As the coronavirus swept through the Nation, schools closed their doors in order to help safeguard students and stop the spread of the virus. School buses stopped in their tracks, there were classrooms with no teachers, desks with no students and hallways that were once filled with life were now vacant.
Students in Bladen County, N.C. were particularly affected by COVID-19, leaving them and their families in a dire situation. COVID-19 caused unemployment to sky rocket and families struggled now more than ever to feed their children.
According to Amy Stanley, the Director of school nutrition for Bladen County schools, 76% of students attending Elizabethtown Middle School would typically receive free or reduced meals during the school year. Therefore, most of the meals children received during the weekday derived from the school meal programs.
“On a daily basis typically students are here at school and they’re able to get those lunches...but COVID-19 has impacted our society so much…” said Jamal Dunham, the principal of Elizabethtown Middle School. “We transitioned to virtual schooling but kids still need to eat.”
Meals the community relied on to help feed the children of Bladen County now vanished when tragedy struck the nation. With parents out of work and students without a meal plan, the uncertainty of when their next meal would come became a mystery and a gut wrenching horror.
“Without those meals they’re not going to have that nutrition that they need,” Stanley said. “When we get out of school on Friday and come back on Monday there are many children that do not eat during that weekend so to go three or four months without the children eating would be devastating to the families and to the children.”
Schools were no longer in session but their desire to help remained strong. Therefore, leaders of Bladen County decided to take action and called upon the North Carolina Army National Guard to help with their mission to provide school breakfast and lunches to students all across the County.
“The National Guard has stepped in and provided our district the opportunity to support children through natural and healthy eating habits,” said Dunham. “We would not have been able to make the impact we’re making without the help of the National Guard.”
On April 27th, 55 Soldiers from various units across North Carolina including; the 1131st Charlie Company, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 449th Theatre Aviation Brigade, Alpha and Bravo Battery, 5th Battalion, 113th Field Artillery Regiment, and the 1454th Transportation Company arrived in Bladen County.
“It was just amazing to see how quickly they (NCARNG) were able to come in, integrate into the system, and just hit the ground running,” said Robert Taylor, the superintendent at Elizabethtown Middle School.
The guardsmen provided assistance to seven different schools throughout the County, including Elizabethtown Middle School. Their collaborative mission to help the hungry began early in the morning as Soldiers put on their uniforms and worked long hours with the school staff to make and distribute meals. Finally, the meals were loaded onto school buses and were off to their usual routes.
“The team work is just phenomenal,” said NCARNG Maj. Ashley Perdue of the HHC 449th TAB and the officer in charge at Elizabethtown Middle School. “Working with the cafeteria staff we all just melded….it's been a really great experience.”
With a limited workforce, the NCNG played a key role in helping Bladen County produce and distribute mass quantities of food on a daily basis. The Guard helped Bladen County provide approximately 45,000 meals a week that were distributed daily along 26 bus routes.
“The feeding of the children during this COVID crisis has been a really tremendous effort,” said Taylor. “Having the National Guard here has made a tremendous difference in terms of how we serve people.”
During a time of social distancing, school buses are as rare a sight as an ice cream truck in the dead of winter. Children of Bladen County were once again able to hear the sweet sound of the roaring engine as their yellow beacon of hope approached their bus stop. Their unexpected guardian angel had arrived. However, the last thing the kids expected to see were boots emerging from the bus as the doors opened.
“At first they were kind of standoffish and scared not used to seeing the uniform,” said National Guardsmen Spc. Amber Cohen, assigned to the 449th TAB. “Now they’re running up to me like I'm family...and giving me hugs on my leg.”
The experience ended up being more than just a duty and job especially to Spc. Cohen. The word “family” was used to describe the relationship the staff and Soldiers developed while working for the same cause. It brought new perspectives and grateful hearts as these heroes in green served their community.
“Their people of our own,” Cohen said. “It feels like it's a family. You get to see the smiles on their faces...and you know that when you hand them that food they're gonna be eating for lunch and breakfast the next day at the very least.”
An unlikely hero quickly became a friendly face that the children greeted with warm hugs and bright smiles.
“The National Guard in Bladen County will be a lasting memory for everyone,” said Taylor. “The Guard is actually helping out communities in ways that they have never imagined.”
The dedication and perseverance of the Elizabethtown Middle School staff and Soldiers served food and hope to many children. A time of tragedy evolved into an unexpected experience of unity and camaraderie.