Kids Come Together: Sioux City Elementary Students Help Children In Foster Care

By Anthony SanFilippo

Stacey Verzal and her elementary school students at Riverside Elementary in Sioux City, Iowa wanted to help a fledgling non-profit group that was looking to meet the needs of young people in foster care.

So, they applied for a Project Jack grant, a program funded by the REALTOR® Foundation of Iowa that affords students in fourth or fifth grades the chance to “pay it forward,” by using grant money to help a community project.

Verzal and her students were one of 517 projects chosen across the state of Iowa to receive a $250 grant.

The $250 would have been a nice donation for JeNel Baker, who was starting this non-profit as several children in the Sioux City Community Schools have at one time or another found themselves in foster care.

“When this happens, the students are often taken right from the school with only the clothes on their backs,” Verzal said.

Baker needed funding to help with the start-up costs of making a supply shop – to provide foster kids with the everyday items they need when suddenly they are being brought to a new home.

Verzal’s class asked the school community for donations of new or gently used clothing items to help stock the supply shop. The response was overwhelming.

The students worked to create fliers that were hung up around the building and had them stuffed into every student’s take-home folders for their parents to see.

When the word spread about what these Riverside students were doing, one parent alerted Verzal to the Iowa State Education Association, which also offered grant dollars for community service work. As such, the Riverside students were able to secure an additional $500 in grant money for Baker.

As word spread, the donations started pouring in.

The students surprised Baker with a reveal of dozens of boxes of clothing and $750 to start her shop.

It was just one of hundreds of projects in Iowa that fall under Project Jack.

Project Jack

Project Jack is named in memory of Jack Lindaman, a student in the Quad Cities area who died in 2010 at the age of six. Lindaman suffered from spinal muscular atrophy, a nerve disorder that robs young children of the ability to walk, eat or breathe.

Lindaman’s family started Project Jack by taking left over money from his memorial and giving it to his classmates, asking them to take it and use it to do something good in their community in Jack’s memory.

The first Project Jack endeavor was held at Alan Shepard Elementary School in Jack’s honor.  The program was expanded by the REALTOR® Foundation of Iowa in 2016 to make “pay-it-forward” grants available to all 4th and 5th grade classrooms in the state.

Soon, the project took off. Students in elementary schools across Iowa were taking these grants and helping others.

Kids Come Together  

“There was one school (Spirit Lake Elementary) where one of the student’s mom had recently died from skin cancer and that classroom decided to use the money to purchase a sun block dispenser and sun block refills for the local ball field,” said Kerri McKim, communications director for the Northwest Iowa Board of Realtors. “It’s amazing to see the kids come together for such good causes in their communities.”

The individual projects are determined solely by the kids in the schools. Although the teachers apply for the grant, the REALTOR® Foundation doesn’t ask for specifics in advance of awarding the grant. The idea is for the kids to determine what is the best use for this money and to give back to their community, even though they are just nine or 10 years old.

Many of the projects are affiliated with making donations to local hospitals or helping sick classmates or friends.

Others are more targeted and specific – like making goodie bags and providing entertainment for families staying at the local Ronald McDonald House (Brookview Elementary in West Des Moines), or adopting a fire station (Des Moines Christian School in Urbandale) where little snacks and thank you cards are delivered to first responders so they know they are appreciated.

CAM North Elementary in Anita decided to “Pay it forward” by rewarding older students who also “pay it forward. CAM North 5th grade students participate in program called “Boomerang”, where high school junior and senior role model students lead weekly, semester-long lessons on character development, peer pressure and making good choices.

Twelve high school juniors and seniors lead the lessons, and they also lead the fifth graders in planning and carrying out a community-wide service project to benefit others in the community. This past school year, the group helped the local Tackle Hunger food drive sponsored by the high school football team, to help re-stock the local food pantries in Anita and Cumberland.

These students used the Project Jack grant money to fundraise further for the Boomerang Scholarship fund, so that the senior Boomerang Team leaders each received a small scholarship towards attending the college of their choice.

Iowa REALTORS® Increase Support

Local REALTOR® associations also mobilized with this project and helped provide even more grant money to Project Jack.

“Last year our Board of Directors allocated $1,000 in addition to the REALTOR® Foundation of Iowa,” McKim said. “So, we funded four more projects in our community outside of the REALTOR® Foundation.”

Overall, 16,611 students in fourth and fifth grades all across Iowa participated in Project Jack in 2018. The REALTOR® Foundation handed out more than $125,000 in grant money to fund the project.

“It’s really fun,” McKim said. “It’s one of the greatest things our REALTORS® have done and I hope they never stop doing it.

“You can see the engagement of the kids, when they are stocking shelves at the food pantry knowing their donation paid for the food that is going on the shelves to help the people in their community. It’s active learning and I think that is really neat to see.”



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