YONCALLA — As soon as the van pulled in the driveway, people would come outside to greet Erin Helgren and Kelly Campbell.

Helgren, site liaison for Children’s Institute Early Works, and Campbell, student services coordinator for Yoncalla School District, have been making deliveries to families in the Yoncalla School District since the official start of the summer.

The deliveries include food, books and family activities.

When schools closed in March amid the coronavirus pandemic, Yoncalla was one of many school districts that came to students’ homes to deliver daily meals. However, it also became clear that the school district wouldn’t be able to continue that throughout the summer due to budget constraints.

The school district received several grants and donations that allowed it to continue to provide meals to families with children from birth to 18 years old twice a week. It partnered with a local nursery and Head Start program to get in contact with the youngest members in the community.

Yoncalla Public Library, which had been working with the school district to organize a summer literacy camp, is now utilizing the same delivery system to get materials to children.

“The partnership has been the difference to being able to reach as many children as I could,” Yoncalla Librarian Jill Cunningham said. “The silver lining for the coronavirus is that we’re reaching a lot more families. Especially those in the outlying areas.”

Cunningham said there are just over 100 preschool and elementary students signed up for the program and almost 40 teens. Each week children receive a book and an activity from the library.

Samantha Short said her kids look forward to the books and crafts.

“They love doing crafts,” Short said. “The packet with the wood kept them occupied all day.”

Ashley Singler said her family appreciates the food.

“The milk and juice help a lot,” Alexis Singler said. “And the snacks during the day.”

Short said her family enjoyed the snacks and a box that included everything to make pizzas at home.

Since the meals no longer arrive daily, the packets have changed a little.

“We’re not doing individual meals,” Yoncalla School District Superintendent Brian Berry said. “What we’re trying to do is teach families how to cook and how to prepare food.”

That means half gallons of milk, cartons of eggs, loaves of bread and jars of peanut butter are often part of the packets.

Inside the boxes are menus, so families can learn how to ration the food until the next delivery.

Helgren said a health and needs assessment of the area showed to 50% of families in the area struggle with food insecurity. The school district is also community eligible for free breakfast and lunches.

“As a parent and educator I can’t imagine not feeding a hungry child,” Helgren said. “To lift that burden is amazing.”

But the food and learning materials aren’t just for those struggling to put food on the table, the grant covers the entire community.

In addition to food, books and activities, Helgren said they’ll probably start distributing recipes, health information and school information. Families can also receive diapers, which were a donation by the Perinatal Task Force.

“From my social worker lens, families have been home since March. Many are isolated and have financial constraints, and some of those initial support are starting to run out,” Helgren said. “We’re here to support mental health and any other needs they have. It’s great to bring books and combat summer learning loss, but it’s probably even greater to check in with children and families.”

The community program employs 12 people this summer for about 10 hours a week.

“It serves a lot of people and they all seem grateful,” library board member Stephanie Thompson said. “The kids have had such a blast with it. A couple families sent videos of their activities to us.”

Each Tuesday and Friday, three vans packed with 15-20 boxes and two drivers leave Yoncalla Elementary School to make deliveries to families. One of the routes is about 60 miles long, the other two around 20.

“The social contact is as much for us as them,” Campbell said. “It’s great to say the kids.”

Sanne Godfrey can be reached at sgodfrey@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4203. Follow her on Twitter @sannegodfrey.

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