When the call went out recently for volunteers to help with Union High School’s wildly successful drive-thru food program, teachers, staffers and administrators sprang into action.
That included many associated with Union Athletics.
Shortly after schools were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Union, the state’s second-largest school district, began handing out more than 32,000 free meals a week. As word spread about the free service, that number has grown to more than 75,000 meals a week.
“The response was so great we recently decided to open up a fourth site,” said Lisa Griffin, Director of Child Nutrition. “Today we added two apartment complexes and we’re also working with Meals on Wheels to deliver meals to families who are either sick or disabled or just can’t get out. It just keeps expanding.”
When teachers and administrators had to start focusing their time and efforts on their distance learning responsibilities, the need for volunteers became even more critical.
“I worked with Associate Superintendent Charlie Bushyhead and sent out an email to our coaches and staff,” said Redskin Athletic Director Emily Barkley. “Anyone interested that hadn’t been sick and wasn’t high risk, and felt comfortable doing it, could volunteer.”
Did they ever.
Union administrators, including many affiliated with athletics, can be found every weekday at each of the pick-up locations.
“Obviously, it warms your heart,” said Barkley. “Union has always been a place that when there’s a need, people step up. As athletic director, it’s awesome to see our coaches and spouses and anyone connected to the program wanting to step up and help in any way they can.”
“I’m absolutely honored and humbled by the servant leadership that is evident throughout our district,” said Union Superintendent Dr. Kirt Hartzler. “We knew it was going to have to be all hands on deck in order to meet the needs of our students.”
It hasn’t just been about feeding families, either. The district has handed out hundreds of laptops and wifi hotspots to students in kindergarten through eighth grade so they can participate in their distance learning requirements.
“We exist entirely to serve,” Hartzler said. “That’s been the most rewarding and gratifying thing for me is to see the collective efforts and everyone’s attitudes coming together.”
Students have been away from their respective schools for more than a month, and the opportunity to see a familiar face when picking up food often brightens a child’s day.
“The times that I’ve been out there it’s really cool because I’ve heard people say it’s the highlight of their day,” said Barkley. “Parents have said it’s their favorite part of their day because they get to see familiar faces.”
“They all brighten up and wave and give the “U” sign,” added Associate Athletic Director Steve Dunlap, who volunteers almost daily.
The students and families aren’t the only ones getting something out of this experience. The Union staffers miss the kids as much as the kids miss them.
“I think it’s mutually beneficial to both sides, seeing those smiling faces,” stated Barkley. “Knowing that you’re helping take care of your own is something that’s been really special to be a part of.”
“When you’ve got a team and they’re willing to be all in with these types of challenges and endeavors, it’s just amazing to step back and watch,” claimed Hartzler.
“It’s been very rewarding,” agreed Griffin. “People have been very, very appreciative. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the Union thing to do.”