by Andrea Sullivan; Feeding Our Kids; Board Vice-President
“Make sure you bring your laundry basket to carry everything home in,” my neighbor had told me. I had remembered, but staring down into that empty laundry basket, standing in the middle of an almost empty gravel parking lot, I felt lost. And ashamed. And confused about why and how I had gotten here. We were a young, smart couple in the prime of our lives; it felt so surreal to me to be standing here with a laundry basket “looking for a handout” instead of just going to the grocery store and plunking down my money.
A few months prior, my husband had surprisingly come home early one afternoon. He often worked very long hours, so being home at this time was unexpected. He looked completely crushed as he came inside with his box of things from his desk… Laid off… No warning… No severance… We had 2 children at home with newly diagnosed disabilities and I had quit my job about 2 years before because I could not handle working full-time and taking care of their needs. We had just begun to try to figure out how we would be able to provide for those needs when the stability rug was pulled out from under us.
Neighbors in our building had struggled in the past themselves, and when they heard what we were going through, they immediately started to tell us about resources in the community that we were not aware of. Applying for SNAP benefits was time-consuming and embarrassing. And there always seemed to be another piece of paper they needed before they could approve us. Once it was approved, we as a family of four received about $20 a week which went…not far. Unemployment was there, but that was only enough to keep the roof over our heads. Trying to put together meals based on what we currently had at home, that I had received from the food pantry that week, was frustrating with kids who would barely eat. I tried to scrape together enough cash to get an item or two from the store that would make the meal more complete or appetizing. I was so thankful for the Allkids insurance, allowing my kids to receive some of the care they needed. It seemed everything was a struggle and was moving in slow motion.
This day, there was a Foodmobile. Frozen meat. Some fresh produce. The sooner you got in line, the earlier pick of the available food. If you were close to the end, they might be out of the good stuff that, just a short time before, I had taken for granted; so you had to arrive early and wait. I don’t remember how long I stood in line with that laundry basket but it seemed like forever. It felt like you lost your humanity standing in that line. Another number in the sea of people….How many in your household? What’s your monthly income? We were just another mouth that needed feeding rather than people with unique hopes and dreams.
It took 8 months for my husband to find another job in his field that could really pay the bills, and now it would mean moving across the country. This was a scary prospect for a family that now had no stability, but at least there were more jobs there. The company sponsored our move and suddenly we found ourselves in a new state trying to establish ourselves in a new community. In a lovely new home that we had to rent while our old home went on the market as a short sale.
I could not forget the lesson I learned in those months. Now that I had the ability, I felt I needed to help others in a similar way. We started going to a local church and when they mentioned that a food pantry was one of the ministries they sponsored, I was excited to get started. This was different. People who were struggling came and met with counselors who helped them find more than just this pantry in the community. They got coffee and a baked good, some bags of groceries and their pick of some other donated items. We had meat available when we could get it, but our cold storage capabilities were limited. Clients of the pantry were also welcomed to work at the pantry side by side with the church members to serve each other and earn some extras from the pantry. I began to feel purpose and meaning in my life again working with these people and hearing their stories and what this resource meant to them.
A few years later, another layoff affected us after the company shut down the office my husband was working in and this move brought us to Champaign. A new job, closer to home, and again a new environment and community to get to know. I knew I needed to get plugged into something like the food pantry again. We had researched some churches before we moved and at the first church, we were immediately introduced to a family with a dad that worked with my husband. A few weeks later, I heard about the good work my new friend Ann, his wife, was doing… bags of food in backpacks over the weekends for kids to take home. Helping bridge the gap on the days without school breakfast and lunch. No waiting in lines, no prying questions, just food discretely provided to the kids. A little weight off Mom and Dad’s mind. Something from the community that says to them “we care about the struggle you have going on… We don’t want your stomach grumbling all weekend”. I knew I was all in.
This was 6 years ago and now I can’t imagine being anywhere but Champaign. This wonderful community is truly our home. My children have grown and flourished and been nourished by the caring and thoughtful people in this community. This wonderful organization, Feeding Our Kids, has grown from serving 18 kids at 2 schools to serving almost 1000 kids at 36 schools. We have worked and worked to make the process more efficient and the work as light as possible while still providing food that is easy to fix, nutritious, and that kids enjoy, and providing it to as many kids as possible who need it. The community has continually backed us with more volunteers, more giving, and more love. And I have grown from a passionate volunteer to a Board Member, Board Secretary and now Board Vice President. I have developed leadership and decision-making skills through Feeding Our Kids and it has shown me that whatever needs doing, I can have confidence in myself to step up and find a way to get it done.