For 10 years now, students from Hill-Murray School’s Christian Service Learning class have been tutoring fourth-graders at Webster Elementary in North St. Paul. Along the way, they have learned valuable lessons: Small kids, no matter what their race, religion or economic status, like having big kids talk to them. And most everyone needs a little help with math once in a while.
But perhaps the most dramatic lesson came earlier this school year. That’s when the Hill-Murray students discovered dozens of hungry Webster kids go home every Friday to empty cupboards and sparse refrigerators.
That jarring reality not only convinced the student tutors to act — it inspired most of the private Catholic school to mobilize. “We’re like their safety net,” said Kennedy Firkus-Houge, a Hill-Murray student and former tutor.
Said Joe Swanson, who has organized his classmates to collect food for the young students he has befriended: “I’d heard about [families needing food]. But this makes it personal. It’s given me a whole new way to look at the world.”
Every Friday for the past few years, Webster teachers have sent home backpacks stuffed with groceries for 25 or more students whose families have little else, said Webster Principal Mona Perkins. It began after teachers learned that, for some students, Friday’s school lunch was the last complete meal they would eat until school breakfast on Monday.
So teachers converted a corner of their staff lounge into a makeshift pantry, stocking shelves with groceries donated by an area church foodshelf. But at the beginning of this school year, the church had to pull out of the arrangement, Perkins said. Other needs were too great.
It was an unexpected blow for a school where 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, Perkins said. Soon afterward, she asked Tim Cooper, who teaches Hill-Murray’s Christian Service Learning class and is in Webster almost every day, if he had any ideas.
Why not ask his students? he wondered.
He did, and the idea took off.
Student tutors mobilized and mentioned the need to classmates. Soon, members of Hill-Murray’s hockey, soccer, basketball, lacrosse and football teams got in on it, too, organizing food drives at games and retreats. Where initially six Hill-Murray students volunteered at Webster each semester, now, the whole school was involved.
Several times this year, trucks and sport-utility vehicles packed with food have made deposits at Webster.
“I expected a food drive,” Perkins said, “maybe a few boxes of groceries. What I didn’t expect was for them to own this. This is all done by kids for kids.”
Chuck Briscoe, Hill-Murray’s principal, said he’s not surprised.
“Service to others is really the cornerstone of our school,” he said. “I tear up just reading the reflection papers the kids write about their experience.”
Hill-Murray students expanded their efforts. They’ve held a coat drive. At Halloween, they hosted a haunted house for Webster students. At Christmas, they collected items for a low-cost holiday shop so the younger students could buy gifts for their families.
Webster teacher Catherine Cranston has had Hill-Murray volunteers in her classroom for “eight or nine years. We get to watch our kids bond with teenagers who are learning just as much about them.”
Henry Venuta, a Hill-Murray senior from Stillwater, recently spent time in the lunchroom, chatting and laughing with several Webster kids. Working with them for an hour a day, four days a week, for 18 weeks has taught him something about a school with so many children living in poverty.
“It’s a little more normal than what I was expecting,” he said.
One day last month, with the shelves in the Webster teachers’ lounge looking barren, Cooper, Perkins and other school officials waited for Hill-Murray students to drive the couple of miles between the schools to deliver more food.
A bit before 2 p.m., a caravan of vehicles appeared in the parking lot. Soon, Hill-Murray students were hauling boxes and bags of food inside. As they worked, several Webster students, smiling and giddy to see their teenage tutors, came out to help.
By the time the high school and elementary kids were done, groceries were stacked high against a hallway wall.
“This is one week’s worth of a food drive,” Cooper said as he watched students big and small share hugs and smiles. “Pretty stunning.”