Schlarman Academy students hand out food, smiles

May 18—The drive-up food pantry at Holy Family Catholic Church operates every Thursday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., but lately visitors have received a little something extra.

For the last two Thursdays, second-graders from Schlarman Academy have joined the other volunteers to lend their hands to the cause.

"We're trying to help the people who don't have jobs," said student volunteer, Esri. "My favorite part is bagging up the food."

Other students were particularly excited about some of the food they were handing out.

"We're giving them strawberries and other food," another student named Ellie said with a smile.

Like many such partnerships, this one began with a conversation between two people with a shared interest in helping — one, a second-grader from Schlarman Academy, and the other her senior pen-pal, Nancy OKane, who happened to be the director of the St. Vincent de Paul Assistance program at Holy Family Catholic Church.

OKane and her pen pal connected via a program hosted by a parishioner from Holy Family who collects names and addresses of local seniors and pairs them with elementary students.

The idea to involve the students in the food pantry came to OKane when her young pen pal shared that she'd been learning about the needs of homeless people in the community.

"I thought what better way to [teach them] than to have the kids here to see what it is that we do," said OKane.

This week, it was teacher Susan Andrews' class that came to assist the other volunteers. She and Nancy and the students, along with a dozen or so other volunteers from the church, work together in an assembly line to get cars through the line as smoothly as possible.

After visitors' information is taken down and entered into an online database shared by Catholic parishes across east-central Illinois, students get to work grabbing bags and carrying them to each car. Some cars receive just one bag while other receive several, depending on family size.

Some students keep busy bagging food. A group of girls responsible for pulling a cooler full of fresh strawberries from the pantry to the circle drive play together between trips while their teacher and the adult volunteers rush around them.

OKane said this was the last time the students would participate, but encouraged those in need to come to the church for help. Aside from the food pantry on Thursday mornings, there is also a utility assistance program available to those who fill out an application and drop it in the black metal box just outside the south entrance.

Holy Family depends on donations to continue assisting those in need. They hold an annual rummage sale in June, have bake sales throughout the year, and host a roast beef each November, according to the church's website.