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October 19th, 2019

cottonwood closet frontSome of the clothes and good that will be part of the Cottonwood Closet. The closet is one of the many projects going on as part of the redesign efforts throughout USD 480. L&T photo/Elly GrimmELLY GRIMM • Leader & Times


Many students in Liberal are in need of food and other everyday necessities and as part of the redesign efforts going on throughout the district, the staff at Cottonwood Elementary School is working to help those students in need with a new program called the Cottonwood Closet. 

“We have a high number of students who are considered migrant or they're in a situation where they're almost homeless, which is incredibly vague because that could mean they're moving between different family members or a multiple family household, so it doesn't necessarily mean they're on the streets,” Cottonwood Elementary School employee Bethann Volden said. “We have a high number of students living in poverty conditions, so last semester we did a survey with the families when they came in for conferences that asked about food and security, it was only four questions like 'Have you ever had to choose between food and the power bill?' and 'Have you ever gone for a period of time when you didn't know when your next meal was coming?' We did that and the results were surprising because about 12 percent of the school's population answered yes, so that's where the inspiration came from.”

That survey, plus a few other factors, led to the final push to put together the Cottonwood Closet. 

“There have been times when I've been walking down the hall with some food in my hand and there would be a couple students who would ask 'Could I have that?' because they either hadn't eaten dinner the night before or breakfast, so I'd go ahead and give it to them,” Cottonwood Elementary School counselor Alysse Bailey said. “Then later on I began realizing there were several times I would buy food for the students, so I would say that was my turning point. I know Bethann was on board and she wanted to make sure all of our students had the opportunity to have food on the weekends because for a lot of them, the only meals they get are the breakfast and lunch here at the school.”

“And learning can't happen if our basic needs aren't being met, and that includes the physiological needs like having food, which is a basic human right to have,” Volden added. “We have a lot of people who, because of their legal status, can't get food stamps and they're also scared to use food pantries because they're scared it might affect their legal status. If we can provide some foodstuffs here no questions asked, that helps establish that safety for those students, which is another need that requires filling. Everything starts at those most basic levels first – once those are taken care of, more things can happen.”

The closet supplies are located at the Liberal First Presbyterian Church building, and both Volden and Bailey said the church’s staff has been wonderful to work with from the very beginning. 

“I also work at Eisenhower Middle School and at Eisenhower a co-worker said 'I have a connection at the Presbyterian Church' and it was Kathy Bloom, and she was wanting to see what kinds of needs there were in the district and how they could help support that,” Volden said. “I noticed there was more of the food and hygiene needs at Cottonwood than there at Eisenhower, so I contacted Kathy and we actually went to the church.  The Presbyterian Church is small, but the staff's been very beneficial – they got Christmas gifts for our students and they still call every now and again and ask 'Do you know of a family that needs anything?' and it's great. Just a couple weeks ago I had a couple students who needed some clothing and the staff there just went all out. With our high level of need, we need more community involvement. Some of the sororities in town have donated items to us, Keating Tractor has donated the backpacks we use for the weekend food program. We also have a Box Tops fund and with that, we sent a survey to the staff asking how they would feel about using that money toward what we're doing with these programs.”

“And right after her presentation, everyone was coming up and asking 'How can I help?' and 'What can I bring?'” Bailey said. “They actually set up an area in that part of the church that said 'Cottonwood Elementary,' so they brought stuff in and stored it, and that was just the first day. That first day we got about 10 bags of food and clothing and hygiene items, it was a real blessing.”

Volden then went into more detail about the items needed for the Cottonwood Closet. 

“We're looking for shelf-safe items since we can't really send home refrigerated items and then it turns out there are students without electricity,” Volden said. “We look for items like the canned ravioli and canned tuna and the Vienna sausages, those are all things that will keep and they're all also a source of protein. We also need items with carbohydrates in them so the students actually have energy, and that's stuff like the single serving mac and cheese cups, Ramen noodles, things like that. We would also take the single-serving fruit and vegetable cups, those can be found at Dillons. We really want to be able to hit every food group so the students have everything they need. We will also accept some clothes and hygiene items like soap and that sort of thing.”

Volden and Bailey again stressed the need for community involvement and added encouragement for people in the community to donate to the Cottonwood Closet. 

“Really, just give us a call, we’ll be glad to work with you. A lot of our teachers have been here for 20-plus years and have connections all throughout the community and they've been reaching out to them,” Bailey said. “A lot of teachers have also been bringing in items. We're wanting to get the word out as much as possible so maybe other schools can be part of this too and there will be that community involvement. Just call your local schools and see what their needs are. Sustainability is difficult especially when it comes to food, so just invest in the students' future and health. It's really close to my heart because of my connection to the community. We have students here who struggle.”

“The sustainability factor is also really important. We're also still somewhat finding our way here since there aren't really any guidelines or anything – we did a lot of the research on our own,” Volden added. “I remember shortly after the Christmas break I sent out an e-mail to staff saying 'I know you guys probably got a lot of new wardrobe items, so if there's anything you'd want to donate, that'd be great' and then not too long afterward one of our discovery rooms was basically full of those donations, so our staff has also been great.  It's important to meet those basic needs. We can't learn as adults or function if we're hungry, so how can we expect our students to be able to? Luckily we have such a giving community, we've had several groups in town helping with this. When we all come together, it's a beautiful thing.”

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