HOLLAND, Mich — On the open waters of Lake Michigan, a group of men hatched an idea that helped make sure kids across the West Ottawa Public Schools district were fed.
"I'm a charter captain in the summer," said second grade teacher Jeff Gaul.
"Our friend Rick, who is a member at our church, wanted to learn more about fishing. He would take me out with him and I would teach him how to fish for salmon out on the big lake."
But as any angler will tell you, there's a lot of downtime when you're out on the water.
"So you start talking about life and things, and Rick always had this comment of, 'I've been very blessed in my life, and I want to give things back to the community. I'm at the stage of my life where I feel I can do that.' So we just started having those conversations about helping the community," Jeff said.
Rick told Jeff he wanted to help West Ottawa students in particular. And for Jeff, the idea of paying off school lunch debt was at the top of the list for this school year.
"The federal government stopped their COVID funds for free lunches for all students. So you have to fill out paperwork and you can qualify for free and reduced lunch, but it went back to you have to pay for your son or daughter's school lunch again," Jeff said.
The men, along with pastor Nate Schipper, took the idea to the congregation at Fellowship Church in Holland. They were hooked. So they reached out to the district's director of food service, Jenna Stamp.
"I heard about it right before Christmas time. At the beginning of December, they were asking how much do we owe? How much do the kids owe?" she said.
About 385 of the district's 7,000 students had outstanding balances combining to total $2,400. Some individual donations had taken care of part of that total, but still, around $2,000 remained. The congregation at Fellowship Church was up for the task.
"At first we talked about like a $900 number for a couple schools that we're particularly close to, but the congregation was super responsive. And so thanks to their generosity and the funds that they raised, we were able to pay off the balance for the whole district, which is a really cool thing," Pastor Nate said.
Jenna says school breakfasts and lunches are important for kids because they may be the only hot meals that certain kids get on a given day.
"It helps them learn better. It helps them throughout the whole day," she said.
Jeff says he sees first hand how much lunch means to his second graders.
"They smell the mashed potatoes and gravy and their chicken wings that they've waited all day for. They can smell it. And they go in and to see their lunch is in a negative balance, you can actually witness just that fall of emotion," he said.
"To take that pressure away from kids, to have a kid know that they're going to get lunch no matter what, whether it was paid for or not, it was just a great sensation to set up a great afternoon for a kid."
Jenna says if you'd like to make a similar donation in your community, a good first step is to reach out to your local district's food services director.
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