In the first few weeks of the fall semester, Pamela Fergus and the 32 students in her PSYC 212 class have already taken community engagement to a new level. Thanks to them, nearly all the lunch debt in the St. Paul Public Schools will be retired. Their online fundraising campaign, “Philando Feeds the Children,” has raised over $63,000 from more than 1,800 donors.
“The little seed for it got planted this summer when the police officer was acquitted [in the shooting death of Philando Castile]. Which shocked me and everyone. I am angry. What do I do with my anger?” said Fergus, community faculty in Psychology. “I realized there had to be some way to connect with people who were as upset and angry and outraged as I was at the whole situation.”
Fergus decided to offer a new option to fulfill the “diversity experience” requirement in her fall course, Introduction to Diversity and Ethics in Psychology.
She heard that Philando Castile would personally pay for kids’ lunches at his job as cafeteria supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in St. Paul. It made her wonder how much debt the school incurs from unpaid lunch accounts.
“I read J.J. Hill usually at the end of the school year is about $1,000 in debt, and this year it was $4,000. So times have gotten harder for people. I thought I could offer this as one of the assignments [for PSYC 212] and see if we could pay off debt for J.J. Hill,” said Fergus.
Her class accepted the challenge and set an initial fundraising goal of $5,000. Fergus created a fundraising page on youcaring.com and posted the link on the class D2L site. “I thought I was thinking big,” she said.
“Then something happened — all of of a sudden I couldn’t keep up. I get a little email every time somebody donates. If I walked away from my phone and came back, there would be 15 emails,” Fergus said. “By the end of one week [on September 3], we had $54,000. More than ten times our initial goal.”
Success came from students using social media to promote the fund. “I’ve been sharing it on Facebook and Twitter. And then a lot of my friends have been sharing it too. It’s really cool to see everyone come together,” said Jessica Fuentes, an Individualized Studies major.
“I’ve been putting it everywhere that will let me post it on their pages. I reached out to some big name people,” said Ronnie Erickson, a Psychology major. She hopes their efforts will gain the attention of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” “I’m working on it. I am super proud to be a part of this. I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing,” Erickson said.
The campaign has garnered state and national media attention, including from WCCO-TV, Star Tribune, Huffington Post, Salon and Time.
In class, Fergus guides students in considering ethical considerations around poverty and race. Some online commenters have criticized the fundraising campaign, saying parents should not be let off the hook on paying for their children’s lunch accounts.
“And there’s the moral question: do we punish the kid because their parent made a bad financial decision? If you pare everything back, don’t these kids deserve to have lunch and the school deserves to have the lunch paid for?” Fergus said.
Heather Moenck, a Psychology and Social Work major, said the fundraising effort has been inspiring and motivating to her as a student and citizen. “It’s bringing the [concepts of] ethics and diversity to a real situation for us, where we can really relate to it. We can actually change it. Instead of sitting by, reading about poverty and feeling helpless. We have an active hand.”
With their initial goal far surpassed, the class is setting their aims higher. A St. Paul Public Schools supervisor told them the district-wide debt is $45,000 to $60,000 per year related to the lunch program. “We decided as a class that’s our new goal,” said Fergus.
Lawyers and a finance expert have volunteered to make “Philando Feeds the Children” a nonprofit organization. “We are lucky to have that help, because none of us thought it was going to get this big, when we had a $5,000 goal,” said student Ronnie Erickson.
Later this fall the class will visit J.J. Hill to eat lunch with elementary students and present the school with the funds to pay off their lunch debt.
The fundraising campaign has the support of Valerie Castile, Philando’s mother. “Valerie told me she couldn’t imagine Philando finding anything more appropriate than other people helping to feed those kids,” said Fergus.
“What a terrible thing to get in the way of education, to be ashamed of how your lunch is paid for. That’s the last thing kids need to worry about,” said Fergus. “For us, this is local. We want to help those school kids.”