Nobody can accuse Park Forest Middle School student Jordan Reed of being unprepared.
The incoming seventh grader had prepared a set of meticulously typed notes for an interview she had last week with representatives from Peace First, an organization that recognizes five young adults between the ages of 8 and 22 each year for their efforts to foster collaborative change within their communities.
Jordan came to the their attention as the founder of Penguin Packs, a volunteer program operating out of Faith United Church of Christ that is attempting to combat child hunger by providing weekend meals to students at Park Forest Elementary and the NHS School State College.
“There was a need in the community, but it was more of a hidden need because nobody really knows there’s hunger in State College,” Jordan said.
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Now, Jordan is one of a handful of candidates from across the nation nominated to receive the 2015 Peace First Prize — and the $25,000 donation that comes along for the ride.
As part of her interview last week, Jordan had to outline a plan for how she would put the money to use within the program, goals that included expanding the reach of Penguin Packs and teaching others how they can develop similar operations throughout Pennsylvania.
“This program currently only helps kids, but if this program raises awareness for people they might try and help adults and other people within the community,” Jordan said.
It’s a big idea, one that started with a small homework assignment.
As a fifth grader at Park Forest Elementary School, Jordan and her classmates were asked to create magazines focusing on a current issue. Ever the diligent student, Jordan was surprised when her research into youth hunger turned up just how many children weren’t getting their three square meals a day.
Instead of simply turning in the assignment and moving on to a diorama of the solar system or a mobile of some kind, Jordan remained fixated on the problem at hand and began to wonder if there was something she could do to effect change.
“I wanted to help the issue,” Jordan said.
She remembered a program at her former school in Maryland that provided meals to students in need and saw no reason why a similar effort could not be undertaken at Park Forest.
Jordan broached the subject with her fifth grade teacher Jennifer Cody and Park Forest Elementary Principal Donna Stoicovy, who was impressed with Jordan’s initiative.
“A lot of times adults drive things but this time a student did,” Stoicovy said.
It was Stoicovy who nominated Jordan for the Peace First Prize. She said she hasn’t wavered in her conviction that her former student has what it takes to win.
“She comes across as kind of a shy and unassuming child, but you can just see that drive and spark in her,” Stoicovy said.
During a brainstorming session between Jordan, Cody and Stoicovy, the trio identified three major obstacles they would have to overcome if they wanted to provide students in need with weekend meals — and all of them had to do with food.
Procuring the raw materials for a nutritious meal would be the easy part, but finding the volunteers, delivery mechanism and storage space necessary to make the program a reality would take some planning.
Fortunately, serendipity stepped into the picture.
Pastor Monica Dawkins-Smith had spent nine months in meetings trying to determine an unmet need within the community that Faith United Church of Christ in State College could help address. So far, nothing had struck the right cord, but when Jordan’s mother mentioned the idea for Penguin Packs, something sparked.
“Working with children and education seemed fitting,” Dawkins-Smith said.
Much of her congregation is made up of educators and Dawkins-Smith said that they responded enthusiastically to the opportunity to lend a helping hand.
“Many of them, as retired teaches, have seen hunger in the students that they taught,” Dawkins-Smith said.
Once the church was on board, it was able to purchase non-perishable items from the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank at a reduced price. Volunteers meet every Wednesday during the school year to assemble each Penguin Pack for delivery and distribution to the schools. Students from the NHS School State College also lent a helping hand during packing sessions.
There will be even more work to be done if Jordan receives the $25,000 prize in the fall.
For starters, there’s been talk about creating similar packs of hygiene items like toothpaste and even tissues and hand sanitizer come cold and flu season.
Back on the food front, Jordan and the other volunteers would like to expand the meal choices available to kids who choose to take advantage of the program. The prize money could help facilitate the purchase of Google Chromebooks, which would be placed in select locations so that kids can build their own lunch menus.
All involved would also like to see the program expand beyond Park Forest by providing start up funds to other churches and organizations in Pennsylvania looking to replicate the Penguin Packs program.
Regardless of whether or not she wins the Peace First Prize, Jordan is happy with what she has been able to accomplish.
“It feels really good that the idea is helping so many people,” Jordan said.