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Lydia Taylor, 6, is happy to help out at the New Hampshire Food Bank, where she and her fellow students from Mill Falls School spent Friday morning putting together packages of macaroni and cheese for needy families. (SHAWNE K. WICKHAM/SUNDAY NEWS)

Charter school kindergarten students show they are ready to serve in Manchester

MANCHESTER — Two hours plus 93 children equal 2,808 meals.

Those are the numbers behind a "service learning" trip to New Hampshire Food Bank on Friday for students from Mill Falls Charter School. But math wasn't the important lesson of the day.

"Service learning isn't just a field trip," explained Meryl Levin, board chair for Mill Falls, the state's first public Montessori school. "It's to go into the community and fill a need, and then come back and talk about it."
The youngsters had spent the week learning about hunger, both in the world and closer to home, Levin said. "It's really important for them to think about their neighbors and the needs of the community."
And on Friday, it was time to teach them they could do something about it.

The children walked to the Food Bank from their school, which leases space in the nearby New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper building. Teachers and parent chaperones helped them don hair nets, gloves and plastic aprons and then set them to work, assembly-line style, putting together packages of enriched macaroni and cheese dinners.
Even the littlest ones knew what they were doing there. "We're here to help people," said 6-year-old Lydia Taylor, as she carefully poured scoops of macaroni into a bag through a funnel.

"So they get food and don't starve," added classmate Theo Stevens, also 6.
Kristin Lang teaches these kindergartners at Mill Falls. She said teachers talked with their students about the needy in the community, and the school held a food drive during the holiday season to benefit the Food Bank.
Melanie Gosselin, executive director of the Food Bank, said it's important for even the youngest children to see they can make a difference.

The Food Bank has had other groups, from senior citizens to the Manchester Monarchs, volunteer to pack meals. But this was the first time students from a public school had come to help, she said.
And Gosselin said she'd welcome other schools doing the same.

"It's an opportunity to teach them about community and giving back, while they're processing meals we can get out to the state," she said.

When the youngsters were finished, they had packed enough macaroni and cheese to provide 2,808 meals to needy families in New Hampshire. And they also had learned some tangible lessons, educators and Food Bank staff said.
Michael O'Neil, head of school at Mill Falls, said service learning is an important part of the school's charter, and the visit to the Food Bank was the first such project.

O'Neil said students learned "number one, the impact we just made on the local community."
But they also discovered, he said, "how much fun it is to work as a team. They're working with children they don't always play with, so it's a real sense of teamwork."

Bruce Wilson, director of operations at the Food Bank, said the project gave the youngsters "an opportunity to understand there are others — it could be their friends or neighbors — that are in need." The meals they packed on Friday "will be gone in a matter of days," he said.
Wilson said the youngsters were actually better than some adults at packaging meals. "They listen," he said. "Because they really want to do it."

That was clear on Friday. After kindergartner Livia Johnson filled up her first bag of macaroni, she looked up with shining eyes and asked a question familiar to parents everywhere: "Can I do it again?"

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