Three students at West Virginia University played a key role in creating a local non-profit organization that provides resources to students and community members in need.
While taking a mentorship class in high school Roark Sizemore, a political science major from Morgantown, was tasked with creating a project that would benefit his community. He came across an article about a school in North Carolina where a student government group started a cost-free, anonymous pantry, and thought a program like that would be beneficial in Morgantown.
“In Monongalia County, one in four children live in poverty without having basic essentials such as food, clothes and hygiene products,” said Sizemore. “I thought a school pantry program would be a perfect fit to help combat this problem.”
He teamed up with Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom to develop a similar program that would provide in-school pantries that were stocked with free non-perishable foods, toiletry items, school supplies and clothing that students could access in a judgment-free environment.
“During my 32 years as a high school guidance counselor I saw first-hand how it can be hard for a student to reach out for help, especially when they are worried about what others may think,” said Bloom. “Creating a program that was private meant that we could preserve student’s dignity while also ensuring that they get the resources they needed.”
In search of funding, the duo reached out to the Student Government Association at WVU and were connected with Madison Thompson, a Board of Governors Representative who was eager to get involved.
“When Roark and Tom came to a student forum to talk about their idea it instantly sparked an interest in me,” said Thompson, a civil engineering student from Morgantown. “I thought this was a great opportunity to give back to my community.”
Thompson knew that in order to get the program off the ground the group would need substantial funding. She quickly mobilized her contacts through SGA and began working with fellow engineering student and Morgantown native, Josh Watson, to devise a plan. The two were able to rally their fellow BOG members into donating $3,000 to be used toward the launch of Pantry Plus More.
“I knew we were going to be able to bring together some funds, but I was very surprised when we ended up totaling $3,000,” said Watson, an industrial engineering major and student in the Honors College. “Each governor in SGA has a $500 yearly budget to use for projects and events and I am so thankful that six of us, including myself and Madison, decided to utilize our funding for this cause.”
The group began the task of identifying schools that demonstrated the greatest need. By reviewing free and reduced lunch statistics in the county, it was determined that Mason Dixon Elementary and South Middle would be the pilot schools.
“Once we identified the schools, Josh and I went online and used the $3,000 to purchase items for the pantries and had them shipped to my parents’ house,” said Thompson. “It was kind of overwhelming to see the sheer volume of the items when they arrived, but also exciting to realize just how much we were going to be able to provide for those in need.”
They worked with the staff at each school to set up an in-house location for the pantry and established some guidelines on keeping the pantry private. Once they found volunteers within the school to maintain the pantries, they were ready to open.
“Opening the first two pantries was an awesome experience. We didn't quite understand the extent of the need or how much help we would actually be providing but in the weeks that followed we saw a huge demand for supplies,” said Sizemore. “Seeing our work come to fruition was great, but being able to actually make a difference in the lives of others was truly amazing.”
While middle school students were encouraged to visit the pantry themselves to receive items, teachers sent lists of available items home to parents of elementary students so they could determine what was needed at home.
“When we opened we had concerns that children might take more than they needed but the opposite proved to be the case,” said Thompson. “One second grader refused to take more than one item saying, ‘All of my friends are hungry, too.’ Children had to be encouraged to take more.”
Eleven months after the first opening, Pantry Plus More has expanded and is now open at five local schools, all of which are funded by donations.
“To this day I am still surprised at the generosity of this community,” said Thompson. “We have families who give monthly monetary donations, and various groups that run food drives. Without them, we truly could not be functioning.”
Based on their research, the organization found that 25 percent of students at the schools it served were utilizing their in-school pantry. After recognizing that the demand for food and basic goods was so high, the organization decided to expand to help the entire community.
“The overall impression of Morgantown is that since the University is here, there is not a significant population that needs help,” said Sizemore. “However, we were having to deliver additional items to schools on a weekly basis, which showed us that there were significantly more families in need in our community than we initially anticipated.”
Having previously served as a volunteer for events hosted by the Mountaineer Food Bank, an organization located in Gassaway that provides counties in West Virginia with more than 3.5 million items of food and household items per year, Sizemore suggested that they propose a partnership between the two organizations.
MFB operates a mobile pantry that delivers food to areas with limited access to resources and can provide enough food to feed up to 1,000 households at a single event. However, it had not previously operated in Monongalia County.
“Through our in-school pantries we were able to demonstrate to the Mountaineer Food Bank that there is a significant amount of families in our county that would benefit from their services,” said Thompson. “It was extremely heartwarming when we found out that they wanted to partner with us and come help our community.”
In conjunction with their newly established partnership, the first community pantry event in the county was held on January 26. Volunteers from Pantry Plus More were able to serve 279 families more than 15,000 pounds of produce and 3,000 pounds of meat that was donated solely by MFB.
“Although we were helping students get supplies that they needed through the in-school pantries, as a small and new organization we could only do so much,” said Thompson. “When you have almost 300 families show up to the first event it proves that there is an abundance of families in need here, and through our partnership we can now make a large impact in these families’ lives.”
Due to the overwhelming turn out at their first event, MFB has decided to host a regular mobile pantry in the county where they will donated close to 20,000 pounds of food and goods each month.
“It’s astonishing to see how far we have come in developing Pantry Plus More in such a short amount of time,” said Bloom. “Being able to provide hundreds of families with life-changing resources each and every month is an accomplishment that would have never been possible without the support of WVU and the dedication of the students who worked so hard to get this organization off the ground.”The organization recently received non-profit status from the IRS. They now have 11 board members that run the organization and plan to open more in-school pantries in the fall of 2017.