The following is an interview with Chris Clevenger, Hellgate Elementary’s 3-5 Principal. Chris believes that the success of students is attributed to strong communication and connection between families and the school. One way that is accomplished is through Missoula Food Bank & Community Center’s Kids EmPower Pack Program.

After going to his office, which echoes all the busyness of kids heading to their next class, he starts to tell me about Hellgate’s expanding campus.

RP: The Kids EmPower Pack program varies between different schools – how administrators, counselors, or teachers facilitate the program – depending on the needs and the age of their students. What does the EmPower Pack program look like here at Hellgate Elementary?

CC: We rely a lot on teacher input, counselor input, and family requests. We noticed about three years ago that we had a lot of kids in need that were sneaking some things out of the cafeterias.

After noticing this continuously, I would ask them, “Hey, what’s going on? I see you have an extra milk? I see that you’re trying to hide in your backpack. It’s okay. You don’t need to hide it, it’s yours. But what’s going on?”

Through these observations, I talked to quite a few kids that had some struggles staying full over the weekend or there wasn’t a lot at home to eat. That prompted me to reach out to Missoula Food Bank & Community Center because I heard about the Kids EmPower Pack Program for weekend meals.

I talked to my counselors about it and then discussed it with the teachers and that’s how we established that we have a need here. We all communicate if we see a child in need. Our counselors are awesome about communicating with the families and making those connections. They are our lead when it comes to the program.

RP: I hear there is some student involvement when it comes to Hellgate’s Kids EmPower Pack program. Do your students actively help with the Kids EmPower Pack program?

CC: We have an active work program here, where we try to get the kids involved in as many jobs as we can create. Kids want to be involved. They want to help.

They’re obviously important stakeholders in this school and the more active that we can get them in their own education, the better. With our Kids EmPower Packs specifically, there are a few jobs associated with that — whether that is putting the fresh fruit provided in the bags or delivering them to counselors.

We have 72 EmPower Packs that are delivered to us from the food bank.

We then have “workers” who take them to the other school buildings. The counselors know that some kids need a discreet, confidential way to get a pack to them and then there are some who prefer to come down to their office for “a meeting”. They’ll come and get the pack themselves; they have no problem with that. Over the course of time, we have learned how to get those packs out.

In the school in general, the kids are pretty active in the program. They know what it’s about. We do teach them to use confidentiality and the importance of helping others and we have lots of kids that want to be involved in the EmPower Pack program. Most of the time kids see it and then want to get involved. We’ve had a lot of kids who say, “Hey! I could benefit from a pack, too.”

And there are kids enrolled that way as well.

RP: That must be a real testament to how you and your counselors have worked to make Kids  EmPower Packs a program surrounded by positivity. It is amazing the way that kids individually are identifying their needs to adults here.

CC: The kids will advocate for each other. They’ll advocate, sometimes it’s difficult, for themselves, but they will. Sometimes they just need a little push.

We have a very caring community here. I know our Health Committee and our PTA, they have found out about our Kids EmPower Packs and the impact it has made in our schools. A lot of the fundraisers and events, like our health fair and PTA fair, they will donate specific amounts of money or items to go to Missoula Food Bank & Community Center.

Through our parent advisory committees, we’ve shared that EmPower Pack story in terms of what it is and how many kids benefit from it.

They respond and feel like, “Well geez! What a great program! I want to give to that, too!”

A lot of parents in our community, people in our community seek out ways to try and help the school. Often we will steer them in the direction of this great program.

We’d rather them have a little bit more information about how their money is helping students, helping the community.

RP: Going back to your students who help, your “workers” as you called them, what are the age ranges of those “workers”?

CC: For us, this is the third, fourth and fifth grade building. I know that there are some work programs also in the middle school, but that program specifically, we began by targeting kids who had some attendance problems and concerns. So we thought, “Okay, how are we going to give them some more motivation to get to school.”

We tried to find the most important job possible that could give them a sense of, “Holy cow, I need to be there to do that, because that’s my job!”

And it worked! All to Sarah Schwarz’s credit, our counselor, and her creativity in creating those jobs!

It grew from a few kids to now we have application processes and interviews. He laughs.

The hard part now is finding enough jobs for all the kids.

RP: I bet! What are some other jobs that kids get involved with?

CC: Morning announcements is a big one. That’s one of the most important. All of our morning announcements are student led. Announcements take anywhere from three to five minutes in the morning, that’s just general information, but now it’s turned into a radio show in the morning.

The Kids EmPower Pack program is another important job, as I already mentioned. Playground cleanup, classroom clean up, we have art jobs, we had ice breaking jobs or snow removal jobs. We have all these things that kids are trying out to help the school, and they’ll come up with ideas too!

They’ll come up and say, “Hey, we should maybe have this kind of a group for the jobs.”

RP: That is great how involved they are!

CC: Yeah, it gives them more ownership, I think, in their building and in their education. Hopefully, it makes them want to be here more, too. It teaches them a little bit of responsibility, which they like.

RP: It sounds like these jobs invest them in their school.

CC: Sure. I can’t emphasize this enough, kids love responsibility, especially at this age. Everybody wants to be the one that passes out the papers. Everybody wants to be the one that holds the door or be the teacher’s assistant for the day. I think the more of those responsibilities you can give them, the better.

RP: What is it about working with kids, on an individual level or on a group level, that you enjoy most?

CC: It is rewarding. It can be difficult, at times, but I think you keep coming back to the impact that you can make in a kid’s life. I know now, being in at 20 years, I’m starting to see kids who have graduated and have their own families. They’ll come back and visit with me. That’s very rewarding.

There’s a lot of things in this profession that make you feel good. I don’t know if you can get that in every profession. It’s certainly what keeps me going.

RP: That’s awesome. With the EmPower Pack program, do you, your counselors or any staff ever hear feedback from the kiddos who receive them?

CC: There’s a couple of kids who get creative and I’ll see them trading items to get their favorites.

He laughs.

Overall, the feedback that we get is positive in terms of thank you’s; kids are very appreciative.

We also hear kids wanting to help or know more, whether it is questions about, ‘How do we donate or deliver or how do I get one of those myself?’

There have never been any negative stereotypes with the packs. I think Sarah has done a great job. She does monthly lessons with every class where she’ll teach about empathy, giving and being kind. I hope that the kids see that they can utilize the EmPower Packs as a life lesson, and a real life connection between giving, caring and empathy. The EmPower Pack program has become a learning tool.

RP: Can you elaborate more on those monthly lessons that Sarah teaches?

CC:  Our counselors are awesome! She’ll go to every classroom, every month has a different theme.

She goes to all 24 classrooms and she’ll be in there for her 30 minute lesson. It aligns with our anti-bullying program, our school rules and just trying to teach kids how to be good citizens and good people.

RP: That’s so powerful.

CC: It’s more important than you think. I know that many people think that kids are going to learn that from their parents. We don’t want to take the place of the parent in trying to teach them how to act and being respectful. We work with the parents.

When they’re here, there are certain things that we expect from them. We expect kids to be kind, be safe, be respectful, be learners; those are our universal rules. We try to work with them on that and help them understand that again and again.

Chris leads me to Sarah’s office. Sarah Anderson Schwarz is the school counselor in the 3-5 building. Her office has many cabinets stuffed with clothes, school supplies and food available for students who need assistance. There are students writing messages and drawing on cards. Sarah tells me this is a job for “workers” to help celebrate special occasions and birthdays.

RP: What made you want to be a school counselor?

SAS: I think I had some family influence. My grandpa was a psychologist and my mom was a social worker.

I got a degree in psychology. Towards the end of college I realized I needed to either get more school or a psychology degree, to continue on a specific path.

I really enjoy working with kids, so moving forward I wanted to work with kids. I started thinking about counseling kids, to combine psychology and working with kids.

School counseling can be so preventative. I get to go into the classrooms and talk about making safe choices. I get to work with all the kids versus just a few.

RP: What is your favorite part about working with kids?

SAS: How creative the things that they say are. They just see the world differently and I remember seeing the world that way. It’s kind of fun having a different perspective on life as an adult.

RP: Chris was telling me how you have students that help with EmPower Pack jobs, like putting the fresh fruit in the packs or helping to deliver them. What feedback have you heard from the kids participating in those job roles?

SAS: As far as delivering, the kids take the packs to the other buildings. The counselors do all of the delivering to the kids to keep it more confidential.

I think what I hear most are things like, “It’s so much fun helping!” and, “I’ll help you anytime!”.

They really like delivering to the other buildings, because they get to go to the K-2 building and be the big kids there. They also get to see their old teachers and their counselor from the previous building. Going to the Middle School may be a little more intimidating, sometimes, but I still think it makes them feel like they have a purpose. They have their job that makes them feel empowered, makes them feel important.

RP: Empowered from the EmPower Packs. That’s a great tagline!

SAS: She laughs. Yeah, empowered from the EmPower Packs.


Thanks to Sarah and Chris for their 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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