Leechburg Area teachers volunteer to make summer food program more than a free lunch
More than 40 children were caught red-handed last week in the Leechburg Area School District cafeteria.
These kids eagerly lined up in front of sixth-grade teacher Debbi Young, who coated their hands with bright-red paint, enabling them to create their own masterpieces on paper.
The cafeteria crowd, both kids and parents, stems from the town's first Summer Food Service Program. Young and other Leechburg Area teachers are volunteering their summer weekdays to provide activities for children who come to receive a free lunch.
And that makes their program a little different than others across Western Pennsylvania, according to Annie Slezickey, an advocacy coordinator for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
“Summer food programs in districts across the state are common. But Leechburg is unique in that teachers are volunteering their time there to coordinate activities,” Slezickey said.
Leechburg Area is a first-year participant in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program, which provides free lunches to children 18 or younger, five days a week.
The No Kid Hungry Summer Meals grant is a $2,000 contribution to the program from Share Our Strength, a charity that aims to end child hunger, according to food service director Jaimie Ogle. The grant covers staffing such as cooks and equipment costs needed for the program.
It follows Summer Feeding Guidelines set by the state Department of Education, so Leechburg Area is reimbursed by the state, Ogle said.
The program launched June 13 and runs through Aug. 12.
Within the program's two-hour time frame, two long cafeteria tables are set up for daily crafts and activities. Completed puzzles and paintings are displayed on a cafeteria windowsill as kids work to contribute to it.
Young said she noticed the impact that she and fellow teachers have made by providing more than just a nutritious lunch at this program.
“I think people would still be coming regardless, but I feel like, with these activities, they come and stay for the full two hours,” Young said. “There are parents coming in, and even they are doing the puzzles.”
Colby Artman, 4, bounced between eating his nachos, green beans, oranges and milk to playing with blocks and Legos at the other end of the cafeteria. His mother, Heather Artman, said that she and her husband bring their three boys there every day.
“The kids are able to have fun and keep busy during the week while also eating their lunches,” Artman said.
How it began
While most students awaited the last bell of the school year to let out for summer vacation, Young said her sixth-graders were a little reluctant to leave her for the three-month recess.
The Leechburg elementary teacher had gotten to know this specific class, teaching them in both fifth and sixth grades, so the separation seemed difficult for her, too.
Young heard of her district's first summer lunch program and that some of her students planned to attend, so she saw it as an outlet to keep in touch with them.
“I said, ‘I'll come and meet you (kids) and have lunch with you,'” Young said. “Meanwhile, a couple of us (teachers) decided to do some type of community outreach. When we were thinking of ideas, I said, ‘Why don't we volunteer and do activities with these kids there?' ”
That outreach escalated to roughly 20 volunteers, both elementary and high school teachers, taking part in the program.
“It really was easy for her to get volunteers because it is a district where a lot of teachers live in the community,” PSEA's Slezickey said. “It is a small, tight-knit community and that's what helped to see a good turnout of volunteers.”
Teacher interest has continued to grow, and Young now coordinates a weekly schedule.
Activities at first were limited to what Young could bring from her classroom, but with more volunteers came more donations. Fellow teachers have lent games such as Connect Four, checkers and dominoes. A storage closet in the back of the cafeteria is filled with donations from Leechburg First Baptist Church, which had leftover material from its vacation Bible school.
“I didn't know what the clientele was going to be so I went in blind,” Young said. “But they are running and racing to play these simple games.”
Leechburg substitute teacher and cheerleading coach Sarah Pastva had her first shift Tuesday, and she “absolutely loved it.” She said that it is good to see that kids are interacting during the summer recess.
Christine Manganas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4673 or email@example.com.