Updated: Jan 17
Great ideas can come from the smallest places, such as a student effort to take care of fellow students that started with a backpack.
Students Veda Kommineni and Caroline James, who recently finished three years at Liberty Middle School and are entering their freshman year at Edwardsville High School in the fall, started a city-wide initiative to help low-income students across District 7.
Being social-minded, the pair started to notice an issue at their school earlier this year, and decided to do something about it. “It started because we saw people in the cafeteria who weren’t eating,” James recalled. “We thought, ‘We should bring them food. Why aren’t they eating?’” The friends began to bring granola bars and snacks in their backpacks to hand out to students who needed something to eat. The inventory soon outgrew their backpacks, so the girls decided to move to a locker. They shared a locker for their school supplies in James’ locker and used Kommineni’s locker for their cause of helping others. They stocked the locker with granola bars, bags of chips, bottled water and other shelf-safe snacks from their own home pantries and spread the word. Any student who needed a snack was invited to stop at a locker and take what they needed, during or after school. The girls restocked the lockers about once or twice a week. “It was always a joy to see kids going up to the locker to get something, and to see it’s actually working, doing its purpose,” James said. When their school social worker, Nicole Zullig, heard about their project, she said it “could not have been at a more perfect time.” She approached the girls about their project, after she heard them talking about putting food in a locker. After the girls explained their idea, the social worker, along with another school counselor, Kaitlyn Talley, became sponsors to their expanding project. The counselors had previously discussed plans for a closet to help students in need of food, clothes, hygiene products and other necessities. The first locker was established in February; second and third lockers were added a few weeks later in March.
“We saw such popular demand, so we wanted to make it accessible to all students,” said Kommineni.”
“So we put one in each area.”
But, alone, the girls couldn’t continue to provide from their home pantries.
In March, a letter went out to the community and posted at Facebook about their efforts, along with a request for donations. During the first night of the Facebook posting, the pair’s Amazon Wish List was bought out.
Now the project provides not only healthy snacks to any student who needs them, but also gently used clothes, new hygiene supplies, school supplies and nonperishable food items.
“This way kids can get whatever they want and focus on their education without worrying about the necessities,” Kommineni said.
About 17% of Liberty Middle School’s population falls under low-income.
“If that’s the only meal they’re eating during the day, now they have food to bring home after school or on weekends,” Kommineni said.
With all of the donations, the girls once again outgrew their space — and the Care Closet was added to the three Care Lockers in April. The first locker was named “Veda’s Locker” by default — because it was her locker — but she did not have a hand in naming the rest of them. In fact, she does not like the publicity, Kommineni said.
“But we wanted to highlight the impact she made,” Zullig said.
While she is not overly excited about the name, Kommineni is thrilled about the impact her and James’ project has had. The girls said that being able to provide help, directly or indirectly, is what their project is all about.
The lockers will continue on a trial period into Liberty’s next school year. They wanted to keep the project student-run, so some seventh and a few sixth grade students are going to continue where Kommineni and James left off.
But just because they’re going to a new school, doesn’t mean the girls are done.
“Our goal, at some point, is to get this in all District 7 schools,” Kommineni said.
They hope to implement care lockers in the high school over the summer, so that the lockers will be ready for fall. The girls have already met once with EHS’ principal, and plan to meet with him again next week.
“It’s a work in progress,” James said, but noted they are confident in their ability to bring this community project with them. “If every school could do this, not just in our district, that would be cool.”
The girls hope to host a drive-by drop-off event at the high school at some point this summer, as well as a donation event at Liberty Middle School before the beginning of the next school year, to collect hygiene products and gender-neutral clothing for each school’s care closets. All donated items will be thoroughly washed and disinfected, and anything that the school receives that they cannot use will be donated to Goodwill or a similar organization.
“We’ve got a really great reaction from all of our community,” they said. “We want to say, ‘Thank you.”
The girls also expressed thanks to their sponsors, teachers and peers who made this possible.
The girls are both involved in school and community.
Kommineni plays soccer and tennis, and also is on a robotics team, all of which she plans to continue in high school. She participated in Liberty’s Scholar Bowl team. She takes singing and piano lessons, and also is involved in Bal Vihar, which she compared to a Sunday school for Hinduism, where participants learn about community service, culture and religion.
James is involved in dance, church choir and youth group, all of which she will continue, she said.
Along with their project, both girls have high hopes for their high school careers. Both girls said they also hope to be involved in the high school yearbook, debate team, Key Club, student council and EHS’ Edwardsville Peer Influence Club.
The girls met in sixth grade but they grew close while quarantining. So close, in fact, that they tend to have the habit of finishing each other’s sentences, they said.