RIVERSIDE - Hauser Junior High School students worked to bring the community together March 2 as they packed 30,000 meals for those in need with items the students have collected throughout the year.
Lisa Gaynor, who heads the Hauser Parent-Teacher Organization, said the school's tradition to serve the community is entrenched in the Riverside community. Gaynor was a student at the school and now has children of her own that participate in the monthly efforts to fight hunger.
When the tradition began 49 years ago under then-teacher and guidance counselor Cuyler “Butch” Berwanger, Hauser was the largest contributor to the Salvation Army’s Englewood food pantry.
Recently, Gaynor said the school wanted to give children the opportunity to make a difference closer to home and Hauser began collecting and donating food items to the Riverside Township food pantry as well.
“Englewood is sort of close but far for the kids to touch, so we wanted to see if we could have that touch closer,” Gaynor said. “To me, that really brings it back and makes the message whole because it brings it back to the community the kids are in, and I think they see there are people right here, right next door, that you help.”
Riverside Township Supervisor Vira Wilt said she enjoys getting to know the students as Hauser donates between 15 and 17 cases of canned goods each month throughout the school year. She believes the initiative provides students with a good foundation to see that there is a need in their community, and they can make a difference.
Wilt said despite being in an affluent neighborhood, there are still many community members who face food insecurities. Wilt, in addition to Berwanger, was one of nearly 400 volunteers who attended the packing event March 2 and said the pantry’s partnership with Hauser is invaluable.
“I was at the food packing event and it was awesome to feel like we were helping people in need and doing so with this great partnership that we have with the kids from Hauser,” Wilt said. “It’s really a great partnership and there is a need in the community.”
While Hauser has been conducting the food drive for 49 years, the annual food packing event is only in its second year. Gaynor believes the event does more than simply teach the students lessons about community, as it also brings neighbors together.
Lisa Swicionis, Hauser's food drive co-chair, echoed this sentiment and said her daughter, Sophie, who attends Hauser, was able to see the community step up in several different ways.
Swicionis said her daughter did things the old-fashion way, leaving flyers for neighbors and asking for donations. One kind-hearted neighbor who saw the flyer even went shopping, donating an entire trunk’s worth of goods to the food drive.
Swicionis said Sophie was able to collect more than 500 nonperishable items for the drive, something she hopes will remind children that they can safely reach out to the community after exhausting the pantries of friends and families. She hopes the generosity of the community is something that inspires the students further, she said.
“The beauty of the event is that it’s not just Hauser—it’s the whole community,” Swicionis said. “Everybody has been so generous, and it’s been so fun working together. The response is incredible, and it’s almost like people are just waiting for you to ask them to help. You’d be amazed; there’s something for everybody to do and everybody seems willing to do something.”