When Conway High School art teacher Crystal Certain turned her supply closet into a food pantry for students, she had no idea how quickly it would take off.
The project, which started at the beginning of school, was implemented last school year with a specific student who needed her help.
"In terms of putting kids first, most teachers have what we call an ‘invisible safety net,’ and we all keep this drawer of snacks or things for a kid you might notice is hungry during the day," she said. "Last year it just wasn’t enough."
Certain said this student was eating out of her drawer regularly. When she had a chance to ask him what was going on, he said there wasn’t enough food at home to feed both him and his younger siblings.
"That’s not OK in my room, and I made sure I took care of him for the rest of the year. This summer gave me an opportunity to sit down and think if that one child is comfortable talking with me about this, how many of them aren’t," she said. "How many kids are sitting in our classrooms hungry, not paying attention, not able to learn simply because there is that bottom step of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? If they don’t have that need fulfilled, we are not going to get to the point where they are able to learn."
Certain said she started looking for options to accommodate the need and decided a shelf in her closet was the best option for students to come anonymously on their own time, removing that level of stigma associated with being hungry.
She said it quickly grew from a shelf into a shelving unit and now takes up most of her closet.
Certain said the closet gets between 200-250 visits a day from hungry students.
"The other thing I’ve noticed is just the community within my classroom because when we look at food sharing on an anthropological basis, it helps tie communities together. Not only that, but kids know they are cared about."
Certain said she has students who take money from their own paychecks and donate on a regular basis.
"Kids who need that money understand that they are taking care of their classmates and that’s what’s been absolutely the biggest gift is being able to let the kids handle it and bring in and do what they can," she said. "They understand the importance of taking care of each other."
Certain was recognized by the school board during its regular meeting Nov. 14 for her efforts to take care of students.
Board member Bill Clements asked her what the biggest challenge she’s faced since opening the pantry was.
"Keeping up with demand," she said, noting at the beginning she was only seeing around 70 visits a day. "We have more than doubled [with more than] 1,000 pantry visits a week and so maintaining that stock … because [the thing] about food insecurity is once they have a source and they know that that is a guarantee, I can’t let that sit empty. I just can’t."
To help accommodate that need, Certain accepted a check for $2,500 from Walmart in Conway during a ceremony for the store Friday.
"She saw a need that students had and she tried to find a way to fill that need," Principal Jason Lawrence said. "It’s a great thing. It serves a lot of students."
Superintendent Greg Murry said the district appreciates people who take care of the students.
"This is so direct as far as what the needs of our kids are," he said. "You would think that high school kids would be able to come to school and have a meal or be fed before they come to school but that’s not always the case. Crystal, thank you very much for stepping in and taking care of our children and putting them first."