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Derby Rotary Club recently donated $4,300 to Derby Public Schools for the Feed a Hungry Child Program. Holding the check for the presentation, center, L-R: past president Eric Gustafson, Past District Governor and Derby Rotary member Robert Mendoza, Derby Public Schools Food Service Supervisor Martha Lawson and Rotary Club secretary Jenny Webster, shown with other Rotary club members.

In December 2017, the Rotary Club of Derby launched the Feed A Hungry Child Program in the Derby schools with a donation that was used to cover students’ overdrawn lunch accounts when there was a family need. The program was inspired by Rotary Club member Robert Mendoza who, as a child growing up in foster care in California, often didn’t have money for lunch at school.

The program grew in the 2018-19 school year when donations from the Derby Community Foundation, the Model A Club and several individuals were added to the more than $4,000 Rotary Club donation, along with the transfer of some unused student accounts donated by parents at the end of the school year, according to Martha Lawson, Derby Public Schools Food Service Supervisor.

“Last year we had a total of $7,805.63 donated, and gave away $6,851.69 in lunch money,” Lawson said.

“The school district has a policy that students can only charge up to five lunches to their account, and after that they get an alternative lunch – peanut butter and crackers and fruit,” she said. “Last year we let kids get beyond that credit limit and then we used these funds to bring their balance back up to within the five-meal charge limit, and it got kind of out of control. After the first semester the money was going pretty quickly, so we decided to make a program where parents could apply for funds instead of us randomly giving the funds away.”

Lawson explained that although Feed A Hungry Child is the community name for fundraising, the program for distributing the funds is now called Community Assistance School Lunch Program. Paper applications are available at every school office, the Food Service Office, and at https://www.derbyschools.com/district/departments/food_service/community_assistance_school_lunch_program

The form asks the student’s name, what the family’s current financial difficulty is, and how they plan to manage it after they use the funds allocated,” Lawson said. “[The program] is not based on income, it’s based on need. It doesn’t matter how much you make if you are hit with a catastrophe.

“So far this year nine families comprising 13 children have applied for funds, and a little over $1,000 has been transferred to accounts,” Lawson said. “The person who takes the application and I are the only ones who are aware they [students] have received the funds – it just shows up as cash in their accounts.”

With the change in how the funds are administered, Lawson said a school principal may intervene on behalf of a student to fill out an application.

“The cashiers can get a sense for who is in need, and we can share that with the principal who may know other things about their situation and can help fill out the paperwork and notify the family and ask if they want us to complete it for them,” Lawson said. “We want to be able to catch a lot of kids – they all have different situations, and some may never be able to get this form completed without an administrator stepping in.”

Lawson credits Mendoza and the Rotary Club for “a wonderful, unique community program that is taking care of our children in such a meaningful and powerful way.”

Mendoza sees creating partnerships with other businesses and organizations in the community as the key to the longevity of the program.

“Every dollar is success because it feeds a child, but if we’re going to feed every child then we need more help than just what the Rotary Club can do by itself,” Mendoza said.

Toward that goal, Rotary recently made a second presentation at the Derby Chamber of Commerce.

“We are a member of the Chamber, and we thought we would start with that group of individuals and leaders who are already engaged in the community,” he said, adding that another member of Rotary is also working with several individuals who are looking to partner with them.

Mendoza said Rotary is working on ways to get the word out about the program “in a different way,” but it would be “mid-holidays or after the first of the year” so as not to interfere with other nonprofit fundraising activities in the community.

“The reality of the changes to the program is that [we] are pointedly using the money where it is necessary right now because there is just not enough to say ‘yes’ to everybody. Once we can reach some of those financial goals – whether it’s $10,000 or $15,000 every year – then the project can say ‘yes’ to everyone who needs it on a daily basis,” Mendoza said.

“We always struggle with this project where we say ‘yes’ to everybody because the goal is to help the immediate need – it doesn’t change livelihoods, it doesn’t change the long term, it affects the right here and the right now,” he said.

“People are in that moment for different reasons, and day to day that reason changes based upon the number of kids who need our assistance. Saying yes is not cheap.”

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