and he develops that personal relationship with them,” she said. “Every school’s system is different, but our goal is they have what they need, they’re not paying for it out-of-pocket, and they’re establishing those relationships with maybe the more at-risk kids and form that bond and mitigate some of the things.”

Rikli called the group “invaluable partners” with the high school, and said their efforts “without question have made a significant difference for our students.”

“Their generosity has touched the lives of OHS students in ways not possible without their support,”

he wrote the Observer in an email. “We know that learning is compromised when the basic need of nutrition is not met (and) the snacks allow us to meet that need to optimize learning for those students.”

Oregon Middle School principal Shannon Anderson said around 40 students were able to have daily snacks at the school last year through the program, which had a positive effect on their learning.

“The students really appreciated being able to pick out a healthy snack every day, and having a mid-morning snack helped them to stay focused and engaged in their morning classes,” she wrote the Observer in an email.

Brooklyn Elementary Principal Kerri Modjeski credited the group for creating a “terrific system” for delivering snacks to the school.

“It has been fantastic to see kids in and out throughout the school day to get the food they need to sustain them in between meals,” she said in an email to the Observer.

And all from a conversation between concerned parents.

“We are four moms, really — we call ourselves the ‘founders,’” Erickson said. “We have kids in the district and we saw a need. With all the terrible things in the world, here’s this community that’s circling around our kids and just loving them and appreciating what we’ve got here. It’s so phenomenal.”

Email Unified Newspaper Group reporter Scott De Laruelle at scott.delaruelle@wcinet.com.