FARGO — Entering Shanley High School on March 16, staff and administrators of St. John Paul II Catholic Schools were met not by the anticipatory sounds of children’s voices returning from spring break, but hollow halls.
Tasked with leading students during what had quickly become an historic, life-changing scenario, driven by a new and uncertain virus impacting the world, they had little time to figure out how to create a safe learning experience. But while many had academics in mind, Patty Desharnais, food services director, faced another conundrum: freezers and pantries filled with food without anyone to eat it.
“It was a very quick turnaround,” says Dawn Storandt, school nurse, of the decision to prepare the food already in store, along with government-provided supplements, to families in need. “We got the notification on Sunday the 15th that (in-person) school was done for now, and by the 16th, we’d begun reaching out to families.”
By March 17, they had food ready for disbursement. Families could either stop at Shanley a couple times a week for boxes containing two meals and a snack for five days total, or have it delivered to their homes. Desharnais says about half chose delivery; the other, pickup.
Though the effort began within the school community, it eventually widened. “If someone said, ‘I know of a neighbor,’ or, ‘I know of…’ whomever, we didn’t care. If you had a need, we made sure you got a meal box,” Storandt says. “It was exciting to be able to be part of this and provide food for families who were in a situation no one ever thought they would be in.”
Initially, an email offering help went to families on free or reduced lunches, but in time, others whose income had changed requested them, too.
“We are not here to judge — that’s what I kept saying,” Desharnais adds. “If someone needed food, they knew they could reach out to Dawn. We had a few wrinkles to work out, but we had a good team… everyone was so willing to jump in.”
Early on, several others volunteered to help, creating a “lunch ladies” team that worked through the school year and beyond, ending mid-August.
“Dawn was in charge of doing more of the computer work,” Desharnais explains. “She would report to me, ‘This is how many families we have today,’ and I coordinated the food.”
At the height of the effort, in the spring, she says, up to 40 families were being served daily. Referring to the boxes as “happy meals,” John Klocke, advancement director, shared in a summer school newsletter that Desharnais was reporting 35 families, comprising 100 children and 69 adults, were receiving meals.
The newsletter also mentioned donations that had come in from other families — both from within and beyond the school community — after they’d heard about the effort to help in this way “during this unique time.”
The donations enabled the crew compiling the boxes to provide extras, including Easter bundles with ham, bags of potatoes and candy.
“We were also able to do s’mores kits for Memorial Day, plus gift cards every once in a while,” Desharnais shares.
Storandt says she’s received thank-you notes for the extra touches, like the freezable “ice pops” that appeared in the food boxes one warm day.
“Someone also donated a zillion Girl Scout Cookies, so that was something different in addition to the regular meals.”
One week, Desharnais made her “famous” homemade cookies, Storandt says, “so they all got the Shanley cookies everyone loves.” And at Easter, the Rev. William Slattery, school chaplain, added prayer cards and rosaries, along with candy.
“We did try to get the whole (spiritual) piece together so they could celebrate Easter.”
Desharnais says some parents told her their kids especially appreciated the cartons of milk.
“That was the highlight for some — that they were excited to open the fridge and get their little milk carton, just like at school.”
“You don’t wish this on anyone,” Storandt says, “but it was nice to be able to do something to make it a little easier on those families in need.”
While the program has ended temporarily as the school community prepares to receive students in person this week for the first time since March, Storandt says they’ll “reassess as time goes on.”
“If we end up going to hybrid learning, we might need to help out again in this way in the future.”Food services staff and others from St. John Paul II Catholic Schools helped provide meals for up to 40 families a day this spring. Special to The Forum
James La Plante, marketing and communications specialist, says the effort, which in some cases also included financial support, reveals the school community’s commitment to “keeping the Deacon family together during the pandemic, by making sure we can provide the things they need so they can still experience benefit of a Catholic education.”
It also speaks to the core values of the school’s mission, he says. “I think the faculty is definitely leading by example in doing things like this.”
Though some assume students attending private schools wouldn’t have such a need, that’s not necessarily true.
“This has been a rough time for a lot of people, regardless of your income bracket,” La Plante says, adding that the unique way this was done also points to one of the benefits of a smaller, faith-focused school community.
“We’re trying to serve the community the best way we can, but the main takeaway is that we’re very much open to helping families sort through these things and get the best education they can during this time,” he says, encouraging families in the school community struggling financially to “come to us if you need anything.”
Desharnais says the school’s service-driven mission seemed to help bring the impromptu efforts to fruition more quickly.
“I just felt, since we were able to do it, why not?”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Aug. 28, 2020.]