Senior food program teaches students lessons about community

When the loaded school bus arrives in a Jessup parking lot each month, 40 Clarksville Middle School sixth-graders tumble out in a tangle of chatty anticipation and field trip-fueled glee.

But instead of visiting a museum or historical site, the 11-year-olds are making a pilgrimage to Morningside Park Apartments, where they deliver bags of food and toiletries to residents who depend on the donations to make ends meet.

Later, on those same days, fifth-graders from Pointers Run Elementary play out the same scene with a different set of residents.

"This program is near and dear to all the kids' hearts," said Julie Rosenthal, who conceived of the food distribution program called Food on the 15th four years ago. Since then, participants have doled out 4,000 bags of free groceries and toiletries to income-qualified seniors.

This year for the first time, students are not only collecting, sorting and bagging groceries, toiletries and $10 gift cards, she said, but are taking turns leaving school once a month for 90 minutes or so to hand-deliver their bounty and make personal contact with the recipients.

"They are making a connection with the seniors and bringing about positive change in their community," said Rosenthal, who concedes that her family thinks she's "obsessed" with the benefits of the service-learning program.

The distribution program melds the largesse of the families of several Clarksville-area public schools with the needs of low-income seniors, she said, noting that the existence of county residents who don't have enough to eat is a revelation to many students.

"The kids get back 10 million times more than they give," said Rosenthal. "It's just been the most amazing thing."

While December's outing was postponed Thursday because of snow that arrived earlier than expected, bags that had been carefully packed that morning at Clarksville Middle were ready to go for the rescheduled trip.

Morningside Park resident Carmen Pow, 82, said she looks forward to the 15th of the month as much for the kids' visit as for the supplies, which she relies on to restock her shelves.

"It's certainly a nice program, and the kids get a lot out of it, too," said Pow, who grew up during the Depression.

"They are all so sweet, but today's kids have so much," she said. "This program teaches them there are people in our country who really need their help."

Organizers chose the catchy, alliterative name for their effort because the older citizens it serves are often low on food and other supplies around the 15th of each month when their Social Security dollars begin to run out, Rosenthal said.

"This program was born when my daughter, Jenny Mandl, was complaining one morning that we had nothing good to eat for breakfast, and I told her that people 15 minutes away often run out of food," said Rosenthal, who formerly worked in a geriatrics program.

The program quickly caught on and was expanded to Clarksville Middle and then to Atholton High, where Jenny is now a freshman and her brother, Michael Mandl, is a senior. Organizers are seeking high school students throughout the county to serve as coordinators, Rosenthal said.

Alex Wang, a junior at River Hill High, serves as a bread coordinator and recommends getting involved.

"I really enjoy the work and seeing the tangible effect it has on the community," said Wang, a violinist and pianist who is also working to arrange a student holiday recital at Morningside Park. "When you have grandparents, you can really relate to the issues of seniors."

Melissa Shindel, principal of Clarksville Middle, was so impressed with the objectives of Food on the 15th that she nominated it for a Healthy Schools Innovation Award in the nutrition category, which it won in May. Sponsored by Healthy Howard, the contest places an emphasis on programs that are sustainable and can be expanded, she said.

Businesses donate reusable bags, and a bus company supplies its services at a reduced fee, "all because Julie is so passionate about it that she makes other people believe in it," Shindel said.

And moving the kids into delivery "makes it real and personalizes the kids' efforts," she said.

"The first time they went, the kids came back and were telling stories about the people they met," said Shindel, who's in her second year at Clarksville Middle. "The kids are very impressionable, and their intentions are pure. It is very moving to see."

Sandra Vinje, earth science teacher and field trip supervisor, said it's very meaningful to her 220 students, who collect food suitable for diabetic seniors, to know they're making a difference in the lives of people who might have otherwise been forced to choose between buying food or medicine.

The 50 residents who participate in the program are living on $35,200 or less for a household of two, and the majority of them have significantly lower incomes, said Cynthia Lynch of Howard County Housing.

Vinje's classes also learn about diabetes and what foods are appropriate in a diabetic's diet. The 10 sections of earth science students take turns handling the delivery, she said, each student paying $3 to ride the bus.

"And they also learn about responsibility," noted Vinje. "They realize they need to keep their commitment every month because people continue to be in need."

Seventh-graders at the school collect toiletries and Pointers Run students collect regular food items, she said. And when school is closed during the summer, New Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church fills the gaps in the delivery schedule.

"One of the great things about the program is that it has zero overhead," said Rosenthal, who coordinates Food on the 15th through the Coalition of Geriatrics Services, a nonprofit organization that serves a five-county region.

Debbie Herman, who serves as COGS treasurer and is a teacher at Cradlerock School in Columbia, said COGS happily serves as a conduit for soliciting donations.

"It's a nice merging of our efforts and it meshes the young and the old," she said. "Many kids are not aware of what goes on in the community, especially if they can afford $40 T-shirts and drive BMWs. We're doing kids a disservice when we don't involve them in something like this."

Donna Powers, resident services director for Equity Management, readily agreed.

"Food on the 15th is huge at Morningside Park, but not just for the residents," she said. "It's really a good way to teach children. This is the type of social programming that our society misses out on to some degree."

So successful has the effort been that it is set to expand in 2011 to all 25 units at the Tiber Hudson Apartments in Ellicott City, she said, adding the program "breathes new life" into the community.

"We haven't been taking good care of our elders, but I think society as a whole is changing back" to how it used to be, Powers said. "The economy is helping us to see what's important."

The valuable lessons for students and parents alike are far from lost on Rosenthal.

"We can't change the whole world, but we can change a piece of it in our own backyard," she said.

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