In Tucson, 21 percent of children live below the poverty level. It makes a difference when children study on empty stomachs. It makes a difference when they have no food to eat when they get home. It makes a difference in their ability to grow, learn and succeed. “Making a Difference Every Day: The Homer Davis Project” has made the difference for hundreds of students over the past decade, helping to meet the needs of hunger at one local elementary school. The program’s 10th anniversary will be marked in March with a special, interactive event, chaired by Gail Birin and Linda Kunsberg.
The Homer Davis Project is a collaboration of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Jewish Community Relations Council, chaired by Stephanie Evic, and the Jewish community. It evolved from the JCRC’s annual day of service. “They decided they wanted to make a difference every day,” recalls Mary Ellen Loebl, program coordinator for the past nine years. A committee evaluated several elementary schools to find a true partnership, and adopted Homer Davis Elementary School in Flowing Wells School District. At the time, 87 percent of its students were on free or reduced lunch, a common measure of poverty in the education system.
“The JFSA is a wonderful partner,” says Homer Davis Principal Lyle Dunbar. “They are truly committed to the success of our students and community here at Homer Davis. Their commitment to the well-being of our students’ physical and psychological needs is incredible. I make one phone call to Mary Ellen and the JFSA comes to the rescue. I appreciate all they do for us.”
“We started out by providing weekend food packs for 20 students,” says Loebl. These food packs supplement the students’ nutrition when not at school, and sometimes provide their only food over the weekends. “Now, we are serving nearly 100 students in so many more ways,” Loebl says. Nearly 600 families received food boxes over the course of the program that has touched each of the school’s students with generosity — more than 4,000 over the decade. The Arizona Education Association Foundation recognized the program with a Partners in Education Award in May.
The program invests about $20,000 annually on food, in collaboration with the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. That provides break snacks for 150 kindergartners and first graders on school days and during summer school, as well as the weekend food packs. The program delivers food boxes during the 16-day winter break, nine-day spring break, Thanksgiving, rodeo and fall breaks. Food includes easy things for kids to make by themselves, such as soups, cereals, oatmeal, mac and cheese, tuna fish — not a favorite item with the kids but the parents like it — and fresh fruit and vegetables as available.
The greater Jewish community also is committed to Homer Davis. Congregation M’Kor Hayim provides and packs the Thanksgiving boxes. There are ongoing drives and additional support for school supplies, toiletries, teacher materials, individual snacks, and for every student, spirit shirts and backpacks. A 2016 donation from the Maizlisch Family Foundation delivered 20 new laptops and other special equipment.
Northwest Needlers stitched winter accessories for the students. The Young Women’s Cabinet donates books; Young Men’s Group donates sports equipment; and one year, Tucson Hebrew Academy students collected 800 jars of peanut butter, even though THA is a peanut-free campus. Next year, JFSA Women’s Philanthropy’s Connections organizers are committed to collecting and donating toiletries.
Community youth have collected food, money and school supplies for their b’nai mitzvah projects or high school senior projects.
One donor even had a school supply party for her 65th birthday, with all of her friends gifting items for the students.
The program provides about 30 volunteers to the school on a regular basis. They are Homework Helpers three times weekly after school, designated in-classroom assistants and Reading Rockstars, focused on reading skills improvement. Coaches volunteered for the Girls on the Run development program, built a 20-bed community garden, refreshed a mural, added benches and bird feeders outdoors and weeded the area. “We’ve engaged more than 100 volunteers over the course of the program. That would be more if we counted everyone who contributed to all the drives,” says Loebl.
Supporters such as Truly Nolen Pest Control provide funds, volunteers and help packing and delivering. Kunsberg also chairs the packing committee. Other donors include National Bank of Arizona, Wells Fargo Bank and the Hopper Family Foundation. Individual donors to the project can take advantage of the Homer Davis Nutritional Snack Program tax credit on their Arizona income taxes.