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Sept. 24, 2020

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Evergreen’s Family & Community Resource Center helps families in need

Fresh food pantry ensures nutritious summer meals

By , Columbian Education Reporter
5 Photos
Nataliya Romashcheko, center, selects tomatoes with her son, Misha Romashcheko, 8, right, at the fresh food pantry at Orchards Elementary School on Wednesday.
Nataliya Romashcheko, center, selects tomatoes with her son, Misha Romashcheko, 8, right, at the fresh food pantry at Orchards Elementary School on Wednesday. (Ariane Kunze/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Nataliya Romashcheko and her children shopped for fresh produce, meat and other perishable food in the cafeteria at Orchards Elementary School on Wednesday morning. The school’s Family & Community Resource Center was distributing the food donated by Share and Costco to school families during the summer’s first fresh-food pantry.

Jane Seidel, a volunteer from nearby St. Andrew Lutheran Church, stood on the other side of the table from the Romashcheko family. With gusto, she rattled off the frozen meat stored in several coolers at Romashcheko’s feet.

“There’s frozen salmon. Lots and lots of chicken drumsticks,” Seidel said. “Take a large ground beef. Take some chicken.”

As Romashcheko filled her shopping bags, her daughter, Liana Romashcheko, 3, dressed head to toe in pink, cradled a container of strawberries as carefully as if it were a cherished baby doll. At one point, she lifted the lid and sniffed the berries.

Her big brother, Misha Romashcheko, 8, attends Orchards Elementary. Baby Jason, who is nearly 1, watched sleepily from his stroller.

If You Go

• What: Drive to collect donated nonperishable food, new coats, shoes and toiletries for low-income students who attend Evergreen Public Schools. Donors can build an ice cream sundae, paint a mural, make a sculpture and play games.

 When: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

 Where: Whole Foods Market, 815 S.E. 160th Ave., Vancouver.

“Salmon, apples, strawberries — of course — meat, pizza, juices,” Nataliya Romashcheko listed the food she had selected so far.

“And chai tea! I’m going into third grade!” Misha interjected.

The fresh food pantry is just one program offered to the school’s families through the resource center. During the 2015-16 school year, the district’s 10 resource centers provided 8,125 referrals to families for support services to partner agencies, with the most requested needs being housing, clothing and food.

In addition, resource centers provided 884 pairs of shoes to students, outfitted 1,934 students with school supplies, 1,289 families with toiletries and baby supplies, and 2,006 students and family members with clothing. Almost 3,000 families received food assistance from school pantries, in addition to food from the Share backpack program and the mobile and fresh food pantries.

Over the summer, work crews will add resource centers to four more low-income elementary schools in the district: Fircrest, Hearthwood, Pioneer and Sunset. When school begins in the fall, all 14 Title I elementary schools in the Evergreen district will have a Family & Community Resource Center. The centers are paid for by Title I money.

“The schools are excited to have the FCRCs coming,” said Melanie Green, who oversees the district’s resource centers.

At Sunset Elementary, the occupational therapy and physical therapy room adjacent to the school office will be moved to a portable classroom. That will allow the new resource center to be near the office.

“We have to be creative with space,” Green said. “We try to find space close to the front office. That’s the hub of the school where parents are waiting for their kids.”

Having the resource center at the front of the school near the office “is one less barrier for the family,” Green said.

Each center is run by an on site, full-time outreach coordinator who works with families of low-income students to help provide food, clothing, housing, medical care, employment and other types of assistance. The district is hiring four more coordinators to run the new centers.

Poverty rising

Although the recession is officially over, the number of Clark County children living in poverty continues to rise as more families are being squeezed in economic pincers.

In Evergreen, the county’s largest school district, almost half of the 26,000 students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, a federal indicator of poverty. During the decade since the recession began, the percentage of students living in poverty increased from 34 percent in 2007 to 47.19 percent in May. That’s a 38 percent increase. And those numbers show no sign of reversing.

“We also have more and more families that are right on the edge,” said Gail Spolar, district spokeswoman. “They may not qualify for free/reduced (school lunch), but they still have a tough time making ends meet.”

Although the district’s secondary schools don’t have resource centers, each middle school and high school has a food pantry for students and parents to access. Some also have clothes closets, Green said.

Evergreen district recently announced it is footing the bill for school supplies for all 11,000 elementary students in the fall rather than requiring families to purchase an extensive list of school supplies. The $275,000 price tag saves parents about $25 per child.

Changed lives

Green relayed a story of a homeless family that arrived at a district school in the fall. The mother had fled an unhealthy relationship. They walked into the school’s resource center with minimal personal possessions. Green helped the family get clothing, food and school supplies. She also helped the family get into a homeless shelter so they had a safe place to sleep.

As the year progressed, the mother secured a job by using the resource center computers. Green helped her get an interview outfit. She was offered the job, started saving money and secured an apartment for her family. A local church donated basic household items for their apartment: dishes, pots, towels, toiletries, cleaning supplies, bedding and more.

“Through the generosity of the church, she was able to turn an empty apartment into a family home,” Green said. “Mom was so overwhelmed by their generosity, she wasn’t able to stop crying.”

Through the resource center, the family receives food weekly through the Share backpack program, and the mom supplements her family’s food by shopping at the resource center’s food pantries, like the one at Orchards Elementary on Wednesday morning.

“As the school year comes to an end, Mom has renewed confidence and strength as they transition into summer,” Green said.