The following is an interview with Amy Griffin, Frenchtown Elementary’s K-2 Counselor.  Amy believes in providing support, compassion, and understanding to all children and their families. One way that she does this is through Missoula Food Bank & Community Center’s Kids EmPower Pack Program.

Her office is colorful with lots of toys and large silver stars that decorate the entrance. This is because she introduces herself as Mrs. America. If students are having a bad day, all they need to do is shoot for the stars and they will find her there!

RP: What got you into counseling?

AG: Clear back when I was in second grade, which was a long time ago, there was this lady who came into the classroom. I don’t even remember her name. She drew this picture about how to be your own best friend. I thought to myself, “Oh, I really like to do that.”

I just remember her coming in and talking about being positive, positive self-image and taking care of each other and yourself. I really loved that.

Then when I was in high school, I couldn’t decide between special education or counseling. I got to job shadow my school counselor, and I loved it. So that’s how!

RP: What’s your philosophy with school counseling?

AG: I think my philosophy is to make sure that every child has a place where they can be heard, and to make counseling be an acceptable place to go for help and to make sure that every student has a place where they feel like they belong.

RP: How long have you been at Frenchtown?

AG: This is my sixth year in Frenchtown. We’ve kind of been all over. (Referring to her family.)

RP: What’s your favorite part about working with kids? Frenchtown kids or with kids in general?

AG: I really love family systems. I really love working with parents. I love working with kids when they are able to connect with whatever it is they need to connect with. For example, I have a couple of little kids that are still doing what’s called parallel play, which is a really young developmental task. It’s impacting their social skills because they’re not able to engage. We’ve been working really hard in group a couple times a week to provide them opportunities to not parallel play, and to really coach them in engaging others.  That’s been really fun to see how they are progressing. It can be something seemingly small like that or something larger, like helping a family system that maybe domestic violence is a situation that they struggle with or intoxication. Yeah, so I like that it really provides a huge array of things.

RP: Can you tell me the history of weekend meal programs here and how Frenchtown Elementary and Intermediate Schools started with the Kids EmPower Pack program?

AG: Four years ago we had an eighth grader who was the catalyst. We had been talking as a staff about how this was an identified need at our schools. We definitely had students who were hungry. We can’t, by the nature of our jobs and the demands of our jobs, fundraise every day or every week. We needed a lump sum to kick us off, to get us up in running doing a backpack meals program. So it was at that point an eighth grader at the time, put together a program called Miles for Meals. He worked with myself and a couple of other staff members and organized this big run. It raised $6,000. He was the catalyst that got the project going.

We launched it in the Spring of 2016. We had identified some kids through some mentoring with us so we could really understand what food instability looked like. We then coached our staff to be able to identify these behaviors and through this we came up with our number of kids to enroll. We launched it that spring just to see how it would work. Does the viability of the program work? Do we have kids that we think need it but don’t need it? That’s how we launched it and we worked out the kinks over the following six to eight weeks, the remainder of that school year. Once we knew that the program had a lot of viability, that’s when we decided to go ahead full force. We have done a number of fundraisers and grant writing, just to get that going.

My former principal, who also is my husband, met with Missoula Food Bank, and there was a conversation about the EmPower Pack program starting up in Alberton School.  I was nervous to jump ship because we knew what we were doing. But the fundraising pieces became a huge part of my job. And obviously, the complexities with students’ needs, sometimes I don’t have that luxury of time.

RP: I can only imagine. With the nature of your work, you must be pulled in all directions!

AG: Yep.

RP: When did the EmPower Pack program start here?

AG: We started the EmPower Pack program in January.

RP: Being so new to the program, how do you feel it is going so far?

AG: It’s going pretty well. I think the meals are very well received [by students]. One of the things with the former program was that once every six weeks we’d get the shipment of food. That particular shipment would take myself and a couple of hand selected students a good chunk of time to unpack boxes, shelve them and take inventory. With the EmPower Pack program, stuffing the bags once a week is about 20 minutes. I don’t have to have that big chunk of time where we need two and a half hours to bring in the boxes, unpack the food and then recycle.

Now it’s faster, but we do it a little bit differently. Now I have the help of our life skills program. Our students who have special needs do it as a job. Myself and the life skills kids inventory the bags that the EmPower Pack food comes in, we then add the apples and we’re checking the food just to make sure that nothing has spilled in transportation to us. We’re helping with the recycling of the boxes, we’re counting, etc. There’s a lot of steps for them. I think we have six kids that help in the project. It’s a big deal for them. They come to work on Wednesday and we prepare the bags and get them ready for the teachers to pick them up on Fridays. It works out really well!

Because of the way the EmPower Pack program works, they come in deliveries of eight packs. If we have, let’s say 48, but we only need 41, we’ll take those seven extra meals and create a large box for a couple of families in need. Sometimes the families will come to the school and pick them up or I will drive it to their house. Because we are so far from Missoula, sometimes transportation is really hard for them to get to the food bank. We’ve taken some of the snacks that are within EmPower Packs, the little baggies of snacks and we keep them at the front office. Behaviorally challenged students can really deescalate with something as simple as a snack. We’ve also used the leftovers for that purpose.

To me, those two things are hugely beneficial, because if the outreach is farther than just the students who are struggling on the weekends. I’ve actually had two families come to the school and say, “I can’t get food. I can’t make it to the food bank. We’re short on gas.” I never had that outreach before. So I think that’s really powerful. It is one of those blessings, the way the EmPower Pack program works!

RP: How many kids are enrolled in the EmPower Pack program?

AG: We have 41, at the moment. And we have been as high as 72. That was two winters ago that we had three or four months where we were running 72 packs a week. We just had some higher need families and higher need students that were attending at that time.

RP: What feedback, if any, do you hear from kids or families about EmPower Packs?

AG: One of my favorite stories of all time: I have two girls that are in the fourth grade. They’re both very aware that I handled things from shoes to coats to food. They’re very aware that Mrs. America helps them with that. On one particular Friday they were both down here, one for one reason and one for another, and one of them had their backpack with her. She went to take something out and she had her food, her EmPower pack, at the top of the bag.  The other girl said, “I have my food bag too!” They started asking each other, “Ooo, do you like the sundried tomato rice dish?” The other girl exclaimed, “Oh, I really like the oatmeal!”  And so they traded. They sat in my office and went through their packs and traded for their favorites. I think they do it regularly now. I had never seen that before. I’m sure it has happened. It’s just not something that I had witnessed!

RP: How do students in your school get enrolled in the EmPower Pack program?

AG: We do a lot of identification with our staff about what food insecurity looks like. Kids who are always tired, lethargic, maybe complaining of being hungry. You know, we’re checking the boxes for those behaviors. Since we started the EmPower Pack program I would say I probably had four or five families say to me, ‘We’re in a much better place. We don’t need the food anymore. We’d like the food to go to wherever else it is needed.’ Which is what we hope for, we really hope for families to get to that spot. More commonly we see families ebb and flow on that point. Some families do better and then winter was a little harder and they have to pay for more propane. So then, food takes a hit.

Thanks to Amy for her dedication to kiddos in our community! We couldn’t run this program without the extraordinary adults in our local schools who are on the front lines of fighting childhood hunger every day.

You can support kids in our community by donating to our Kids EmPower Pack Program during Missoula Gives. Click here to learn more.

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