BRISTOL — It’s Bristol Elementary’s first year as a Title I school — meaning that at least 70 percent of students get a free or reduced price lunch.
Being classified as Title I also means more government funding and a new staff member — a parent support coordinator.
Kevin Brandy, Bristol’s parent support coordinator, decided to take on the issue of hunger during his first year on the job.
“I figured, well, if it’s 70 percent (the number of students getting a reduced price lunch) then there’s got to be students that are going home hungry,” Brandy said.
He also heard stories from other staff about children stealing food from the lunch room, and families who were behind on paying for school lunches — even at a reduced rate.
Brandy called Feed the Children, an international nonprofit with a distribution center in Elkhart, and asked for food to give students over winter break.
“I just told them, it’s our first year as a Title I school and there’s kids in need,” he said. “They told me 24 pallets (of food) would fill up a semi. I said, well, could we get 24 pallets.”
Feed the Children ended up giving the school 20 pallets of food, including cereal, canned fruits and vegetables, tea, oatmeal, pasta and other nonperishable items. Since the food arrived on Friday, Dec. 13, Brandy’s been busy recruiting students to help sort the food and pack it into boxes. The goal is to give 200 families three boxes of food each.
“We could easily feed our whole school, but there are families that we know are in greater need,” Brandy said. “My job as a parent support coordinator is being there for the parents. I know that parents love their children; they do whatever they can to help them, but in certain situations they have to go into survival mode first.”
With this extra food around the holidays, Brandy said, he hopes parents can get out of survival mode and into parenting mode.
“Hopefully over winter break food won’t be an issue and they can ... worry about being a family,” he said.
Bristol’s principal, Melissa Jennette, said that the school was “right on the cusp” of being Title I for the last several years.
“The need is great,” she said. “Our parents work hard, but some have two or three jobs.”
She also mentioned the “Bristol pride” — that the tight-knit community feels that they are different, in a way, from Elkhart residents.
“We are part of Elkhart, but we are Bristol, and we are very proud of that,” Brandy said. “Our families are proud of that.”
And the elementary school isn’t the only place in that community that’s noticing people in need.
Karen Strietelmeier, pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bristol, said more people have been showing up to the church’s clothing ministry and free breakfast Saturdays.
“We have seen throughout the year, the need going up,” Strietelmeier said. “We started (the clothing ministry) about three or four years ago when the economy tanked around here. We thought it would just be a temporary thing, but it wasn’t.”
But the Bristol community wants to help, Strietelmeier said, and the clothing ministry never runs out of clothes “no matter how many people are at the door.”
A food pantry in Bristol has seen new faces this year too, according to director Brenda Spence.
“This month we’ve seen ... people who have never asked for help before,” Spence said.
The pantry was established in 2006, she said, and it serves about 120 families each month.
So why are people in Bristol struggling?
Both Strietelmeier and Spence said that Bristol likely isn’t any different than other nearby communities. While national unemployment numbers may be dropping, some of those jobs may not pay enough to support a family, they said. There’s also some people who cannot work, because of age or disabilities.
“There are so many older people that are getting help that never have before,” Spence said. “They are embarrassed — they see it as charity. Or they are disabled; they have broken their body working all their lives.”
People in Bristol went through some hard times — like the rest of the county — a few years ago, but Strietelmeier sees that “they are trying to come back.”
“It seems as if people have gone through their savings, their families are no longer able to help them ... but I’m still seeing hope,” she said.