In the News: Filling a Need

Filling a Need

By: Liz Manring

Published in the Sierra Vista Herald 

SIERRA VISTA — Thursday morning is food bagging and delivery day at the east end of the Rothery Center on Fry Boulevard, also known as the home of Peach’s Pantry.

“Don’t forget the extra sanitation, because it’s flu season!” says Lisa Conley, holding up hand sanitizer and squeezing it onto the hands of her crew of fellow volunteers who bustle around the room in assembly-line fashion, pulling cans, food boxes and water off shelves and placing them into bags that will soon be delivered to schools across Sierra Vista and in Huachuca City. The next day, they’ll go into the backpacks of more than a hundred hungry students, ensuring their bodies are nourished over the weekend.

“When I tell people there are homeless kids in our district, they’re shocked,” said Sarah Pacheco, who is the Sierra Vista school district’s former public information officer and founder of the pantry. “They say ‘we don’t have poor people in our community.’ People think that. But the teachers see it every day. I just think it’s difficult to acknowledge this problem exists. It’s uncomfortable for a lot of folks.”

About four years ago, a counselor at Joyce Clark Middle School was so concerned for her hungry students that she was buying food out of her own pocket to help feed them. When that counselor became pregnant and was in the midst of transitioning out of her job with the school district, she approached Pacheco about what to do with the closet of food — and the kids who depended on it being stocked.

Pacheco took it on. The hours upon hours spent in the early stages of getting it up and going — when Pacheco was fully overwhelmed with grocery shopping, stocking shelves, bagging food, delivering to schools, soliciting donations, coordinating a handful of volunteers and doing just about everything else to keep the pantry running — have produced incredible results.

What started as a pantry in a closet, feeding about 10 students at JCMS, has blossomed into a full-fledged food program feeding at least 120 students a week at the eight schools in Sierra Vista and, in a recent expansion, the one in Huachuca City. About a year and a half ago, the pantry relocated to a room on the east end of the Rothery Education Center (what used to be an art classroom at the former Apache Middle School), a perfect space that provided built-in shelves. Several free-standing metal shelves have been donated since and now line nearly all the walls of the room.

Every Thursday morning, there’s anywhere between eight to 10 volunteers bagging food, individuals from an array of organizations in the community — church members, women’s groups, service organizations, former teachers, and more.

Two women, in particular, have given the pantry a boost in the last year: Conley, who retired from military service in 1995 and retired from government service last year, and Mila Erickson, who is the pantry’s expert food buyer thanks to years of experience as an avid couponer. Official “officer” titles aren’t fully in place, though they’re working on it as they get rolling on the process of becoming their own non-profit organization. Currently, the pantry is under the Education Foundation of Sierra Vista.

Pacheco said Conley walked in “timidly” at first about a year ago, but her experience as a manager was quickly uncovered and Conley has essentially taken over most of the pantry’s operations. She handles bookkeeping, writing thank-you letters to donors, getting student numbers and other information from the schools, and making sure volunteers are organized. She has a sheet on the wall that indicates when volunteers will be gone on vacation, and she keeps a map on the wall of all the schools, along with mileage to make it easy for volunteers to log that information.

Erickson, meanwhile, makes sure not a penny of a donation is wasted. She puts her numerous coupon resources to work for the pantry every time she restocks the shelves, along with her faithful shopping assistant, daughter Isabella. Pacheco said one of Erickson’s clipping services donated 400 coupons for $1 off Progresso soup. Once the brand was marked down to $1, the pair headed to Fry’s and went through the checkout with 400 cans of soup — and left with a receipt that said $0.

“Honestly, Lisa is the brains of this operation. She is this mega organizer and record keeper, with skill sets that I just don’t have,” said Pacheco, who said she’s glad to be able to focus more on fundraising and publicity aspects of helping the pantry grow. “And Mila is a godsend because she helps our dollars stretch further. When she went shopping with me the first time, she was like ‘Are you paying full price for that?’ I said, well we’re out of that, so yes, and she’s like ‘Sarah, this is hurting my feelings right now.’”

As the pantry grew from humble beginnings, the community took notice. Last week, Pacheco accepted a check for $2,650 from the City of Sierra Vista’s Empty Bowls project. A few weeks before that, she accepted $4,000 from the Sierra Vista Community Chorus as the recipient of the choir’s annual benefit concert. Each year, the Mall at Sierra Vista offers “wrapology” workshops for volunteers to wrap gifts during the Christmas season, and this year’s proceeds will benefit Peach’s Pantry.

Smaller donations have made a dent, too. Pacheco said countless churches and community organizations collect food for donation every week or send a check each month. Pacheco spends her spare time — outside of raising a family and working a full-time job — speaking about the pantry with civic groups, clubs, organizations and anyone willing to listen. Oftentimes, those presentations result in a new volunteer showing up the following week to help.

 “Once you start this vision, or this dream, you want it to continue, to see it be successful,” Pacheco said. “If I didn’t keep it going, who was going to do it?”

The name Peach’s Pantry is subtly named after Pacheco herself. Her maiden name is Pechin, pronounced “Peach-in.” With a common name like Sarah, her nickname through public school, and later on her women’s soccer team, was “Peach.”

Hal Thomas, treasurer for the local education foundation, said he’s impressed with the amount of support the pantry has garnered. With more than 40 percent of the school district’s students on the federal free and reduced lunch program, he said, the community should have a vested interest in providing some help to those children over the weekend.

“If a kid goes a weekend without much to eat, come Monday, they’re not thinking about education — they’re thinking about their stomachs,” he said. “We felt that if we provide food over the weekend, they’d be more ready to learn Monday when they come in. Every teacher will tell you a kid with a stomach grumbling isn’t thinking about what you’re talking about. They’re thinking about eating.”

Bonnie Sikkema, an RN and school nurse at Carmichael Elementary, said she has seen backpack food programs come and go for the last 10 years she’s been with the school district, but none with the extended, consistent reach of Peach’s Pantry.

“These children know they can depend on these people. Every Friday,” she said. “And they do their part in carrying it home and having it for the weekend. When we all work together, it’s rewarding for children and families, and this is a neat community of people working together.”

The pantry doesn’t require families to fill out income forms to determine need, but rather, Pacheco said, they let the school nurses, teachers and staff work with families directly and discreetly. Every Friday, Sikkema said, the kids’ eyes light up when they see her coming with sacks of food for them. She said many families do their part, in turn, to give back to the school by volunteering with the PTSO or helping with regular screening conducted for students.

“We really want to ‘teach them to fish,’ not just give them fish, and we do that as much as possible, too,” Sikkema said. “Teachers are our eyes and ears, and that’s part of a community working together, the community of our school. We want to meet needs because children can’t learn if they don’t have their basic needs met. We see them every day and we know where the problems may lie. We’re there for the whole child.”

Pacheco said there are more than 100 students in the district who qualify as “homeless,” though that doesn’t mean they are living without shelter, but rather they are in a temporary living situation, such as a foster home, a motel or with friends. It oftentimes means that a student’s family has moved in with a grandparent, who is likely on a fixed income that cannot support a full family.

“With low-income kids, they’re in and out of school, they’re moving around, and we hope these food bags are an incentive to come to school,” Pacheco said. “We have a great relationship with the other food agencies in town, and they acknowledge that some people in the community aren’t being served at those facilities. Maybe parents don’t feel comfortable going to an outside agency. But if a kid is having a serious issue, they feel comfortable approaching a nurse or a counselor.”

Buy-in from all the schools is the most crucial element of the program’s success, Pacheco said.

A strong troop of reliable volunteers, though, is a close second.

“For me personally, I think if you live within a community, you should do your part to make that community better and make it your own,” Erickson said. “I like that part of living in a small town. You drive the roads, you use city parks, you use community property and facilities. I think even if you’re a taxpayer, paying your property taxes, you should still do your part in taking care of a community.”