BC Hunger Coalition Celebrates 25 Years of Service

Back in the early 1980s, college students were facing much the same situation as they are today.  The economy had slipped into a recession.  Unemployment topped 10%.  As a result, charitable giving was down and services for the underprivileged were suffering.

Today, the needy in Atchison look forward to having a nutritious meal delivered every Saturday by the Benedictine College Hunger Coalition.  In the early 80s, no such group existed. Today, hundreds of BC students skip their Wednesday evening meal and the money goes toward providing food for sack lunches.  Back then, the poor were left to fend for themselves.  That was until some resourceful students, full of the Benedictine spirit and anxious to find a way to help, founded the Hunger Coalition.

It started with an event called “World Hunger Day” in 1984 and follow-up discussions among students on the World Hunger Committee.  Taking part in those discussions were Jonie (Brophy) Colwell, Tim Mullane and Dr. Richard Coronado, chair of the Department of Economics at BC and longtime Hunger Coalition advisor.

“I remember Tim was determined to take action,” said Coronado.  “He kept saying, ‘We can’t just talk, we have to do something.’”

That something was a suggestion from Joni Brophy (Colwell), who had participated in a sack lunch delivery project for the poor in her parish.

“Students had tried a skip-a-meal program, just once a semester, to raise money to send to Mother Teresa’s mission,” recalled Father Meinrad Miller, OSB, ’89, who was just a freshman in 1984 when the group began.  That was what they needed and it was decided to move forward with a plan to do a weekly skip-a-meal and then feed the hungry of Atchison.

“Joni said ‘let’s do this’ and we went down to the cafeteria to talk to the staff,” recalled Coronado.  “They (cafeteria staff) were very accommodating.”

With that, the Hunger Coalition was born.  At first, it was more of a loosely organized movement, but eventually a system of leadership and transition was established to give the group the necessary stability and continuity.

“It was pretty small at first,” said Fr. Meinrad.  “It seems like it was only about 20 people skipping.  But it was a start and it involved us going weekly to see the people of Atchison.  I was a helper and Dave Armstrong and I were part of the group that first made deliveries.”

According to Coronado, the group started off with around 16 skipping dinner.  That number went up to 40, and then 60, and then 85.  They got names of shut-ins, needy families, and others from local service agencies and churches and delivered for about eight weeks at first.

“By the end of the fifth or sixth year, we had 100 students skipping,” Coronado said.

“Looking back, I think one of the greatest things about the Hunger Coalition is that connection between the students and the people of Atchison,” Fr. Meinrad said.

Joe Wurtz, ’99, also remembers the people he met while making deliveries for the Hunger Coalition.

“There was a little lady who invited us in to pray,” he said.  “I can still remember her home and her prayer.  That was the most meaningful thing, when I did the delivery routes.”

That “little lady” is Georgia Dewey and, though she is on a special diet for her health, the Hunger Coalition continues to visit her on the “middle route” a decade after Wurtz graduated.

“We still drop in and visit Georgia,” said current Hunger Coalition President Meredith Stoops, a sophomore at Benedictine College.  “Even though we don’t deliver food to her anymore, we still stop by and pray.”

Affectionately known as Dr. C, Coronado had been interested in the group from the very beginning.  He had become interested in Catholic social issues and was particularly moved by a Pastoral Letter on the Economy from the National Council of Catholic Bishops.

“That impressed me very much because I didn’t hear any other national voices speaking for the poor,” he said.  He was motivated on both a personal level, becoming an activist for social justice issues, and on a professional level, having had economics papers on social responsibility published.  As a result, while many student organizations have died out after interested students graduated and moved on, the Hunger Coalition has had a strong advocate to engage the next group of students.

Today and for the past 5 years, the Hunger Coalition has had an average of 400 students involved in the Skip-A-Meal program.  Students, staff and faculty make and deliver sack lunches 52 weeks a year, with faculty and staff handling the duties when the student body is away from campus.  Bottom line, the Benedictine spirit has touched the lives of more and more disadvantaged families in Atchison and the trend seems to be solid.

“I have a feeling it will stay around 350 to 400 from now on,” said Coronado.

Tutoring is Added

In 1991, federal grants for tutoring in grade schools were cut.  Public schools worked to find a way to help struggling elementary school students keep up with their lessons.  School officials in Atchison, familiar with the Hunger Coalition’s work with the needy, called Dr. Coronado and asked for help.  Tutors were needed at Martin East and Martin West Elementary schools and the Hunger Coalition rose to the challenge.

“It is consistent with long term alleviation of hunger,” Coronado explained.  “We’re helping to keep kids in school and giving them the opportunity to learn the skills that will allow them to prosper and take care of themselves as they grow up.”

Today, anywhere from 35 to 50 tutors help students at Atchison Elementary School.  They volunteer to work with a student for at least 30 minutes once a week.  Many volunteers work with additional students, some putting in as much as six hours in a week.

Expanding Services

An article in the Kansas City Star during the summer of 1991 brought a man named Bill Ellis and an organization called Uplift (see the Fall 2006 Raven Review) to the attention of Dr. Coronado and the Hunger Coalition.  Ellis and his group worked with the homeless of Kansas City, delivering clothing, sundries, and canned goods.  Coronado was impressed.

“I called him up and asked if I could bring some students along,” he said.  “And we started by going down and helping him stock the van and make deliveries once a semester.”

The Hunger Coalition eventually formalized the partnership, going down to Kansas City once a month and now twice a month.  Currently, Katy McDermott is the student organizer for Uplift, responsible for signing up participants and coordinating the visits.

“All this requires a very conscious commitment to social service activity,” Coronado said.  “And a commitment to social justice and social charity will be a condition for peace in the next century.  If our students can come out of here (Benedictine College) with that sense of commitment to those most vulnerable, then the Hunger Coalition will have been a wild success.”

“It’s humbling knowing the momentum behind this,” said Stoops, the current president.  “It’s just a special feeling knowing that there are 25 years of love and dedication to the people in the community.”

Benedictine College

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is honored to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report, the best private college in Kansas by The Wall Street Journal, and one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. Benedictine College is dedicated to transforming culture in America through its mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.