BUCKHANNON — The Buckhannon-Upshur Rotary Club held their first meeting of the new year on Tuesday afternoon, via Zoom. To start off the year, guest speaker Vanessa Perkins educated Rotarians on local food insecurities and the need for the Upshur County Schools Food Pantry, in addition to some other programs she is actively involved in through the Foundation for Better Schools, Upshur County BOE, and Mountaineer Food Bank.
Perkins is an active volunteer in the Upshur community and is a native of Buckhannon. At the young age of 17, she joined the Army. During this time, Perkins also earned her bachelor’s degree in business and served one combat tour in Iraq. During her time in Iraq, Perkins witnessed many people lacking basic needs, and when returning home, she realized the same things occurred in her own community. Upshur County Schools have over 3,600 students, with an alarming 86.7 percent reportedly coming from low-income families.
Following her service in the Army, she spent the next eight years in management and supervisory roles within the United States Postal Service. After working for the federal government for nearly 18 years, Perkins decided to stay home with her children, who she considers to be her greatest accomplishment.
In addition to her many contributions to the community, Perkins serves as the Volunteer Food Pantry Coordinator for Upshur County Schools, serving a key role in the partnership with the Mountaineer Food Bank and the Board of Education. Additionally, Perkins is involved with the Comfort Closets, which are available in each school in Upshur County, and operated through the Board of Education.
Upshur County’s “Foundation for Better Schools” works with the BOE “to aid in the betterment and improvement of our school system, staff, and students,” Perkins explained. This foundation is a means for individuals, businesses, and community organizations to donate funds to be used in support of Upshur County Schools. The Foundation has partnered with the Upshur County BOE, to operate the now county-wide backpack program. Through this program, they distribute approximately 2,088 bagged meals a month.
Perkins stated, “I am very passionate about the food program in Upshur County.” She explained that when kids are starving, they concentrate more on food and less on academics, which hinders their ability to excel in school. For five to six years, they have been providing these bags of food for children. Previously, families, volunteers, organizations, churches, etc. would assist in packing bags at each school. However, the program has recently taken a different approach in hopes to make the meals more family friendly, Perkins explained.
With the pandemic, schools are wanting to limit activity within the building, including volunteers. Therefore, they have switched to packing bags at one location—the Warehouse located by Tennerton Elementary. In addition to limiting foot traffic, it also allows them to provide students with similar food, so if they have multiple siblings in the school system, one big meal can be prepared for everyone. Perkins mentioned it is also easier to receive grant funding for something that is county wide, as opposed to separate functions at each of the schools. Through this transition, they are “trying to build on that unity so mom or dad can make a meal… It is hard to make a meal out of 3-4 separate items,” she explained.
“Our goal was to one give us opportunity to find more needs of service, and unify it as a family bag, so that the items can be building,” according to Perkins. For example, with cans of soup and sandwiches, one big pot of soup can be made with sandwiches. Through surveying, she explained that a lot of kids looked forward to that family unity during mealtimes.
Through COVID-19 funding, the schools have been able to provide the 5-day food bags, which has taken some of the weight off the backpack program, Perkins explained. They are slightly worried for when students physically return to school and funding ceases for Upshur County Schools. When it is not a time of COVID, Perkins explained that Upshur County will no longer be able to provide the funds for this program. When this occurs, the burden of the backpack program will again rely on the Foundation, which is funded through donations and grant writing.
Another program Perkins is involved with is the Comfort Closet, which was started through a grant. Each school in the county has a Comfort Closet, which provides food, clothing, personal hygiene, and cleaning supplies, as well as school supplies for any student, she explained. Perkins and Kenna Leonard have purchased the items through Walmart and Gabe’s. Most items are new; however, they do take donations. “We have students that use our washing machine and dryers to do their laundry, and we provide detergent,” Perkins stated. If a student is in need of this, they have to talk to a teacher or guidance counselor. Ms. Gabrielle Rhodes, Principal of Washington District Elementary School, recently packed her school’s Comfort Closet in a bus and traveled to her students in need.
Perkins explained they could certainly use more volunteers for Mountaineer Food Bank’s Mobile Food Pantry distributions. On the third Friday of every month, with exception of January, they pass out food boxes to anyone in need in the community. Perkins explained that it takes 13 volunteers to pass the food out and on average, they pass out approximately 500 boxes of food through the monthly Mobile Food Pantry.
According to Perkins, these programs allow them to identify the needs in the community, in addition to providing a relationship with these children. It gives them the opportunity to not have to worry about their next meal or clean clothes, and instead, allows them to focus on learning, she elaborated.
“They’re succeeding and working, but they do cost money and take commitment. We have been fortunate at the Foundation in getting grants… It is about $100,000 a year to run these programs,” she explained. Following the pandemic, Perkins said, “The need for what we do is going to be even greater. My guess is, we will be handing out closer to 3,000 bags, if 5-day boxes go away.”
Based on last year’s numbers, approximately 462 Upshur County students are technically considered homeless, Perkins explained. When you are not awarded custody of the state, and you don’t live with your parents, you’re considered homeless through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Which is not uncommon for children aging out of foster care or children who turn 18 but are still in high school, Perkins elaborated. In her experience, there is a need for identifying this to avoid kids getting caught up in the system. “A lot of people overlook these statistics. I personally believe that this is part of our drug problem… These kids don’t have anywhere to go and they’re homeless, they get mixed up in the wrong crowd and they lack mentorship,” she expressed.
Kathy McMurray, Executive Director of Mountain CAP of WV, Inc. and member of the Buckhannon-Upshur Rotary Club, told Perkins that her organization would love to partner with the Foundation, as they too are involved in helping youth aging out of foster care. Member Rich Clemens suggested that colleges could step in here to assist in housing kids, particularly in the summer. He believes they could develop a program to bridge kids that are local for jobs and to further their education.
Perkins explained that she would love to see a program form to help these kids. “There are a lot of kids that slip through the cracks, simply because they don’t know what is available to them,” she asserted. In her experience, some of these children do not come from low-income family and they don’t know where to go, where to look or how these systems work.
Member Don Nestor explained that the negative impact of COVID-19 on students could result in opportunities for the Club to sponsor some sort of ACT test prep or perhaps a scholarship for kids to make it to that next level. He continued, explaining that programs such as the local backpack program, bring to light the needs within the school system and provide a real opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. McMurray added that it is a community wide effort and collaboration.
Rotary Club President Julie Keehner expressed that they are certainly impressed with Perkins’ work. She told Perkins, “We don’t realize the need is that great, so I am glad we have a group of folks who help with that. Let us know how we can help.”
If you are looking for opportunities to serve, there are a lot of things people can do through these programs. The pandemic has put a damper on the dynamics of some of them, but when the backpack program picks back up, they will have to physically pack those boxes again, and could definitely use volunteers to accomplish that weekly. Additionally, it costs on average $21 a month per child or $210 a year. Therefore, if you would like to assist in feeding these children, consider sponsoring a local child for just $21 a month. Contact any of the following Foundation for Better Schools Backpack committee members to volunteer: Vanessa Perkins at (304) 439-0996, Kenna Leonard at (304) 613-1746 or Kelley Tenney at (304) 677-5033.
The Buckhannon-Upshur Rotary Club is actively discussing programs and community service projects they will participate in for the year 2021, so stay tuned to find out more about how they provide “service above self.”