Healing through helping

Debbie McCleery, fourth from left helped create a food pantry for older students to “shop” at every Friday.

Photo by Jolene Guzman
Debbie McCleery, fourth from left helped create a food pantry for older students to “shop” at every Friday.

DALLAS — Debbie McCleery created Kindness Club when she decided the best healing was through helping.

Kindness Club began in November 2016 for students whose families struggled to put food on the table. A Dallas school district employee, McCleery knew many students were in need — and she decided she needed to help.

“About more than a year ago, I found myself in not a very good healthy place, mentally, emotionally, so I reached out to a couple neighbors and some close friends,” McCleery said. “I said ‘I’m calling a meeting.’ I said I need to focus outward, and I need help to do that.”

At first, the club worked with Christmas programs like Adopt-a-Family and Christmas Cheer, but when the holidays were over, club members had to reconsider how they would continue to assist students.

One member suggested “Friday bags,” a program that sent backpacks with snacks home with students over the weekends when they didn’t have access to school-provided meals.

“A couple of us had heard about other communities doing it, so we decided to start with the Morrison population, which is about 70 to 75 kids,” McCleery said. “A lot of them are having struggles anyway in life, displaced, homeless. We asked the counselor to identify kids for us and took 11 kids on.”

From February to the end of the school year, they filled backpacks, which the students would return after the weekend.

At the time, the club operated out of McCleery’s house, but soon it would need more space, so it moved to the district office and created a food pantry for older students to “shop” on Fridays.

“We didn’t want to abandon the kids for summer, so we went from the backpacks to Friday pantry, and opened it up to not just Morrison, but Dallas High School and LaCreole (Middle School).”

They served 19 students for the summer in a unique set up where only the students, not their parents, picked out food from the pantry. They rely on counselors to recommend students for the club.

Members still pack bags for 13 elementary students and 36 older students have membership cards to the pantry.

“A lot of the students here live on their own and I know that it helps them especially — those who don’t have a support system at home,” said Garry, a student at Morrison. “It really does help us lot.”

Kahneeta, also a Morrison student, said McCleery’s idea has become an important resource for her family. She said she shops the pantry each week, even if there’s no school on Friday.

“We were at a point where this was the only income of food that we had,” she said.

Dana Goodale, a counselor at Morrison, said Kindness Club provides more than food. When the backpack program started, she began to see a difference in the recipients’ attitudes toward school.

“Students who were shy and insecure about their academic ability were feeling more comfortable speaking up in classes and started showing up early every morning to get breakfast at school and enjoy the company of their peers,” she said. “It really was amazing.”

Goodale said before the pantry and backpacks, staff members sponsored students to participate in Willamette Valley Food Assistance Program, but couldn’t help all students who needed it.

“Debbie has found a way to tap into community folks who want to give back and support students in a way that only three or four staff members cannot,” Goodale said.

Now the club has 12 board members and about 120 people who follow the club’s Facebook page. Each week, inventory is taken at the pantry and needs posted on Facebook. Donations of clothing, toiletries and other necessities come in, as well.

Friday pantry also establishes bonds that show students that school staff care about them.

“She’s made a big different in our kids’ lives,” said Annette Anderson, a teacher at Morrison. “I’ve worked here are Morrison for nine years, so well before the pantry was in operation, and it’s such a change to able to have assistance to help the kids.”

McCleery said her mission to help students through weekends has become much more than she imagined. Recently, the club has teamed up with Christmas Cheer so it can accept tax deductible donations.

“It’s exploded way beyond my expectations for sure. I think all of us would say that,” she said. “I think it’s been very healing for more than just me. It’s given a lot of us an outlet.”

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