Food insecurity is a significant issue for students in the Altmar-Parish-Williamstown Central School District in rural Oswego County.
Six years ago, a few Red Dragons who were teachers in the district, Kathy Sheridan Ross ’85, M ‘91 and Michelle Dye ’99, M ‘04 decided to do something about it.
They created a backpack program for students who qualify for free or reduced lunches but still needed help getting meals on the weekends or during school breaks. School district faculty and staff collect non-perishable food, fill backpacks and give them to students to take home on Friday afternoons.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, complicated the program. While students on free or reduced lunches are still receiving food from the district during the week, donations for the weekend backpacks dried up without teachers in school buildings to drop off food. Local stores placed limitations on how much of certain items could be purchased at any one time, making shopping to fill the backpacks difficult.
That’s when a young Red Dragon stepped up to meet the challenge.
Cierra Stone, a first-year inclusive childhood education major and a 2019 Altmar-Parish-Williamstown alumna, started a fundraising campaign on Facebook to buy enough food to keep the backpack program going.
“If I can raise enough money to buy food for these families for the next two weeks, it’s something, it’s better than kids going hungry,” Stone said. “I don’t like to think about children not being able to eat enough in general, but it really hits close to home when it’s people in my community.”
Through May 7, she’s raised more than $2,500 and helped keep this vital service afloat.
“I’m an alumna, I really love my community and I’d really like to help people who are already facing a hard time,” Stone said. “I’m sure people are facing even more of a hard time due to COVID-19. I had no expectation on how it would blow up like it did or that my community was going to be so generous. I was hoping to maybe raise a couple of hundred dollars and we’re up to $2,500, which is just insane.”
A total of 62 bags are being distributed each weekend, serving approximately 180 of the district’s students.
Since Ross’ retirement from teaching, Dye, a physical education teacher at Altmar-Parish-Williamstown’s Junior/Senior High School, has coordinated the backpack program with help from co-coordinator Trisha Kling ’13, M ‘17, who also teaches physical education in the district.
When the stockpile of donated food had started to dwindle, Dye resorted to taking food out of her own cupboard to fill the backpacks.
An email request for non-perishable food donations from district administrators and Stone’s fundraising campaign reinvigorated the community. So many donations came in that the program switched its drop-off point to the district bus garage to have enough space.
“Everybody wanted to help,” Dye said. “It went from me having some boxes in my garage to having people drop off at the bus garage. We’ve got eight, nine, 10 tables full of food.”
Thanks to the monetary donations she’s received, Stone recently bought $700 worth of groceries and dropped them off at the bus garage.
Dye is especially grateful for Stone’s efforts to take time out of her busy schedule as a college student in the final weeks of classes and help bolster the supply of food for the backpack program.
“It makes you feel so good knowing that there are people out there who want to help,” Dye said. “Let alone a 19-year old who just wants to do something so simple but it’s impacting so many people. It’s breathtaking.”
Stone aims to become a special education teacher once she graduates from SUNY Cortland. Wherever she winds up, she hopes to continue contributing to projects such as Altmar-Parish-Williamstown’s backpack program and helping students beyond the classroom.
“This has shown me that teachers of a community can really do a lot more than just teach from a textbook,” Stone said. “The little things you do can be such big things to some people. Kids learn from the actions of their teachers. Not just the textbook stuff.
“I would love to be a teacher in my home district someday. That’s a really big goal of mine.”