Southwest Florida high school students help put the ‘giving’ in Thanksgiving

St. John Neumann Catholic High School students Ashley Kobza, right, and Ana Cook, center, of the Beta Club, sort 75-pounds of donated food they collected before filling Thanksgiving bags for needy families at Catholic Charities Food Pantry in Naples on Nov. 24, 2009. Greg Kahn/Staff

Photo by GREG KAHN

St. John Neumann Catholic High School students Ashley Kobza, right, and Ana Cook, center, of the Beta Club, sort 75-pounds of donated food they collected before filling Thanksgiving bags for needy families at Catholic Charities Food Pantry in Naples on Nov. 24, 2009. Greg Kahn/Staff

Left to right, Estero High School students Brian Cuthell, 17, Tarah Kayne, 16 and Christian Westffall, 18, managed to bake 216 cookies in 84 minutes Monday to contribute to project 5000, the aim of which is to feed the estimated 5000 individuals in need this Thanksgiving in the South Lee County area. Estero High School students are baking 5000 cookies total, contributing to the project, through the culinary arts program and the Interact Club which paid for the raw materials. Michel Fortier/Staff

Photo by MICHEL FORTIER

Left to right, Estero High School students Brian Cuthell, 17, Tarah Kayne, 16 and Christian Westffall, 18, managed to bake 216 cookies in 84 minutes Monday to contribute to project 5000, the aim of which is to feed the estimated 5000 individuals in need this Thanksgiving in the South Lee County area. Estero High School students are baking 5000 cookies total, contributing to the project, through the culinary arts program and the Interact Club which paid for the raw materials. Michel Fortier/Staff

— In Southwest Florida high schools this week, students have been coming together to help the needy in their communities, and in some cases, in their own schools.

Estero High School Principal George Clover said he got a wake-up call of sorts recently while he was scolding a student who had been acting up.

“And she said to me, ‘You know what — I haven’t had utilities for six days, so you’re lucky I’m even here,’” Clover recounted Tuesday. “That really got my attention.”

On behalf of students like her, and countless others at his school whose families are struggling, Clover issued a challenge to his students in the lead-up to the holiday season. On Tuesday, he presented three checks to organizations feeding the needy in the Estero community, the culmination of the challenge that eventually raised $1,700.

At Lamb of God Church just north of Estero, the $600 check from Estero High School will help that organization feed between 5,500 and 6,000 people this Thanksgiving, said Tom Mullins.

“It’s almost double what we did last year,” said Mullins, a member of the church who heads up their holiday food program. “We try to come up with a number where we think we’ll be. The number jumps as the need does. We planned last year for 1,700 people and fed 3,000.”

A $600 check was also presented to New Day Christian Church, which feeds 50 to 100 people every Saturday, and $500 was given to the school’s Latin Club to contribute to volunteer efforts with the Bonita Springs Cafe of Life.

“This year they’ve been hit economically as well,” Estero senior Lucero Maldonado said of the Cafe of Life. “This will allow us to provide bigger meals to the people who need them.”

Clover presented the checks against the backdrop of students feverishly packaging and boxing thousands of cookies to be given to Lamb of God Church as part of its Thanksgiving feast.

Students from the school’s Interact Club contributed $250 to buy bulk boxes of sugar cookie mix and peanut butter cookie mix, students in the Culinary Operations academy spent all of Monday and Tuesday baking them and students from the Interact and Key clubs stayed after school to package the cookies both days.

“They had no problem doing it and they had more of a chance to use the heavy-duty mixer,” said culinary instructor Jan Doten.

Estero High students weren’t the only ones spreading the holiday spirit.

Four St. John Neumann High School students helped unload the last of the school’s collection into the Catholic Charities Family Resource Center food pantry on Tuesday. The students, who are part of the school’s service-oriented Beta Club, collected more than 75 pounds of food, or enough to feed 20 families.

“We did very well this year,” said Jackie Delgado, 17, a St. John Neumann senior and president of the Beta Club.

Their food will be included in Thanksgiving bags given to 150 families and the 800 bags of food the pantry hands out each month, said Allegra Belliard, program director for Catholic Charities. Each family’s bag includes a turkey, mashed potatoes, bread, stuffing, two cans of fruit, two cans of vegetables, milk and rice, among other things.

“We have seen an 80 percent increase in demand for food, so we really rely on our parishes and schools to provide,” Belliard said.

Senior Maria Koropouos, 17, got her mother involved in helping with the drive.

“She set up boxes in all of the John R. Wood (Realtors) offices. People brought in canned goods and gift cards. It was really nice,” said Maria, who collected more food than any of her classmates.

Maria said being able to help families makes her feel blessed, especially around the holidays.

“I know they will not experience Thanksgiving like I will, but they know that there are people in the community who want them to have a nice holiday,” she said.

As the girls unloaded bags of peanut butter, condensed milk and macaroni and cheese, they said the canned food drive was one of the best events the Beta Club has during the year.

“I want to come here on weekends (to help out),” said Ana Cook, 16, a junior. “It makes you feel good, to be able to help people.”

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