Percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals:
• Statewide: 46 percent.
• Washington Elementary: 91.7 percent.
On Nov. 1, food stamps were reduced to pre-2009, pre-recession levels, cutting food stamps by:
• $11/month per individual.
• $36/month for family of four.
The reader board on the lawn at Vancouver First United Methodist Church proclaims: "We love our neighbors."
Those words are not just a platitude to the congregation's members. They really mean it.
On Saturday, church volunteers gathered to pack Thanksgiving food boxes for Washington Elementary students and their families. On Monday, they delivered the boxes to the school. Later, families picked up the boxes in the school's Family-Community Resource Center.
Those boxes contained the fixings for Thanksgiving dinner in addition to cereal, peanut butter and other staples to tide the students and their families over during the long Thanksgiving weekend. Typically, the kids would eat breakfast and lunch at school.
Students who receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunches would be missing six school meals during the holiday weekend. The folks at the church rallied to prevent any Washington Elementary student from missing a meal.
Starting weeks before Thanksgiving, church members began filling large boxes just inside the church entrance with nonperishable food. Some hefted hams and turkeys and stashed them in the church's refrigerator.
Then Elizabeth Owen, program director at the church, tallied what had been gathered.
Next, Owen called Christy Bayly, a longtime church member and the church's official shopper. Bayly works full time, but the weekend before Thanksgiving, she makes a couple of colossal grocery shopping trips to supplement what food items are still needed to complete the boxes. The church spends from $300 to $500 on the additional food.
Over two or three trips, Bayly fills her Ford Explorer with 20 boxes of hot cocoa mix, 30 boxes of cereal, 100 to 150 cans of vegetables, 30 pounds of oranges, 30 to 40 boxes of pancake mix, 50 to 60 syrups, 20 jars of jam, 20 jars of peanut butter and 40 to 50 loaves of bread. Last year, she had five high school volunteers pushing shopping carts for her.
How to help
Who: Vancouver First United Methodist Church.
What: Collecting food and gifts.
Why: Food boxes and holiday giving tree for Washington Elementary students and their families.
Contact: Elizabeth Owen, program director at the church.
On the Web: Visit church website.
Or help the school directly:
Washington Elementary School
Contact: Carla Feltz, family community resource coordinator.
"With the (Explorer) seats down, you'd be amazed how much I can fit in," Bayly said.
Located in the challenged Rose Village neighborhood, Washington Elementary has the neediest student population in Clark County. A whopping 91.7 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. That's much higher than the school district's 53 percent and more than double the state's percentage of needy students.
"The hardest thing for a parent is not to be able to provide for your own child," Carla Feltz said.
She's the coordinator of Washington Elementary School's Family-Community Resource Center. It's one of nine centers at elementary schools in Vancouver Public Schools. Her position is paid for by the Foundation for Vancouver Public Schools. But the center itself relies on donations -- including those from the foundation, but also from Share, Vancouver First United Methodist Church and others -- to provide food, school supplies, winter coats and more.
"I've had parents come in and apologize for having to ask for help," Feltz said. "Asking for help is a hard thing. But I'm here just for that reason."
Times are harder
"Lately, it feels like things have grown worse," Feltz said. "So many families have had their food stamps cut."
On Nov. 1, food stamps were reduced to pre-2009, pre-recession levels, cutting food stamp allocations by $11 per month for individuals and $36 per month for a family of four.
Last week, the school received food requests from a record-breaking 87 families, Feltz said. That food is provided through Share's backpack program. But Share doesn't provide food for the holiday boxes.
That's where churches and other volunteers step in. Feltz said the church adds extra items that can't be purchased with food stamps: hygiene items, toilet paper, toiletries and cleaning supplies.
"The church is a great partner. A constant support," Feltz said. "They're here year-round with help."
In addition to providing the food boxes, church folks also volunteer for the school's Walking School Bus and Lunch Buddies programs, serve as mentors in the classroom, and donate school supplies in the fall, warm coats in the winter and books in the spring.
Church volunteers prepare and serve dinner at a number of school functions throughout the year. The church also helps out at nearby Discovery Middle School and King Elementary. Once a week, church volunteers cook and serve a meal for Share.
"Just about everybody in our church does something to help others," Owen says.
With the Thanksgiving boxes distributed to Washington Elementary, Bayly, Owen and hundreds of other people at the church already are planning Christmas food boxes and gifts for Washington Elementary students and their siblings and gifts for students at Discovery Middle School and King Elementary. Shopper Baylywill be putting down the seats in her Explorer again.
"I look forward to it every year," Bayly said. "The families are so grateful. I think it's a great thing our church does."
Church volunteers also gather for a gift-wrapping party.
"Last year, we did 155 gifts for 25 families," said Dave Hanson, a church member for 52 years.
"We try to focus on the needs in our neighborhood," Owen said. "The families at Washington Elementary are our neighbors."