COLUMBIA — In the parking lot of Gentry Middle School last week, five 12- and 13-year-olds gathered around a truck loaded with almost 1,100 jars of peanut butter and began unloading them into carts.
"This is going to feed a lot of families," seventh-grader Michael Gard said with satisfaction.
The peanut butter jars will be donated to the Buddy Pack program at the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri. Buddy Packs sends food home with students in need on weekends and at scheduled breaks during the school year.
Dean Klempke, science teacher at Gentry, has led the peanut butter drive in recent years. But this year, he has added an extra incentive: If 2,000 jars of peanut butter were collected by Friday, he would shave his head at a noon assembly.
"If I can shave my head to get us to 2,000 jars, you know what? It’s hair, it grows back," Klempke said. "It doesn’t grow back so fast anymore so this may be the end of my hair, but I never want to see a kid go hungry — especially not when I could do something to help."
As of Wednesday, more than 2,100 jars had been collected, so Klempke has "head-shaving" on his Friday to-do list.
Klempke said the peanut butter drive has progressed from collecting 500 jars in the first year to 1,200 last year. He also has been accepting cash donations, which he is using to buy peanut butter. This year, he has noticed students are more excited to donate.
He set up a change jar this year, but instead of quarters and dimes, he is seeing more $1s, $5s and $20s.
"I want to say it’s the head shaving — they are really excited about that," Klempke said. "But I do have to say this is the most generous set of kids that I can imagine."
"When I challenge these kids to do good, they really do," he continued. "I’m extremely proud of what they’ve done because they have already outdone what they did last year. It’s becoming a great school-wide effort."
Students happy to help
Students at Gentry said that it would be fun to see Klempke shave his head but that they had other reasons they wanted to contribute to the drive.
Seventh-grader Ali Woods said a book she read in her reading class, "Touching Spirit Bear," influenced her to contribute more than in the past. She said this year she collected 173 jars of peanut butter and made a cash donation.
"I feel like without helping someone, you never help yourself," Ali said.
Michael Gard said he raised $300 for the peanut butter drive by walking his and other dogs two miles every day and mowing lawns.
Michael said he is motivated by "some reasons, like one, I have diabetes, so it kind of motivates me more. But I just help people because I want to be nice."
"Even the smallest things help people out," he said. "Everybody needs to help out with some stuff."
Parents lend support
Klempke said one of the parents of his students was the store director at the Hy-Vee on West Broadway, Tom Klucking. Klucking was able to negotiate a deal with his supplier to get him as much Hy-Vee brand peanut butter as he could for $1,300.
Ultimately, Klucking was able to get the cost down to $1.20 a jar.
"When you’re involving the children and allowing them to learn from it and they’re actually seeing what their hard work can do, it’s pretty much a no-brainer to help on our part because it’s a win-win for everybody," Klucking said.
Klempke said he started the peanut butter drive to contribute to the Buddy Pack program, something he had no idea existed before he became a teacher.
"There’s no reason for a kid to grow hungry when people can organize and people can do the right thing to help out other kids," he said. "I saw the need and have tried to get better every year at fulfilling that need as much as I can."
Parents such as Angela Woods have appreciated Klempke’s efforts.
"I really believe he has taught the kids such a valuable lesson in participating and providing something for the community," Woods said. "He really is passionate about his beliefs, and it's transferred to the children."
Parent Lisa Gard thinks these types of food drives help people become more aware of issues in their communities.
"I think it’s something that isn’t talked about enough," Gard said. "I think he (Klempke) has done a good job in making kids more aware that not everybody is on equal footing and that we really need to be more cognizant as a community."
Buddy Packs cost more
Thirty schools participate in the Buddy Pack program in Boone County, with 1,500 backpacks going out each week, said Rachel Ellersieck, communications coordinator for the Food Bank.
Ellersieck said the cost of filling each backpack has gone from $100 a year to $180 a year. Peanut butter tends to be one of the more expensive products supplied in the backpacks.
"(People) don’t think that their kids are going to school with kids who might not have enough to eat on the weekend, or they don’t realize there might be someone that lives a block away from them who’s not going to have enough to eat over the weekend," Ellersieck said.
Drives like the one at Gentry help, she said.
"I think it brings it home because it says we’re doing this here, this is happening here, this is a problem here, so we can also do something about it here."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.