MILL CREEK — Hunger is a problem high school students often try to hide, especially when they live in Mill Creek.
It’s a community with a reputation for affluence, better known for its country club than its low-income housing.
Yet a request for help from one Jackson High School student last November helped trigger a community response that no one could have imagined. It all started when one student confided to a school employee that she was really hungry.
Staff knew she wasn’t alone, that there were other students who didn’t have enough to eat. But they didn’t realize just how many.
“What we found out is currently we have 390 kids who qualify to receive free or reduced lunches,” said Terry Cheshire, the school’s principal. “Out of 1,900 kids, that’s around 20 percent of us. We were shocked by that.”
Because of the fear of embarrassment and stigma, many students who could qualify for the program don’t sign up for it. As many as 500 students don’t know each day if they’ll get all the food they need, and could qualify for the program, he said.
At first, the effort was to provide students with a little extra food to tide them through Thanksgiving break, soups and other easy-to-fix food, said Judi Montgomery, the school’s activities director.
Next, staff chipped in to buy gift cards, enough for about 40 Thanksgiving dinners for Jackson students and their families.
Christmas rolled around and staff stepped up again, contributing $10 each, enough money $50 Christmas dinners for 30 families.
“We’re known for being a fairly affluent community,” Montgomery said. “The fact of the matter is we have families who are out of work. We have (low income) housing right across the street from the high school.”
When school reopened in January, Montgomery decided that more ongoing help was needed. In early January, she asked people to meet with her, representing local businesses, the city of Mill Creek and members of the Mill Creek Rotary.
One of them was Barb Athanas, a member of the local Rotary Club who has lived in Mill Creek since 1981. “We were all crying,” she said after hearing the extent of the problem.
Montgomery said she was thinking of starting a food bank. Surrounding cities, such as Lynnwood, Everett and Snohomish all have food banks but there was nothing for people in the Mill Creek area.
“This has got to be a community effort,” Mongomery said. “Everybody has to decide to take a piece of this puzzle.”
Students wanted to help. That piece of the puzzle snapped unexpectedly into place when senior Bonita Yusaf’s family had to fly to Pakistan in February because of a family emergency.
She knew she wouldn’t be returning until early March, leaving her far behind her peers with progress on her senior project.
Montgomery suggested she could help with the food bank. “OK, I’ll take it,” Yusaf told her. “It was a leap of faith, really.”
From March 5, when she returned, until the food bank opened on April 19, she figures she worked some every day on the project.
Yusaf helped launch an Interact Club at Jackson, a service organization for teens. Students helped bring donated food from a storage area at nearby Heatherwood Middle School to the food bank, housed in the high school’s commons area.
“The kids were doing everything behind the scenes, collecting and organizing,” Athanas said. “They’re responding and feeling a responsibility to their community and that’s huge.”
Athanas said she’s still amazed that an idea that took root around a Jackson High School table on Jan. 9 resulted in the opening of a food bank a little more than three months later.
“It was just us; members of the community,” she said. “All of a sudden we have money and food rolling in.
“Isn’t that the coolest story?”
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Mill Creek Food Bank is open from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. today and every other Thursday at Jackson High School, 1508 136th St SE in Mill Creek.
A website, with more detailed information on the food bank, is expected to be launched by the end of this month.
For more information, call Judi Montgomery at 425-385-7105.