Shay Kovacs first realized hunger existed in her community in grade school, when she was shocked to see a classmate’s lunchbox filled with only water, white bread and an apple. She grew up in a rural community where this student’s lunch was not unusual and considers herself one of the lucky ones.
“Despite having a single-parent household, my mom was always able to provide enough for us,” she said. “Because of how hard she worked to provide for us, she made sure we knew how difficult it was for others around us.”
Shay’s early observations in the lunchroom, and her upbringing that emphasized empathy, fueled her passion for helping those in need. Six years ago, she applied for a position at the food bank and now holds the programs manager role.
“The thing I love most about my current position is two-fold,” she said. “I love watching my team come up with new and innovative ways to solve the complex problems our clients face each day and I love having the authority to help push for initiatives I believe in.”
Shay manages the food bank’s flagship Mobile Food Pantry program, and over the last few years has worked hard on a new initiative — a summer lunch program for kids. Last year, the program, dubbed Library Lunches to Go, ran at 16 Kent District Library branches. Shay hopes the program will continue to grow and is also excited to oversee a new program the food bank is piloting, which serves seniors.
Although Shay wasn’t food insecure growing up, at 26, she got divorced and suddenly became a single parent with less than half the income she once had.
“At the time, I was working at the food bank,” she recalled. “I was deeply ashamed that despite the work I did daily to care for others, I was having trouble caring for myself and my young child. Luckily, because of my work, I knew where I could get the help we needed. I used several food pantries for six to eight months to help make ends meet.”
To outsiders, it wasn’t clear that Shay was in need, but behind closed doors she struggled to fill her plate. This hidden hunger is common. Your next-door neighbor could be food insecure and you may not know it.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” Shay said. “On paper, I didn’t look like I needed help. I have a college degree, a full-time job with benefits, a car I owned and a place to live. But the reality is I had to make choices about gas in my car or food to eat.”
She considers herself lucky once again that she had a light at the end of the tunnel — there was eventually a road out for her.
“For so many of the families who rely on us, they can’t see the end. It’s important for us to be there for them during these times of stress to help ease the burden they feel,” she said.
That’s exactly what she does every day — helps our neighbors in need carry a lighter load by removing at least one stressor on their lives: wondering how they’ll feed their families.
To someone walking this path right now, she’d say:
“You didn’t do anything wrong to end up here so there is no reason to be ashamed. Everyone has struggles and you’re not alone.”