Just in time for Thanksgiving Day, a new food pantry has opened at Mattituck High School.
The food pantry, accessible to all students year round, currently serves over 25 families in the community.
It was started by teacher’s assistant Rafael Morais, who is also the district’s community liaison. In that capacity, Mr. Morais communicates the needs of families in the district to teachers and administrators, Superintendent Jill Gierasch said. Mr. Morais also monitors each student in his classroom, focusing extra attention on English language learners in the district.
“I know the struggles some of the students have, especially when they go from an ENL class to a regular English class,” he said. “At that time, the students are walking by themselves … I’m usually sitting with them and making sure they know I have their support.”
Working in the classroom, he said, he began to notice that some students would come in without breakfast and were always hungry.
However, the idea for the pantry came to Mr. Morais much earlier: last spring, when he distributed items collected during a district food drive and he distributed collected food to 12 high school families in need. As he continued providing goods to those families each week, he said, some Cutchogue East Elementary School parents also expressed interest in receiving donations.
“The kids started asking for it again this year,” Ms. Gierasch said, “so we definitely saw there was a need.”
The new high school pantry was originally stocked Nov. 1, after students in June Hamilton’s high school special education class ran a “Stuff the Bus” drive outside King Kullen in Cutchogue that collected 25 boxes of food, Ms. Gierasch said.
The district is now requesting additional donations of nonperishable foods that will go to children and families in the Mattituck-Cutchogue community. Donation boxes are stationed in the auditorium, cafeteria, lobby, gymnasium, guidance office, administration office and the main office Cutchogue East.
Ms. Gierasch said food is distributed “strategically” to avoid calling attention to the recipients. Those in need is are determined by word of mouth of the teachers and Mr. Morais. Any family in need can contact him directly by phone or email, he said, adding that he won’t question any family who reaches out.
“We won’t question anyone who asks,” he said. “It’s open to every family that feels the need.”
Mr. Morais also delivers bags of food to families at their homes if they don’t feel comfortable picking up supplies at the school.
Ms. Gierasch said she and other administrators are grateful for the work the community liaison has done in the district.
“Rafael and his connections with families now … the one thing I can say is that every administrator in this district has really just said, ‘Thank God for Rafael this year,’ ” she said.
The pantry will be up and running even when school is out of session, Mr. Morais said.
“Even over the summer. I’m setting it up so they can come by and get a bag during the week,” he said.
Representatives of Community Action Southold Town, which has served low-income individuals and families on the North Fork since 1965, has been in contact with the district about the pantry and other ways to assist the community. Ms. Gierasch said CAST has provided the district with tips on operating a food pantry.
“They’ve been very helpful in providing us feedback on how sensitive it is when you have a food pantry and how discreet you need to be in giving kids food,” she said. “So they really provided some nice guidance for us in ways that we haven’t thought about.”
Mr. Morais emphasized that the pantry would not be possible without the help of district teachers and administrators.
“It’s not just me; it’s the teachers here, the superintendent,” he said. “I just love the feeling. I’m not taking credit, but for me, it’s so rewarding to help someone.”
Parents interested in receiving items from the pantry can contact Mr. Morais at 631-213-6461.
Photo caption: Teacher’s assistant Rafael Morais shows off the food pantry Friday. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)