It was Katie Wallace’s first day volunteering in her daughter Ava’s kindergarten class at East End Community School on Munjoy Hill in Portland. After some math exercises, the kids were getting fidgety, so they took a break for snacks.

“They all sat down, and I watched them start eating, but there were at least half-a-dozen kids who sat there with nothing, just watching their friends eat,” Wallace said of that day six years ago.

“One girl asked, ‘Can I go down to my locker and get my snack?’ She came back without anything. Her explanation was, ‘I guess my mom must have forgotten to pack it.’”

That disturbing, eye-opening experience moved Wallace to found what is now the Locker Project, which works in partnership with the Good Shepherd Food Bank, and whose stated mission is “to connect food-insecure children in Maine with nourishing food to improve their learning capacity, health, and future.”

Today, Locker Project Executive Director Katie Brown said, the nonprofit serves about 1,000 kids, including those who share in what their siblings bring home. The project is schools-based, with 14 pantries in total, not only in Portland but also in South Portland and Saco and at the REAL School on Mackworth Island in Falmouth. Food distribution – of produce, especially – has continued through the summer.

Wallace, a full-time waitress at an upscale Portland restaurant for the past 13 years, admits that she might never have undertaken the food initiative, had she known how much work her voluntarism would eventually involve. At the beginning, she simply shared muffins and clementines with the class when she volunteered once a week. Before long she was known as “the snack lady” (spending $75 weekly, often out of pocket) and provided snacks to the other 23 classrooms.

Alison Gray Murray, another parent, began helping out. School nurse Wendy Wescott was also a strong supporter. The women were able to obtain a $4,000 grant from Good Shepherd that allowed them to stock the pantry by drawing on that account. This was all the more provident because they were now trying to supply food for kids to take home.

But by February 2014, Wallace was feeling affected by the continual pressure of having to hustle to sustain funding and food supplies. She met for coffee with Brown, a longtime friend with an extensive background in nonprofits, and explained the challenges.

“I just blurted out, ‘well, I could start a nonprofit,’” Brown remembered. “‘And you could be a board member, and not have to do all the work.’”

“Everything seemed to fall into place immediately, and the organization has been flying since,” Brown said. And the Locker Project – named after the often-used practice of putting food in kids’ lockers anonymously – was launched, in June 2014.

Major steps along the way have included acquisition of a delivery van, made possible by a $14,000 Morgan Stanley grant written by founding board member Sharon Timberlake; and the creation of a logo by designer Angela Adams, also a board member, whose business advice has been invaluable.

Food supplied has evolved from snack pretzels and crackers to take-homes such as pasta and sauce, beans, rice, cereal and oatmeal, with an increasing emphasis on fresh produce, as contributed by “more and more gardeners and farmers, Good Shepherd, and local stores,” Brown said appreciatively.

Sources also include grants from independent Maine foundations; business support, e.g. grocery store donations; and what Brown called “a great one,” a South Portland drive (“Food is Hope”) started by middle-schooler Truly Chillemi, and operated in partnership with the Locker Project. Fund-raisers, like the musical evening/silent auction benefit put on by Rosemont Market and Eventide Restaurant, and an annual wine and beer tasting at the Blue Spoon restaurant, count as other blessings.

When approached by schools with students in need, the project is not saying “no,” but reluctantly advising them that the effort is “at capacity,” and then striving to help others open their own pantries; for example, “coaching” a pair of Westbrook schools now. This approach is in keeping with the goal of guiding schools and even student bodies to establish and “take ownership” of their own programs, Brown explained.

As a new school year begins, the Locker Project is being asked to help more kids in need of basic sustenance, and will strive to do so.

To learn more, make a donation, or to support the project’s School Year Kick-Off, please call 899-9540; e-mail [email protected]; see www.mainelockerproject.org; and look for the Locker Project on Facebook.

 

These monthly profiles are brought to you by Lee Auto Malls. The Lee family is committed to supporting local organizations that work to sustain Maine communities.