Cheryl Jogger, an advisory council member for South Washington County Schools Community Education, was attending the Feed My Starving Children event in 2015 in Woodbury when she got an idea. “What if we could do something similar for the kids in our school district who don’t have what they need, and really coordinate our efforts to help these kids?”
Once she brought the idea to Bob Lawrence, community education director, it became South Washington County Community Action Reaching Every Student, or SoWashCo CARES. “It’s a community-led effort to help our students and families in need in our school district,” Jogger says. And it’s been growing quickly.
“When Cheryl came to me with the idea, we wanted to figure out where to even start with it, because the potential need is so great,” Lawrence says. “We knew there were a lot of organizations serving students … but there wasn’t, from what we could see, a coordination of efforts.” So they met with school counselors and social workers, sent out surveys and tried to get a sense of what needs were being seen, and what needs were already being met internally.
“I think one of the interesting things from the survey we sent out is that a lot of the schools are doing drives—pajama drives, winter gear drives—but a lot of those items were being sent out of the district,” Jogger says. “And I think that’s just because people don’t know [there is a need here.] Especially in Woodbury, poverty isn’t something we think about that much.”
But within the district, every school has students receiving free and reduced meals, Jogger says. For the 2015-2016 year, there were 1,772 elementary students, 852 middle school students and 996 high schoolers receiving free and reduced lunches. Even more surprising to some local residents, there were 91 homeless students in the school system.
“We have a lot of students who may be new to the community or new to the state of Minnesota and they just don’t have the resources to be ready for the cold,” Lawrence says. SoWashCo CARES placed donation buckets in several locations and coordinated with Stone Soup thrift stores in Cottage Grove and Woodbury to have them keep the donations at their site. “And then if we have a need, I email the director over there and say, ‘We need a size 12 pair of snow-pants, a size 6 boot,’ and they package it up and I go pick it up to take it to the school,” Jogger says.
The SoWashCo CARES Facebook page has been a huge help, Jogger says. “I’ll get a request from social workers or staff at the schools for anything from snacks or food or clothes; I post it on the Facebook page, and really, the response is incredible. Within minutes people are volunteering to donate.”
They also developed the weekend food pack, working with an organization called Good in the Hood, based in Bloomington, which “provides resources to pack small amounts of food for students who have been identified as potentially not having access to nutritious food over the weekends,” Lawrence says. They did a similar, larger event for winter break, packing more than 5,000 meals and snacks. And they hosted another event this winter called Fairy Tale Fashion for Food, featuring a formal dress shop and swap for ages 5-18 at Woodbury High School; proceeds will provide underserved children with food packs during the summer months.
Jogger and Lawrence point out that SoWashCo CARES is here to connect the resources to those in need. “We just want to make people aware of these issues,” Jogger says, “and then give them opportunities to help.”