Catasauqua Press

Monday, December 11, 2017

This is what happens when a community cares

Wednesday, September 27, 2017 by DENISE CONTINENZA in Opinion

Every now and then, something happens that just makes me stand in awe. This summer brought me one “wow” moment after another. During this inaugural year of the summer breakfast program in Whitehall, I witnessed the selfless actions of so many people — and it was beyond amazing.

The program grew from the Communities That Care (CTC) process. Data from the PA Youth Survey (PAYS) for Whitehall-Coplay School District showed we have a large number of students in our district who either worry about running out of food or really have had to skip meals due to lack of food. We looked deeper into this issue and found that, in this community, there was indeed a food insecurity problem. The CTC decided to address hunger as one of the priority issues for the CTC, and Whitehall Area Hunger Initiative was born.

The hunger initiative, under the leadership of Shari Noctor, has developed an extensive game plan for ensuring that children and families do not go to bed hungry. Community meals, Snack Pack Pals, cooking classes, food collections and community gardens that supply the food banks are some of the strategies that are contributing to winning the war on hunger.

But the summer breakfast program was the epitome of what it means for a community to really care for its members. It brought together faith-based organizations, senior citizens, teachers — retired and those off for the summer — youth, athletes, community organizations, human services professionals, business people and government leaders.

On the summer days that I visited, I witnessed smiling young people from kindergarten through high school enjoying a hot breakfast. While daily attendance varied, 54 young people were signed up for the program and more than 1,400 meals were provided. The morning continued with a variety of activities from which the kids could choose. There were arts and crafts, games and a literacy corner stocked with books, thanks to a grant from BB&T Bank.

Lehigh County Probation officers volunteered their time to read to the children while Whitehall-Coplay School District teachers assisted younger children with reading on their own. Lehigh County 4-H provided educational curriculum that taught youth how to make healthy snacks in the microwave. A local yoga instructor ran a class and taught the kids how to relax. Whitehall Rotary Club presented each child with a backpack stuffed with school supplies.

The Muslim Association of the Lehigh Valley provided each child with a bag of toiletries and personal care items.

An incubator filled with eggs was provided through 4-H, and program leaders Janice Stavros and Lana Snyder guided the children through the process of watching the eggs hatch chicks.

Every day about eight volunteers worked in the kitchen preparing breakfast, cleaning up, packing lunches for children to take home and organizing the kitchen for the next day. A grant from the Allentown Diocese helped with the purchase of food, and donations were bountiful.

As Lana Snyder said, “It was a modern-day loaves and fishes.”

As summer began to wind down, donations of school supplies rolled in, including those from a drive conducted by the youth group at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church. I found myself teary-eyed on more than one occasion — like when the backpacks were distributed and one girl hugged hers close to her chest and the boy clutched a book, his favorite story, that he received from the book donations.

The program concluded with a picnic lunch for all the families and children, who left well-stocked with the essentials to kick off a new school year.

It was amazing to see what ensues when people come together and when each person gives a little time, talent or treasure to help those in need. Putting aside all the differences — religious, socio-economic, neighborhood, race, ethnicity — the common thread connecting each person was the desire to put faith into action, to feed the hungry and to provide for all our children.

This is what happens when a community cares.

Editor’s note: Denise Continenza is the family and consumer sciences educator with Penn State Extension, Lehigh and Northampton counties.