When Nathan Carlyle, a seventh grader at Stevenson, found out that his pen pals at Seaside Middle School were going hungry during shelter in place, he helped organize a food drive that then grew and grew

Mrs. Spencer’s Grade 7 history class at Stevenson had been pen pals with Mrs. Henry’s sixth-grade English classes at Seaside Middle since the beginning of the school year. They’d all started off reading Paul Fleischman’s novel Seedfolks—about a Vietnamese girl from a rough neighborhood in Cleveland, who, by planting some lima beans, starts off a chain reaction that ends up with thriving community garden—and they wrote each other letters about their favorite characters. The Stevenson students loved the pen-pal project so much that when Mrs. Spencer would hand out the new letters from their pen pals every couple of weeks—stapled into composition books and festooned with drawings and stickers—the excitement in the room was palpable. “They’re all sharing,” Spencer says, “‘Well, mine says this! What does yours say?’ ‘Well, mine says this!’ I didn’t know it would be as big a success as it was.”

And then, suddenly in mid-March, the coronavirus forced both schools to stop on campus classes, and the exchanging of letters between pen pals had to end.

Both Stevenson and Seaside Middle went to remote instruction, and Mrs. Henry asked her sixth graders to keep a diary of the things that were happening in their lives during the lockdown. What began to emerge was that some children in Mrs. Henry’s class weren’t getting enough to eat—their parents, now out of work, were conserving food, or, without public transportation, were unable to get to the food bank. Mrs. Henry told Mrs. Spencer about this, and Mrs. Spencer told her class. “I said to the students, ‘I was thinking that I would do a food drive. What do you guys think?’”

Later that same day, Mrs. Spencer received a note from Nathan Carlyle, a seventh grader in her history class. It said, “Dr. Mrs. Spencer, With the shelter-in-place order, I’ve been looking for some kind of meaningful bar-mitzvah project to take on, and this would be perfect. Would you mind if I helped manage this project that you’re starting?” Mrs. Spencer was delighted to hand the project to Nathan.

Since then, Nathan has found ways to get food donations from the Stevenson community—through his classmates, the Pirate Log, and assembly announcements—and has delivered them to Mrs. Henry’s house twice a week. “I realized that some people live in conditions that may be difficult for them,” Nathan says, “but we’re lucky to be in a position where we can help them out. This project is all about helping out a part of the community.”

Nathan’s first donation went to a pen pal’s family in Marina, who thought they were getting one or two bags of groceries, but received seven. Standing in the driveway, they cried when Mrs. Henry dropped off the bags with her husband. 

“So it was the family in Marina,” says Mrs. Henry, counting the families, “and then it was three families here in Seaside, and then it was a family down the street. And then I put a few cans in the little free library at my walkway.”

After that, a neighbor, up early one morning, observed an old man taking two cans of soup from the little library. This made him want to contribute, too. “So now,” says Mrs. Henry, “because of Nathan, more people are getting involved.”

“We’ve been asking students and their families for donations of food,” Nathan says, “but we’ve also received donations of gift cards and handmade masks, which were appreciated. My parents and I made a donation to get the food drive started, and have added a few things along the way, but the community has been very generous.”

Sylvia Ishii’s daughter, Gracie, also in Mrs. Spencer’s history class at Stevenson, asked her mom if she could contribute food to Nathan’s food drive. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll just put something together.’” Ishii, the dean of student life on the Carmel campus, laughs. “My daughter’s like, ‘What?? What are you going to put together?!’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know—I’ll just go through our pantry and see what we have.’” Gracie was appalled: “That’s ours. You’ve gotta put thought into this,” she said. Gracie eventually ordered food she felt was convenient and full of protein—trail mix, granola bars, applesauce packs, peanut butter and jelly, and a loaf of bread.

“We hoped at the end of this process,” says Mrs. Henry, “that all of our students would realize that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, and it doesn’t matter where you live. At the end of the day, it’s just one person to one person. We’re in it together. You know, you can tell students that, but they have to experience it—they have to experience love.”

Nathan’s food drive is set to go until May 28, but will most likely be extended. “We know the need will probably continue,” Nathan says, “so our rabbi has raised the possibility of asking our congregation for donations once school ends. We’re waiting to see how things go as restrictions are lifted.”    

Trish Deitch