AKRON — Tippecanoe Valley Middle School students Taylor Owens and Brooklyn Cooper led the way to Niki Early’s sixth grade social studies classroom. The window’s ledge was lined with a colorful array of food products; bunches of bananas, cans of tuna, loaves of bread, boxes of Tuna Helper, cans of green beans and a stack of sandwich cookies.
Nearby a refrigerator housed gallons of milk, juice and fresh produce.
Ten students bustled around preparing for the work ahead. The dual purpose room wasn’t just for educating young minds; it also served as an environment for students to learn to help others.
Early held a checklist and provided a stack of numbered bags. One by one, the students took the bags and filled them with the supplies. They placed them into larger numbered bags on the floor and continued the process until the list was complete. “A lot of kids need this food. We have seven people in our house,” volunteered student Trinity Johnston, as she filled a bag.
With great efficiency they carried and delivered the bags to the assigned classrooms; quietly slipping in and out to avoid creating a distraction. Students receiving the bags picked them up and took them home as they headed out for the weekend.
Two years ago, Early noticed the need in her last period class one afternoon. One of her students wasn’t quite himself, and Early soon discovered hunger was the culprit. In fact, most of the kids in her class at that point in the day were hungry and their attention wasn’t on learning.
To help her students stay focused on their work, she started serving peanut butter sandwiches. As time progressed, Early wanted to do more. She realized it wasn’t just afternoon snack hunger that was effecting the students. Many students didn’t have adequate food at home to get them through the weekends.
After going through the proper channels and getting the necessary permissions, she and her husband, Layne, began doing extra weekly grocery shopping.
When they first began there were 20 students. Now there are 40. Early’s efforts, now known as Viking Vittles, provides entire meals for 40 families to get them through the weekend.
“The middle school staff has been tremendously supportive and patient, and without principal Scott Backus, this program wouldn’t be possible,” Early stated. Initially the majority of the funding for the endeavor came from individual donations, but as time progressed, more and more people showed their support through food and monetary donations.
“We were in Fort Wayne shopping and an elderly gentleman asked, ‘why are you buying so many things?’ We told him about the program, and he went around to the next aisle and came back and gave us a $20 bill. People are so giving,” Early shared.
Since the program began, Viking Vittles has also acquired some grants to help fund the program. Lettuce is grown by the school’s science department and a freezer was donated to store extra food.
Around the holidays, they always try to do something extra special for the kids. Last year, for Thanksgiving, they provided turkeys, and at Christmas they sent home hams.
The classroom next to Early’s is used as overflow for food storage and is also a donation room. Donated clothes, hygiene supplies, pots and pans and an array of items are stored. Once or twice a year, students shop for items they need.
Viking Vittles funding is run through Tippecanoe Valley Middle School, and they are always accepting donations and looking for ways to increase funding. If you’d like to help or learn more about the program contact Early at (574) 598-2200. Donated items may be dropped off at the school during normal hours.