July 10, 2019
Food For Kids
DEFINITION: Having a very great effect
Shelia and Kenzie Gilbert get up at 3 a.m. now and then just to slice watermelon, so that 150 pieces are cold when the kids get there for lunch. After all, Shelia “loves a party,” she says. Just a few hours later, they’ll be spreading peanut butter on bread or counting out juice boxes, then loading 150 bag lunches in her van for another lunch day.
By 10 a.m., she’s dancing, singing and likely running through the obstacle course with the kids who come to her homemade wooden shelter area at 19th and Messanie for Food for Kids. This is Shelia and her husband Kenzie’s calling all five weekdays in the summer. They’ve been feeding kids lunch from the day after school is out until the day before school starts, for more than a decade.
For the kids who walk or ride a bike into the Food for Kids area, this is so much more than Shelia’s “party.” This is a consistently welcoming, laid-back and positive place where they can come in as early as 8 a.m. and just have a seat on a picnic table. They know they are “Ms. Shelia’s kids,” and that she and Kenzie are happy to see them whether the kids feel like talking or not. They know they can pick up a football or basketball for a street game, once they block off the area, and that they should probably help unload Ms. Shelia’s van of bottled water and supplies – because she will shout from her storage shed, “Come on now everybody, Ms. Shelia needs you to get this stuff out of the van so we can get going on our party today.”
Some of the kids who come to Food for Kids want to get into a football or a basketball game right away with volunteers like Bobby Hoaglin, who has a day job for the federal government in Leavenworth, Kan., but comes every Monday morning all summer “just to play and be with the kids,” he says. “I heard Shelia talk at my church and we donated some items, and then I just had it on my heart to do something else. I love to just come here and interact with the kids in a game or a conversation.”
Others look for the quiet place, which is a homemade tire swing in the shade. It’s always in view of Ms. Shelia and her helpers – yet spaced just far enough away to be a good place to think. Some look forward to just visiting and socializing, and others want to get going on some of Ms. Shelia’s hand-clapping, hand-waiving songs she teaches them.
All 150 of the kids who come to Food for Kids know for sure that each day they’ll be loved and appreciated – and all in the setting of receiving a nutritious lunch at no cost, and lots of Ms. Shelia’s smiles and energy. “We just meet the needs of the kids, right here where they are. Then after that, we tell them God loves them and that they are special,” says Shelia. “It’s simple.”
It’s simple, but incredibly powerful. The program started in 2008 on a summer day when Shelia and Kenzie were eating lunch together in the cab of their pickup in the Midtown area. A group of local children came up and asked for food. The couple shared their lunch, and then they watched as the kids shared it among themselves.
“The experience just kind of touched us,” says Shelia. “We thought maybe we should do something about it.”
Today, more than a decade of service later, the program continues to grow. Most of the kids who live in this St. Joseph neighborhood receive free or reduced priced breakfast and lunch during the school year, but have limited food resources in the summer. Food for Kids makes sure the children have lunch, at a location they can easily walk to, but also helps with school supplies, clothes, toiletries and sometimes shoes. They have organized activities for kids, like water games, throughout the summer.
With support from community organizations and churches, job skills and other life skills are being added to the hours Shelia has “her kids” each day. There are conversations about being true to your word, etiquette, manners, and life skills like how to greet adults. She adds a health and fitness element too, having built a homemade obstacle course and laughing loudly as she mists each child with a spray water bottle when they complete it. On “Fix It Fridays,” says Shelia, the kids can bring anything at their home that needs fixing and Kenzie will help them do it.
“Kenzie says every child needs to know how to use the four basic tools – a hammer, a screwdriver, a nail and a wrench. They bring skateboards, bird houses, bicycles, you name it. We work on things together. And somehow, we communicate the message that you can fix some of the broken things in your life, too.”
Every step of the Food for Kids process is connected to community. Meals are prepared at a local commercial kitchen, typically with volunteer help. Food donations and donations of bottled water or other supplies come from several sources, a steady stream that Shelia says she trusts God fully to deliver each week. Other volunteers, like Emma Woody, a Central High School student, are there just to spend time with the kids and encourage them.
“I come every day, just to hand out the lunches and talk,” says Emma. “I like being with the kids of all different ages, and there are more here than I expected. It’s an awesome experience.”
On a typical day at Food for Kids, things start to get loud by about 9:30 a.m. There’s Christian rap music playing during the street basketball game. Shelia is bustling about, greeting kids and volunteers, moving between dancing, calling out orders to “help Ms. Shelia” and shouting from inside the van, “Who needs some rice to take home? Come and get it.” She leads the kids to help unload individual donations of bottled water, fresh produce or juice from community members who just come unannounced. Every day, there’s a feeling that today is special somehow, even if it’s a basic Tuesday, and each person there is important.
“It’s our privilege to meet the needs of under-served children and their families in the Midtown area, and these kids have a desire to do all the same things other children want to do,” says Shelia. “These kids trust us. We know their names and their stories. Some have been coming here every summer since before they started school. They’ve grown up with us here. And this motivates us.”
The effort hasn’t gone unnoticed. Shelia and Kenzie have been recognized by local awards like “20 Who Count” and are inductees in the St. Joseph Black Archives Hall of Fame. They have received the Mother Teresa Community Service Award, and in 2019, Shelia was honored with a YWCA Woman of Excellence award.
But these accolades are never the focus. Shelia says every day the motto is simple: Educate, entertain and inspire. Repeat. “We meet their basic needs with food, and then we can share with them the word of God while we are entertaining and inspiring in a safe, positive place,” says Shelia. “Many of these kids face very tough situations at home, and they might spend a summer without any positive interaction. We are here for them as a community. And we learn more about these kids every summer.”
She knows them so well, some lunch orders are special orders. “They tell me ‘Ms. Shelia, no jelly on my sandwich tomorrow please.’ Or, ‘no cheese Ms. Shelia,’ and I do it. Because for some of these kids, no one has ever accommodated them for any requests in a positive way. And I believe these little things mean they’ll view themselves in a more positive way later on.”
“We could not do what we do without the community organizations, volunteers, neighbors and churches who are helping, too. People ask me what they can do. I say, just use the abilities and gifts you’ve been given. Just share those with the kids. And that’s more than enough,” says Shelia.
And then she breaks into song, just for a minute, after saying hello to a few more of her kids.
After all, as Shelia says, “Today, we’re gonna have a party. Because why not? We are enjoying every minute of it. All of it.”
Donations for the Food For Kids Program are needed and accepted:
PO BOX 151 St. Joseph, MO 64502
As an art professor with nearly 30 years of experience, he is more often the student himself as he observes everyday moments and encourages students to express themselves through these artistic mediums.
More than a decade of service later, the program continues to grow. Most of the kids who live in this St. Joseph neighborhood receive free or reduced priced breakfast and lunch during the school year, but have limited food resources in the summer.
Soon guests and residents could enjoy even more, both inside and outside, as a 1/2 cent sales tax increase hits the ballot, with revenues dedicated to renovation and enhancements of the city’s parks system. If approved, the tax increase would generate an additional $5 to 6 million dollars per year and could be shared across dozens of projects.
St. Joseph is a city of stories. Like historic towns across the country, there are blocks of amazing homes, business buildings and neighborhoods. Founded in 1843, St. Joseph’s location along the Missouri River and national mid-point created an economic and residential boom fueled by Westward expansion, transportation and communication industries.
Most people who visit the Black Archives Museum of St. Joseph say almost the same thing. It’s “wow,” and usually this is followed by a lot of thoughtful silence.