Ever thought about hunger issues in Vestavia Hills? As it turns out about 500 Vestavia Hills City Schools students receive free or reduced lunch. That’s about 7 percent of the school system population. There’s also one food bank in the city through Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church, and around 45 seniors receive Meals on Wheels with another 18 on waiting list.
“These aren’t huge numbers but they are somewhat surprising given the affluent community we are in,” says Episcopal Church of the Ascension priest Jack Alvey, “which tells me people are sacrificing health care or food to be in a good school system, that they understand the premium a good school system has on raising a child.”
These facts were all uncovered by a Leadership Vestavia Hills (LVH) Hunger Awareness group project this year that was looking to raise awareness about hunger in Vestavia Hills, point people to ways to alleviate it and make sure those who are hungry had the resources they need.
With data in hand, the group talked about supporting some sort of feeding program in the school system or restarting a program that places food in the backpacks of kids who are in need of it for the weekends. Mostly they decided to focus their efforts on raising awareness at events like Wing Ding. Little did they know there would be no Wing Ding this year, but there would be a project. Here’s how it all came about, from each of the perspectives of different people involved.
When it announced that schools state-wide would be closed starting in mid-March, hunger issues were already on LVH group member Shelley Gentle’s mind. She immediately thought of those 500 kids who were receiving free or reduced lunches. Since school superintendent Todd Freeman was in their LVH class, she reached to see how they could help.
At the same time, she and her husband had been talking about how restaurants were starting to hurt in this pandemic since his IT company works with a lot of eateries. That’s where she came up with an idea to unite the needs of the kids and restaurants. Why not raise money to pay restaurants for meals for the kids and also support their businesses?
A GoFundMe page and a few thousand dollars later, that’s just what she and her group did every day during Spring Break week with meals from The Ridge, Diplomat Deli, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Slice and Ashley Mac’s. In the weeks that followed, the school system handed out two breakfasts and two lunches to students every Monday and Wednesday at Vestavia Hills Elementary Cahaba Heights and Vestavia Hills Elementary West, and on Fridays the LVH team organized meals for the kids from a different local restaurant each week. One week Milo’s chicken sandwiches might be on the menu, and the next Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint might cater chicken tenders and pork sliders.
“The amount of money we have raised through the community has astounded me and made me feel so good about the city,” Shelley says. “(Initially it was) mostly small donations, $20 or $50, coming from a lot of people who want to help the students and help the small businesses, And this is a program that allows them to help both groups at one time.”
During Spring Break week about 150 kids were picking up meals daily from West and Cahaba Heights elementary schools, but in the weeks that followed that number was up to around 250. Meals were all passed through windows or placed in trunks—with smiles shared on either side of the car. No forms are needed, no questions are asked. “For a lot of families it’s their outing that day,” Shelley says.
These students might not have been seeing their teachers, they might not have been seeing their friends, but they were seeing smiling faces in familiar settings—and some days those faces were those of their principal or counselor too.
“We’re trying to provide the distance learning,” says Cindy Echols, an assistant principal at Vestavia Hills Elementary East and member of Shelley’s LVH group. “But in order for the kids to learn, they need nutrition to learn and stay active. This is a huge part of their growth too. When they are at home, we want to provide them the strength they need.”
The schools have jumped in to pool their resources with LVH too. When child nutrition staff saw their supply of milk, fruit and snacks that would go bad if not eaten soon, they added them to the LVH meals. Elementary school counselors also donated their snack stash for these kids, and Chick-Fil-A gift cards that they use for a character education program will be given out at the end of the year to continue to help these families in need.
“It just all fell into place,” Cindy says. “It’s something that is a need and it’s grown and the need has grown.
As COVID-19 came into our lives in all regards, much of priest Jack Alvey’s time was spent on pastoral care for his members at Episcopal Church of the Ascension and preparing to celebrate Holy Week and Easter through technology, but in the weeks that followed he turned to the Vestavia Hills faith community to support the Friday lunches financially.
Often churches operate in their own silos, he says, and that’s understandable. But if ever there were a time to change that, it was now. “In times like these it’s a powerful for all the churches to come together and get behind one cause to have a display of unity to show all these churches really love this community and are here to help in any way we can,” he says. “I haven’t had to do a lot of selling.”
The more he spokes pastors and priests, the more churches began to commit dollar amounts to support the community through this project. Checks came in one at a time from Redstone Church, Vestavia Hills Baptist, St. Stephen’s Episcopal, Shades Mountain Baptist, Vestavia Hills United Methodist, Episcopal Church of the Ascension and others, quickly bringing the effort to its fundraising goal to provide meals for the remainder of the school year.
“Generally speaking people have a heart for children and to make sure their needs are met in a chaotic time,” Jack says. “I think a lot of them see the world through the lens of their own children, and people are excited we are working with local businesses so you are also supporting the local economy.”
The Restaurant Owner
In week one of quarantine, the Diplomat Deli was looking to find their stride in these strange times when they got an unexpected order for 150 sack lunches on their menu. So they prepped 150 ham, turkey and roast beef sandwiches and bagged them up with chips and brownie—plus an off-menu sucker for the kids who would get them placed in their cars.
LVH paid the restaurant full price, $8 each, for the meals. “We wish were in a position to donate, but we are in a struggling position like every other restaurant,” owner Joseph Hoskin says. “We greatly appreciated it.”
And LVH wouldn’t have it any other way. “Restaurants in normal times are the first people to sponsor sports teams and fundraisers,” Shelley says. “We don’t want to ask them to give us a break, we just want to pay them for their work and to give them the business.”
Like other restaurants, Diplomat was doing whatever they could to drum up business during quarantine. They put up banners, posted on social media, displayed their beer and wine selection in their windows, and catered to UAB and other hospitals—complete with hand-written thank you notes Josephs’ kids made for their “art lesson.” “Everyone is trying to giveback however we can,” Joseph says.
The Girl Scouts
June Clark and Paige Bradley were sitting together at a softball game the day after getting word that school would be cancelled for three weeks due to quarantine, both with an itch to do something to help and for something for their daughters to focus on. Before long, they’d reached out to the service unit leader of Girl Scouts of North Central Alabama of the Girl Scouts to recruit other Vestavia area troops for an effort to provide snacks for kids in need during school closures.
A few households including both of theirs volunteered to be collection sites, and they set bins on their front porches to collect snack items and shared what they were looking for on social media. Before long, friends and strangers alike were dropping off Cheez-Its, goldfish and more.
From there the Girl Scouts—June has two daughters and Paige has two sets of twin daughters— in each home set to work to evenly distribute hearty items like mac and cheese cups, breakfast items like a Pop Tart of Nutri-Grain bars and a few different snacks. They put on gloves, counted and assembled hundreds of gallon-sized Ziploc bag that would be distributed with the Leadership Vestavia Hills lunches at West and Cahaba Heights.
“It was exciting for (my daughters) to load up the bags knowing it was going to other kids in their school system,” Paige says. “At the stores you see shelves wiped out, but people were opening their pantries to donate to kids in their neighborhoods.”
June, who is on the LVH team with Shelley, had also had her eyes opened to hunger in the community too. “A lot of times kids who don’t have enough to eat really do depend on the food that’s provided at school,” she says. “We tend to forget that there are kids here who struggle too, so it’s great to have an opportunity to provide them with some food they can take and supplement what they need.”
As it turned out the project was good for more than just the kids who would get snacks. “It’s so good to be out and to do something,” June says. “We all get bogged down in our own experience and how hard it is to work from home and manage kids and their schoolwork. To be able to step outside of that and help someone whose experience is different from yours is really rewarding.”
To donate to this project or learn more about Leadership Vestavia Hills, visit leadershipvestaviahills.com.
Leadership Vestavia Hills Hunger Awareness Group Members
- Jack Alvey
- Cindy Echols
- Chad Gay
- Shelley Gentle
- Erin Holtz
- Tracy Lemak
Other Hunger Project Supporters
These efforts also funded the Leadership Vestavia Hills Hunger Awareness Project for school lunches:
- Kristin Tunnell organized the sale of yard signs in honor of Vestavia Hills High School 2020.
- Tealla Stewart of Monograms Plus sold hand towels.
- Jeff Florio, who usually competes in the Episcopal Place Gumbo Gala event each year that was cancelled, made his gumbo anyway and sold it.