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The Bean Foundation and KEITH Manufacturing partner with the school district to offer food, hygiene items and clothing to Buff students

 - Buff Elementary School counselor Tracey Sklenar stocks the shelves of Calves' Closet with the help of the Bean Foundation Board Vice President Jack Woll. The project provides food and hygiene items to students.

A couple of years ago, Buff Elementary special education teacher Manda Currier was telling her friend how worried she was about a couple of students.

One did not have food for the weekend because a parent was sick, and another did not want to come to school because he didn't have clean clothes to wear.

"I wondered out loud with her about how we could always be prepared to meet an immediate need, whether it be a student needing food for the weekend or clean clothes to wear to school," Currier recalls. "We wondered how we could get more people involved so that students know they are loved and cared for by a community."

Currier and her friend, Lindsay Foster-Drago, put their ideas – and hearts together – and decided to come up with a plan to propose to school administration and then reach out to some local businesses and organizations. They wanted a program that would provide child-friendly food for children as well as a few hygiene and clothing items.

"Our intent was focused on meeting immediate needs so that students could access their learning and so that they knew our community had their back, no matter what," Currier said.

Foster-Drago works at KEITH Manufacturing, a Madras company that often supports community projects. They wanted Buff's project to be a district pilot program. With the company on board and approval from Buff Principal Billie White, they were able to start rolling out their plan in November of 2019. Buff Elementary counselor Tracey Sklenar soon joined the project, realizing the need for students who were struggling with hunger.

They named the food and hygiene pantry Calves' Closet, a nod to the older neighboring White Buffalos mascot of Madras High School.

The Calves' Closet mission is to love local children by removing immediate barriers to learning and living. The closet is open to all Buff kids and is stocked with food, soap, deodorant, underwear, socks and other items. The custodian can wash children's clothing if needed while they wear clothes borrowed from the closet, but the long-term goal is for the closet also provide sweatpants, coats and shoes.

"The program is very much about the children – no criteria, no forms to fill out – just direct access," Foster-Drago said.

Then the Bean Foundation got word of the project and didn't hesitate to help fund Calves' Closet.

"Our primary focus is to serve children, families and young adults," said the Bean Foundation Vice President Jack Woll. "We value enduring projects and innovative partnerships that show outstanding stewardships to build our community."

Buff staff found new homes for paper and printer toner in the staff work room and cleaned off a few shelves to make way for the peanut butter crackers, juice boxes and body wash. Calves' Closet was ready.

By February 2020, Sklenar began distributing food and products to Buff children. Students are referred to the program by advocating for themselves or by teachers, parents/guardians, principal, and/or family members. When schools closed because of the pandemic, Sklenar either met families in the school parking lot a couple times a month or delivered the food and hygiene products to their homes.

"Many of the heartbreaking stories Manda Currier shared with me about kids at the school inspired the items that are stocked," Foster-Drago said.

During the week, Sklenar goes shopping for the weekend food bags as well as some extra supplies for the Calves' Closet, such as fruit cups, granola bars, soap, floss, toothbrushes, toothpaste and deodorant. On Fridays, she fills bags with things like cereal, peanut butter, bread, noodles, juice, granola bars, apples, oranges, fruit cups and hygiene products. She tucks the bags into the backpacks of the 13 students who are part of the weekend food program.

Sklenar shops locally, spending around $170 a week on food and a bit more on hygiene products. Kentucky Fried Chicken, Madras United Methodist Church, Family Access Network, Advantage Dental and others heard about the program and have donated, allowing the closet to provide more than just food for the weekend.

But, Sklenar points out, it's not just the weekend food bags. When a little boy missed breakfast at home and at school, he was given some food so he could focus on his lessons instead of his growling tummy.

"When elementary school kids are not provided of basic things as food and comfort, their education and ability to learn is greatly diminished, so this project is for that group of people that we feel strong about," Woll said of the Bean Foundation.

KEITH Manufacturing will provide a 30% match for any person, business or organization that donates money to Calves' Closet.

"The pilot project is going so well, thanks to the Buff team," Foster-Drago said. "Many kids have a tough go, and the closet will hopefully make their days a little easier."

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