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MHS Key Club feeds hungry elementary students on weekends

BRADENTON — Wednesday’s classes were over for Jimmy Campbell, Camden Mills and Andrew Morrish.

No more chemistry, computer graphics, history or math.

Yet the Manatee High School Key Club members were busy in portable No. 1201, stuffing plastic bags with cereal, pudding, raisins, apple sauce and Smucker’s Uncrustable peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

It wasn’t for them.

It was for 70 needy children just down Ninth Avenue West at Ballard Elementary School, children who go hungry on weekends.

“Kids not being able to eat? Not good,” said Campbell, a sophomore, opening more boxes of crackers.

Attacking that dilemma has been the objective of the MHS Key Club program, CHOW NOW (Children Hungry On Weekends — Not On Our Watch), delivering the food bags weekly since last December.

“School prepares you for a future in the real world,” said Mills, a sophomore, as he filled another plastic bag. “But what we’re doing here is about the real world now.”

Ballard’s enrollment is 553 and, according to principal Mary Bidwell, 85 percent are on free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs.

For some, Friday’s school lunch is the last meal they eat until Monday’s school breakfast.

“It’s hard to think about that, realize what is going on right in our own backyard,” Mills said.

CHOW NOW came about after Ballard kindergarten teacher Lyndsey Morris related conversations she’d had with students to her mother, Sally Washio, Pat Fraser and Ceci Gosling, a MHS teacher.

“Three children said they’d have breakfast and lunch at school but no dinner at home. I thought, ‘What happens on weekends?’” said Morris, a 1999 MHS grad. “Sally thought up the idea (for the name CHOW NOW), and the Key Club took the reins.”

The Key Club appealed to local businesses and families for donations but were unsure of the response, given the economy.

The community didn’t let them down.

“The generosity has been amazing,” said Morrish, a junior and Key Club vice president. “We were worried, but they’ve all been willing, and we’ve been able to make the project work.”

They’ve used cash donations to buy non-perishable items on a regular basis, and combined them with goods donated by supermarkets and fruit from local growers.

“It’s not a full-course, five-star meal, but it’s something healthy, a variety to help get them through the weekend,” Morrish said.

The children receiving the bags were selected by their teachers. If one student had siblings, they also got bags.

Eight-year-old Barbara Dodrill is one of them.

“It helps my mom a lot, because she barely has any money,” the third-grader said. “She has to do what she has to do, and she signed up for this program. It makes things better, not just for me, but my (three younger) siblings.”

Seven-year-old Adayja Anderson also appreciates CHOW NOW.

“We only have a little bit of food and sometimes we’re about to run out, so it helps,” said the second-grader.

It makes a dent where fourth-grader Nathaniel Roberts lives, too.

“There’s food, but not enough for the whole weekend,” the 10-year-old said. “It’s tough.”

There is a CHOW NOW waiting list, so if one family’s circumstances improve, another takes its spot.

“The parents have been thankful. Very thankful,” Morris said.

So is her principal.

The MHS Key Club endeavor moved Bidwell, who has spent 35 years in education.

“These students really look forward to it,” she said. “It’s a huge undertaking, and it restores my faith in young people. It’s a very altruistic thing to do, reaching out in need, and giving our children a wonderful role model.”

Charlie Mills, a Key Club advisor, hopes more can be done with CHOW NOW.

Not just at MHS.

“It’s not an answer but will certainly help for a little while, and we’ll do it as long as we need to,” he said. “Our vision, once we get all the bugs worked out, is to take this idea to other Key Clubs and do what we’re doing.”

All 70 bags were filled, stacked in boxes, then loaded into Campbell’s jacked-up Ford Bronco for the delivery to Ballard.

As the Key Clubbers drove by, the elementary school’s playground was alive with children.

“You go by Ballard every day and know you’re making a difference with those kids,” Mills said. “You wouldn’t know it if you weren’t involved in this.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or em-ail him at vmannix@bradenton.com. Please include a phone number for verification.

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