The Family Success Center combats food insecurity in Etowah County

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Family Success Center intern Victoria Smith (left) smiles for a photo with Executive Director Emma Hazlewood Clapp after discussing their recent initiative to battle food insecurity among teenagers in Etowah County high schools.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

The Family Success Center of Etowah County is combating local youth food insecurity in a powerful way.

Through partnerships with Gadsden City High School and organizations like FCCLA, Peer Helpers and Key Club, the Family Success Center establishes a stalwart foundation for students, understanding the issues teenagers battle and striving toward a solution.

The Family Success Center’s initiative arose from a meeting with the Student Leadership Council of Etowah County, a county-wide program – sponsored by The Chamber of Gadsden & Etowah County – which nurtures positive leadership qualities among high school students, who gain both an understanding of and appreciation for their local community. During a nonprofit tour of the Family Success Center, the student leaders joined FSC staff and Executive Director Emma Hazlewood Clapp for a roundtable conversation, where students exchanged ideas and discussed topics relevant to the community.

When asked specifically what issues teenagers face, students began with challenges such as body image and bullying. But the dialogue soon shifted, and the students informed Clapp of a prevalent problem affecting their friends and peers – hunger. When Clapp questioned the leadership group about food insecurity in their own high schools, the group noted that students their age (teenagers) were less likely to ask for help, due to fear of embarrassment and ridicule.

As the students toured FSC’s office, they vocalized how they could tackle food insecurity within their schools. A large emphasis was placed on propriety, with the leadership group stressing the solution must be equally as discreet as effective, to protect their peers’ privacy. When the students discovered FSC’s food pantries, which provide individuals with both quick and easy bites and ingredients to cook meals at home, they stumbled upon their answer.

Within 24 hours of their initial meeting, efforts to form a food pantry shifted into gear. Clapp contacted Gadsden City High School (the largest of local schools with the greatest number of students, chosen by the leadership council as the first to address) to investigate food insecurity within their student population. When the school reiterated the concern, with teachers and Principal Kevin Young sharing they wanted to address the issue for some time but were uncertain how, Clapp went to work straightaway.

FSC intern Victoria Smith joined Clapp, other FSC staff and Gadsden City High School to implement food pantries in various locations throughout the campus, ensuring the pantries never lose that discreet aspect for which students advocated in the beginning. Generous donations from local grocery stores like Cash Saver and community members resulted in two van loads of food FSC delivered to the high school.

GCHS clubs sorted, packaged and placed the food before launching the pantry to their peers. Since its inception a little over a month ago, the food pantry’s launch resulted in a safe space already being used by GCHS students, where teenagers feel welcome to gather what they need in an unobtrusive, non-judgmental environment.

Though GCHS emerges as the catalyst, FSC has no plans of halting its operation there. The center hopes to extend its efforts county-wide, traveling from school to school implementing food pantries as needed. Clapp shared that they anticipate visiting West End High School next.

“We’re excited about it,” said Clapp. “Our ultimate goal is to get in the high schools and for them to keep [the food pantry] going. We want to start it and supplement it throughout the year, but [help and encourage them] to sustain it themselves.”

Clapp shared part of that sustainability stems from community leaders arising to partner with their local schools to ensure the food pantries remain stocked. A meeting with Gadsden City Councilman Kent Back, Alabama Teachers Credit Union and First Baptist Church of Gadsden senior pastor Mat Alexander resulted in First Baptist adopting GCHS to safeguard the food pantry and supplement food year-round. Clapp hopes that each school’s community within the county mirrors the adoption of GCHS, with surrounding businesses and individuals stepping up to aid their students.

“We are a research numbers group of people,” said Clapp. “We started doing a lot of statistics and a lot of research and we found out when we started the project, 1 in 7 children in Alabama were suffering from food insecurity. Less than one month from the time we started this project to right now, the new numbers came out since COVID-19. It’s now 1 in 4 children. That’s a big jump in less than a year.”

Following the effects of layoffs due to widespread challenges like Goodyear’s closure and COVID-19, FSC witnessed an increase in families struggling to provide for themselves and a spike in food insecurity. Clapp noted that statistically speaking, teenagers dealing with food insecurity are more likely to give their food to their younger siblings and parents. While younger children might not realize the gravity of the situation, teenagers understand their parents are working ceaselessly to support their family and make ends meet.

Clapp stated that the family’s situation is not the parents’ fault, who are often doing their utmost best, with teenagers who are trying to help. Students eligible to work put their own money right back into their families. Coupled with the fact that teenagers are less likely to seek help due to fear of embarrassment or shame, 16-year-old and 17-year-old students emerge as one of the most overlooked and underserved populations of youth.

While backpack programs throughout the county assist individual children with meals, Clapp considers the family as a whole. Although one child might receive food for the night, she wondered what would the rest of the family eat?

“We want the food pantry in any high school to be a place where they can stop and grab what they need for themselves, their siblings and parents, whether it be for one night or an entire weekend,” said Clapp. “If that means grabbing a meal they can cook at home, that’s what we want. We want them to be able to do it quietly and discreetly without anyone knowing they’re doing it.”

Gadsden City High School’s food pantries will serve as a model for other schools. GCHS currently has four different locations around campus, from pantries to outdoor cabinets providing both grab-and-go and weekend meal options. The pantries remain open before and after school hours, until 5 p.m.

“It’s about giving our kids a brighter future,” said Clapp. “I think we know that kids who are dealing with food insecurity often times go to bed hungry and they’re not going to rest well. It’s going to affect their health. Overall, if they do bad in school because they’re not sleeping well, they’re hungry or their health is poor, they’re going to start losing opportunities the more they go along. I think giving them that chance to be able to have a full belly, get some sleep and do better in school gives them a better chance for the future, but also gives them a chance to realize that no matter how bad life is, there’s always somebody out there who cares enough to make sure they are fed.”

The food insecurity initiative and implementation of food pantries in high schools throughout Etowah County represents only one facet of the Family Success Center, which continuously strives to better its community. As a one-stop resource center, the nonprofit organization began 19 years ago when community and agency leaders recognized the need for a collective social and family services center. With a coalition of services FCS provides Etowah County (and neighboring) residents, its mission is rooted in strengthening families until they are “financially stable, emotionally healthy and nonviolent, allowing families to make positive changes in their lives.”

“We are not the quick-fix Band-Aid,” said Clapp. “We are the long-term solution. This is where you’re going to come to get long-term help and long-term support. Hopefully, through doing that, we can strengthen families and ultimately give children a better outlook and a better life.”

The center provides a plethora of programs for families. Financial stability coaching and personalized financial counseling teaches individuals how to create budgets and improve credit scores to better assure self-sufficiency, while the Safe and Successful Child Abuse Prevention Program and PEACE Program serves students from kindergarten through 10th grade, reaching an average of 134,000 residents each year in community outreach and education.

The center assists victims of domestic and sexual violence in escaping abusive situations and provides free mental health counseling, integrating care and treatment to achieve recovery and mental wellness. The H.O.M.E. program, Alabama Health Marriage & Relationship Education Initiative and Joel Helms Lions Club Eye Clinic join the vast range of services the center offers residents.

Clapp began her career at FCS following an internship for the University of North Alabama, where she pursued becoming a certified family life educator. As a community educator who specializes in 10 different areas of study, Clapp connected with FCS’s first Executive Director Marie Johnson and began working at the center as the financial stability coach. She worked various programs, from the H.O.M.E. program to healthy marriage and relationship classes, until Johnson retired and a new director stepped into her shoes. When the previous director felt her calling of service was elsewhere, Clapp took over the rewarding role.

Since 2013, Clapp has diligently served her community through the center, gaining insight into the county’s needs and learning a magnitude of wisdom she treasures today.

“I think what I’ve learned the most is that people need help and they’re afraid to ask for it,” said Clapp. “We need to learn how to talk to families to better their situation without shaming them. I feel like more families would ask for help if they realized there was no shame in asking for help. Families who you would never suspect need assistance – ones you would think had it all together – need assistance. Just because it looks like you’ve got it all together on the outside, does not mean that you can’t receive benefits and help from your community to make it better. If we could just let them know that we’re here and you don’t have to be embarrassed, that what happens in our building stays in our building and our ultimate goal is to help you be successful, I think more people would ask for help.”

Through FCS, Clapp and her coworkers strive to transform misperceptions and shatter the stigma surrounding assistance. Rather than wonder if an individual deserves the help they seek or assume that person is taking advantage of the system, Clapp encourages others to choose empathy and show compassion to those less fortunate than themselves.

Clapp herself understands how it feels to struggle, having walked in the very shoes her clients at FCS find themselves wearing. At one time, she was a single mother working fulltime, overcoming the daily challenges that arose as she endeavored to provide for her family. While she admits she could have benefitted from the services FCS provides, she experienced that anxiety associated with reaching out. She never told her family of her struggles, confessing her fear of judgement inhibited her from seeking outside help.

Clapp’s position with FCS is one way she works to break that cycle.

“People don’t go into social services because they think it’s going to be fun or you’re going to make money – you do it because you know what it’s like,” said Clapp. “Everybody who works in our building has a similar story. You’ve been there and you want to make it better for someone else. The whole purpose of us is to make it better for someone else when we couldn’t make it better for ourselves.”

Through immense research and strict standards, FCS ensures it meets protocols for all its programs, investigating the community’s needs to determine legitimately and the best methods of action. For residents who are searching for an opportunity to help their neighbors, Clapp encourages them to follow their hearts and reach out to organizations rooted in their county.

“If there is a concern the community needs and you’re not sure how to help somebody, the Family Success Center is going to listen to what that problem is and we’re going to see if we can do anything to help and create a solution,” said Clapp. “Anything you give us goes right back out into the community. Every single dollar donated to us, every single food item donated to us…we give it where it needs to go. You are safe giving that money, time, energy or food to the Family Success Center because we will make sure it gets in the right place.”

“Nonprofit agencies often times rely on donation. We’re no different. If you feel inclined to give, find a reputable nonprofit agency that is local, that is going to help your direct community. We have lots of amazing agencies in Etowah County who are doing a plethora of things. Our goal is to help families – period. Find a great agency you believe in and make sure you have a heart for it.”

Gadsden City High School’s food pantry represents a collection of passionate individuals determined to evoke positive change within their community. Through their unified efforts, innovative thinking and ceaseless compassion, the Family Success Center and the Student Leadership Council serve the youth of Etowah County with benevolence and care. As the Family Success Center’s food insecurity initiative grows, forging strong partnerships with local leaders, the center invests diligently in its community – shining as a beacon of hope for a better tomorrow, and inspiring future generations to do the same.

“These are well-adjusted, future leaders of America who are going to do amazing things,” said Clapp. “I can promise you when I was a teenager, we went through the same exact things and I don’t think a lot of us noticed it. These kids are actively trying to find a way to change it. This is such a tumultuous time – you know you’ve got people who are hungry. You know you’ve got people who are just trying to figure out how to make ends meet and parents who are struggling. To know that teenagers are willing to take a stand and say, ‘Yes, this is happening,’ and ‘Yes, we want to help this,’ gives me so much hope for the future. We have a brighter future ahead knowing we have these teenagers who are willing to look out for their fellow man and say to the kid next to them, ‘You’re hungry. Let me give you my food.’”

The Family Success Center is currently accepting donations for its food pantries, requesting that all donated items are not expired or previously used to ensure safety and immediate use. Recommended donations are pull tab canned foods, individually wrapped foods and nonperishable items that are easy to eat and cook. Examples for breakfast are oatmeal, grits, granola bars and cereal. Examples of canned meat are Vienna sausage, tuna, spam and chicken, with chicken noodle, chunky soups, stews and chilis representing good examples of canned soups to donate. Canned fruits and vegetables and snacks like crackers, chips, raisins and popcorn are acceptable. Staples like peanut butter and easy pasta like macaroni, rice, ramen noodles, canned ravioli, spaghetti and beefaroni are acceptable. For drinks, individually packaged or bottled water, juice and Gatorade are best.

The Family Success Center is also accepting items for a hygiene closet at GCHS. New and unopened deodorant, shampoo, hand soap, feminine products (tampons and pads), lotion, toothbrushes, toothpaste, brushes, combs, laundry detergent, washcloths and towels are recommended.

Donations can be dropped off at the Family Success Center located at 821 East Broad Street in Gadsden. For more information, call 256-547-6888 or email fscofetowahcounty@gmail.com.

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