Family and Community Center and Food Pantry grand opening coming Sept. 22

  • Sept. 22 will mark the grand opening of the Athol Royalston Regional School District Family and Community Center and Food Pantry, located at Athol High School. Left to right: Intern and AHS senior Olivia Allaby; Center Director Andrea Bishop, and Food Pantry Director Shirly Mitchell. Staff photo/Greg Vine

  • The Family and Community Center, located at Athol High School, adjacent to the Athol Royalston Regional School District Food Pantry. Staff photo/Greg Vine

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 9/16/2021 1:49:26 PM
Modified: 9/16/2021 1:49:31 PM

ATHOL — A grand opening is being held on the ground floor of Athol High School on Wednesday, Sept. 22, and the public is invited. The event, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., marks the opening of the Athol Royalston Regional School District’s Family and Community Center and Food Pantry.

Shirley Mitchell, the director of Dropout Prevention and Recovery, oversees the food pantry. She said the pantry was started as a way to assist both students and the wider school community.

“The food pantry just kind of fell under me,” said Mitchell. “I was looking to start something for kids because I work with at-risk kids. Then the superintendent and the Worcester County Food Bank found an opportunity for us to make all this happen.”

She explained that local families need just provide a bit of basic information to take advantage of the many healthy, nutritious and tasty items being offered.

“They tell us how many people are in the family, what age groups they fall into, and what is the main source of income — whether it’s wages, unemployment, some time of benefit program, even no type of income right now.

“People will come in one family at a time. We have little cue cards based on, for example, if your family has up to four people in it. If it’s more than that, and some families do have more than that, don’t worry — take a little bit more. And they can access it as they see fit.”

Opening the doors to a trio of refrigerators and freezers, Mitchell pointed out a wide variety of food items that are available: “Chicken, burger, fish. We’ve got butter, eggs. Quite a bit.”

The food comes from a variety of sources, she said.

“On Thursday, the Farm School comes and they share bins of fresh, healthy produce the people can use. They bring it in here to us and, I mean, it’s phenomenal — eggplant, squash, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers — a lot of really great stuff.”

Immediately adjacent to the food pantry is the community center, which is under the auspices of Andrea Bishop.

“The food pantry is servicing a lot of families in need,” said Bishop. “The superintendent then recognized that some of the families need help making connection within the communities and within the schools, whether it’s for a child who needs some parent-teacher guidance trying to get connected for counseling, if they’re new to town and trying to figure out if their child needs support.

“She (Superintendent Darcy Fernandes) recognized there was a need to help people who don’t know how to navigate the public schools, but also that so much of what the schools are doing now rely on help from people within the community and do kind of a wrap-around approach.”

The creation of the Family and Community Center, at the urging of Fernandes, was approved last year — unanimously — by the Athol Royalston Regional School District School Committee.

“So, I’m the director of the Family and Community Center, working in tandem with Shirley, with the understanding that if there’s a strong family foundation at home, that kids are going to be successful at school because their basic needs are being met and the families are getting supported. We’re establishing really strong bonds with families.

“We’re showing them we’re willing to go above and beyond and think outside the box, and really show them that we need to work in partnership with them in order for their kids to be successful.”

Mitchell said the Sept. 22 event is really a grand re-opening, noting that the food pantry initially opened on Dec. 16 of last year.

“Covid was having an up-tick at that moment,” she said, “but we still moved forward. We didn’t really have a grand opening then, mainly because of Covid. So, now we’re launching it all together to show it all flows together.”

Dean’s Beans of Orange awarded a $12,000 grant to the food pantry last September. The money was provided in three separate $4,000 checks under the company’s Kids Stimulus Program. Dean’s Beans also provides a person each week to drive to the Worcester County Food Bank, where most of the food available at the pantry comes from.

Bishop said she’s hoping a lot of people show up on the 22nd to walk through the food pantry and the community center “so they can see what’s here.

“We’ve invited a lot of the nonprofits in the area, some of the boards — like the Selecboard and the School Committee — to come in and actually see the space, because we’ve been talking about it for about six months. We want to make the face-to-face connections, because it’s been so hard with Covid. We want to see them in person and say, ‘Hey, we’re here. Let’s support one another.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com


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