Helping families put enough food on the table was the goal for Gwinnett County twins Lauren and Steven Seroyer when they started an on-campus food pantry as students at Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee.
Little did they realize that they were changing teenage perceptions about hunger.
After a student confided to Lauren Seroyer that he didn’t get enough to eat at home, she put together the CARE Closet – Community Assistance & Resource Effort. The mobile food pantry is by design discrete, well-stocked with family-sized non-perishables and operated by student clubs and organizations.
High school students are more than willing to help classmates who experience food insecurity if they are given a way to get involved.
“When I had this conversation with my classmate, I knew that it wasn’t just me who could help,” Lauren Seroyer said. “Students want to get involved, but don’t know how. So, this is a way for everyone to get involved and help their school. And they don’t feel like they’re working for a cause so far away that it doesn’t affect them. These are classmates and families that are neighbors.”
The concept quickly spread to other Gwinnett high schools and beyond, and continues to garner national attention. The food pantries are in high schools in five different states and requests are ongoing. Lauren Seroyer, now a communications major at LSU, put together a CARE Closet kit and sustainability plan. High schools are instructed how to get a closet organized and keep it operating year after year.
Closets are confidential because the twins didn’t want anyone to feel ashamed to ask for help. Mobile shelving allows the pantries to be moved to different parts of the campus, and backpacks are provided for students to take the food home. Student volunteers regularly check expiration dates.
To help with operations, the twins have raised $86,000 through donations, charitable grants, and national awards.
“I like what we’re doing because we’re helping people in need,” said Steven Seroyer, who will attend Tennessee State University this fall.
He describes himself as the muscle behind it all, working behind the scenes to set up the closets and keep them stocked.
Neither twin could envision their plan gaining so much traction.
“I don’t think I expected it to grow this big. We just wanted to help the guy who didn’t have enough to eat at home. I knew there would be other students who would need it, but I didn’t expect it to take hold like this,” Lauren Seroyer said.
Some schools have altered the closet to fit their student body.
At Shiloh High School, the CARE Closet is more self-contained and includes career clothing. A stylist volunteers to help students and parents pull together outfits they can wear to work.
At Berkmar High School, special education teachers Emily Santowski and Jennifer Westphal oversee the closet, and their students sort items and check expiration dates. An inventory app tracks every donation, so they always know what’s available and what items they need to restock.
In addition to food, Berkmar added hygiene items and laundry detergent because the demand was great.
Virtually everyone at Berkmar helps out with the closet. Student groups and athletic teams pitch in to collect donations, and the community is generous in giving, Santowski said.
“The amount of food and hygiene items that pass through is heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time,” she said.
Parents Chelonnda and Steven Seroyer, are most proud of their twins for empowering each school to sustain their closet by getting clubs and organizations involved.
“I love the fact that it created a legacy of service leadership for others,” Chelonnda Seroyer said.
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