Kenwood PTA provides 62 holiday dinners for families

CHAMPAIGN — In the small conference room at Kenwood Elementary in Champaign, boxes of food covered almost every surface.

The boxes threatened to spill their contents of Thanksgiving dinner staples, and the aroma of bagged yeast rolls wafted through the air, hinting at a special occasion.

And it was special — the school's Parent Teacher Association collected enough food to send Thanksgiving baskets (well, boxes) home to feed 62 kids who attend Kenwood, plus their families.

Each box includes a turkey, a fresh fruit basket, two boxes of stuffing, a jar of gravy, a box of instant mashed potatoes, three cans of vegetables, three cans of fruit, one can of cranberry sauce, a brownie or cake mix, a bottle of apple juice, a bag of those delicious-smelling rolls and a frozen pie. Each box of food also contained a sheet with food safety instructions for thawing and roasting the turkey, plus a foil roasting pan.

Champaign resident Jeff Valentine donated nine hams to be used as alternatives to turkeys, and food not used for the Thanksgiving giveaway will be saved for Christmas or even another next spring, PTA President Amy Lamb said.

The PTA collected food from students, requesting one particular item from students in each grade.

Champaign resident Terra Larsen worked with the two Kenwood Girl Scout troops she leads, as well as friends and neighbors to collect a large amount of food for the giveaway.

Larsen was able to solicit a donation of 36 turkeys and 36 fruit baskets from Carle Foundation Hospital.

Larsen said she heard last month about growing needs for food and started thinking about trying to double what the PTA usually does for its Thanksgiving giveaway.

"I honestly just kind of aimed high, and no one said no to me," Larsen said. "It's not a huge deal, it's just what you're supposed to do. People are in need."

Larsen told friends and neighbors what the school needed and when, and then went around picking up food last week in her minivan.

"I think it's really important that if somebody calls out for help, you answer the call," Larsen said. "None of us have tons of money. It's a lower-income school ... (but) if you need the help just ask around, someone is bound to say yes."

Many of the people who donated don't have kids at Kenwood, she said.

Principal Lisa Geren said this year, 70 percent of the school's students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Teachers and the school's social worker recommended families who might need a Thanksgiving basket, and Geren said several families who received them last year declined this year. They're doing better this year, she said, and wanted other families to have the food, instead.

In the past, the Kenwood PTA tried to make 18 baskets, one each for a student in one of the school's 18 classrooms.

This year, the goal was to double that number, Lamb said, and doubled even that goal. The PTA set aside some money to buy the items needed to finish off the baskets, but local residents even donated $200 for that.

Friday night, PTA and Girl Scout parents and their kids gathered at the school to assemble the baskets using an assembly-line technique. Some children decorated the boxes full of food with Thanksgiving greetings, even signing their names.

Volunteers worked throughout the weekend, Lamb said, and early Monday morning to pick up turkeys from freezers at Centennial High School, where they spent the weekend.

Volunteers delivered the baskets during the day Monday for families whose children ride the bus or couldn't come pick the food up.

Lamb said the attitude from Larsen and other parents has been, "Where do you need me? What can I do?"

"That is the spirit of Kenwood," Geren added.

Larsen said it was especially important for her to get the Girl Scouts — Brownie Troop 2110 and Daisy Troop 2250 — involved.

She and other parents emphasized the idea that "we're just helping our friends have dinner for Thanksgiving," Larsen said. "It was such a group effort."

She said she hopes the baskets' recipients appreciate them as much as she appreciated collecting some of their ingredients.

Geren had a similar sentiment.

"It's just so nice to be able to give," Geren said, as tears started to fill her eyes. "We're just getting so much from being able to help."

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