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For The Kids: Volunteers In Granite City Deliver Free Sack Lunches -- And Smiles

It takes just a moment to hand a child a sack lunch, but it is THE moment -- the one that matters – for the volunteers with Twigs, a program that feeds children from financially struggling families in the summertime in Granite City.

You’ll find the volunteers in their bright yellow shirts at 11 designated spots -- street corners, parks and churches -- from 11:30 to 12:30, Monday through Friday, rain or shine, starting the day after school lets out for summer vacation and until it opens again.

Twigs is just one of many St. Louis area nonprofits that step in to fill the void when schools are closed for vacation and federally subsidized lunch programs aren't operating.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Older children often help their younger siblings carry their lunches home.

Of the nearly 6,300 students who attend Granite City schools, just under 70 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunches in 2014, according to statistics from the Illinois State Board of Education. At two of the city's elementary schools, that statistic was 100 percent.

Twigs volunteers learned early on that for their program to be successful they needed to be within walking distance so kids can get to them, says the Rev. Lisa Guilliams, who founded Twigs.

Every child who shows up gets a lunch, no questions asked. It's a friendly exchange, and volunteers get to know faces but rarely names:

"Hi, how are you? Here you go. See you tomorrow."

"The kids always say thanks, the parents always say thanks. It’s rewarding," says volunteer Kay Kuehne.

Offshoots of the Twigs program now operate in nine other metro-east communities, including Madison, Pontoon Beach, Hartford, Edwardsville and Wood River.

Last summer, volunteers handed out 57,000 sack lunches over the course of the summer. That would feed everyone at a packed Bush Stadium, plus another 10,000 people.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
A typical day's lunch.

Nothing Fancy

Twigs doesn't have a kitchen, so the sack lunches are assembled from prepackaged foods: individual servings of lunch meat and crackers, a drink, a fruit cup or fresh fruit and perhaps a granola bar or cookies.

Each lunch costs about $1.25, says Guilliams.  Armour-Eckrich sells and delivers the snack trays directly to the program at a discounted rate of about 83 cents each; the Kraft Foods plant in Granite City, which makes Capri Sun and Kool-Aid, donates the packaged drinks. Other items are procured from the St. Louis Area Food Bank.

On one sunny Friday in June, Twigs volunteers handed out 787 lunches in Granite City, and another 500 program-wide.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Many of the Twigs volunteers attend Trinity United Methodist Church.

"We Are Hungry"

Guilliams says it takes a village to feed a child, and she gives everyone credit: The city lets Twigs set up outside the fire department on busy Madison Avenue, in parks and on city-owned vacant lots. The Granite City school district has helped to identify neighborhoods of need. Residents and businesses contribute to the cause.

And then there are the volunteers whose time and energy keep the program going. About 125 people help with the fundraising and all of the lugging, packing, sorting and carting required to bring the daily lunches to kids in Granite City. Another 125 are at work in the neighboring communities.

Twigs grew out of a mission to feed the hungry that Guilliams' little Granite City church -- Trinity United Methodist -- took on several years ago.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Volunteer Earl Warren and Lisa Guilliams, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church

Gulliams still gets emotional when she relates how her congregation discovered that hunger had become a critical issue for nearby residents. The church's outreach committee shared a questionnaire with neighbors, asking: What is your greatest need? How might we be a better neighbor?

"They said, 'We are hungry. We need help with food,' '' Guilliams said.

The church began a food pantry and bought a nearby foreclosed house to use as a small warehouse for their growing mission.

Then Guilliams noticed a sign outside an elementary school advertising free lunches for kids until the end of June and began to wonder about what happens after school ends. The idea for Twigs was born.

The first summer in 2011, volunteers distributed about 2,500 lunches at four locations, funded solely by congregation, friends and family members. Guilliams said they realized that they hadn’t scratched the surface of need.

In 2012, they formed The Family Tree House, an independent nonprofit, which operates Twigs and also a program for seniors. During the school year, Twigs volunteers run a Pack A Sack program, providing food for kids to take home on Fridays, so they’ll have something to eat on weekends. They also host food fairs with the Food Bank.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Refrigerator art: A note from a happy customer is displayed on a refrigerator in the outreach center.

Most people are shocked when they discover that some of their neighbors need food, Guilliams said.

Although the unemployment rate in Granite City is down to about 7 percent  -- from nearly 15 percent in June 2009 -- Guilliams says that many residents are still struggling in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Families assisted by Twigs frequently have members of the household who are employed but working low-wage jobs. 

Nearly 19 percent of residents are below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“They have one foot in the door and one foot out of the door – and one bad day, one incident in their lives, and both feet are out the door, and they are minus a home to live in,’’ she says.

Guilliams, who worked as a corporate accountant for nearly 20 years before entering the ministry, was assigned to Trinity in 2003. The church, which was founded in 1928, is located in an older neighborhood, just blocks from U.S. Steel. Guilliams said she used to think the congregation should relocate.

“Now I know we’re where we need to be,’’ she said.

All In A Day's Work

Fridays are the most labor-intensive for the volunteers because that’s when the truck delivers the boxes of individual packs of meat and crackers.

The group just got a new walk-in cooler, paid for by a grant, that will ease the process. But until it is ready to use, the volunteers have been unloading the boxes from the truck and hauling them -- a few at a time -- into the outreach center where they are unpacked and the trays crammed into refrigerators.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Larry Miller helps unload a food delivery for Twigs.

Larry Miller,who serves on the board of Twigs, has been volunteering with the program since it began. He says a simple sack lunch can mean so much to children in need.

“One child came up here, and he was holding his sister’s hand, and she was telling me how appreciative she was because this was about the only thing they eat the whole day because there’s no food in the house. It breaks your heart,” Miller said.

Miller, who worked at Granite City Steel -- now U.S. Steel -- for nearly 40 years, is a longtime member of Trinity United. He was among the church members who conducted the outreach survey. He expected people to say they needed help paying utility bills or buying gas.

“They said, ‘We’re hungry.' It just blew my mind. I never anticipated that,’’ Miller said.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Kiki Perry and her husband distribute lunches at the fire department.

Kuehne, who helps with the financial records, says  money is always a worry because Twigs relies heavily on donations.

"You look at the figures, and you say, ‘Is this going to  cover the lunches? But somehow God always provides,’’ she said.

The volunteers have the lunch distribution down to a science. They start arriving at the outreach center to pack their coolers before 11 a.m. so they can be at their sites by 11:30. Often, kids are already waiting.

They keep a daily tally, and always pack more than they gave out the day before. Their biggest worry is that they won’t have enough lunches on a given day.

One of the busiest sites is the fire department on Madison Avenue in downtown Granite City, where Kiki and Steve Perry handed out 137 lunches on a recent day. The children lined up politely, and the Perrys greeted each one of them cheerfully.

“What are you doing today?” Kiki Perry would ask.

Older children often hold the hands of younger brothers and sisters. Sometimes, parents drive their children and watch from the car.

Corry Mains, who drove his children to the fire house, said the program is a big help for families on a tight budget. He is currently unemployed, but his wife is working.

Mains says the Twigs volunteers do a wonderful job.

“You can see they care about the children. They talk to them. They don’t make them feel like they’re getting a handout. It’s really nice to see someone in the community who doesn’t expect something, except for you to come by and get a free lunch,’’ he said.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Children walk or ride bikes to the distribution sites. Older children or caregivers accompany small tots.

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