Partners Help Expand Care Closet for Boardman Students

BOARDMAN, Ohio —  More school students will have consistent access to food and hygiene supplies through the Care Closet at the Boardman Center Intermediate School, through a partnership with the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley and Sweeney Chevrolet, Buick and GMC in Boardman.

A food pantry for students, which started in 2016 at the Boardman Intermediate School had been helping students through the years, but the resource was struggling to find consistent support to remain stocked for the students depending on it, according to Mindy DePietro, counselor at the school.

The school was holding a couple of food drives each year and filling in with some private donations. But there were times when the food pantry could not meet demand.

At the start of this school year, the United Way decided to get involved, helping to provide them access to food purchased in bulk and “kid friendly” items, those things students can easily open, microwave in single serving sizes or grab quickly like breakfast bars and cereals.

Boxes of named brand food items are coming in, the shelves are filling up and the students are able to pick up necessary items on the way to the buses after school.

DePietro said through partnering with the United Way, the school has been able to take the pantry to a whole other level and she cannot thank the organization or their partner, Sweeney Chevrolet Buick and GMC enough for assisting the Care Closet.

Roxann Sebest, vice president and director of resource development with the United Way of Youngstown and Mahoning Valley, said over the last year and even prior to that during the height of COVID- 19, the United Way received a lot of emergency requests for food, hygiene projects and clothing. The organization was looking for a better way to reach more families than just one-on-one assistance and partnering with the pantry at the school is one of the solutions.

“If they’re hungry, they can’t learn,” Sebest said. “If they’re cold, they can’t learn. If they don’t have the right supplies they can’t learn, so how can we help with that.”

The United Way is able to pool money, buy in bulk and utilize their non-profit status to obtain more for places like the Care Closet in Boardman. With the help of corporate donors and the community, the United Way is helping this Care Closet and four more created at other schools in Youngstown — Taft, East, MLK and Harding.

Besides donating directly to the United Way or volunteering through the new center opening soon nearby, the community can help with these efforts by purchasing a vehicle in December at Sweeney, Chevrolet, Buick and GMC.

Alexa Sweeney Blackann, president at the dealership, said for every new Chevy, Buick or GMC vehicle purchased, $50 will go toward the United Way’s efforts at the Care Closet in Boardman.

“These are our neighbors,” Sweeney Blackann said. “These are our families and we are blessed to have been serving this community for over 100 years, so we take the opportunity to give back really seriously. It’s part of our culture and it’s important, especially at the holiday season, your dollars can match our dollars and we can all take care of our community.”

With students heading home for the holiday season, the goal is for them to have food and needed items to go with them. Sebest sees this project expanding with the help of corporations in the community.

“We’re looking to get more Care Closets into more schools, but we really need to see how they work first, but these dollars really help us,” Sebest said. “We can take your dollar and really expand it to help to buy and purchase more.”

She points out the need is growing everywhere, not just in the school districts and neighborhoods where someone might initially think. Grocery bills are increasing and even parents working multiple jobs can struggle to make ends meet right now. Sebest hopes even if a school cannot open a Care Closet, they will be open to offering Care Kits in the future, which will provide hygiene items to students.

DePietro has seen the need growing first hand this year and with so much demand, she has created a rotating schedule for students.

“The United Way with Sweeney’s support has been a life-changer for us here at the pantry,” DePietro said. “We’re always trying to think how are we going to get food. We’ve had donations in the past, money donations, but they only last for so long. We do a huge food drive in October… but they go through them quickly.”

She notes children at this age are honest and they will tell her that their mom lost her job or dad didn’t come home. One student recently told her they are living in a car and going to a hotel maybe once or twice a week.

“Those kids don’t have food and the basic needs for survival, how can they learn during the day,” DePietro said.

Besides their latest partnership, DePietro said the pantry is run with the support of the Boardman Lion’s Club, which has two volunteers who buy food and stocks shelves. The initial partnership was with the Second Harvest Food Bank, where DePietro still obtains some food for the pantry.

Additionally, the United Way is doing Fresh Meals for the school, helping 30 families get fresh food like eggs, milk, bread and meat to make dinners. The United Way and a family in the school district are helping them deliver 30 meals to families in the school system for Thanksgiving.

Pictured at top: Announcing a partnership to provide food to Boardman Center Intermediate School students, were (from left) Roxann Sebest, vice president and director of resource development United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley; Alexa Sweeney Blackann, president of Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC; Mindy DePietro, guidance counselor; and Tim Saxton, Boardman Local schools superintendent.

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