Washington tackles food insecurity with Souper Bowl

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Washington Elementary School students formed a human chain from the school’s entrance to the Holy Trinity Food Pantry across the street April 29 to deliver cans of soup and other food items collected at the school during this year’s Souper Bowl Drive.

The children handed the cans and packages down a line snaking along the closed-off Franklin Avenue, all the while talking excitedly and engaging in chants like “Pass that soup!” Once the soup and other foodstuffs, like peanut butter and canned fish, made it into the pantry, several students sorted the it all into separate crates in preparation for Holy Trinity to distribute the food in West Orange.

By the end of the event, the students had sent down a total of 1,278 items for the pantry — the Souper Bowl’s version of a touchdown. But for program organizer Linda Perna, the real victory was seeing the students embrace the charity drive, demonstrating their understanding of the importance of helping others.

“Kids are very giving — you can really see that they really enjoy it,” Perna told the West Orange Chronicle at the event. “I feel wonderful. It warms my heart to see the children so excited about doing it and that they’re so willing to do it.”

The children were not without incentive — the classroom that collected the most items in each grade level won a party. But even with that reason to donate, Perna said the students still went above and beyond to support the drive. The kindergarten teacher — who launched the Souper Bowl roughly a decade ago after her husband showed her a newspaper story about a similar concept — said the student council members involved with the program often gave up their recess just to sort the soup cans and other items collected.

Evidently the students did not mind the imposition.

“I was happy because I was helping the less fortunate people,” fifth-grader Patrick Dusape told the Chronicle while taking a break from passing cans. “I really didn’t care if I had to give up my recess. I just wanted to help.”

Fellow fifth-graders Seandy Norelus and Nadya Coleman agreed that it felt good to benefit those in need, even if it entailed a lot of hard work. All three appreciated the opportunity to engage in such philanthropy, with Patrick pointing out that not every school gives its students the chance to work on projects like the Souper Bowl Drive.

And although they are young, the students already knew exactly why it is important for children to learn about charity.

“They can grow up to help people,” Seandy said.

Principal Marie DeMaio said she thinks it is “wonderful” to see so many of her students enthusiastic about giving back, pointing out that every student at the school contributed. DeMaio said this project shows students that they will encounter many different types of people as they enter the world, including those who will need their help. As a result, though Washington hosts other charitable pursuits throughout the year, she said the Souper Bowl Drive is one that will continue to take place annually.

That should be good news to the pantry’s executive director Cynthia Cumming, who told the Chronicle that the Souper Bowl is always a boon for Holy Trinity. Cumming said her organization appreciates the support it has received through the years from Washington, especially considering that Washington is a Title I school, which means many of the children themselves come from low-income families. Despite this, they are clearly still willing to give.

Plus, Cumming said the sheer spectacle of having so many boys and girls lined up and working together to deliver the donations makes the experience special.

“It’s just a really cool thing to see,” Cumming said in an April 28 phone interview. “We’re always very happy when it happens.”

And Washington is not the only West Orange school that gives to the pantry. In fact, Cumming estimated that of the 35 percent of Holy Trinity’s total contributions that come from within the township, at least 15 percent come from the schools. And she said the pantry is grateful for the support.

“We’re very, very lucky that we have such a good relationship with our community and our school district,” Cumming said. “They’re very, very good to us as far as running food drives and helping us around the holidays and having businesses support us financially so I can buy food at the food bank and all of these different things. So we’re very, very blessed.”

The food and money donated to the Holy Trinity Food Pantry — which is in partnership with the Community FoodBank of N.J. in Hillside — go toward feeding the less fortunate of West Orange, including those who are unemployed, disabled and homeless. Last year, Cumming said the pantry served 5,493 people, 40 percent of them children. On average, she said the pantry delivers 6,000 pounds of food per month to 150 families, with each family typically comprised of one to 10 people.

Helping so many people means a lot to Chris Babinski, who has volunteered for the pantry for the past two years. Speaking with the Chronicle before the soup delivery began, Babinski said it is gratifying to know that those in need are being fed as a result of the work he does with Holy Trinity. Having served as a communications operator for the West Orange Police Department during the past 27 years, he said it also helps keep him grounded.

“Working with the police department, I see a lot of negative in humanity,” Babinski said. “And this is therapy for me because it restores hope in me personally that there is still good.”

Babinski added that he hopes the Souper Bowl Drive has an equally positive impact on the participating children, guiding them toward a path of continued philanthropy as they grow older.

Board of Education President Laura Lab is confident this will be the case, pointing out that events such as the Souper Bowl and the other charitable causes set the tone for students’ lives. The fact that the district puts an emphasis on philanthropy shows how “outstanding” its teaching staff is and why its schools are truly making a difference, Lab said.

“We look at our students holistically,” Lab said prior to the event’s kickoff. “It’s not just reading, writing, arithmetic. It’s teaching how to be a giving member of the community.”

For more information about Holy Trinity Food Pantry, visit http://holytrinitywo.org/food-pantry.  

Photos by Sean Quinn