Many of us are familiar with the famous Mr. Rogers quote that suggests in times of crisis, "look for the helpers." Turns out, Northwest Arkansas is full of helpers, mobilized into action by the public health crisis in which the world finds itself. Periodically, we're going to be using this section to run mini-profiles of people in Northwest Arkansas who, when their community needed help, sprang into action: Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. This week, we talked to a bevy of local folks who are helping to make sure kids and families stay fed during this difficult time.
Amy Putnam and Michelle Wright Treat Their Students As Family at Westside Elementary School
How to Help
Westside Elementary School
Amy Putnam says the best way to support her school’s efforts is to support the businesses that are helping them help students: IDK? Cafe and Nick Morgan’s restaraunts (see information below) as well as Bariola’s Pizza (1748 S. 46th St.), Simply Done NWA (254-366-0856), Acapulco (1602 E. Robinson, Springdale) and Jiffy Kwick Deli (219 S. Arkansas, Rogers).
Justin Eaton and IDK? Cafe
Support the business by visiting idkcafe.com and buying e-gift cards and ordering prepared keto meals; support their efforts to feed Northwest Arkansas students by visiting https://bit.ly/2x4pFlo
Nick Morgan, Jersey Mike’s Subs and Marco’s Pizzeria
Support the business by visiting one of the Jersey Mike’s Subs locations (3316 SW I St., Bentonville and 2301 W. Pleasant Grove Road, Rogers) or Marco’s Pizza locations (3399 W. Black Forest Drive, Fayetteville; 3637 S. Old Missouri Road, Springdale; and 2502 SW 14th St., Bentonville) or support Nick’s efforts to feed Northwest Arkansas students by donating to “SchoolsOutNWA” on the Venmo app.
Jordan Wright and Wright’s Barbecue
Support the business at 2212 Main Drive in Johnson. Wright is offering to go, curbside and delivery as well as dining in the outside dining area. Support the effort to feed students by donating to user name @jordan-Wright-11 on the Venmo app.
Kathie Myers and Meals on Wheels
Make donations or sign up to be a delivery driver at the Meals on Wheels for Washington County (945 S. College Ave., Fayetteville), or Benton County (2004 S. 13th St., Bentonville).
Young Dems and DSA Community Pantry
Make donations between 4-7 p.m. outside the pantry at 227 W. Dickson St. in Fayetteville.
University of Arkansas Full Circle Food Pantry
Call the pantry’s office at (479)575-7693 to find out how to help.
If you — or someone you know — is pitching in to help support the community during this time of crisis, email LHightower@nwadg.com. We want to know about it!
When Amy Putnam, principal of Westside Elementary School in Rogers, heard that Rogers Public Schools were closing for a week prior to spring break, her first thought was of her students. According to the free and reduced lunch forms filled out by families at her school, 63% of her students are in households that are living at or below the federal poverty line.
"We send snack packs home every Friday, and I know a lot of our kids are hungry," says Putnam. "I've been worried sick about how they're going to eat over break." Rogers Public Schools will be handing out take-home lunch bags from 11:30 to 12:30 throughout the closure but, says Putnam, her kids were used to relying on school for two meals -- breakfast and lunch. "We thought maybe we could do something later in the afternoon so that they could have something for dinner. Most of our families are two-income families -- like a lot of us are -- and if they're taking off of work to be with their kids, they're already living paycheck-to-paycheck. They don't have the extra money to go and stock up on food. I started worrying about how they were going to afford to eat. I'm sure all of the local pantries and food banks are going to be overwhelmed, and I thought, 'We have to go into action to help these kids.'"
So she and her assistant principal, Michelle Wright, came up with a plan. By partnering with generous local restaurants like Jersey Mike's Subs, Marco's Pizza, Bariola's Pizzeria and IDK? Cafe -- all of which donated food -- they fed their students a second meal every day last week by setting up a drive-through line in the driveway of their school. On Monday, they gave out 400 slices of pizza, and on Tuesday, 250 spaghetti lunches.
"Just talking to them -- the looks on the kids' faces when they drove up [on Monday] -- these kids are scared," says Putnam. "They don't know what to expect. Seeing some familiar faces each day and high fiving them -- we have fun music playing on the portable stereo -- it makes them feel like we're OK, we're all taking care of each other."
Putnam, Wright, Roo Winchester -- Wright's wife -- and a few teachers have been staffing the line. Putnam says every teacher in the school has expressed a desire to assist, but they are working to keep the staff small in order to avoid the danger of spreading sickness.
"We talk all the time about being a school family, that we take care of each other," says Putnam. "This is a perfect opportunity for us to live this out, to say, 'We're going to take care of you the best we can because you are part of our family.'" As for the vendors who are helping the school, "they are amazing," Putnam says. "I don't even know how much this is costing them, but the time and the financial resources they're sharing are humbling to see."
When asked how long she thinks Westside administration and teachers can keep up this up, Putnam's answer is, essentially, as long as they possibly can.
"My assistant principal texted me this morning and said, 'Are you interested in doing this the week of spring break?'" says Putnam. "I hadn't thought of it, but we have willing vendors, so we're going to talk about it this afternoon. We're certainly not going anywhere, and we had already talked about donating the money we were going to spend on Spring Break trips to the cause."
Justin Eaton Fights To Continue Feeding Hungry Kids
Feeding hungry kids is not a new thing for Justin Eaton and his team at IDK? Cafe. They're responsible for catering breakfast, lunches and snacks for the Head Start program at the Economic Opportunity Agency of Washington County.
"Between our Head Start schools, a few others in Benton County and some private schools, all together we provide around 1,000 lunches per day -- about 2,500 meals if you include snacks and breakfasts," says Eaton.
So when school systems all over the Northwest Arkansas area closed because of covid-19 concerns, Eaton's work came to a screeching halt -- leaving him with a lot of fresh food in his kitchen that wouldn't be fresh for long. Eaton's first concern was for the kids that depended on the school system for the majority of their meals during the course of the day.
"I had a few schools reach out to me, one being Rogers' Westside Elementary," he says. "They have 200 kids who need food. So we're taking the food that we've already purchased and boxing it up. We're sending out spaghetti and meatballs, which is a regular lunch for us. We're cooking the marinara today, cooked up the noodles, and we'll portion those out with a fresh carrot stick and apple slices. We try to stay away from processed, Child Nutrition (CN) labeled foods as much as possible and make as much as we can from scratch."
Eaton says he's being careful with his team: No one with symptoms is allowed to work, and he's turning away volunteers so he can make sure he keeps his workforce small and healthy. He hopes to help make sure kids are fed throughout the public school closings, but he's going to need monetary help to do that.
"We're able to do this, to some modest degree, on our own, but we can't sustain it," he says. "We've set up a sponsor link on our Facebook page, so you can go and sponsor a meal. For us, it roughly costs about $2.50 per meal."
Nick Morgan Throws Open The Doors To His Five Businesses to Feed Struggling Families
Nick Morgan describes himself as someone who grew up with modest means, but, today, he and his brother own and operate five businesses: two Jersey Mike Sub shops -- one in Rogers, one in Bentonville -- and three Marco's Pizza stores in Fayetteville, Springdale and Bentonville. When he started hearing the first rumblings that schools might close because of the covid-19 outbreak, says Morgan, he knew he had to help.
"I was thinking, 'If this gets worse and school starts getting canceled, there will be a lot of displaced kids on free and reduced lunch.' A friend in Ohio was personally, out of her own pocket, donating groceries to people, so I took that idea and thought, 'I have five shops that I could leverage to help the community.' And we don't exist without the community. As someone who grew up on free and reduced lunch, it's a subject that's near and dear to me. So I made a social media post on my own account, not the business's, because I didn't want it to seem like an advertisement. I woke up on Friday morning to 12,000 shares, and it went viral on all the other platforms.'"
Morgan is one of the businesses helping feed the students at Westside Elementary in Rogers, but he says he's not only offering food for the kids: He wants to help any family that is experiencing food insecurity.
"Basically, if you come in to any of our shops, let us know you're in a food crisis right now, and we'll take care of you," he says.
His idea caught fire on social media. Though his first post didn't ask for donations, he had so many people offer to help fund the meals, he started a Venmo account to collect money that will be used to feed hungry members of the community.
"It's been overwhelming, this experience of the community coming together," he says. "One of my meat cases went down, and a repair company came out and fixed it for free so we can keep serving people. People have offered to help deliver the food. This was all on the fly -- we didn't expect any of this to happen. We've raised over $5,000 in 72 hours without ever asking for a dime, but people were literally throwing money at us."
Morgan plans on continuing to help out for as long as he possibly can.
"Business has slowed to a halt, but this way, we still have something to do," he says. "And if there's no money coming in to the register, that's fine. It gives my people a purpose as well, and it motivates people. I've had my own employees offer their paychecks [to the cause], which is a hard 'No' from me, but that's how much they've bought in.
"No matter how little you have, you always have something to give. You can give time, effort, a positive attitude -- you may be the one calming voice that helps someone through that day and gets them up tomorrow."
In the end, he says, he suspects that actions like his create a "message of positivity" that helps uplift the entire community.
"We'll all get through it -- it may get rocky, but, at the end of the day, with all of her faults, America is the greatest country on this planet because the community comes together during crisis. You saw it during Sept. 11,  we've seen it during other unfortunate events. When a crisis hits, it's amazing to see how fast we can drop the infighting and come together. I suspect communities all across the country are doing the same thing."
Jordan Wright Expands His 'All Kids Eat Free' Policy in Time of Crisis
From the beginning, the menu board at Wright's Barbecue (2212 Main Drive in Johnson) has offered a free meal to kids ages 6 and younger and an affordable, $4.50 plate for older kids. Owner Jordan Wright says that's because it's always been important to him that kids don't go hungry. He's quietly given back to the community in other ways, too, though he rarely publicizes that. This time, though, he thought it was important to get the word out that Wright's Barbecue would be feeding kids of all ages while schools are closed due to the covid-19 virus.
"We saw a few other restaurants asking, 'Who is going to be feeding the food insecure kids?'" says Wright. "We thought, well, if they're in the area, and they can get to Wright's, we can get them food. We just thought it was something we needed to do. We raised $3,300 from people all over the country, we got a lot of re-tweets, some social media high fives, and so far, we've fed 25 or so kids, and we're just on Day Two."
Just today, says Wright, a mother who is helping other parents by babysitting kids while parents are at work brought in 11 kids to eat free.
Wright says he'll continue to feed kids as long as the doors to Wright's Barbecue stay open.
"I saw on the internet the other day, 'If you want to know what it's like to be in the hospitality industry these days, it's like being on the Titanic, watching the band play as the ship is going down -- and we're the band,'" says Wright. "Everyone is losing their minds, and we're just trying to stay open and keep our employees employed and keep people fed. And if we're going to be open, we're going to be doing something that's helping the community while we're at it."
Wright says he and his team are offering curbside pick-up and delivery options in the Benton and Washington county area.
Kathie Myers and Other Meals on Wheels Drivers Will Continue Checking on Our Most Vulnerable Population
Fayetteville Senior Activity and Wellness Center employee Lela Hampton says that the Washington County Meals on Wheels program will continue with appropriate precautions, despite the covid-19 crisis.
"This morning the Area on Aging decided we should close the centers for a couple of weeks," she says. "We've closed them down for activities, but for people who come to get a meal every day, we're going to provide them with a drive-through service." She adds that the delivery program will continue as usual.
The Washington County Meals on Wheels program provides more than 200 meals a day to area senior citizens who are homebound, a service that not only provides food, but also important human contact -- one of the most vital reasons the service should continue uninterrupted. Kathie Myers has been delivering for the organization for over six years, and says that, sometimes, she's the only contact with the outside world that her clients have all day.
"You meet some of the nicest people," says Myers. "They can't get out any more, so sometimes, you're the only person they see that day. So I always try to have time to visit for a few minutes. Sometimes they'll meet you at the door and take the meal, sometimes they want you to come in and visit with them."
In fact, says Myers, her daily check-ins have been instrumental in several cases.
"One woman, when I went in, I smelled gas -- she was using her gas stove for extra heat," says Myers. "All of the burners were turned on, but not all burners were burning. And one time I noticed that a lady hadn't picked up her newspaper, right outside her door. I knocked and called for her, and then I went back to my car and tried to call her on the phone. She didn't answer. I came back and said, 'We need to call for a welfare check,' and, unfortunately, she had passed."
Young Dems and Northwest Arkansas DSA Join Forces to Feed Families
Micah Wallace, vice president of the Young Democrats of Arkansas, says that when she heard that the Northwest Arkansas-area schools were going to be closing, her first thought was to find out how kids who rely on free and reduced lunches would be getting fed during the closures.
"The group of Young Democrats that we're doing this with have had a lot of experience in organizing within the community," she explains. "We've hosted FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] nights and conducted backpack drives. When we heard that all of the schools would be shutting down, we immediately realized that some kids would not be able to get the meals they rely on to get through the day." So, in conjunction with the University of Arkansas chapter of the Young Democrats and the Northwest Arkansas Democratic Socialists of America, the group opened up the Young Dems and DSA Community Pantry (formally known as the NWA Mutual Aid Pantry) in the Dickson Street Theater (227 W. Dickson St., Fayetteville), which is designed to provide food to anyone who faces food insecurity in the Northwest Arkansas area.
Though the pantry started out as a walk-in pantry, the group recently pivoted to a delivery service, says organizer Lexi Acello.
"It isn't ideal, but especially with the virus now in our area, it's safest for all involved," says Acello. "We can't keep operating if our volunteers get sick, so this way, we can prolong giving as long as we can."
Acello says that pantry clients will be able to access a Google order form on their Facebook page starting tomorrow (search for "Young Dems and DSA Community Pantry" on Facebook to find it) to request the items they would like delivered and contact her if they have any questions (283-8389). Friday was their first experience with the order form, and the organization received 50 requests in two hours. Acello says the organization is going to need more food donations to keep up with that demand.
"We're requesting donations be dropped off at the pantry door during our open hours so that we can clean and disinfect them before bringing them into the pantry," she says.
"This is for anyone who needs food," notes Wallace. "A big pillar of doing this is that we don't require anyone to prove that they're a resident or that they're in need -- it's food for anyone."
The groups mobilized quickly, opening their doors in the space on Dickson the Saturday after schools officially closed."All of this is very sudden, and a lot of people have been kicked off bal-nce by classes being suspended, the city shutting down, the state of emergency, schools closing -- public life is grinding to a halt," says Billy Cook, president of the University of Arkansas chapter of Young Democrats, who adds that the goal is to "bring the community together in a time of crisis. We have an obligation to protect our community, especially if we're younger and can get out and take the hit.
Both Wallace and Cook say they hope that efforts like these help the community see the benefits of pulling together in a time of crisis.
"People are fighting in stores, we're all tense and anxious -- people need something to look towards for a sense of normalcy, a kind of anchor when times are bad," says Cook. "People need to see us out there to know that things are going to be OK."
"I feel like there are two ways to approach a situation like the virus, a situation that is frightening and disheartening," says Wal-lace. "You can be afraid for yourself or afraid for the entire community, and [the latter is] our perspective. We're more concerned about how this is going to affect the most vulnerable among us. In a time of crisis, we're going to show up for people."
UA Students Help Fight Food Insecurity On Campus
The Jane B. Gearhart Full Circle Food Pantry on the campus of the University of Arkansas has been providing food for food insecure students and staff at the University of Arkansas since 2011, says Sage McCoy, a program coordinator for the UA Center for Community Engagement.
"Students saw a need when they noticed their classmates breaking the rules in the dining halls by taking food back to their dorms to stock up on weekends," says McCoy. "They noticed a visible food insecurity problem on campus, so they started figuring out how they could help with it. They started asking how they could start a food pantry in February 2010, and, by February 2011, they were able to open the doors. In the beginning, they were serving 12 clients a month, and, now, they're up to 750 households a month."
McCoy says that the pantry is fully operated and staffed by student volunteers; last week, the University of Arkansas pivoted to online classes in order to minimize contact between students on campus, and, several days later, announced that much of the campus -- including the residence halls -- would be closing by April 3. The Full Circle Pantry will remain open as long as possible, say organizers, by handing out meal sacks made up of a protein, fresh fruit or vegetables and grains. They are currently brainstorming ways to reach their clients off-campus, and were recently handing out snack packs from the Eastern Avenue Warehouse Ceramics Studio. Clients can track access to the snack packs by visiting the Pantry's Facebook page (facebook.com/UAFullCircle/).
McCoy says they've seen a definite uptick in clients since the Covid-19 health crisis began. "Monday, we saw more new clients than we've ever seen before. I think that people are looking for resources right now that they weren't in the past. In a time like this, I think people are more willing to ask for help than they were in the past. The narrative that we're trying to break is that you're supposed to struggle through college, that it's a rite of passage that you have to survive off of Ramen. In times of crisis, people see more clearly that they need more help.
"My heart was so full last week -- when every-thing was up in the air, my students met every day, and they made the call to go online on Thursday," says McCoy. "My students' first thoughts were 'What about my clients?' The first pri-ority is always clients with these students."
NAN Profiles on 03/22/2020
Print Headline: 'Look for helpers'