Most students leave school with an expanded knowledge and deeper understanding of the world around them. Many also go home with food items that will keep them from going hungry.

Knowing where one's next meal will come from is a luxury many do not think about but not all can count on. That is why staff and students from Vista West High School created the Gator Pantry, a fully stocked, self-service pantry with food, personal hygiene products, clothing and more available to students who need it the most.

Most students enrolled in Vista West need to catch up in academic credits, but administrators also recognize they are socio-economically disadvantaged.

"We have great intervention but the whole root word of intervention is intervene, which is to alter and change an outcome or condition," said Mike Mullings, site administrator. "And that’s what we’re trying to do for our kids: change their condition to better their life."

The idea for the Gator Pantry originated during a Site Council meeting with teachers, parents and students in September when Stevie Richey, a recent graduate and then president of the Associated Student Body, said many of her peers were in need of basic items, but they did not qualify for federal assistance programs. She and other members of ASB came up with a list of what items students were in need of and it took off from there.

"We took it to our Tier One team which is a group of teachers that focus on campus climate and support ... and we sat there as a staff and put an email out and within days we had donations," said Haley Beagley, a counselor.

Donations have come from Vista West staff members.

When students enter the Intervention area of the school, there are two pantry areas they can "shop" through: one with food items and another with personal hygiene and clothing. They fill up bags with items they need, put their names on them and pick them up at the end of the day.

Some of the most popular items students take are deodorants, lotions, toothbrushes, toothpastes, ramen noodles and mac and cheese. Interventional specialist Melany Ledesma said she has seen 20 to 25 students take advantage of the pantry. 

"When (students) come in, they start asking questions about the pantry," she said. "We talk about the needs and wants because it’s important for them to know we do have students who are homeless and do need."

Senior Yasmine Elmsiyah said on Fridays she visits the pantry to get a weekend's worth of food for her family. She has also picked up jeans and a dress for one of her choir concerts.

There are nine people living in her household and two of them work. She said she would visit three food pantries a month with her siblings to pick up food and other items.

"I would have to go early in the morning and it would be difficult to get there," she said. "Now kids don't have to go home hungry."

Another student, senior Dealean Doughty, said he visits the pantry "when I realize I need something," such as razors, shaving cream and toothpaste.

"It's a weight off your shoulders," he explained. "All the money I get I need it, so I don't have to worry as much."

As school wraps up for the year, the pantry will still be open over the summer, and Ledesma said she will provide students with a list of local food banks and churches they can visit. Beagley also hopes to add a refrigerator so fresh fruits and vegetables can be offered.

The school will also be reaching out to local businesses for donations, said Julio Franco, who is part of the lead committee for the Gator Pantry.

"Instead of asking one organization or business to donate x, y and z, we came up with a list ... asking them if they would like to donate a month here or there," he said.

Franco has reached out to The Wonderful Company, Target, Walmart and Winco, and the Vista West staff and Apostolic Rock Church have sponsored two months.

The staff has also tried to stress to students that they should not feel ashamed or embarrassed that they need help.

"There's no excuse not to use this, it's here for students," Doughty said. "They should feel welcomed to take whatever they want."

To make donations, call 661-589-4242.

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.

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