News from the Field: Nicasa 21st CCLC Students Experience Service Learning at Local Food Bank

by Nicasa 21st CCLC staff

Partnerships are the heart and soul of Nicasa Behavioral Health Services’ 21st Century Community Learning Center (CCLC) afterschool program. We are proud to say we have worked hard this year to add partners: the States’ Attorney’s Office of Lake County, Illinois, Walmart, Verizon, Latino Women’s Organization, Round Lake Area Library, Sports Center/Round Lake Area Park District, Round Lake Police Department, Ceramics For You, Scotty’s Hotdogs, and Mendoza Grocery/Restaurant, to mention a few. These businesses and service agencies add value to our program. Their involvement as speakers to our parents and students or as donors of art materials, books, or their time shows our kids that they matter. Community support shows students that they are worth someone’s time and the gifts of practical support for a program that they love. These partnerships also help us move toward actualizing sustainable support for a deserving, child-serving afterschool program. We are grateful every day for these friendships; and they do become friends!

One partner among many has stood out this year: Mary Lou Claussen and the Avon Township Food Pantry. The food pantry is in Round Lake, Illinois, where our 21st CCLC program is also based. The Avon Township Food Pantry has served as a community-based service learning site for the Round Lake High School participating in our 21st CCLC program. Each week throughout the year rotating groups of 6-8 students are bused to the Avon Township Food Pantry along with afterschool program staff to spend 2-3 hours working for the hungry in their community. Students receive training in loading trucks, packing family food boxes, pulling shelves, and waiting on clients who come to obtain food for their families. The families who visit the food pantry have a range of needs and experiences: some need intermittent support; others have broken apart due to domestic violence; and still other families live in long-term poverty. Some who visit the food pantry are the families of our students who volunteer their time to serve in a program that has served them.

Mary Lou or Mama Pickles (Claussen), as she is affectionately called, is cheerful and a caring community wonder. She is also the director of the food pantry. Our students love her and the special way she makes them feel each time they volunteer. From Waffle Wednesday treats to supply-filled backpacks for afterschool participants, the Avon Township Food Pantry is like home to Nicasa’s afterschool teens.

Through their community service, our 21st CCLC students learn the value of giving, being dependable, staying organized, customer service, and working together as a team. We have dealt with conflict, real feelings, and learned ways to communicate and share what is on our minds.

Our service learning at the food pantry does not end when the volunteering is done. Students journal about their experiences and regularly write thank you notes to the food pantry team to provide special words of support. This year, for a STEM activity, one of our high school students edited a video about our food pantry effort. What a proud team we had as we showed off the video to our Illinois Quality Afterschool mentors from Kewaunee, Kim Sellers and Lisa Brackett, and again, to Laura Shankland, one of the Illinois Quality Afterschool technical assistance team members from American Institutes for Research. The food pantry has provided our students with countless ways to improve academically, socially, and emotionally.

As a means of expanding and improving our program with the food pantry this year, we began our summer program with a field trip for students to the Northern Illinois Food Bank, where our Avon Township Food Pantry receives its supplies. Our students were able to volunteer and learn about the big picture process of food bank service. During that field trip, our high school students packed 3,580 pounds of food, providing 3,025 meals to our hungry community neighbors and friends.

Following our summer program, students continued their weekly trek to our food pantry. Mama Pickles allowed us to pilot our first middle school student into the Avon Township Food Pantry weekly program. The pilot was a big success. This 2017-2018 school year our food pantry will have both middle and high school volunteers. This will add a great mentoring element to the program as the high school students teach the middle school students all they know about service to others. Imagine the new learning that will take place for us all!

We are proud of what we have done at the Avon Township Food Bank. We have been told by Mama Pickles that we are the givers of compassion and caring to our communities. All of us know, however, that we have been the receivers.