Taylor Webster hands off a bag of food at the Sultan Food Bank on Saturday. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Taylor Webster hands off a bag of food at the Sultan Food Bank on Saturday. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Sultan school children take charge to help their peers

The Sky Valley Youth Coalition has installed pantries at schools so kids can take food home.

SULTAN — Children laughed and shouted as they gathered to eat homemade chili at their after-school club in Sultan.

They were talking about ways to help their classmates overcome hunger. Each was excited to share his and her ideas.

Taylor Webster, 12, has done some work of her own.

“My friend, she doesn’t bring a lunch from home or get one from school,” she said. “When I’m not eating all my food, I usually give it to her.”

The group, called the Sky Valley Youth Coalition, has installed pantries at the middle and high schools in Sultan, so kids can take food home. More than half the students in the Sultan School District receive free or reduced-price lunches.

The teens in charge of the project know what it’s like to struggle with hunger themselves, James Blakely, 16, said. They know it can be embarrassing to ask for help, and want to eliminate the stigma.

“We don’t want kids to feel like people know they don’t have enough money for food,” Blakely said. “We want to be discreet, so kids who aren’t getting enough and have social anxiety can still come and get their food.”

Teachers hand out invitations to visit the pantries, which are near exits at the schools. Food is pre-packed, making it easy to grab. The bags have six meals and some snacks to last the two-day weekend.

Eventually, the group hopes to feed 200 students at each school. They made 131 packages for the first distribution, and 62 were picked up.

It’s only been two weeks since the program launched, so it’s still a work in progress. The group is brainstorming ways to accommodate people with allergies.

The youth group is part of the Volunteers of America, and organized by the agency’s Ruth Shapovalov. The program is not affiliated with the school district.

While the kids are in charge of decision making, Shapovalov helps them run things.

Together, they’ve organized food drives at local grocery stores to fill the pantries. One time, a woman walked up with a full cart and took a couple sacks off the top.

“We thought she was going to hand us the two bags, but she gave us the whole cart instead,” Blakely said. “That was the best thing anyone has ever done for us.”

About 20 kids have been working on the project, Shapovalov said. It started as a national contest called Lead2Feed, which aims to strengthen young people’s leadership skills while benefiting their communities. The group started working on the challenge in October.

The contest ended in early April, but Shapovalov plans to keep the project going.

“When my kids see others walking down the street with their bags, it makes them so happy,” Shapovalov said.

Some of the students who packed the supplies also have been taking them home. Some kids in the youth group have had a tough upbringing, Shapovalov said.

The Sky Valley Youth Coalition was formed to keep young people away from making dangerous choices.

“When these kids are engaged in doing something so helpful to their peers and see the results of it, these are the things that help them resist self-harm. It gives them what they need to feel like they have a place and a purpose,” Shapovalov said. “The results are very, very big.”

Stephanie Davey: 425-339-3192; sdavey@heraldnet.com.

The Sky Valley Youth Coalition has installed food pantries at Sultan’s middle and high schools, to help students who could go hungry. The group needs non-perishable food items and sturdy plastic bags.

Bring donations to the Sultan Food Bank at 701 First St. For more information, call Ruth Shapovalov at 425-802-2763.

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