WOONSOCKET – Students and staff at Woonsocket Middle School at Villa Nova are reaching out to their classmates this year with a new food pantry and Caring Closet designed to serve families within the school community.

School Counselor Michelle Marandola founded the pantry in November to serve families in need. As of last week, the pantry had amassed 2,997 food items and distributed 10 turkeys and Thanksgiving baskets to families of students at the school.

“This is a new undertaking. We’ve done food drives in the past and given them to local food banks, but this is the first time we do an in-house (drive),” she said. “We want to keep it yearlong.”

The pantry is stocked through donations from students, with home rooms competing to see who can collect the most food items. Marandola said students were excited to get involved with the project, which exclusively serves members of the Villa Nova school community.

“We try to solicit names from teachers and things like that. If we see we have kiddos who are struggling, they kind of give us names, and we contact the families,” she said.

Marandola said the school serves students coming from a variety of income levels, and the pandemic has made the situation harder for many local families.

At the same time, Shannon Turner, a music teacher at the school, recently began operating a Caring Closet out of a former office near her classroom. The closet is stocked with toiletries, clothes and feminine hygiene products that students can take home with them as needed.

“Over the past couple years, I’ve just noticed kids that with hygiene and clothing, it’s a big struggle,” she said.

Most of the donations came from Amenity Aid, Hope and Comfort, and Red.Lined, three organizations that offer hygiene and feminine care products to those in need, but Turner said she also received more than $2,000 in private donations through the online fundraising site donorschoose.org. Coworkers and friends, she said, donated clothes for the effort, allowing her to stock the closet with items students might need.

“Teachers wore so many hats five years ago and now with COVID, we added about 10 more,” she said. “I feel like I can’t think about these things outside of work and not do something about them.”

The two initiatives together offer an in-house support network that allows students and staff members to give back to those within their community. Lisa Mansfield, the school’s social worker, said she refers families to the pantry and Caring Closet who aren’t connected to other local resources or who might need a little extra help.

“We really want to get the word out to our families,” she said. “I’ve already had a couple of parents call me or email me.”

Marandola said she hopes the projects will continue to grow and meet the needs of families in the future. The school recently applied for a grant from the Feinstein Foundation and plans to hold additional food drives to support the food pantry.

“It’s hard enough with the academics, but the other stuff, we’ve got to get to some of that first before we get to the academic need,” she said.

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