Neighborhood's unity brings strength

TIM JEAN/Staff photoConsentino Middle School staff and students gather with local police and firefighters outside the school to show their support for the food drive. 

For guidance counselor Stacey O’Brien and other Consentino School staff members, hearing students talk about challenges they face at home can be heartbreaking.

“We work with students in large, low-income households, those who are homeless and those who often tell us they don’t have many choices in their homes as to what they can eat,” O’Brien said of the neighborhood surrounding Consentino, one of Haverhill's largest schools.

The staff and other people affiliated with the school have decided to turn that heartbreak into motivation, as COVID-19 creates yet another challenge for families in the neighborhood. The Consentino community joined together recently to put better food on those families’ tables and give them a greater variety of meals.

“This is a way to lessen the burden on those families,” O’Brien said of a food drive that happened every day last week to help the school’s most vulnerable families.

Consentino hosted the drive so the public could drop off food and personal hygiene products at the school. The goal was to stock the school’s food pantry with enough items to last a month or so, and then hold two more drives before the end of the year.

Last year, Consentino received a grant that allowed it to give students backpacks on Fridays, and then have them into the school’s pantry to fill the backpacks before heading home.

O’Brien said not only was the pantry used heavily by about 100 Consentino students, but the act of bringing home food created many family conversations that might not have happened otherwise.

“One student who wants to be a chef told us how overjoyed he was to go home and cook recipes for his mother and grandmother with items he obtained from our pantry,” O’Brien said. “Another student told me that by bringing home food, she and her mother, who she said is deaf, cooked together in their kitchen.”

When schools closed in the spring due to the COVID-19 outbreak and all students shifted to remote learning at home, Consentino’s principal and assistant principal made weekly food deliveries to the homes of students school officials knew needed help.

“It was also a way to check on them and remind them we are a resource for them,” O’Brien said.

With students now facing the challenge of balancing classroom and remote learning while wearing masks and practicing social distancing, the school can also boost their emotions, O’Brien said. That can be accomplished simply by showing them someone cares, she said.

“A lot of kids at this time are in need of positive engagement and are seeking connections,” she said.

Consentino did not receive the grant to support the school pantry this year, so staff members decided to stock the shelves with help from the community.

“Because of the coronavirus, we’ll be distributing food in bags and not backpacks,” O’Brien said.

Edzaida Lopez, a secretary at the school, arranged a partnership with Panera for donations of bagels, bread, pastries and other items once a week. The idea is to couple those items with other items to make a meal.

School adjustment councilor Courtney Aldrich — who is new to Consentino — reached out to local farms to create a fall display in front of the school where families can take photos.

“Local farmers that helped with donations of pumpkins, hay bales, corn stalks and mums included Crescent Farm, Rogers Spring Hill, Kimball Farm, Chris’ Farm Stand and Holland’s Flowers,” O’Brien said.

School staff members accepted donations, loading them into a pickup truck and stocking the Consentino pantry.

“The donations included cases of canned beans, boxes of pasta, about 100 hair brushes and combs, tubes of toothpaste, bottles of spaghetti sauce, cases of rice, crackers, jams and peanut butter,” O’Brien said. “We were very excited by the community’s response.”

The school is providing students with bags of items by “cohort’’ — a term used by the school district to describe a group of students who attend school on the same days.

“We’ll identify a time for one cohort to come on a Monday or Tuesday and another on a Thursday or Friday while we will work out a plan for distributing food to children who are fully remote,” O’Brien said. “This is a good time of year to put things in a more positive direction and create a spark of enthusiasm with everyone at the school wanting to get involved.”



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