HARLINGEN — When dealing with fourth-graders, you don’t have to ask twice if they might have questions.
Jim Coffman, director of the Harlingen Neighborhood Food Pantry, answered those elementary students from St. Alban’s Episcopal Day School quickly and directly.
Does it matter how many people come to volunteer? (No, the more the better.)
Do you ever run out of food when poor people come to you? (Yes, but not very often).
Do you have the same people coming every week? (That varies, but many do return regularly).
The 20 or so fourth-graders from St. Alban’s were not just visitors, they were working volunteers yesterday morning as part of the school’s Community Outreach Day.
“They’re going to unload the food from HEB and they’re going to be putting together snack packs for the homeless and they’re going to put together hygiene kits for the homeless as well, and they’re going to hang up decorations, Christmas decorations,” said the pantry’s Wendy Coffman. “And when the clients come through on Wednesday, they’ll get to pick something and take it home.”
Mary Katherine Duffy, head of school at St. Alban’s, said the school participated in a Community Outreach Day several years ago, and while it was a positive event, she concedes it wasn’t all it could have been.
“What we found is that not everybody wants to work with elementary kids,” Duffy said. “We had a hard time finding ministries that would accept our help but this time we started a little bit earlier and we had a board member who kind of chaired it and she got involved last summer … everybody has been so great.”
In addition to the food pantry, other ministries grateful for the help of kids of any age are Care Cottage, Loaves and Fishes, Valley Haven, Sunny Glen Children’s Home, Blessings from Friends and the VA hospital, she said.
And, Duffy added, everybody at the school is involved this year.
“Even the toddlers, and the twos and threes,” she said. “They made placemats that are going to be laminated and taken over to Loaves and Fishes, and they’re kind of Christmas placemats.”
The three-year-olds decorated and stuffed stockings for Blessings from Friends, while kindergartners were tasked with going to Target and buying some things to set up at Care Cottage.
In the first grade, students went to Yahweh Farms and learned about community gardens, while second-graders went to the VA hospital and sang Christmas carols.
It was the Ronald McDonald House for third-graders, the food pantry of course for fourth, and the fifth- and sixth-graders volunteered at Sunny Glen Children’s Home and Valley Haven emergency children’s shelter.
Fourth-grader Will Kennedy was one of the volunteers yesterday at the pantry.
“It’s really cool and interesting,” he said. “I’ve learned that some people really need the food and clothing.”
“They need to have shelter, they need to have food and water, and they just need to be like us,” said classmate Mary Catherine Lyssy.
“We need to help people because some people are homeless and they don’t have a lot of food,” said fellow fourth-grader Reese Garcia. “And it’s very fun out here.”
Duffy said what’s different with Community Outreach Day is class time was used to prep the students, at the grade levels where they’d understand, with some background on the ministries they were going to serve.
“We had done research in the fourth grade about, why is there even a need for a food pantry? Do other communities have food pantries?
“In the second grade, those kids studied about veterans,” she added. “What is a veteran? Why would a veteran need a special hospital? Those kinds of things.”
For his part, Jim Coffman is happy for the help, even if it comes pint-sized.
The food pantry director said he and the volunteers delivered 750,000 pounds of food to the needy in 2015, and another 780,000 pounds in 2016.
“What it’s going to be this year, I don’t know,” he said.