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Students take care of their own hungry peers
At least five years ago, students of Olympic College noticed their fellow classmates were coming to school hungry and leaving school hungry.
After seeing too many students struggle, the Associated Students of Olympic College (ASOC), a student organization, decided to establish a food pantry. Unfortunately, the food pantry is currently at an all-time low and needs community support.
“Even if you don’t use it, it is still nice to know that people in the school system are helping provide food for others,” said Gabriel Krebs, executive vice president of ASOC. “In my experience most students are grateful. Everyone needs food, and if you were planning on either not eating a meal and starving or receiving free food from the food bank, most are very appreciative to get food.”
Olympic College student Chris Cironi, 39, remembers the time of being hungry all too well.
A few years ago, fresh out of drug treatment housing, Cironi knew he needed to start with a fresh slate. College seemed like the best option for him to get his life on the straight-and-narrow.
“I battled years of drug addiction before I got to OC,” he said. But then he “decided to make some better choices in life” and enrolled himself into classes.
But enrollment came with its own challenges after coming out of treatment and running into the real world with a clear mind at full throttle. Cironi had little money to his name, and he had even less food in his cupboard.
“My cabinets were pretty bare at the time,” said Cironi. “Even though I lived an unsavory life at one point, I was always a survivor. It was hard for me to go in there and actually admitting to needing help. I didn’t know where else to turn at that time. It was a relief to me.”
Many students, like Cironi, come to campus sometimes with just enough money to fill their gas tank. Cironi remembers running on fumes just to get to school one day, and how uncertain he was about getting his car out of the parking lot.
After repeatedly seeing students struggle, the ASOC created the Sheryl McKinley Food Bank to help those who had come upon hard times, said Patricia Thomas, Students In Need Group (SING) and Opportunity Grant Program Manager.
And it’s people like Thomas who work hand in hand with ASOC to see to it that the food bank can remain open.
“They don’t really have an easy way to fill the shelves,” said Thomas of ASOC. “That’s where I step in.”
The ASOC runs the food pantry, but various departments on campus — such as SING — help with stocking the pantry. It is the only organization on campus that generates funds for the pantry to continue. SING often provides food donations, and sometimes cash donations trickle in, but it is mostly up to the students to find the funding to keep the pantry open.
The SING program manager offered Cironi a gas card knowing he needed it to get home. It’s those moments that remind Cironi of the “blessings” offered to him so frequently through SING and ASOC.
“It was really tough for me to ask for that help,” said Cironi. “They still continue to help me.”
Five days a week, students can swing in to Thomas’s office or the ASOC office to grab some food. While the food bank has staples for students to take home to make a home-cooked meal, Thomas has snacks and other miscellaneous items — such as toothbrushes — for students to pick up throughout the day.
To keep from embarrassing students, she’ll leave a box with supplies right near the door so they can just reach in and go between classes. Local churches, VFWs and faculty and staff provide many of the donations to supplement what ASOC donates to the pantry.
While the food pantry and toiletries provided by ASOC and SING are helpful, sometimes the miscellaneous cost of school supplies — such as textbooks — often leave students wondering how they will afford another semester.
Even with grants and scholarships paying for some of his college costs, Cironi found that books were extremely costly. During his second quarter, he visited the SING office where he found a textbook lending program that saved him money.
“My finances were really tight. I was looking at not being able to afford rent or pay for books,” he said. “That saved me a couple hundred dollars.”
Per quarter, 450 textbooks are loaned out to students through the lending program, noted Thomas, who hands out the books. On a yearly basis, she estimates that students save a grand total of $33,750 each year.
“It’s been really fun watching this grow,” she said of the book-loan program.
While sometimes the work she does with students can be difficult, it only takes seeing one break down in tears of gratitude or frustration for Thomas to know she must keep going.
The same goes for ASOC students, including the executive vice president.
“My favorite thing about being part of the food bank is when people are sincerely thankful about receiving a meal, or a bag of food,” said Krebs. “Many people tell me how much it helps them and they don’t know what they would do without this student food bank.”
It’s with the help of organizations like SING and ASOC, Cironi has maintained a 3.6 GPA and plans to transfer to a four-year university in the future.
Cironi offers advice to those who are struggling and may be too shy to ask for help: “It’s okay to set aside your pride, if that’s a barrier. Because the most important thing is health,” he said. “If you’re not healthy and you’re stressing over finances too much, you’ll never be able to focus on your education. It’s worth getting over that.”
To donate canned goods, including proteins like peanut butter and tuna fish, contact Patricia Thomas at email@example.com or 360-475-6817.