St. Johnsbury Academy Supporting a Healthy Community
For many years, St. Johnsbury Academy held its Walk for Hunger through the streets of town. Joined by faculty and staff, the group typically exceeded 1,000 people and was a week-long canned food drive that ended with a variety day and community walk. Last year’s event raised just over two thousand dollars in cash and food donations – something to be incredibly proud of. But times have changed, and an updated version of the event that better supports the increasing needs of our community became necessary.
Since last year’s walk, under the direction of Dr. Elia Desjardins and Jennifer Mackenzie, a group of Academy faculty explored ways the school could take a project that matters greatly to the St. Johnsbury Academy community and the larger Northeast Kingdom community and provide more help and more hope.
This will be realized through a partnership with Northeast Kingdom Community Action (NEKCA). NEKCA strives to empower individuals, families, and communities by promoting hope, healing, and support. NEKCA has 26 locations throughout the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, including four food shelves, the largest of which is in St. Johnsbury. They provide various community-based services, including emergency food shelves, emergency fuel assistance, and homelessness prevention. After COVID and a summer of economically devastating rain, the need for their support to meet food and other basic needs is greater than ever. Their work helps provide people access to basic resources.
The community at St. Johnsbury Academy offers terra firma – firm ground – while the world is changing, sometimes quite rapidly, around us. NEKCA does the same for people in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. It’s a place where safety and hope are stocked on shelves and given out to all who need it.
Binaca Hanson, Assistant Headmaster for Academics and Student Life, said, “In the course of my life, I have seen time and again, the power of community. When a community comes together, there is strength. A healthy community is one where people hold genuine respect for one another – and a commitment to a collective ‘we.’ That’s why we aren’t walking to end hunger this year. We are, instead, walking for a healthy community.”
Sophomore Donley Johnson, one of several student leaders who spoke to peers in September, delivered the following message:
“We are Walking for a Healthy Community to send a message of hope to the residents of the Northeast Kingdom. We want to let people know that no matter who they are, they are part of a caring, dedicated group of people who will help them meet their needs.”
“The walk is the culmination of a week of striving to understand and assist our fellow humans. By learning about the issue of food insecurity and doing our part to provide food to those in need, we are doing both the community and ourselves a favor, as a group of people that strive to understand and support each other is a key ingredient for a healthier community.”
“Of course, the issue of food insecurity won’t simply go away after we spend a week learning about it. We are going to be part of a long and hard process: tackling one of the biggest issues facing not just St. Johnsbury, but the whole world. What I would like you to think about now, even before the week is over, is how you want to keep working towards food security.”
“If we are consistent in our efforts to build a stronger, more understanding community, we can start to heal the damage caused by decades of limited access to food, one of the most basic human needs. At some point this week, set a goal for yourself: what will you do by the end of this year to create a healthier community?”
As October turned into November, it was evident that Donley’s challenge to his peers to think about food issues in the community for more than a week had been accepted and acted upon as students recently loaded nearly 1100 pounds of food into a bus to deliver to NEKCA’s office in St. Johnsbury.
Mixed in amongst the canned foods were items specifically requested by Mrs. Kendall’s Human Services students. Little things like salt and pepper, instant coffee, tea, mustard and ketchup, and powdered drinks, items not typically associated with a food drive, were included in the donations. “These are things that are often overlooked but very appreciated at food shelves,” according to Hanson.
Financial donations also played a significant part in this year’s contributions that will be divided between two organizations, with $2,000 for NEKCA and $700 combined with an upcoming Variety Day earmarked for the local food shelf. The money came from fundraisers and collections in advisory groups. Chef Hale’s senior advisory group hiked Mt. Pisgah on a 40-degree Sunday morning as part of their Hike for Hope Pledge Drive, which would eventually raise nearly $500.
In a recent Chapel Talk announcing the results, Ms. Hanson mentioned another advisory group that pooled their change daily until their final amount totaled $80 in coins and some paper money stuffed precariously into a bulging manila envelope.
In addition to the food items and cash, the school also created eighteen Birthday-in-a-Bag kits that will go to area youngsters to ensure they have everything they need to celebrate their birthdays, including cake mixes, candles, special napkins, and plates.
For Ms. Hanson, the success of the revised program is evident in the level of participation. “I am proud that so many people contributed, in whatever way they could. This event was truly about community – our community and the larger community our school is a part of. This new iteration of a long-standing SJA event was the work of many hands and many hearts,” she said.
Headmaster Howell added, “I am eminently grateful to Binaca Hanson and so many others who went above, beyond, and all the way past any expectation and helped students to understand both how to contribute and the value of their contributions. Students certainly received as much from these efforts as they gave—and I know many feel a sense of accomplishment that will remain with them and inform their futures.”