High school food pantry a labor of love

Local volunteer aids students who don’t have enough to eat

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By Sarah Foster, Mattoon HS, Mattoon, Ill.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of articles about the elevated poverty rates in Coles County, Ill.

“Is that all today?” 76-year-old Madonna McKittrick sighs as she watches another one of her students hide a bag behind the shelves, like its concealment seems more important than taking home the maximum amount of food.

“Yes,” the student says, looking down at his shoes. “I won’t have a place to put it.”

Madonna feels the ache again — a pain she feels frequently. She’s heard this excuse before. Though she’s single and childless, she has a connection with these kids. She can see right through them.

“Are you sure?” she pleads. “You can keep it in here as long as you want.”

“Yes,” he explains. He situates it in a corner behind the shelf, making it invisible. “Thank you.”

After being reassured of its hiding place, he leaves.

“There’s a stigma,” Madonna began to say as she watched him leave the room. “Other kids make fun of them for getting food. That’s not right. I don’t know how prevalent it is here, and it shouldn’t be at all, but I have had some kids that come once and that’s it.”

She begins to channel her frustration to stocking the canned food items on the shelves, so more students can eat through Mattoon High School’s food pantry. Madonna’s work inside this room is always driven by the kids—her “children,” as she calls them. She longs to do whatever she can to take away the seriousness and stresses of their everyday lives.

“They’re great kids,” she said while cutting out quarts of chocolate milk to place on the shelves. “There’s so much laughter and teasing that goes on. It gives them a break from the seriousness.”

Stocking up the shelves is a Friday tradition for Madonna. Her small, short stature is barely visible through all the foods that surround her. Gatorades, cereals, macaroni and cheese, sodas and canned foods are stacked as high as the bars will permit. Against the walls are even more boxes — filled with canned fruits and vegetables, raisins, Pop Tarts, peanut butter, soups. On the right wall is the hygiene station, where students can retrieve soaps, towels, deodorants and toothbrushes if they are not available at their homes. A system Madonna has created is what runs this small, yet prosperous corner room in the MHS main office.

“Kids shop for things they need and want,” she said. “Some come before they eat; some after.”

This room has existed for two years now through Madonna’s creation. Now, a number of churches and charity groups have gotten involved in the donations — contributing many of these items that tower above her body. However, before the community knew of Madonna’s work, she made it her own duty to supply the food among the shelves.

“I would buy four deodorants, four soaps, four toothpastes and four toothbrushes every week. That was all out of pocket,” said Madonna, staring at the shelves, beginning to laugh. “I can’t tell you how much I spent.”

But Madonna doesn’t regret purchasing the assortment. In fact, she does it over and over again when she sees that a certain item can make her “children” smile.

“I have been in a situation when I didn’t have any money,” she said, staring off into the distance. “I know what it’s like.”

Now, around 14 kids come to use these items that Madonna makes an effort to provide. But to her, this number still isn’t enough.

“There should be a lot more,” she said. Her eyes looked to the floor, remembering that ache again.

Being poor doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to fail. You can make your life what you want.”

— Madonna McKittrick

It’s Madonna’s personal experiences that allow her to connect with her “children” so well. Madonna knew what it was like to struggle, and her personal success reminds her every day that her kids don’t deserve to be treated negatively because of an item they can’t purchase or clothes they can’t afford.

“I wasn’t rich growing up; we didn’t have a lot of things,” she said. “Yet, I’ve done a lot with my life. Being poor doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to fail. You can make your life what you want.”

Madonna made it her goal to exemplify this. She was born and raised in Mattoon, but at 22, she decided to leave. Since then, she has lived in various places like California and Washington, D.C. She has traveled across the world, to many countries in Europe. These previous limitations did not prevent her from experiencing life.

But when she returned to her hometown 45 years later to reunite with old friends, she found a changed community — one that reflects the severity of Coles County’s elevated poverty rates.

“There’s no industry anymore,” she said. “All the industries that were here are gone. That’s why parents have to work at McDonald’s, and kids don’t have jobs. You can’t support a family on $8 an hour. That barely pays the rent, let alone food and clothing.”

But Madonna believes there’s another change — one that could indicate why she feels her pain so frequently,

“It’s not as much of a community anymore,” she said.

To combat these changes, Madonna decided to get involved with a local organization called Retired Seniors Volunteer Program, or RSVP, at the age of 72. For the past four years, Madonna has volunteered at the Salvation Army, the Chamber of Commerce, United Way, local blood drives and Mattoon School District’s backpack program.

Then, she decided to implement this food pantry at MHS, allowing her to volunteer like she had wished. In the end though, it wasn’t reestablishing Mattoon’s community that inspired her to continue volunteering in this corner room — it was these children, the ones she has never had. To her, they mean more than anything else.

“The kids are wonderful,” she said. “I’m very protective of them.”

Finishing her reminiscing, Madonna is greeted by more kids, who enter the room and begin to shop for their families. She, in return, flashes a smile at all of their entrances.

The kids are wonderful. I’m very protective of them.”

— Madonna McKittrick

“How’s your mother doing?” She asks one of the girls.

The girl stops for a moment and smiles. “Annoying as ever.”

Madonna laughs entertainingly. “Don’t worry. Someday, you won’t be thinking that.”

“I don’t know…” she says unassumingly. She begins to put her last item in the grocery sacks Madonna purchased specifically for today. She then makes her way to the door.

“Wait, get over here,” Madonna commands. She extends her arms and welcomes the girl into an embrace.

“You look beautiful,” Madonna says, patting her head soothingly.

While in this embrace, Madonna thinks. She thinks of the purpose behind these shelves. She thinks of what she would change about her children’s lives. She thinks of what she would do for her kids if she could. However, her priority wouldn’t be to fill their refrigerators at home or stock up their cabinets. It would be to make a change in the way they are treated around their peers.

“Some of these kids are as funny as can be, but they’re not like that around some of the other kids because they’re different,” she said. “I think it’s important that the kids have a good time.”

She believes this can be accomplished when others don’t misconceive. She wants them to see their life through a new perspective and change the way they think.

“Don’t judge people,” she said. “I think it’s a matter of being kind. If you’re not, life gets back at you.”

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