Three years ago, Verona Aid formed as a Verona Area High School club focused on helping however it could with the Syrian refugee crisis and around Dane County.
Now, it’s got a new name – Wildcats United – and it’s brought some of its efforts within the VAHS walls. Those students and social studies teacher Jason Knoll opened a school-based food pantry last month, feeding more than 50 people over the weekends since.
“It’s an amazing way for us to help kids that are with us every day,” junior Colleen Quinn told the Press.
The boxes of cereal, cans of tuna and bags of Rice-a-Roni are collected on shelving in the corner of Knoll’s room throughout the week, and the students on the group’s executive board gather Friday mornings at 7:30 to fill up the needed backpacks. Those are then given to a social worker at the school, who gives them to the students in need to take home.
The bags include food for all members of the family, and the group has different things to include for families of two to four people and those with five or more.
So far, it’s been about four families each week, Knoll said, but he knows there are more in need.
Last year, Verona Area High School had 387 students considered economically disadvantaged – measured by those who qualify for free or reduced lunches. There also were more than 100 homeless students districtwide two years ago, Knoll said.
“Food security is important,” Knoll said. “It just drives me nuts that there are children who don’t have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.”
Senior Catalina Grimm said it’s one way she and her peers can contribute to the district’s mission: “Every student must be successful.” By providing the “very basic necessities” to participate in school, she said, it addresses one of the “many factors” that lead to student success.
“You can’t think well, you won’t perform well if you’re on an empty stomach,” she said. “If that’s not even something you can control, you’ve already got odds stacked against you. I guess we’re trying to equalize that just a little.”
Big to small
The inspiration for Verona Aid, Knoll said, came from a photo showing a child in a crisis on the other side of the world.
After some research with his students, they found sending items around the world would be too expensive. Instead, they decided to send money there and collect items for more local efforts.
The group began collecting supplies for backpacks, organized a “penny wars” event and held a spring “Camp Out to Stamp Out Hunger” in spring 2017, where they collected food in front of Miller and Son’s Supermarket during a 24-hour campout to donate to Badger Prairie Needs Network.
The latest effort with the pantry hits closest to home.
“We just really wanted to help people within our school,” junior Maddy Benzine said.
Quinn said she previously “wasn’t very aware” of the need for food for students and their families, but she’s glad the pantry is there now.
“This helped me learn about how kids are food insecure at this school and they need help,” she said.
Starting a pantry
Knoll and some VAHS social workers began considering the pantry after hearing about similar setups at Madison’s East and La Follette high schools.
They visited the East pantry and began working on the logistics to bring the idea to Verona last spring and later received a grant from By Youth For Youth. This fall, they bought some food with money raised at past events and had other VAHS staff donate some food.
“Now we’ve got it started, and we’ve already helped out a lot of people,” Knoll said.
Quinn said it helps “unify” the school community, letting people know “that we do care.” Grimm said that’s especially important given the “wide range of demographics” in the student body.
“It would be very easy, if you wanted to, to stay within your own bubbles at school,” Grimm said. “There’s something to be said for stepping out of those bubbles, and being like, ‘There are problems at this school, and we’re going to do something.’”
She’s a “big believer in you’ve gotta put your money where your mouth is,” and this is the chance for she and her classmates to do just that, she said.
“You can’t sit there and talk about how you want things to change and you want to make the world a better place and then do nothing for that, because that’s pretty ineffective,” she said. “We all similarly believe in the concept that little actions can make big impacts.”