By Kyle Janssen
Idaho Foodbank Nutrition Services Department
Debbie Brooks knows what it’s like to wake up and know there is no food in the house.
A teacher at Hidden Springs Elementary, Brooks remembers a time in her life when she struggled to feed herself and her children.
“There were several nights that I wouldn’t eat because we didn’t have enough food, and I had three girls to feed. I’m six feet, and I got down to 130 pounds. I was just skin and bones.”
Now Brooks uses this personal experience to teach her fourth-grade class about poverty, compassion and service, and to kick off the annual food drive her class holds for The Idaho Foodbank.
“When we first did a school-wide food drive it was just amazing. I asked the principal at that time if I could share my story with the student body because the kids knew me, and they could relate to me.”
“[The kids] were shocked that I had been, not homeless but really close.”
After a divorce, Brooks says she had no real skills and even though she worked part time found herself needing access to emergency-assistance programs.
“I felt horrible. You just feel so stupid at those places. It’s ridiculous how you feel going in,” she says. “But then I found out about The Idaho Foodbank. The reason I love the Foodbank is because when I went, they didn’t belittle me, and I didn’t feel judged. There were kind, helpful, and understanding of my circumstances. They were just so incredibly charitable. I would get my food, and I would go home, and it was like Christmas for me and my girls.”
Brooks found work as a substitute teacher and fell in love with education. She subsequently earned a bachelor’s in elementary education with endorsements in Spanish and bilingual education. In 2007 she earned her master’s degree.
After the first food drive at Hidden Springs in 2005, Brooks says she saw how the school’s food drive could be taken a lot further to help those in need as she once was. The next year she asked the principal if she could hold a longer food drive in her classroom.
“I didn’t want to be involved in the school competition thing. I wanted to start earlier because I wanted to have more of a profound opportunity to make a difference. The school did it for seven days, which is great, but I wanted to do more. I just got that bug.”
This is the sixth year Brooks has held a food drive in her classroom. For 35 days, her students brought in non-perishable food items and stacked cans and boxes on tables in the back of the classroom. On top of the stacks of food was a pumpkin that read, “give thanks.”
The fourth graders collected 3,122 pounds of food that will be used in other Idaho schools through the Foodbank’s School Pantry Program.
Students also brought in clothing items for the school-wide clothing drive to benefit the Salvation Army and the Boise Rescue Mission. And on the last day of the food drive, the students sorted and boxed the food and helped load the boxes onto The Idaho Foodbank truck.
To celebrate the food drive’s success, Brooks rewarded her students with a “read in.” She pushed the desks to the sides of the room, and the children were allowed to wear their pajamas to school, bring pillows, stuffed animals, blankets and snacks.
“It makes me feel joy,” said fourth-grader Claire Westergaurd. “I’m just so grateful because I always have a meal on my plate.”
Andrew Smith brought in the most items in the class – 597. Smith took his wagon around and asked his neighbors for food donations and used $12 of his own money to buy food for the food drive, which his mother matched.
Smith’s older brother had participated in the food drive when he was in Brooks’ class, and Andrew said he looked forward to being in her class so he could do it, too.
Camden Mullens, whose donation amount was topped by only two other students, brought food 32 of the 35 days – a few cans every day. Brooks said Camden proved that a little bit here and there really can add up.
“I’m super proud of these kids. I love what I’m doing, and I just love The Idaho Foodbank. They were just so generous,” Brooks says. “I really do have a heart for this. When you get the bug you can spread it.
“It’s exciting because then you start to see the parents get excited. It’s hard to get excited about anything anymore. Things are rough. But when they see their kids being motivated and excited about something, then they start to care, and it’s made a huge difference.”
Inside the door of Brooks’ classroom a sign reads, “November’s character education trait is compassion: have empathy for others.” Brooks hopes that this lesson will remain with her students.
“It’s like I tell my kids, I just hope that what they learn in fourth grade will stick so they’ll just serve for the rest of their lives. I don’t know if they will, but that’s what I’m trying to do.”