Agency Spotlight: JKL Bahweting School

As the school social worker at Joseph K. Lumsden Bahweting Anishnabe School (JKL), Kristen Corbiere sees first-hand the struggles her students face each day, including hunger. But she didn’t realize just how widespread the issue is until the school hosted its first Mobile Food Pantry two years ago.

Kristen recalled a story from that first food distribution: A little girl was picking up a cake with help from a volunteer. It was a Friday, but the girl told the volunteer, “My birthday is on Tuesday and I never had a cake before, so I’m going to save it.”

“Stories like that make you want to do it,” Kristen said. One in five children in Chippewa County face hunger, so each time a Mobile Food Pantry arrives in Sault Ste. Marie with fresh produce, protein and shelf-stable options, it’s no surprise that many from the community line up to receive the support.

Funded in part by the Red Nose Day Fund, each Mobile Pantry typically serves around 250 families. The school is located on the trust land of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, and although tribal elders and JKL students make up a portion of attendees, Kristen said a wide variety of individuals come to the food distributions:

“Individuals come who identify as homeless or working professionals, multi-gen families, children, people who travel from the Lower Peninsula or [someone who drove] an hour north because her family was in such a need.” Kristen noted people have also traveled over on the ferry from Mackinac Island during a particularly trying time.

Sault Ste. Marie residents Bridget and Rodger, a veteran, have both attended the Mobile Food Pantries since the school first began hosting distributions. They rely solely on disability income which makes it difficult to make ends meet; being able to attend Mobile Pantries helps them bridge the gap.

“It is a life-changer,” Bridget said. “Between our bills and stuff, especially in winter time, we only get $15 in food stamps a month.”

Just as important as those who come to the distributions is how it brings the community together. Kristen recalled an especially hot day during the summer of 2018 when the truck broke down a couple of hours away from the distribution site, leaving neighbors – many who had come hours early to line up – waiting even longer to receive food. Kristen feared people would be angry, but instead, they reacted with eagerness to help.

“It was amazing to have all these individuals here to get food ask, ‘How can we help?’, ‘What can we do?’”

Kristen is continually inspired by her community’s willingness to chip in. She described the diverse team of people who volunteer no matter the weather – including school staff, students, members of the tribal court and parolees. When other Mobile Pantries closed during the past winter’s intense snowstorms, Kristen was proud that her distributions were not affected and experienced a big turnout as a result.

“We had volunteers going outside in negative weather carrying food in a snowstorm to cars because it’s needed,” she said. “The outpouring of volunteers that we get is just unreal. It would not be possible to do this without that.”

These volunteers include Kristen’s mother, Reenie, who volunteers at every single distribution. She works for the Chippewa Luce Mackinac Community Action Agency and ensures leftover food from the distributions end up filling the agency’s pantry and feeding neighbors throughout the month. Kristen’s daughter, Kamryn, a fifth-grader at JKL, is another eager volunteer. Kamryn is raising money to
sponsor a Mobile Food Pantry all on her own.

In the future, Kristen wants to expand the program’s reach and hopes to have the ability to host a Mobile Pantry every month. During their first year, the school hosted three distributions. In 2018, they increased that number to eight, thanks to the support of community organizations and sponsors like the Red Nose Day Fund. The school is also working to create a fixed pantry, which would offer food to those in need on a more regular basis.

Serving food insecure neighbors hasn’t just opened Kristen’s eyes to hunger’s impact; volunteers from mBank, a local business which helps sponsor distributions, have been struck by those they serve as well. Volunteer David shared:

“To know you’re making a difference in a family’s life when they may not know where their next meal will come from,” David said, “has a great personal impact not only on me but our team as well.”

Seeing the need in small ways – such as a senior’s tears after being given two bags of oranges, when they were $8 too expensive at the store – is what encourages Kristen to advocate for a fixed pantry and for Mobile Food Pantry funding. Feeding America West Michigan could not be more grateful for Kristen’s efforts, the efforts of those in her community and the support received from the Red Nose Day Fund to end hunger for good in Chippewa County.

Story written by Juliana Ludema, Communication Assistant