Psych class raises $63K to pay off St. Paul school children lunch debt

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Photo by Kathryn Ganfield
Kathryn Ganfield

Kathryn Ganfield

Kathryn Ganfield is the current Editor of the Metropolitan Student Newspaper.

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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 you​car​ing​.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.”