"If we're not helping meet the basic needs of our students, it's very difficult for our students to focus on academics," Principal Misty Walker says

By Maria Mercedes Lara
November 28, 2015 07:35 AM
Misty Walker/Washington High School

How can you help a student focus on academics when they are going hungry?

This was a problem that students and administrators at Washington High School in Beaufort County, North Carolina, were faced with when they noticed that there were some students who weren’t getting their basic needs met. Beaufort County, a rural coastal community located about 120 miles east of Raleigh, North Carolina, is a community with “some unique needs,” Washington High School’s Principal Misty Walker tells PEOPLE. According the United States Census, 21 percent of residents in Beaufort County are living below the poverty level.

“What we’re learning is that if we’re not helping meet the basic needs of our students, it’s very difficult for our students to focus on academics,” Walker says.

“There have been times when students come up to me in the hallways and they would ask me if I had toothpaste because they didn’t have any toothpaste at home,” she says, explaining that she would go out and purchase toothpaste, toothbrushes and dental floss for students who asked for it. She shared this experience with Bright Futures Beaufort County, a local affiliate of Bright Futures USA, a non-profit organization that helps encourage community partnerships for schools to benefit children and young people. When they heard about this, Bright Futures helped the school foster a partnership with First South Bank to establish their first “closet” focused on hygiene.

At the same time, Walker explains, the student government association was trying to find ways to help serve their school community and the needs of students. The school government, administration and Bright Futures joined forces at the beginning of the school year to start their in-school food pantry, focused on supplying students with “teen-friendly” foods (like cereal bars, Pop-Tarts and foods that don’t require a can opener or extensive cooking equipment) in an anonymous and private environment.

The food pantry is stocked with goods raised through school food drives, donations gathered by churches (including Old Fort Church of Christ in Washington, North Carolina, which brought in 10 bags of food for the pantry).

Going Beyond Food

Student can access the food pantry (as well as their hygiene, school supply and clothing closets) by coming to a guidance counselor or school administrator and asking for help. The counselor will then take the student to the closets to “shop” for what they want. The student’s information is never taken down and no one keeps a written record of what each student takes.

“It is completely anonymous,” Walker says. “So that when students have needs, they come and they ask and we meet them. I could not tell you all the students who have been helped through this process because there is nowhere where there is some master list.

“What’s interesting is that sometimes there’s a notion that students may want to be greedy and take a lot,” she says about their take-what-you-want ethos. “And what we find is that our students are very judicious in what they take and we actually have to encourage them to take more.

“For example, if there’s a weekend coming up, if we have a student who comes in on Friday with a need we want to make certain that they have something not just for Friday night, but also something that will help them get through until Monday.”

Making Sure the Student Gets the Food They Need

One of the main problems that the school’s food pantry wanted to solve was making sure that the student was actually getting the food that they need.

After working with a Backpack Buddy program – which packs up food and supplies for elementary and middle school students to take home – Walker noticed that some of the food was getting consumed before it arrived home with the student.

“What would happen is when food would go home in the backpacks and when students would get on the bus, another kid might actually take it and go through it and take what they wanted,” she explains.

In another situation, Walker explained that she went to a food pantry to get food for one young female student and later found out that there were “lots of extended family members” living at her home. “So, even though you look at the box of food and think that should be a great help, based upon the number of people that are in the home, it doesn’t go very far,” she says.

Going Beyond Basic Needs

Walker notes that while she can’t measure exactly how many people have used their closest and pantry, she estimates it has helped “between 10 and 15 percent” of the students.

“[The pantry] has only been active for about six weeks now,” she says “But what we’re seeing is an increase in self-esteem. And students who have needs, they are being met. They know that since we’re doing it on such an anonymous basis, they don’t have to worry about anyone talking about them about getting their needs met because no one ever knows.”

Having basic needs met and building up trust between student in need and school administrators also allows Walker and her colleagues to open a dialogue with the students.

“Once we develop a relationship with this student and we know that they have this basic need that needs to be met then that leads into other conversations,” she explains. “Like, ‘What do you want to do after high school? What are your goals after high school?’ And of course that transitions into the conversation of, ‘Well, how are you doing in your classes right now? Do you need any help in your classes right now? Do you need to stay after school to get some help?’ And we do what we can to help them succeed. So those types of conversations are critical to help and support that child.”

Future Plans

While the pantry is focused on prepackaged and canned food at the moment, the food pantry team hopes to expand into supplying fresh produce directly from the school’s horticulture program.

“We’re probably a year away from being able to do that,” she admits. “That is our long-term goal to get where we can also supplement with fresh fruits and fresh vegetables.”

With holiday breaks coming up, the school is also trying to assess how to make sure needs are being met when students aren’t actually at school. Currently, the school is planning on working with individual students and making sure they take home additional food from the pantry to cover their time off. However, they are still trying to plan what to do for summer break.

“Our greatest challenge we will have during the summer is is transportation for our students to get back and forth,” Walker says. “And that we don’t quite have the solution for yet.”

How to Help

Walker says that the school hasn’t set up a GoFundMe page yet to raise money but that anyone looking to make a donation – be it financial or physical goods – can do so directly through the school. People can also make donations directly to Bright Future Beaufort County through the Washington-Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce.