Vernonia's Stories: Part I
Vernonia may be just a small town in Northwestern Oregon, but the little logging community has hosted the hugely successful Vernonia Summer Meal Program for the past five years, thanks to the big hearts of its residents.
We recently stopped by the site to see it in action and to learn a little more about its volunteers, whose efforts make such a program possible.
This is the first story in a series about the Vernonia Summer Meal Program.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade -- or so the saying goes.
If you live in Vernonia, Oregon, you can not only make lemonade, but make big a difference too.
Earlier this summer, an eight-year-old girl started a lemonade stand a few miles outside of the small town and earned almost $80. She donated all of her proceeds to the Vernonia Summer Meal Program in honor of her dear friend, Lorelai Fields.
Lorelai grew up coming to the meal site every summer. At six years old, she served as one of the youngest members on the site’s volunteer team. Two years ago she passed away in a car accident.
Although she no longer retrieves trays from the site’s diners -- sometimes before they had even finished their meals -- Lorelai’s passionate energy lives on through in the memories of those who still serve summer lunches during the weekdays.
“She was my buddy, we had a secret handshake,” recalls DeAnna Pearl, the site’s volunteer grants and media coordinator. “She was so excited about being here, and she was amazing. She just wanted to help. She just always wanted to be here.”
Emotions overcome DeAnna as she tells Lorelai’s story. Her voice catches in her throat and tears trail down her cheeks.
“We were devastated for the family and for our Lorelai. She was our mascot. The first summer we had without her, we were bereft. We had such a hard time without her.”
The local kids would have an even harder time if it weren’t for the federally-funded meal program. In a remote logging community like Vernonia, where 80 percent of residents commute to jobs outside of town, regular summer lunches are not something that many young people can plan on receiving while home alone. For those who depend on subsidized lunches throughout the school year, the carefree days of summer are not all fun and games.
“We had kids come the day after school was out, wanting food -- we weren’t open,” DeAnna observes. “They came in on a Saturday. They come before our doors are open. That’s what hunger looks like in our community. The kids are bringing themselves.”
Five years ago, they didn’t have a program to come to. Since then, Vernonia’s Summer Meal Program has received federal and local contributions so that it can go above and beyond simply feeding hungry children.
DeAnna attributes the program’s accomplishments to the government funding they receive and to an outpouring of support from their community in the forms of donated foods and fresh produce, hands-on art activities and even library books.
“Without that buy-in, without those volunteers, we wouldn’t be successful. Sure, we could feed kids. Sure, we can serve a meal -- but what we serve here is our hearts and spirits.”
Vernonia’s Summer Meal Program coordinators and their team of volunteers, whose dedication keeps the program running on all cylinders, continue to provide such service in honor of Lorelai.
Despite the town’s small size, Vernonia has the resources to sustain both the nutrition and the character development of their young diners. Not all sites are so fortunate. Summer Meal Programs nationwide need Congress’ continued support so that they too can provide similar service to the thousands of American children who depend on such assistance.
“Food insecurity is real,” DeAnna asserts. “It’s not enough to give a kid a corn dog. It’s about getting access to really good, nutritional food. We are so limited by what we can purchase. It is amazing that we get to serve fresh, organic food because of what the community donates. We are limited in how we order things, but we are able to open up the possibilities and can now offer gluten-free breads because we have the donations.”
Congress needs to enable Summer Meal Programs to run fully, like Vernonia’s. Increased funding would empower such programs to not only feed the bellies of young Americans, but to make that proverbial lemonade by feeding their spirits too.
Summer Meal sites can provide kids with a safe space to be, mentors, and food. There, they can learn to be healthy, to be stewards in their community, and to help others -- just like Lorelai loved to do.
At the thought of her young friend, DeAnna wipes the tears from her cheeks. A smile of pride lights up her face as she concludes, “That’s what it’s about."
To learn more about Vernonia's Summer Meal Program, visit their Facebook page.
To find a Summer Meal site near you, go to summerfoodoregon.org.