CONWAY, Ark. (KTHV) -- Nearly one in four children in Arkansas worries about where his/her next meal will come from. A Conway High School teacher decided she needed to do something about that, so she borrowed a little idea, and the result has grown beyond what she could have imagined.
Crystal Certain borrowed the concept of the Little Free Pantry and opened a food pantry in her classroom closet this school year.
“It shows that she actually cares about you,” said Jayla Couch, a CHS senior, “that she’s not just here to work, that she’s here to actually have an impact on our lives, and actually try to help us out. It makes me love her even more, like, because it matters.”
Certain stocks the closet with healthy snacks, canned goods, and foods that are easy to cook, so that they’re accessible to the students. She said she started thinking about the idea last year.
“You always have one or two (students) that are hungry in class,” she said. “And I’ve always kept, most teachers here keep, like a drawer with granola bars or snacks. And it just seemed like that wasn’t enough last year. And so, this is our grand experiment we’re trying this year.”
She spent the summer researching childhood hunger in part because of one student, who asked for snacks nearly every day last year. She finally worked up the courage to ask why the student was so often hungry. The student told her that about being on food stamps, and often choosing not to eat, to ensure that their younger siblings would always have enough.
“And I was just, like, you know, this is the one that’s willing to talk to me about this,” Certain recalled. “How many more are there that aren’t?”
According to the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, the state has improved from worst to 5th-worst in the nation for its rate of childhood hunger. A 2016 report from Feeding America shows that 26.3 percent of children in Arkansas face food insecurity. With an enrollment of more than 2,000 students, the data would suggest that roughly 400 of them worry about having enough to eat.
“Although Conway’s a great city, we do have those people in need,” mentioned Joah Gomez, another senior who takes Certain’s art class. “And it’s great for them, because they can come to a place where they won’t feel judged. And it’s there for them. The food’s there for them.”
The reason students can take food from Certain’s closet without feeling judged is that it is open to all of them, whether they need a pick-me-up or need breakfast.
“And I’ve got kids that come in on Fridays and get things from this shelf, and just take what they need for the weekend,” Certain said. “And nobody says a word, because everybody’s in here grabbing a Pop Tart.”
Pop Tarts, Slim Jims, and ramen noodles are the most popular items on Certain’s shelves. And they go quickly as the number of students who know about the supply increases. Certain said she hit a new high on Wednesday when 204 students took something.
“I’ve had friends that have teenagers, and they’re like, ‘you wouldn’t believe how much they eat!’ You wouldn’t believe how much 204 of them eat,” she said with a laugh.
That spirit is part of the reason why her students say they enjoy her classes so much.
“You come in here, you are guaranteed to get a laugh,” Couch explained. “Even if you have a bad morning—because I have her in the morning time—it’s good to be able to come in here and know that I’m gonna be able to smile before I walk out.”
But the kind of compassion that led to the food pantry is why her students claim to have such a strong bond with her.
“She teaches us to think outside the box, and always be your best possible self when it comes to your artwork,” Gomez said.
“She also judges your work on your credit, on your merit, instead of comparing you to other people,” said Avery Townsell, a fellow senior. “So, you never feel judged, or you never feel like you have to compare yourself to others around you.”
Certain waited until the second week of school to open her closet. She asked each student who enters to move a rock from one basket to another, to give her an anonymous way to count the number of visitors. She also asked those who can afford food to replace what they took.
“I just want to be able to help this cause,” Gomez said. “Because, like, it’s there for the people that need it. And so, being able to help them is what I want to do, and no matter what role I play in it, if it’s the smallest role, as long as I’m helping out, make this food pantry available to those here at Conway High School, that’s all I care about.”
Certain noted that her classes have grown closer, faster, than she could ever recall in her 13 years of teaching, and she credits the values instilled by the food pantry for speeding up that process. Townsell said the students have no interest in shaming or thinking less of their classmates who need the food.
“They probably don’t want a whole lot of people to know,” she reasoned. “They probably feel embarrassed. They probably don’t feel very great about their situation, so they probably don’t want to draw a whole bunch of attention to themselves, to kind of announce themselves. They probably just want to go in. And that’s also a good thing that she does, is that she doesn’t really call people out on things like that, and if you need something, she just will kind of let you go, quietly, and do whatever you need to do.”
Certain said other faculty members have donated to the pantry. They have also sent their students to her if they suspect that hunger might be an issue, for whatever reason.
“You can’t continue the day and learn properly, or even experience school in the way it’s supposed to be experienced, if you’re having an empty stomach,” Gomez mentioned.
“I don’t talk,” Couch said when asked how her personality changes when she gets hungry. “I get, like irritated, annoyed. I don’t like being hungry.”
While teaching a class Friday morning, a pair of friends entered Certain’s classroom with a cart full of food, which she guessed might be enough for four or five days. She was so surprised, she began to cry as she walked toward the door to greet them.
“It’s a miracle!” she said after she calmed herself. “We’ll take it. It was just, truly, a gift. Our community is amazing, and that’s just evidence right there that people care about our kids. For us to also have kids in the room when that happened, just so they can see that their community care about them, is also amazing.”
The food pantry has grown from two shelves to three full shelving units full of food and hygiene items. While she puts out calls for donations on Facebook and Twitter accounts created for the closet, Certain said students will often give her items.
“It’s a big cause,” Couch explained. “I don’t even know if Ms. Certain realizes, like, how many people she helps out throughout the day, but it really helps a lot.”
“We have great kids here,” Certain said. “We really do. And one of the things that has been really amazing about the ‘take what you need, leave what you can’ is, the kids who can bring things, do. And they respond in such an amazing way. And so, it might just be a box of Pop Tarts, it might be a box of granola bars, or we’ve had student organizations that have filled my floor with groceries. But every day I come in here and I see evidence of our community’s love, and our kids’ love for each other, and it’s truly amazing. I mean, every day I get my faith in humanity restored.”
Certain created a wish list on Amazon.com where people can donate items. They may also drop off items at Conway High School’s main office, or send checks to: Ms. Crystal Certain, c/o Conway High School, 2300 Prince Street, Conway, AR, 72034.
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