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Pandemic Distraction Leads Local Grandparents to Help Hungry Kids in Orange

Pandemic Distraction Leads Local Grandparents to Help Hungry Kids in Orange

Community Scavenger Hunt Introduces Orange Food2Kids To A Neighborhood Without Children-Matching $500 Grant Announced

COVID-19 makes for some strange bedfellows.  In this case, it matched an Orange neighborhood full of grandparents with a group of hungry kids in town.

The grandparents have been isolated since March in their 142-home 55+ community, Fieldstone Village.  The children are getting food each week from Orange’s Food2Kids program.  While the two groups will never meet, the grandparents raised $500 for food for the children, and one neighbor is promising an additional $500 as a match to new donations made by June 25 to the charity.

“Fieldstone Village is a place where everyone goes for walks, sometimes a couple of times a day” said resident Karen Fenichel.  “It’s fresh air, exercise and a chance to talk to each other, even if it’s from opposite sides of the street.”

Fenichel and her husband were among the walkers.  As they walked, they admired the décor neighbors had applied to their homes and they got an idea: a scavenger hunt.  And to make it special, a small entry fee could be used to raise money for a charity.  “We wanted the money to stay in Orange,” said Fenichel.

The charity they chose was Food2Kids, a relatively new organization that provides supplemental food to school children during the weekend.  Susan vonRabenstein, an Orange town employee, set up the program after consulting with colleagues in the Social Services Department and a principal at one of Orange’s schools.

vonRabenstein said she learned that about 35 Orange school children were getting gift bags and special meals through the town’s Community Services Department.  In addition, many children were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.  While the school-lunch program wasn’t entirely based on financial need, she concluded those kids were likely to be hungry on weekends.  And hunger can make learning tough.

“The program wasn’t just about hunger,” vonRabenstein said.  “It was about hunger in relationship to students and education.  When you get hungry, you can’t concentrate.  You can’t engage.  It was about combining food and the educational experience.”

Spending spare time on the program while she did her town job, vonRabenstein set up the program.  She planned to put together bags of food and bring them to the schools.  The schools would distribute the food.  She could help the kids without needing to know who they were.

Then the pandemic hit.  The schools closed.  The need rose.  The pandemic also closed the town’s recreation facilities and vonRabenstein began working fewer hours managing the town’s swimming pool.  With her bosses’ support, her attention swung to Food2Kids and she found herself packing more than 120 bags of food a week.  She also was spending an hour and a half of her own time after work delivering that food until the Social Services Department started helping with deliveries.  But personal delivery makes the job harder, she said.

“It’s more personal,” she said.  “Some of the kids wait outside for us.  Some write chalk messages on the sidewalk.”

The U.S. Census Bureau says Orange has a median household income of $117,215.  But it also says 3.4 percent of the people in town live under the poverty line.  The town also has a “food insecurity” rate of 8 percent, according to Feeding America and the Connecticut Food Bank.  And that was before the massive layoffs that came with the pandemic.

“Food insecurity comes from a lot of different things,” says vonRabenstein.  “Taking care of parents.  Being out of work.  The changes in income right now certainly add to the need.  You just don’t know what’s happening behind the door next door.”

Meanwhile, back in Fieldstone Village, the walkers were answering scavenger hunt questions.  Most had never heard of Food2Kids, but they checked it out.

“We support a number of charities and participate in a wide variety of fund-raising events,” said Michael Vasaturo.  He and his wife, Annette, participated in the scavenger hunt and checked out Food2Kids.  They liked what they saw.

“I’m a firm believer that we’re blessed with many things,” said Annette.  “We’re obligated to give to charities that help others.”

Around the corner from the Vasaturos, Don and Linda DiLauro decided not to participate in the scavenger hunt, but they were ready to support the neighborhood effort.  “My wife and I felt the same about it,” said DiLauro.  “We had never heard of Food2Kids, but we looked into it.  Then we wrote a check.”

Neither the Vasaturos nor the DiLauros are surprised that a simple neighborhood contest designed as a distraction from COVID-related cabin fever turned into a $500 contribution.  Nor are they surprised that another neighbor has posted a grant to match the next $500 donated to Food2Kids.  After all, what would appeal more to a bunch of grandparents than hungry kids?

“This community is small enough to be close,” said DiLauro.  “As a group, this community is generous.  They are more than happy to do more for people in need.”

“I was pleased” that the contest generated a significant donation, said Annette.  “It’s a reflection of this community.”

The anonymous neighbor who wants to donate another $500 to match the next $500 in donations says he understands the need for the program.  He’s seen the impact of hunger on children first-hand, and he likes the idea that his donation will stay in town.

“I’m a local businessman,” he said.  “In my work, I see the connection between hunger, health and learning when it comes to kids.  Children not getting enough nutrition is, in itself, heartbreaking.  But needy kids in our own backyard is an eye opener.  I’m doing this because I want people to respond to my challenge and support Food2Kids.”

Meanwhile, vonRabenstein says the call for Food2Kids’ services will continue to rise until pandemic-related unemployment resolves and schools reopen.  Even then, the need will simply drop back to pre-pandemic levels, not disappear.  With the CDC easing rules and regulations that apply to programs such as Food2Kids, vonRabenstein hopes she’ll be able to get additional help, including donations of food, cash, checks and gift cards.  The contribution and the matching grant will definitely help.

She says those who need the services of Food2Kids can simply text (203) 668-7099 with the street address, the number of kids needing food and any food or dietary restrictions.  No names are necessary.

Food can be brought to the Food2Kids offices at High Plains Community Center.  Food2Kids cooperates with the Orange Food Pantry, which is next door.  Contributions in the form of cash, check or gift cards can be mailed to Orange Food2Kids, High Plains Community Center, 525 Orange Center Road, Orange CT 06477.  More information about Food2Kids is available at orangefood2kids.org and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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