QUINCY — Most days Holly Whatley focuses on getting ready for services at the Crossing designed to feed the soul.
Instead she was making preparations to feed breakfast to Quincy Public School students.
“We are always looking for ways that we can partner with the community and we can serve,” said Whatley, who works in the Crossing's connections ministry. “We try to stay in contact with QPS on a regular basis just with needs and how we can be of service. We're super excited to be able to come and partner with them.”
Volunteers from the Crossing worked this week with QPS staff to bag up breakfast items for the school district's food program providing sack breakfasts and lunches Monday through Friday at two pick-up sites and 26 delivery sites throughout the community while schools are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It's wonderful to see our community come together like they have. They volunteer countless hours helping us every day,” said Terry Spencer, a cook at Quincy Junior High School.
Whether people or businesses, “pretty much everybody I've asked 'can you help me with this' and they say “whatever you need,'” QPS Food Service Director Jean Kinder said. “We would not be able to do what we're doing without all of the partners in this.”
Walmart donated 12,000 plastic bags to help package the meals. Kohl Wholesale offered two refrigerated trucks to store food and meals. “There's no way we would have had refrigerator space without the Kohl trucks,” Kinder said.
Kohl and Prairie Farms have made extra deliveries, sometimes twice a day due to fluctuating numbers. QPS custodians have come in on days off to help load meals. “It just seemed like the thing to do,” QHS Building Supervisor Scott Hull said. “We don't mind helping.”
Offloading meals prepared the day before from the refrigerated truck, then loading the plastic tubs onto the five buses making deliveries takes around 15 minutes with plenty of help.
“Once you've done it enough times, you get it figured out,” Hull said.
“He acts like it's no big deal, but it makes all the difference,” Kinder said.
The program makes a difference for students by providing food and an ongoing connection to the school district.
“It makes you feel good,” said Rochelle Bouchez, a QHS cafeteria worker and bus driver who boards a bus every day to help hand out the meals at delivery sites. “It's bittersweet. One lady on Day One almost started to cry. On Day two, a little kid jumped on the bus and thought he was going to school. Grandma had to pull him off. He was crying. He wanted to go to school.”
Loading meals into buses is the final step in a process that began the day before with groups of QPS food service workers and volunteers busy from 7 a.m. with specific tasks.
A small team of QPS staff put together entrees in one area of the QHS kitchen. “They get here first thing, know what their responsibilities are. They've done this before, maybe not like we're doing it now, but they've done it before,” Kinder said. “For right now, we're doing sub sandwiches.”
Two other groups, in separate areas of the QHS cafeteria, work assembly-line style to pack breakfast items — a yogurt, a juice, a milk and a snack cracker — then start to line up opened paper sacks to hold lunch items.
“I can't do a lot, but this I know,” said Val Paden, who typically would be setting up the snack area in the QJHS annex.
Twenty-five sets of meals then go into waiting plastic tubs, all labeled, which are refrigerated overnight to use the next morning, when the process begins again.
Kinder credits QHS Cafeteria Manager Karla Rose for handling logistics and organization of the program which after just over a week runs like a well-oiled machine.
“In some ways, you're planning for a moving target, but it's become so much more organized and efficient as the days have gone on. Everybody has a different role and responsibility,” Kinder said. “We will do as much as we can for as long as we can.”
QPS launched its meal program on March 18 with 1,036 meals and saw numbers peak to date a week later at 2,800, the first day that continued learning packets were available for students.
Denman Elementary second-grade teacher John Vahlkamp volunteered to ride a bus and help hand out packets.
“It's a blessing to help and be able to not only help our community, but help families and help these students grow through this time and situation that's out of our control,” he said. “Plus it's fun to see families and kids even though you can't hug them.”
Parents and students were waiting for the buses to show up with the meals and packets.
“They're just really excited about getting the packets and wanting to get started on them,” said Jenn Buss, a fifth-grade teacher at Baldwin who also volunteered to hand out packets. “You feel like you're doing something right.”
On her bus, families could pick up meals at one end of the bus and packets at the other. “It's almost like a flawless little system, a circular motion right back to their cars. It's very well thought-out,” Buss said.
Sending out a simple email to staff looking for help with the food program yielded pages of names. “Volunteers through this process is not going to be a problem,” Superintendent Roy Webb said.
But Webb emphasized that willing spirit reaches far beyond just QPS staff.
“It really highlights Quincy and the Quincy community that they have great spirit. They look out for kids of this community. It really has been a community effort,” Webb said. “A lot of people want to do what's right for the community.”