Donna Bailey cried, not for herself, but for her kids.
“We’ve had donations in the past, which I appreciate, but nothing like this,” said the cafeteria director for Brookfield schools.
“This” was a $2,500 gift from the Brookfield Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Made on May 6, the donation to the school’s cafeteria fund effectively wiped out the debt accumulated by students who hadn’t or couldn’t pay for lunches.
“It was just so overwhelming,” Bailey said.
It’s Bailey’s job to feed the students, but she has to do it in a financially prudent manner. About 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, but there are some whose families are caught in a no-man’s land. They don’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, but their families can’t afford to pay for lunch. Sometimes, there’s a limbo period after a parent loses a job but before a student can be signed up for a free or reduced-price lunch.
The cafeteria fund, which is independent from the school’s general fund, has not been in the red for 15 years and has not had to ask for a school subsidy in that time. Bailey says she knows how to juggle expenses, so she at least breaks even each year.
However, students can carry unpaid lunch bills from year to year. If as seniors, they have not paid off all their debts to the school, they don’t get their diplomas.
“The parents do the best they can,” Bailey said. “Sometimes these things kind of snowball.”
The foundation was inspired to give the gift by the Shenango Township (Pa.) Volunteer Fire Department, which did the same thing at West Middlesex schools. Department Engineer Dave Foltz said he had heard of a Veterans of Foreign Wars Post that did something similar, and he brought it up to his membership. One member piped up that he would contribute $1,000, telling them, “This is to help the kids and not the school.”
After picking their jaws back up off the floor, the Shenango membership came up with another $1,500, and Foltz said he made sure the school superintendent was sitting down before he relayed the news.
Fire Chief Justin Barnes said the department relies on the community for support, so it makes sense to give something back.
“We hope this kind of explodes through the communities,” Barnes said. “It doesn’t have to be schools. There could be other needs out there.”
The Fallen Firefighters, which gives away about $10,000 in scholarships a year, was inspired to contact Brookfield schools after learning about Shenango’s donation, said President Randy Richman.
“We always look for an opportunity to serve someone in need in the community,” Richman said. “This was something new to us.”
In talking to Bailey, the foundation members were struck by the stories of students who fell into the gap between ability to pay and subsidized lunches and how, in order to make up for the shortfall, officials might have to raise prices for everybody, putting lunches out of reach for more students, he said.
“That snowballs the problem,” Richman said.
Bailey said the donation means she will have a much less stressful end of the school year, and beginning of the next year.
“Everybody should be totally clear, which is a great way to start the new year,” she said.
Richman invited those on social media to follow the Brookfield Fallen Firefighters Foundation on Facebook to keep up on what the foundation is doing.