by Ari Robin McKenna (photos by Pharaoh Prim)
On Fridays, the front foyer of South Shore PK–8 is bustling to the sound of the “Uncle Bob playlist.” Old school rhythm and blues, soul, and the occasional pop song keep people moving, keep their team flowing, and keep the brown paper bags filling up with food. It’s full of the songs “that no one doesn’t like,” says John Santos, a Youth Services Assistant, impromptu DJ, and the son of “Uncle” Bob Santos, one of a longtime group of Seattle activists affectionately known as the “Gang of Four.” Though his family is a part of Seattle history, Santos feels lucky to be involved with this current effort. “When we do this every Friday, it’s a very humbling experience to know that we’re helping families, feeding families.”
Seattle Public Schools has a robust student meals by bus program that has been dropping off breakfast and lunch at 43 locations around Seattle during the pandemic. Yet even before COVID-19, when students were still in the school buildings receiving meals, the staff of South Shore PK–8 sussed out further unmet needs. Through surveys and the trusting relationships teachers and staff built, they were able to determine that over three dozen families in the school were struggling to put food on the table. With the help of Backpack Brigade, they had been providing these families with weekend take-home bags of food to help sustain them.
Then, when the pandemic hit, that need almost tripled, with about a sixth of South Shore’s families requesting food bags to tide them over on the weekends — and over longer school breaks. In part because South Shore PK–8 is a choice school, and in part because some of their families have lost housing and needed to move in with relatives, 56 of these bags are home-delivered by 10 volunteers (some from the school’s PTSA) — with some delivery routes stretching as far as Kent or Federal Way. Nazret “Naz” Asfaw, South Shore PK–8’s Home and School Coordinator spearheading the ramped-up effort to feed families, has by all accounts been up to the task.
Two Civic Engagement Leaders from the service organization City Year, Stefani Pacheco and Mackenzie Hallett, say that although they work to regularly support ten different area schools, what’s happening at South Shore is particularly impressive. Pacheco says, “I think it’s really amazing. I think Miss Naz is really inspiring because she cares a lot, and she puts care into each and every bag. She makes sure that they’re full and that there’s a lot of variety, a lot of fresh veggies … It’s incredible to see that amount of detail.” Hallet speaks of how appreciative the families who come to pick up the bags have been, and adds, “It’s pretty cool to be a part of that … Just knowing they’re going to have some food for the week. Knowing that times are hard right now. It definitely feels good.”
Out of breath from her effort and quick to deflect any credit, Naz prefers to thank the partners she’s built relationships with and her teammates. Nearby Emerson Elementary School, which has a similar program, got Naz in touch with people from the Rainier Valley Food Bank. In addition, the Medhane-Alem Evangelical Ethiopian Church, which her mother attends, has also provided food to complement what she gets from Backpack Brigade. The 85–100 weekly bags are customized by Naz and her team of South Shore staff and volunteers for cultural dietary needs and are tweaked to reflect the size of families and their living situation. The bags include protein and fresh vegetables, as well as non-perishable snacks and quick meals. Naz says of her role, “I just have a passionate heart for people, and so whatever role I’m taking on I want to make sure that’s what the focus is.” Janet Echolm, arriving early to pick up food bags for her ten grandchildren, notes, “This is really a big help since they’re not in school to be able to get the food, and they get their homework and the teachers are really supportive of them. So this is a really excellent program that they’re doing for the kids.”
Besides food bags, South Shore has distributed about 200 district-provided Wi-Fi hotspots for families. There is also a bi-weekly book giveaway organized by the school’s librarian, Kristian Englert, and a free clothing cart where families can take what they need. South Shore also provides help navigating paperwork in multiple languages, and they’ve supported families in other ways — such as helping with a phone bill, rent, or getting them desks to help them set up their remote learning stations. Admin Elementary Secretary Dena Palmer says, “I think it’s everybody. Our PTSA giving some of their tiny little budget to help our families that are in need. It’s our teachers doing whatever it takes, whether it’s driving to kids’ houses or … doing it all.”
Justin Hendrickson, South Shore’s principal, acknowledging the district’s efforts, says, “I guess what we’re hoping to do is to help fill in some of those bigger gaps. Not just a meal, but more like a pantry or multiple meals.” He describes the remote learning technology similarly. South Shore opened up a tech support desk at the start of the school year that helped hundreds of students get over some of the technological hurdles of remote learning, and even though there is a Seattle Public Schools site for tech support at Aki Kurose two miles away, families often drop their malfunctioning laptops off with Naz, who shuttles them to Aki Kurose for repair and then back to the families’ homes.
Naz was previously the Site Coordinator for the nonprofit Communities In Schools, but as part of South Shore’s ongoing effort to prioritize the development of community talent, she was hired to be South Shore’s Home and School Coordinator, a district position, when her skill set became apparent. Jazmin Chavez, a key contributor to Naz’s food bag team and the person who has had to try and fill her oversized shoes as the new Site Coordinator for Communities In Schools, described the difficulties of her position providing support during remote learning: “This isn’t working for everybody. It’s working for some kids but it’s not working for everybody … It’s really hard.”
Yet when asked about a return to in-person learning, Jazmin replied with the same common sense philosophy that seems pervasive at South Shore and has led to such admirable efforts to sustain their community and keep them safe and learning even during these toughest of times. With the “Uncle Bob playlist” continuing to sound in the background and her teammate Naz putting the final touches on bags that will feed almost a hundred families this weekend, Jazmin says, “I don’t want things to get worse. I don’t want people to get sick coming in. I don’t want people dying because we opened schools. That’s why I’m not in a hurry, but I would like for things to get better.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article referred to the organization Communities In Schools as “Communities and Schools.” We apologize for the mistake.
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA, before settling in Dunlap (just north of Rainier Beach). He writes about education for the South Seattle Emerald. You can contact him through his website.
Pharaoh Prim is an artist who is dedicated to showing the side of Seattle not broadcasted. He is a photographer, a painter and a musician looking to show the world what South Seattle can accomplish.
Featured Image: Photo by Pharaoh Prim — Top row: Stefani Pacheco & Mackenzie Hallett, City Year Civic Engagement Leaders; Meseret Shiferaw, community volunteer; Dena Palmer, Admin Elementary Secretary; Deb Wilson, Instructional Assistant for Early Childhood intervention. Bottom row: Jazmin Chavez, Site Coordinator for Communities and Schools; Nazret Asfaw, Home and School Coordinator; John Santos, Youth Services Assistant; Justin Hendrickson, Principal.
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