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Rotary Club of Yelm member Stephanie Kangiser, owner of Bliss Experience Salon and Spa in McKenna, helps bag food on Sunday, July 12, at the Yelm Senior Center for the Rotary's "10 Weeks of Summer Lunch Program." The 2020 program ended in September and was successful despite the limitations of COVID-19.

Try feeding 150 needy families each week — and their 300 children — in the midst of a pandemic.

Sound like a huge undertaking? 

You bet.

But that’s just what the Rotary Club of Yelm managed to accomplish with its “10 Weeks of Summer Lunch Program.” The summer feeding project officially began June 23 and just ended Sept. 8. And despite the COVID-19 ogre threatening to devour everything in its path, the program still did quite well, thank you.

“It was a very good summer, we had good turnout, gave away a lot of bags and supported a lot of families,” said Sandi Hanson, charter member and past president of Yelm Rotary. “We discovered that a lot more families were in need, and that seemed to increase throughout the summer.”

The summer feeding program is targeted to students 18 years and younger and their families who qualify for the National School Lunch Program free and reduced-priced lunches. And this year — because COVID-19 forced schools to close in March — the Rotary Club instituted a temporary hybrid feeding program in April that added a couple of weeks to its usual 10-week schedule.   

Here’s how the program works: At one of four predetermined distribution sites, each Yelm-area child 18 or younger per family receives one bag of food a week intended to provide breakfast and lunch for that week. The bags include canned tuna, canned chicken, ravioli, chili, milk, juice, granola bars, Top Ramen, snack crackers and cookies, microwave popcorn, instant oatmeal, macaroni and cheese, and fruit and apple sauce cups.

In addition, the students’ families receive one box of organic produce and another box of staple food items — all to last the week until the next distribution. Twice a summer, families also receive hygiene supplies that include soap, shampoo, and tooth brushes.

After calculating summer-end 2020 figures, Hanson said the program had averaged more than 300 bags of food the last few weeks this summer — that compared to 150 bags a week it distributed when the program was launched in 2017. 

In addition, volunteers spent the summer handing out a total of 2,900 bags of food for children — which contained more than 37,000 breakfast and lunch meals, more than 33,000 snacks and nearly 8,800 drinks. Families were also given a total of 1,500 boxes of non-perishable food.

Rotary volunteers distributed bags every Tuesday morning at the four sites in the area: Yelm City Park, Nisqually Pines Community Club, Rainier School Administration parking lot, and Clearwood Community Association office in the Bald Hills area.

The 10 Weeks of Summer Lunch Program was originally inspired by a seemingly simple fact: For some students, summer vacation was no picnic in the park. 

Hanson explained in an earlier Nisqually Valley News story: “We realized that even though school stopped for summer, the kids were still hungry. And some of the kids didn’t want to leave school because they wouldn’t have food.”

So the Rotary stepped in to help remedy the situation — though this year the 10 Weeks of Summer Lunch Program faced particularly harsh challenges because of COVID-19. The virus, for instance, crushed normal fundraising avenues this summer.

In normal years, the club could expect to raise approximately $8,000 from its largest fundraising events — the Prairie Stampede 5k, Bowling Challenge and Home Show & Raffle — all cancelled this year. 

So Hanson and her Rotary Club comrades shifted to another gear and did their best to informally advertise the program. Club members were able to raise money at Yelm’s Farmers Market and raise awareness of the project through their Facebook page and website.

“I think the word got out that we were providing these bags of food for these families,” Hanson said. “We ended up receiving a lot more donations — mostly money — that helped us.”

The club relied on grants, too, to offset the cancelled fundraisers.

“Because of COVID-19, we knew the need would be greater this summer and were gearing up to raise the money to meet our needs,” Hanson said last week. “We were very successful in raising the funds, and we were very pleased with the generosity of the community in helping us meet our needs.”

Hanson had expressed cautious optimism earlier in the summer that the program would meet its needs, saying, “I’m not afraid to ask for help.”

At the time in early July, the project was still about $1,500 short of the $30,000 it needed to purchase enough food for its qualified clients.

By summer’s end, though, Hanson calculated the program received nearly $35,000 in donations and grants that not only supported this year’s program but offered a head start on funding for Rotary’s other nutrition programs.

“With that (donations and grants) we were able to cover the costs incurred this summer with some funds remaining to help out with our ongoing snack programs during the school year,” she wrote in a recent email.” 

But even with the saving grace of grants and donations, the fundraising challenge wasn’t the Rotary Club’s only obstacle. Once they had the money, Club members still had to figure out how exactly they would purchase the food.

COVID-19 had caused a sourcing dilemma.

“We had a difficult time finding the different food to put in the bags,” Hanson said, adding that several shopping trips each week sent Club volunteers to multiple grocery outlets to find what they needed — and even then some food had to be purchased online.

Much of the food came from Walmart, some from Costco, some from a variety of food drives, and the rest from about 30 individual donations.

But even after they’d purchased the food, the coronavirus still caused headaches. The Club reserved Sunday afternoons at the Yelm Senior Center, for instance, to bag and load the food that would be distributed on Tuesdays. But it wasn’t always as much of a streamlined process as it had been in the past.

“It was a two-fold problem.” Hanson said. “The first thing because of COVID is that we didn’t want to open it up to as many people as we had before, and we had to social distance.”

Before COVID-19, the club could count on 30 volunteers to pack bags, but this summer slimmed that down to between eight and 12 to keep people at least 6 feet apart.

But the volunteers persevered.

“We had great volunteers that came on Sundays, and we were normally in and out in 2 ½ hours,” Hanson said.

And in what could be euphemistically called COVID-19’s silver lining, this summer’s program may have seemed even a bit more special given the pandemic’s extraordinary challenges.

“The volunteers who go out on Tuesdays and get to meet the families and the children is where you see how rewarding the program is,” Hanson said. “It was a lot more rewarding in some ways than in other years just seeing how appreciative the families and children were under these challenging circumstances.”

Though she’s still unwinding from this summer’s effort, Hanson’s looking forward to next summer’s feeding program — hoping by then that COVID-19 will be vanquished.

“This is one of the programs that we feel very passionate about — helping the youth,” she said, noting the Rotary team will get together over the next few months to review the summer feeding program and determine if any tweaks are necessary. “I’m sure there will be some things we’ll want to change.”

She expects team members to explore different avenues for raising program funds without having to rely strictly on Rotary’s traditional fundraisers.

“We’ll see what different types of fundraisers we can do in the new environment and talk about some out-of-the-box ideas that will help support the program,” she said. 

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