It all started with a simple box. About six years ago, Seattle Hebrew Academy’s librarian asked kindergarten teacher Lea Hanan to take over the school’s food collection for the Polack Food Bank at Jewish Family Service. That worked out fine for a couple of years. But then Lea started to think about how she could do more. Do more she did.
Today, bags of non-perishables from SHA students and their families come to the Food Bank by the hundreds.
A CULTURE OF CARING
“We’ve created this culture of empathy and awareness,” Lea said. “We collect food all year long, from the first day of school to the end, and we even have kids and families collecting over the summer.”
“People are hungry all the time,” Lea explained.
While JFS supporters of all ages participate in the annual Food Sort to organize, load and label hundreds of boxes of food and toiletries, not everyone realizes that the need is greater.
“The Food Bank operates 12 months a year, and there’s never a bad time to give,” said Food Bank Manager Brian Sindel. “Hunger doesn’t stop.”
With that in mind, the school and the Food Bank began to work together to understand what items JFS needs throughout the year. In February, for example, Lea said they’re using Tu B’Shevat — the birthday for the trees — for a “toilet-trees” campaign where students will collect soap, toothpaste and other sundries. For Chanukah, a Chanukkiah made from nearly a thousand cans of food — an average of 10 per student — won all of the classes a hot chocolate party. In the spring, the focus will be on kosher-for-Passover foods.
“I’ll take eight items that JFS mentions they really need for Passover,” Lea said, and divide them up by grade to create a friendly competition.
Having these campaigns makes it easier for the Food Bank and Brian, because he can adjust the products he orders based on what he knows he will receive. That has a huge impact on the Passover items in particular, which can be far more expensive than standard bulk purchases.
“If we can make a specific ask and they can fill that ask, it’s extremely helpful,” Brian said.
NEVER TOO YOUNG TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
So, what’s it like for the students who participate in collecting all of this food? “Kindergarten is the leader of the school for the SHA food drive,” Lea said. Even after they graduate to first grade, that empathy, energy and education continues.
“My goal is they carry what they’ve learned through the grades, and I strongly believe that has happened,” Lea said.
It is evident by the work done by The Giving Club for the middle school, where about 15 kids meet with Lea. “They use their creativity and their minds to think about ways to support JFS and other things as well,” she said.
When they’ve got a hundred or so bags filled, JFS volunteers go to pick up the donations, and the loading process becomes a team effort with the kids.
“We always sing them a song,” Lea said. “They leave with smiles. We leave with smiles. It’s just a fun little routine we’ve created.”
Leslie Sugiura, Director of Volunteer Services at JFS, was blown away during her visit to the school.
“It’s really impressive to see that level of tzedakah and giving back,” she said. “You walk down the hallway and there are bags lined up on both sides of the hallway. It’s really, really heartwarming to see.”
SHA has gone all-in with its Food Bank support, but any school, synagogue or organization can create the same culture of giving.
“It’s a really low barrier to entry,” Leslie said. “It’s calling us, contacting us, asking what our current needs are.”
JFS staff can help to customize the collection or drive with educational resources and appropriate materials.
“We’re happy to help facilitate. Call and talk with us. That’s really the important thing because our needs change throughout the year,” Leslie noted.
The partnership between JFS and SHA has been a shining example of how the community can support those changing needs, all thanks to the initiative Lea took and the enthusiasm she has shared with her students.
“She walks the walk, both inside and outside SHA,” Leslie said. “She’s really an inspiring person all around.”
Take the initiative and get involved with JFS!
By Joel Magalnick, Principal and Founder of The Refined Story