STOW — As the holidays approached, a group of Stow-Munroe Falls school district parents and residents wanted to do something to help their community.
They decided to start a GoFundMe to reduce the district's school lunch debt of nearly $9,000, hoping to put a dent in the amount by Christmas.
They raised enough money to completely wipe out the debt for 515 students in five days.
“We all felt ... such pride in our community at the fact that there was such an immediate, positive reaction,” said Kari Suhadolnik, a stay-at-home mom of four kids in the school district who was one of several organizers of the campaign. “It just warmed my heart, and I was shocked, but I shouldn't have been shocked because I know we live in a great community.”
The organizers of the group that formed out of the campaign, Stow-Munroe Falls Neighborhood Improvement and Community Engagement, or SMF N.I.C.E., contacted the school at the end of November to find out the amount of the district’s lunch debt. At the time, it was around $8,800. It goes up each day, so by now, it’s around $9,000.
The figure was surprising, said organizer Ginger Bakos, an insurance salesperson with Progressive and a mom of a first-grader in Stow-Munroe Falls and an eighth-grader at Bio-Med Science Academy in Rootstown.
“I think people just don't know, to be honest,” she said of how high school lunch debt can get.
Organizer Heather Walter, the director of the University of Akron’s School of Communication and a mom of three kids in the school district, said although the high figure alone was enough for them to want to reduce it, smaller anecdotes stuck with her. A student who had a $300 debt and might not be able to walk at graduation because of it. A family who could only pay $1 a month toward reducing lunch debt.
"Every kid should be able to eat lunch,” Walter said. “No kid should be able to feel they're putting their family into debt by eating a grilled cheese sandwich."
Help for “bigger things,” like coat drives, is readily available, but when it comes to situations like school lunch debt, there’s not as much awareness, Walter added.
“These are just some of the invisible things in our community and in everybody's community that sort of slip through the cracks,” she said. “These kinds of things, they're just not on the surface. People don't talk about them, and I think there's a level of shame of reaching out and saying, ‘I can't even pack my kid a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.’ ”
Bakos said the fundraiser also helps families who fall just outside the qualifications for free and reduced meals.
“They're having a hard time paying those balances because they really need the assistance, but they just, they can't,” she said.
'All came together'
The GoFundMe launched Tuesday, Dec. 4. By that weekend, the goal was met, with dozens of people donating thousands of dollars.
The Stow Schools Foundation did matching donations that weekend up to $1,000 in honor of retiring board member Dick Spangler, and with that push, the fundraiser hit its goal.
"It just all came together really, really, ridiculously fast,” Walter said.
Organizers will soon meet with school district officials to arrange the payment. Allison Daugherty, the school district’s nutrition services supervisor, said the balance for all children in the district will be set at zero when they come back from winter break in January, giving them a clean slate.
“I was absolutely shocked that they were able to earn so much in such a short amount of time,” she said. “It's a testament to the caring nature of our community and this particular group for organizing to try and help our students in any way possible.”
SMF N.I.C.E. was recognized during the Stow City Council meeting Thursday night.
"I really commend you," said Stow Mayor John Pribonic, who gave several group members a certificate of appreciation. "This is a phenomenal group."
The group’s organizers plan to form a nonprofit to continue accepting donations for future projects, like covering fees for AP classes or for caps and gowns.
But SMF N.I.C.E., which recently launched its social media pages, also wants to focus on community outreach, including helping families fill out the free and reduced meal forms, which Walter called “really obtuse,” so lunch debt stays low in the future.
The group is also interested in local politics and other ways to help the community.
It includes about 10 core organizers and 95 total members, including parents, community members and teachers. Others involved include Antoinette East-Jenkins, Heather Shall, Meghan Radigan, Carla Brown, Claudia Keating and Stephanie Dickson.
The organizers said they plan to regroup over the holidays and come back strong in the new year.
“Now that we're done with this, this isn't it. There's other things out there that people just don't know about, and I think once you get a community engaged, where they see that kind of stuff, that's how you can make real change,” Bakos said. “It's great to wipe the slate clean, but now, let's move forward.”
Beacon Journal reporter Emily Mills can be reached at 330-996-3334, email@example.com and @EmilyMills818.