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Alexandria, Virginia sits just about 10 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.
According to Zillow, the average price for a home in Alexandria is $518,000. And in a city known for its wealth, a problem goes unnoticed.
Along Seminary Road in the west end of the city, you’ll find the Francis C. Hammond Middle School campus.
The hallways at Hammond ring with a joyous noise, as students move from class to class. But the smiles and laughter conceal the truth about the journey for many children learning within the walls.
On a sweltering hot June morning, WUSA9 Anchor Lesli Foster walked through the school with Principal Pierrette Peters.
“You’ve got an entire population where nearly all of them have some question about whether they’re going to eat when they leave school,” Foster said.
“Absolutely,” Principal Peters responded.
80% of the children at Francis C. Hammond Middle School live at or below the poverty line.
Food insecurity is a part of life for most of the students at Hammond. Majority of the people who live in the community have no idea.
The WUSA 9 IMPACT team decided that needed to change.
It’s a challenge that came from you, our community.
For years you’ve told us that you don’t just want to hear about problems in the community, but rather you want to see action. So we decided to find out what would happen if we worked together, with the community to make an impact.
Ana Soto’s family is one of many at risk of hunger.
On Jun 21, 2017, the IMPACT team met Ana Soto shortly after sunrise. It was the day her son, Jayvyn, would graduate from elementary school. We were supposed to arrive at 6:30 a.m. But around 5:47 a.m., Ana had concerns. She wasn’t sure she could go through with the interview.
Her children were also nervous and her friends told her not to talk about hunger. But eventually, Ana decided that she wanted to shine a light on a problem that far too many of us don’t want to see.
Ana runs a tight ship at her Alexandria home. With five children to feed, clothe and send out into the world, there was little room for negotiating in the morning. And, on this day, her boys decided they wanted no part of an interview with our team.
All of them, except little Giani, who is a ball of energy and greeted us with a hearty smile.
Ana settled into her morning routine. She started with the eggs, then the toast and then she rounded up the children to eat, shower, get dressed and out the door.
It was a special day, Jayvyn was taking steps toward middle school. He will be joining his older brother at Hammond.
After his graduation, we met the Soto family again. By then, Jayvyn was ready to talk.
Foster asked Jayvyn if he knew what it felt like to be hungry.
“Yeah,” Jayvyn said.
“What does that feel like?” Foster asked.
“My stomach kinda makes a noise and I’m kinda hungry and then I can’t really focus that much,” Jayvyn explained.
Words that tear at the heart of his mother.
“It’s an anxiety level that I get to because it’s like, oh my gosh, I don’t’ want them to feel like I’m not doing my part. You know, it’s painful,” Ana said. “You don’t want to see your kids hungry. You don’t want them to see you, you know, looking for you, for something that they are supposed to have.”
Ana works every day. She was married but recently left a bad situation. This year the mother of five moved her family from another Virginia county to Alexandria, hoping that it would give the family a new start.
In the fall, Ana will have two students at Francis C. Hammond Middle School. The school has resources to help families like Ana’s, but with so many in need, those resources are stretched thin.
Hunger, hidden in plain sight
Ebony Neptune, a social worker at Francis C. Hammond Middle School, took the IMPACT team on a driving tour of the surrounding neighborhoods and busy corridors in Alexandria. The drive provided some context for the illusion of affluence.
“You have a mixture of low income, working class families…families that are well off," Neptune said. "They’re all in this community. So it’s very diverse in that sense.”
Neptune believes there is a disconnect between what the students face and what the community knows about their reality.
We drove along Seminary Road, Duke Street, North Beauregard and others. It’s easy to miss what is hidden in plain sight.
“People just kinda go on their way, not really knowing the needs the community has,” said Neptune. “It’s not that families aren’t working and that they don’t want to take care of their families, but sometimes, it’s not enough.”
So, what can happen when journalists team up with neighbors to make an impact?
“There are superheroes on earth. And there are angels on earth. And if you have any doubts, you can simply walk in the front door of Francis C. Hammond, and talk to any of these teachers, administrators, staffers and you know that they are committed, in a different kind of way, to these children.”
Principal Peters has been the steward of change for educational outcomes at Hammond for the past three years. She knew she would have to focus not just on academics but on the other social dynamics that impact learning to create an environment where the children can thrive.
She took the IMPACT team down to the school cafeteria to show us the breakfast bags that bring food to every child and every classroom each day.
It’s made a huge difference. There’s no stigma for students who might need that meal. Teachers have a place in their rooms where children can pick up food if they need it during the day.
Because of this, the young learners that show up to class are better prepared to focus, participate and shine.
Since the breakfast program began, Principal Peters says teachers have noticed improvements in behavior, attendance and attention.
“Our motto is every student succeeds. And so, if that is what we’re saying, I have to find resources to ensure that every student succeeds,” Peters said. “Success looks different for every child. Success for one child is ‘I really need to have something to eat.’”
Hunger, that uncomfortable sensation, affects the spirit and the soul. A shortage of food for a child has a direct link on their physical, social and cognitive development.
The American Psychological Association reports, “Household food insecurity has insidious effects on the health and development of young children, including increased hospitalizations, poor health, iron deficiency, developmental risk and behavior problems, primarily aggression, anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorder.”
Emelin, a student at Hammond, was willing to talk with the IMPACT Team about how hunger affects them.
We asked Emelin why it is so hard to talk about being hungry.
“I don’t want people to know,” Emelin whispered.
“Do you feel like they’d judge you?” Foster asked.
“Yeah,” Emelin responded.
The classroom breakfast program has had a huge impact on students like Emelin at Francis C. Hammond. But when the weekend comes, many students go to homes without enough food.
“It wrecks me. It destroys me,” said teacher Joellen Kriss-Broubalow. “We can take care of kids in Virginia and I’m worried because they need to eat.”
She said, “It’s our responsibility to take care of each other. That’s what society is. That’s what community is.”
Isabel Perez is the site coordinator for Communities in Schools. They partner with Hammond to help fill that need.
She runs the school resource room that is normally stocked with school supplies and food. But on this day, there are just 40 bags for 150 students at the school identified as the neediest among those in need. They all hope to take home a bag of food, in their backpacks, for the weekend.
The bags are packed with items the students can prepare themselves for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Cereal, rice, tuna and other easy to fix or microwavable options.
Perez is the one with the tough task of deciding who gets what is available.
“It’s really difficult because, at the end of the day, a thousand kids could use this food,” Perez said.
Our WUSA9 IMPACT team approached Francis C. Hammond about wanting to do something to help. The school agreed that providing support to the weekend backpack program during the summer months would be beneficial.
That’s because hunger doesn’t take a summer break. And, in many cases, children are even more vulnerable and isolated during these warm months because they aren’t in school.
Hammond sits on the other side of I-395, another barrier to making a trek for food services.
Wait until you see what can happen when journalists team up with neighbors to make an impact.
Francis C. Hammond is on the radar of several organizations that come together to make a difference in the lives of its students.
The United Way of the National Capital Area is one key leader in the effort to address food insecurity.
The IMPACT team decided to partner with the United Way to amplify their impact. We also wanted to forge new relationships with the Hammond families who need them.
Enter Oakland Baptist Church. It’s just a couple miles from the school.
The IMPACT team made a cold call to the church. We told them about our goal to get food into the hands of Hammond students for the summer. They jumped at the chance to help. Then the community came together in a way no one expected.
The United Way needed about 40 volunteers to pack the 5,400 meals. So many people showed up at the church to help pack, some had to be turned away. There was such a crowd, IMPACT team member Greg Cohen had to be assigned to direct traffic outside of Oakland Baptist for more than an hour. It was an exciting night.
“The energy is phenomenal. I mean, when we look at the number of volunteers that you can’t even see with a camera, that we had to turn away, that tells us there is still good in society, “ said Rosie Allen-Herring, President and CEO of United Way of the National Capital Area. “There are those who still really and truly want to help and it’s our job, and I think, our distinct responsibility, to connect those who want to give and share a little bit of themselves with those in need.”
Volunteers were moved by the whole experience.
“This is our community. When kids go hungry, that’s on us,” an Alexandria father said.
Over the course of two hours, people streamed into food stations, packed oatmeal, placed snacks and meals into bags to box and take to Hammond.
Pastor Don Hayes said the church was looking for a way to help and that this is just the beginning of their support for the students.
Community members helped us pack 5,400 meals. Enough for every student to get a backpack meal for four weekends during the summer.
We returned to Oakland Baptist Church the next morning with full hearts eager to pack up our caravan of giving to deliver to Hammond.
We were met by cheering leaders and someone in the crowd who had been at the backpack event the night before.
Peter Collins with Mercedes Benz of Alexandria had no idea about the need in his backyard. He and the dealership donated $1,000 to Hammond to assist with food supplies.
Principal Peters expressed excitement for the day that the children get to take the bags home. All of them.
IMPACT team member, Eliana Block called it “the culmination of a huge project...it felt like all the different counterpoints were finally touching at the center.”
On the day when students actually received the food, they were learning about a staggering statistic that needed no explanation. The lesson was about the 1 in 5 children in America who suffer from hunger in America.
As a team, this was a transformative project. In the weeks that we embarked on this journey, we left our homes knowing we’d return without questions about our next meal. But we never forgot the children who live without that guarantee.
Hunger changes you. We all need fuel to survive. And we decided that this was more than just a story for us, it was a calling.
Our Executive Producer, Sarah Gahagan summed it up best:
“When you sit down with these kids in school, you have to look them in the eye and you really start to feel and understand what they are going through. And it’s not enough to tell their story anymore. You have to do something about it. We weren’t going to leave that school the way that we found it.”
It’s going to take all of us to solve the problem of hunger. But we can do it, together.
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