In October, The Reader covered Food Insecurity in Omaha, and the fact that one in five children in our community goes to bed hungry every night. We discussed programs that support food banks and soup kitchens, and addressed food waste and its role in skyrocketing food costs. There are numerous programs to bring better nutrition to school lunches and to make them more affordable for struggling families—but these programs have a capacity approximately the size of your average school day.
While most children sit on the edge of their seat waiting for the bell to ring, many others know that they are heading home for a 17 hour fast. Weekends are a two-day sentence to hunger, and holidays and snow days aren’t filled with hot soup after a day of sledding, but exhaustion and empty bellies. The anticipation of summer vacation is replaced with anxiety for kids and parents who worry about nearly 90 days of missing school breakfasts and lunches. That could add up to almost 200 missed meals over what should be a relaxing break and fun with friends.
Let it Snow
Some of the most Rockwellian scenes play out over a cancelled day of school, filling the house with the warmth of cookies baking, and a cup of hot chocolate as the snow falls. This picture turns grim when you think of keeping the thermostat set to 58, keeping the lights off, and nothing but an empty refrigerator to greet you.
Adrielle Griffin knows exactly how common this scene is. As Director of Marketing and Communications for Completely KIDS, she gets to see the effects of childhood hunger first hand. “Kids were coming into school on Mondays hungry and unable to focus after missing meals all weekend. Their educations were suffering; you can’t focus when you’re on edge like that. That’s an anxiety kids shouldn’t be facing.”
And the weight of this heavy burden falls on parents who are often working two and three jobs to keep lights on, bills paid, and enough gas in the car to get to and from their next shift. As a mother, I tried envisioning my sons telling me they were hungry and not being able to do something about it. It brought me to tears, and a lengthy conversation with Griffin.
More Than Hunger Pains
Not only are these parents struggling to feed their children, often skipping multiple meals themselves to make sure their children are able to eat something, but they’re missing out on time with their kids. These families are struggling on the deepest levels imaginable. Kids are facing issues with anxiety, aggression, isolation, and the prospect of a vicious cycle continuing into the next generation.
The Completely KIDS Program offers so much more than a simple after-school solution for kids whose parents work. The program breaks the cycle of poverty and hunger by offering education and support to children and their families. A GED program for teens and adult family members, cooking and sewing lessons, family game nights to strengthen the bond, and fitness classes for whole-family whole-body wellness.
“We offer family strengthening programs that teach families how to set goals, communicate, and solve problems together," Griffin said. "On Family Nights, everyone comes in and has a hot meal together and engages over an activity — art project, board game, science project. We value that family time.” What we’re really trying to do is develop the needs of the whole child. Address the basic hierarchy of needs.”
Taking a Bite Out of Food Insecurity
And among the most basic of these needs is not wondering when you’ll have access to food again. Completely KIDS took to addressing this as fast as they could, and initially sent a handful of kids home with a few canned goods every Friday. The families were grateful for the relief, and the program grew. Every week, volunteers come to fill bags with donated items from a host of local food suppliers. About 450 children now go home every weekend with a bag full of about 20 items. The effects were staggering. They quickly showed that the more a child attended Completely KIDS, the better their attendance at school. On average, kids who take part in the Completely Kids Program have a 96 percent attendance rate, missing an average of less than eight days of school per year. Additionally, math and reading skills quickly improved.
More Than Mac and Cheese
“We have been able to diversify the menu so families are getting a more complete diet.” Griffin explained, “Cereal, oatmeal, fresh fruit like apples and oranges, fruit cups, canned goods, easy mac, tortillas, beans, Mexican corn — we have fresh produce from Tomato Tomato, cantaloupe and kale. We like to send recipes home with harder-to-identify items",, she added.
“Our kids are very generous! When they take part in our cooking programs, we find them squirreling away food to take to siblings at home. One told me ‘I like to take our food bag home and put it in the cabinet like we’ve been to the grocery store!’ They have such simple dreams. They want the kitchen to look like they’ve been to the store.”
Hope for the Holidays
A large monetary donation this year has allowed the program to put together a full holiday meal to send home with children this Christmas break. Something taken for granted by millions of Americans, a hot meal together over the holidays, is a luxury many of these children will be experiencing for the first time, thanks to Completely KIDS.
The program is set up as close to the need as possible. When families are pulling change from couch cushions to try to gas up the family vehicle, you can’t ask them to drive across town for dinner and board games. Completely KIDS after-school programs take place in several local schools, including Field Club, Gomez-Heritage, Highland, Jackson, Liberty, Marrs Magnet, Norris Middle School and All Saints School, as well as Phoenix House, The Salvation Army and The Stephen Center. This gives whole families easy access to the many programs Completely KIDS offers.
A Teen Empowerment Program gives young adults the opportunity to gain real-world skills and work experience, while teaching them to set goals and become leaders in their community.
How You Can Help
This program is kept on its feet by donations of money, time, and talents. Donations are taken to task and stretched to mind-boggling lengths by the clever crew at Completely KIDS. A mere $10 provides 65 children with art supplies, while $350 pays for the time, groceries, and supplies to offer 15 children a cooking class. This single cooking class will send home a meal with each of those children that will feed whole families.
Volunteering your time as little as once a month can help promote literacy and cognitive skills with the Reading Buddies Program. Tuesdays and Thursdays, volunteers pack Weekend Food bags for an hour. Other helpers assist children with their homework and then engage in fun academic games. If you have a hobby or talent you would like to share, you are invited to sign up and engage with the students over music or other interests. Whatever you have to give, Completely KIDS has a way to put it to use changing the lives of area youth.