Meet Grand Rapids’ future leaders who serve food to neighbors in need at Innovation Central High School

Innovation Central High School’s Mobile Food Pantries aren’t run by a team of teachers, parents or by any adults at all. Instead, each month, the school’s JROTC (Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) cadets serve neighbors facing hunger all on their own.

Crystal in front of the high school

Leading the charge is JROTC battalion commander and high school senior, Crystal.

Two years ago, she was a sophomore planning to play in the orchestra. When the school couldn’t find an orchestra teacher, Crystal decided to switch course, choosing JROTC in the hope that it would push her outside her comfort zone.

Once described by Sergeant Daniel as “quiet as a church mouse,” Crystal now confidently rallies her team, ensuring the distribution runs smoothly, and shouts announcements to the neighbors in line – in both English and Spanish.

The school’s Mobile Food Pantries, sponsored by Amway, create a “farmers market” experience for neighbors facing hunger, providing fresh produce and other food that families often struggle to afford for various reasons.

Aaron and Lidia

Aaron and his mother Lidia attended September’s distribution, along with his aunt, cousin and two young nephews. The family doesn’t often attend Mobile Food Pantries, but once in a while they need an extra boost, and appreciate being able to receive the food they need to make ends meet.

Aaron is in JROTC at another Grand Rapids high school, and wore his Army JROTC uniform to the distribution, as he’d come directly from school. He plans to serve in the Army after he graduates next year.

Being part of JROTC and volunteering at the Mobile Pantries teaches students responsibility, according to Crystal.

“We’re able to show we can help our community, instead of just staring at the TV or our phone screens,” Crystal said. “It’s pretty cool.”

Stephanie (right)

Stephanie, a junior who helps neighbors sign in when they arrive, concurred:

“You really try to be a leader to everybody else,” she said.

Serving at the Mobile Pantries has been an eye-opening experience for Stephanie.

“If your life is good, you don’t think that people are struggling and in need of help until you do something about it,” she said. “At first, I didn’t think so many people came to stuff like this, and then I came to the first day and it was a line curving around the lockers.”

“It makes me feel good – they’re getting the help they need,” she said.

Being in charge of such an impactful event teaches the battalion staff more than responsibility, according to Sergeant Daniel.

“It teaches them how to empathize and care for others, it’s not just about themselves, that it’s good to help the community because it’s bigger than themselves,” he said. “If they can volunteer for these guys, we’re hoping they’ll volunteer somewhere in the future.”

JROTC Sergeants Pat and Daniel are on site during the Mobile Pantries, but mostly, they’re just along for the ride.

JROTC isn’t a program that aims to turn students into soldiers, and it doesn’t push them to join the Army. Instead, the program aims “to motivate young people to be better citizens.” Volunteerism plays a large part in achieving this mission.

Whether they choose to serve on the front lines of hunger relief, or participate in other causes, young leaders like Crystal and the rest of the JROTC volunteers at Innovation Central High School will soon be the ones leading our community. We know that with these students’ help – and with the generous support of organizations like Amway – Feeding America West Michigan is one step closer to ending hunger in Kent County.