MARYSVILLE — On Friday, Tom and Christy Lee called the Marysville School District, intending to pay off the lunch money debt for the students at Kellogg Marsh Elementary School. They asked how much debt had accrued.
“We actually figured it would be $2,000 for Kellogg Marsh,” Christy Lee said. “We were shocked when it was only $259.”
They went to the district offices to make their donation. While there, they asked what they thought was the obvious next question: How much would it take to pay off the debt for every elementary kid in the district?
The answer: $5,495 for 262 kids in 10 schools.
They said they’d go home to talk about it, Tom Lee said. It turned out they didn’t need to.
In the car, Tom and Christy agreed. “We already knew we were going to do it,” he said.
They went home, poured a cup of coffee and called back.
It was a surprise at the district.
“In my 32 years in public education, it’s the first time I’ve seen something of this magnitude,” said Marysville School Superintendent Becky Berg.
Schools regularly receive donations from PTA groups and individuals, Berg said, often targeted at a specific school or program, such as paying for a field trip or a nonstandard piece of equipment like a 3-D printer.
Occasionally, a parent may pay off the lunch debt of one of their kids’ friends. But usually, donations aren’t made with the entire district in mind, Berg said.
The Lees had been talking about giving back to their community for several months.
They had agreed that they wanted to give to Kellogg Marsh Elementary, which their son Ryan attended in the 1990s.
When the Lees worked for Boeing, they always tried to contribute the maximum amount allowed to the Employee Community Fund, which directs millions of dollars each year to charitable causes.
After they retired a few years ago, they continued to contribute to the Marysville Community Food Bank, Homage Senior Services’ Meals on Wheels program, and an international ministry.
“We buy goats for the ladies in Africa,” Tom Lee said.
But they felt like they could do more. They’d done OK in life and their New Year’s resolution was to give back, he said.
“We’re just not giving as much as we used to and we kind of missed that,” he said.
“Friday morning, when I got up I said, ‘Today’s the day I want to do it,’” he said.
There’s another reason why they chose to do this now.
Tom Lee has health issues. His kidneys failed about a year-and-a-half ago.
In August 2015, the Lees had planned on a long-dreamed-of trip to Hawaii.
“Then I started getting sicker and sicker,” he said.
After spending a night in the hospital that November, they talked to a nephrologist, who told them he had to start dialysis the next week.
They had to cancel their trip.
“We were crushed,” he said. “We’ve been together 40 years and it was our goal.”
While the Lees have focused on improving Tom’s health to where he could qualify for a transplant, they started looking for things to do.
“His nutritionist is telling him to do things on his bucket list,” Christy Lee said.
That brought them back to the Marysville School District.
Kids with school lunch debt generally don’t get a choice of hot lunch, Berg said. Usually they get something like a cheese sandwich.
“We will never be in the business of throwing a lunch away or taking it from a child’s hand,” Berg said.
But other kids who don’t have debt can see who’s eating what kind of lunch, Tom Lee said.
“It’s embarrassing,” Christy Lee said.
Unpaid lunch debt at the end of the school year also carries over into the next year.
The one thing that really reassures the Lees is knowing that both of those problems are now taken care of.
Berg said the district hasn’t officially communicated to the schools yet about the Lees’ donation, but the computers in the cafeteria would show that the debts were paid.
“No child is going to go without a good regular lunch today,” Tom Lee said.
On Tuesday, the Lees plan to go to Kent Prairie Elementary in Arlington, where their two grandsons attend school, and drop off a check for $239.88 to wipe out all the kids’ lunch debt there.
Then they’ll get to work on the rest of his bucket list, starting with that trip to Hawaii.
“This year,” he said.
“And hopefully next year will be Alaska,” Christy Lee said.