By Emily Williams
When Vestavia Hills’ Shelley Gentle and members of her Leadership Vestavia Hills small group began working on their community service project in October, they had no idea what kind of impact it would have less than six months later.
“We chose to investigate hunger in Vestavia,” Gentle said, “see what is being done and can be done to help.”
In conducting its project, dubbed the Leadership Vestavia Hills Hunger Awareness Project, the team discovered that about 7% of Vestavia Hills students receive free or reduced-price lunches.
That amounts to almost 500 students in the school system, Gentle said. The school has had a “weekender backpack” program in the past, in which students in need were able to take home a food-filled pack for the weekend, but there is not a program in place now.
“There are also about 60 or so Meals on Wheels recipients,” she said, but the team could identify only one food bank in the city, at Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church.
When the COVID-19 pandemic caused schools to close their doors, Vestavia Hills’ Child Nutrition Program continued to operate, handing out meals at Vestavia Hills Elementary West and Cahaba Heights schools, and the local Girl Scout troops organized snack bags for each person who picked up a lunch.
Gentle and her team reached out to Vestavia Hills Superintendent Todd Freeman, a fellow member of the 2019-20 LVH class, to see whether they could help out in any way. He asked whether they could provide food to students over spring break.
Her team quickly got to work, and Gentle saw a way to not only help students in need, but support local restaurants in need at the same time.
“My husband is in IT, and a lot of the businesses he works with are produce distributors,” she said. “A lot of their customers are restaurants.”
Through her husband’s work, Gentle has seen how hard social distancing has hit businesses.
“He has one customer down in Tampa whose business is off by 97%, which is just crazy,” she said.
While raising money from the community and through a GoFundMe account, the project team members reached out to local restaurants with a goal to pay for the students’ meals in full. At that time, the schools were averaging about 150 meals handed out per day.
“Our hope was to do this without asking anything from them, because it’s always the restaurants who support school fundraisers, athletic teams and everything else,” Gentle said. “We don’t want to ask for their help, we just want to give them business.”
When spring break began March 23, the team handed out about 640 meals to students in need. Meals were provided by Ashley Mac’s, Slice, Moe’s Southwest, Diplomat Deli and The Ridge, and they were paid for in full by LVH. Extra meals were distributed to the Vestavia Hills Police and Fire departments as well as shelters in downtown Birmingham.
“We passed our initial goal, which was awesome,” Gentle said. It did so well that the schools asked us if we could do Fridays through the end of the school year, both to help the schools as well as continue to support the restaurants.”
By its second Friday handout on April 10, the team expected to serve around 250 meals.
The team is continuing to raise funds through its “VH School lunches during Coronavirus Closure” GoFundMe account, and larger donations can be made at leadershipvestaviahills.com.