COLUMBIA— In room 311 last Wednesday morning at Douglass High School, government teacher Terry Alexander tried to explain civic virtue to his class.
The lesson was to prepare his two government classes for a trip the next day to the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri. Alexander said he takes his government students to the food bank a few times a year.
To volunteer at the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, call (573) 474-1020, or (800) 764-3663.
Items most needed for Buddy Packs are: peanut butter crackers; pop-topped canned fruit and canned soups; 100 percent fruit juice; granola bars; and peanut butter in plastic jars.
In Columbia, food for the Buddy Packs and for other use may be dropped off at 2101 Vandiver Drive.
Other information about the food bank, including how to give money, can be found at its website, sharefoodbringhope.org.
The food bank is responsible for the Buddy Pack program, which provides bundles of non-perishable food for thousands of mid-Missouri students to take home every Friday. The organization’s website states that more than 55,000 students in the 32 counties of the food bank's service area are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. In the past five years, more than 10,000 students have qualified for the first time.
"This will give you a chance to experience civic virtue, to give you a chance to do something outside of your own self interest," Alexander told the six students in class that day.
Four students listened attentively, but two interrupted him to state their own views.
Javonte Hayes took issue with Thomas Jefferson's inclusion of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence. He agreed more with John Locke’s idea of "life, liberty and property."
"I think he should have left it at property because pursuit of happiness, that ain’t nothing," Hayes said.
"A lot of them are so materialistic," Alexander said when class was over. But he added that educators might have no idea what kinds of things their students are dealing with in their lives.
"It helps to have compassion," he said. "They may have a lot of things in their lives that are just horrendous."
Childhood poverty drives desire to teach
Alexander, 64, knows what poverty feels like. He was born in rural Pollock, in northern Missouri, to a father who had lost his job at a Ford plant and worked as a janitor, he said.
"One year we lived in a house that didn't have an indoor bathroom," Alexander said. "We used the bathroom in the outhouse and had to use pages of a Sears-Roebuck catalog for toilet paper."
He said he told friends and relatives at the time that his family wouldn't live like that when he grew up, so he started working to get a better life for himself.
"You can raise yourself out of poverty, but you have to work hard," he said.
After graduating high school, Alexander went to what is now Truman State University in Kirksville for his undergraduate degree. He was attending University of Missouri-Kansas City's School of Law when he was drafted into the Vietnam War. He served in the Army for two years, one of them in the Iron Triangle near the Cambodian border.
When Alexander returned to the U.S., he enrolled again at Truman State to get his master's degree, then ran for office as Sullivan County clerk, a position to which he was elected three times. He said he's proud that he kept a balanced budget throughout his terms.
He came to Columbia to work for the Grand Masonic Lodge but then decided to teach at Douglass — to help students raise themselves out of the same situation he was born into.
"There's an opportunity to help people become as successful as I was," he said. "I want to try to give students here that sensibility. That's why we're doing the food bank."
Stacking crates, cutting food labels
On Thursday, students piled into a small school bus, along with students from a biology class at Douglass taught by Susan Wier. Alexander drove them to the food bank's warehouse on Vandiver Drive. On the way, they joked around with each other, listened to music on their headphones and teased Alexander about his driving abilities.
It wasn't the first time they had been to the food bank. Alexander brought them there to take a tour on Oct. 13. But this time, they were asked to help out by cutting up sheets of food labels, stacking crates and decorating Thanksgiving buddy packs to be given to students.
Tim Gladura, volunteer room coordinator, addressed the group as they entered the warehouse. With his booming voice, Gladura had no problem commanding students' attention.
"My son graduated from Douglass, so I have a special place in my heart for Douglass," Gladura said.
"In here, you're going to have to toe the line and do what we ask you to do," he added.
Gladura separated the group into male and female students. He sent the young men into the warehouse to stack dozens of crates and the young women to cut sheets of food labels for hot dogs.
Gladura said the food bank distributes more than 6,000 buddy packs a week to Columbia Public Schools students. He said the food bank realizes it is not reaching every student in need but is doing its best to help as many children as possible right now.
"I'm not sure how many people really understand how deep-rooted this is," he said.
Hickman, Rock Bridge and other high schools from mid-Missouri often send student groups to the food bank, Gladura said. He said having high school students come in inspires them to start volunteering on their own.
"We see a lot of them come back," he said. "A lot of them start their own groups."
For some students, it was the first time they had volunteered their time to help others.
"It ain't fun, but at least I'm with other people," Rachelle Haney said. "At least we get out of class."
"I had no idea we were doing a field trip to work," Javonte Hayes said as he stacked crates. "Field trips should be fun."
Hayes said he had experienced volunteering before as part of court-ordered community service, which he had completed at Habitat For Humanity. Some of the other students said the same.
One student said he volunteers frequently, whenever he has the time.
Charles Sherman said he had given his time at the Armory Sports and Recreation Center, KOPN/89.5 FM and the Salvation Army.
"Wherever I'm at at the time, when I think about it, I just do it," he said. "It's pretty fun, as long as I'm learning something."
Sherman said he wants to go to Texas Tech University and major in business management, possibly putting it toward something related to music.
As they worked, most of the conversation in the two groups related to music, social lives and the other gender. About an hour later, the class had to return to Douglass.
On the bus ride back, one student said she might come back again.
"I would go back and cut papers again," Haney said.
After they returned to Douglass and the classes dispersed, Alexander and Wier talked about how the students responded. Alexander said he wasn't sure whether some students understood why they were asked to write and cut labels and stack crates instead of working with the food.
"But when you volunteer, you do what they need," he said.
"With our kids, they like to do something so hands-on," Wier said. "They want to do something big, not little things."
She added that, given time, the message would become more clear.
"When you're in the midst of doing something, you're not really thinking about it," Wier said. "But when you have time to reflect and see the Buddy Packs or people having food for Thanksgiving, then it makes more sense."
Students reflect on volunteering
On Friday, Alexander had his two classes write reflections about the experience and what they took away from it. Their reflections indicated they learned more than they had let on the day before.
Elonela Brewer: "It helped me learn that everybody don't have food and that I should start helping more."
Erica Smith: "It put a warm feeling in me because I know families who don't have food and can't make it without the help of others."
Tyree Turner: "Got stuff done faster and made me feel good about myself."
Rachelle Haney: "Helping other people made me feel good like I did a good deed and I know maybe even how I would want someone to help me one day."
Alexander said he was pleased with their reactions. As always, he related their trip to the food bank to the concept of civic virtue.
"I think this is something that will stay with them — doing things to help others — for the rest of their lives," he said. "It's a great way to illustrate civic virtue and common good that had a great impact on our founding fathers."