October 4, 2012

Wheeler: Hungry children were her call to action

Darline Johns started a food ministry after she came face to face with children who get little food on weekends. She hopes parents at other schools will be inspired to help kids, too.

Folded onto a plastic bench in an elementary school cafeteria, Darline Johns was eating lunch with her kindergartner, chatting happily about the family’s weekend plans, when a little voice from a table over cut in.

“I don’t really like weekends,” a boy offered.

“Why is that?” Johns asked.

“I’m always hungry,” said the boy, who had decayed teeth. “Here at school, I get breakfast and lunch. At home on the weekends, I don’t get to eat.”

Always hungry?

What is it like to be truly, achingly hungry?

How can any child concentrate on lessons, on behaving well, on homework when an empty stomach is screaming for his attention?

Johns willed herself to hold it together when all she wanted to do was cry.

All the way home from North Chatham Elementary School that day, she thought about how to help that child and others like him.

Online, she found a California program that sent food-filled backpacks home for the weekend with the schoolchildren who receive free and subsidized lunches.

North Chatham’s principal told Johns that she could start such a program but that the school had no money to offer her.

That was four years ago.

With the help of private donations, generous church friends, and neighborhood and Girl Scout food drives, Johns began filling 40 grocery bags each week for children whom teachers had recognized as hungry and whose parents had agreed to receive the help.

This school year, she’s dropping off 80 bags a week filled with more than $900 in cereal, milk, noodle cups and snacks. And it’s not near enough.

“When I found out there was a wait list, I started crying,” says Johns, 41. “I could still cry.”

Those 80 are but a tiny, tiny part of the need around us. Heard in the Triangle all summer were pleas from the folks who feed the hungry. Catholic Parish Outreach pantry had a $100,000 shortfall in July because it was serving 21 percent more folks.

Last month, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina had a fundraising telethon and food drive to replenish its depleted stock.

In Wake County alone, 91,000 people are considered at risk for hunger, 33 percent of them children.

“This is about children, not me, not their parents,” Johns says. “Who’s to say that child won’t be the next Google guy or the next LeBron James? We don’t know what child we’re going to pass over.”

Much to her surprise, Johns is now giving food to the children of families – business owners who have fallen on hard times – who used to be her donors.

Facing ‘big monster’

“Poverty doesn’t discriminate, nor does hunger,” Johns says. “It hits all demographics. Who’s to say it’s not gonna be me the next time?”

Originally from New Jersey, Johns moved from Texas to North Carolina six years ago when her husband took a job with Red Hat.

Though she says her parents weren’t wealthy, poverty was not something she’d seen up close until she interned at a Boys and Girls Club in Las Vegas after graduating from UNLV with a degree in education. “These kids are powerless against this big monster: poverty,” she says. “We’re not even giving them the tools to succeed. What if kids weren’t hungry? Would the test scores be higher? Would behavior be better? If you wipe out hunger, can you imagine the difference (in schools)?”

It takes just one

Last month, second-graders at Cary Christian School, where Johns’ two children now attend, had a food drive for her North Chatham ministry, rounding up 55 bags of individually packaged goods. In the spring, third-graders will do the same.

What do these kids learn from the experience?

“That it just takes one person to help another,” Johns says. “This is what we’re called to do. If you’re not showing anyone that you care, how are they going to learn empathy, because they weren’t cared for?”

By sharing her story, Johns hopes that someone at every Triangle school will be inspired to offer weekend food to children who need it.

There are two things, Johns will tell you, that she has gained from heeding this call: humility, because now she unabashedly asks people for help, and ...

“Peace,” she says, choking back tears before whispering, “I get peace. That I can go to sleep on the weekends and know there are kids not going hungry and that I have done my best to make sure that I’m serving.

Because I’m blessed. It could all leave me tomorrow, and hoarding it doesn’t make me a better person.”

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