Each year, more and more children in Athens County and across Ohio benefit from the free and reduced lunch programs at the public schools. During the summer months, though, many families do not have enough money to pay for all of the meals for their children, so summer feeding programs spring up across the region. One of the largest programs of this kind in Athens County is run by the Nelsonville Community Center.
The center, which is staffed completely by volunteers, is led by Rhonda Bentley. She explained that every Monday through Friday in the summer, community center volunteers served breakfast and lunch to children at the park next to the city pool. Breakfast was served from 9-10 a.m., and it usually drew around 100 children. Lunch was served from 1-2 p.m., and often drew around 300. In a city of around 5,000 people, it is stunning to have that many children showing up for free lunches every day.
“It’s amazing to me, too,” Rhonda said. Many of the children are at the city pool on the hot summer days, and then they walk to the park for the free lunches. Their families may be able to find the money to get the children in the pool, but without this program many of the children would not have had money for lunch, Rhonda said.
Many of the children also come to the park just for the lunches. Some show up early and wait, and some pick up their lunches and take them home or to wherever they are playing that day. On rainy days when people are not swimming, the Nelsonville Community Center still passes out more than 160 free lunches.
Hocking-Athens-Perry Community Action provides the food for the breakfast and lunch programs. The meals are all very basic, with lunches made up of items such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, turkey and cheese sandwiches, apples, raisins, celery and peanut butter. The breakfast meals include items such as cereal, fruit, milk and bagels.
The Nelsonville Community Center also offers after-school programs, clubs for children to join, and other activities. The center is a safe and warm place where children of all ages can gather after school and in the summer.
The center also offers programming for adults, a free community lunch on Fridays, free clothing and other items, and furniture sold for very low prices. The center accepts donated furniture, and then sells the furniture items in order to help pay the utility bills for the building. There are no income limits on purchasing the furniture.
“We’d like everyone to come in. We need to sell as much furniture as possible in order to pay the bills,” Rhonda said.