This year was the biggest yet for Ridgely Middle School's Stuff A Bus food collection campaign, in which students are encouraged to donate non-perishable food items in November to be delivered in a school bus ahead of Thanksgiving to the Assistance Center of Towson Churches, a nonprofit with a mission of providing emergency services to needy individuals and families in the Towson area.
The donation from the school is a blessing because the assistance center's pantry is practically empty, Cathy Burgess, the center's executive director, said Tuesday morning, adding that the donation from Ridgely will help the charity continue to serve its clients through the holiday season.
"We've been praying for something like this to come and help us," Burgess said.
During the past four years, the Ridgely Middle community has collected at least 5,000 cans and boxes to be donated to the assistance center each November, according to world history teacher Ryan Brown, who helps coordinate the event. This year the campaign had gathered nearly 7,000 items, as of 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, with items still coming in.
When the items were counted Monday the school had gathered about 5,200, according to Brown. But a last-minute donation made by 7th-grade science teacher Joe Sparenberg, at around 6:45 a.m. Tuesday, pushed the campaign past the 6,000-item milestone. Another large, surprise donation from a class later in the morning made the tally near 7,000.
Sparenberg's class won a school-wide competition to collect the most items, gathering more than 1,000 cans and boxes. Sparenberg promised he would match what his class donated, a promise that he followed through on Tuesday morning, arriving at the school with his Toyota Corolla filled, passenger seats and all, with about 800 boxes and cans to be donated.
Teacher Stephanie Strayer's 7th grade World Cultures class came in second to Sparenberg in the classroom competition, also bringing in more than 1,000 items.
As Sparenberg began unloading about 800 items from his vehicle Tuesday morning several students came over to help.
"Do you have anything else to carry?" 12-year-old Juliana Driscoll, of Lutherville, asked. "Because I'm ready to carry stuff."
Driscoll, a 7th-grader in Sparenberg's class, said she brought in a few cans of green beans to donate, adding that she believes it's cool that the Ridgely Middle community came together to make the food drive a success. She and many of her classmates have warm meals every night, she said, adding that people in need in the community deserve the same.
Sparenberg said he didn't know how much the large donation cost him, as he didn't tally the cost, adding that he picked up the dry and canned goods at a variety of grocery stores over the past few days.
He said he donated as much as he did because he knows friends and family who have benefited from programs similar to the emergency food offered to families and individuals through the assistance center.
Hunger may not always seem prevalent in Lutherville, but it's a problem that exists everywhere, Sparenberg added.
"You never know where someone's at," he said.
'My cup of tea'
The drive is sponsored by the school's Student Government Association and the Ridgely Middle chapter of the National Junior Honor Society. In addition to donations from students and staff, community members were invited to stop by the school between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. Tuesday to make additional donations to the bus, which was parked behind the school.
Students and faculty began bringing food to the school at the start of the month, said Brown, who stored the items in his room.
Tuesday morning, starting at around 5:45 a.m., Brown, some other teachers and about 50 Ridgely students started moving the items from Brown's room to a math classroom with an exit near the back parking lot. In the math classroom students sorted the goods into groups, such as corn and stuffing, so that members of the Assistance Center of Towson Churches could organize the items more easily.
Around 6:45 a.m. students began loading the bus, which was donated for the day by Whitcraft Bus Services. At 1 p.m. the items were scheduled to be sent to the assistance center.
The goal of the drive is to give to families who don't have food during the holidays, said Student Government Association president Myah Hicks, a 14-year-old 8th-grader from Lutherville. Hicks will be celebrating Thanksgiving with family in Catonsville this year, she said, and among her favorite items to eat are potatoes, stuffing and cornbread — all items that were donated through the drive.
She hopes that whomever receives the food is amazed by and thankful for it, she said, adding that she never thought her school could have collected so many items.
"That could feed a whole community," she said, looking at the piles of cans and boxes being sorted Tuesday morning.
Joanne Chapline, who teaches a course on college and career readiness for all grade levels at Ridgely, said she loves seeing the students give and participate in the donation.
"This is my cup of tea," she said, looking at the students as they worked. "It's better than Thanksgiving."
Chapline has been a member of Trinity Episcopal Church, in Towson, for nearly three decades, she said, adding that the church's basement is used to store some of the food for the Assistance Center of Towson Churches, and that she knows it is needed this year.
The assistance center's food pantry is located at 120 West Pennsylvania Avenue, in Towson. The program gives away roughly 350,000 pounds of food annually.
Burgess, the executive director, said she has worked at the center for 16 years, adding that, in many past years, the 50 congregations connected to the center were able to fill the needs of the Towson area. Over time that situation has changed, however, she said, as more people have relied on the pantry when low of cash.
"It's harder, I think, to make your paycheck go the mile these days," Burgess said, adding that some people served by the center work multiple jobs to try to make ends meet.
The center, which also serves residents of Parkville and parts of northern Baltimore County, continues to need cereal, canned fruit, canned pasta meals and dried pasta most urgently, according to its website. It is also seeking canned tomatoes, pork and beans, canned vegetables, spaghetti sauce, canned tuna, peanut butter and jelly, soup, saltine crackers, canned meat, macaroni and cheese, boxed potatoes, rice and easy-open pop-top cans to be used in homeless care bags.
For more information, visit actconline.info.