PAWCATUCK — Filling box after box with donated canned goods, bath items and baby products in the school gym Friday afternoon, student council members at Pawcatuck Middle School knew they had rallied their community to support federal government workers during the government shutdown.
“Some people are in the Coast Guard in this community so we wanted to help them out in the times that they need it the most,” said Peter Previty, 13, a seventh-grade student council member. “It makes me feel good inside because I’m getting to help somebody else. I’m lucky that I'm not affected by it, my family is not, but I want to help someone else who is affected.”
The food drive was the brainchild of student council member Will Fyke, a 13-year-old eighth grader who said he got the idea while watching the world news on television.
“I saw them interviewing people from New London and all this stuff about the Coast Guard Academy and its food bank,” Fyke said. “I was thinking that would be an idea for a food drive and I realized I’m on student council and I could do something about that.”
The idea took off after Fyke emailed Pawcatuck Middle School teacher Tina Eisenbeis, who coordinates the student council with teacher Dan Agins.
Soon food drives were also happening at Mystic Middle School and Stonington High School, Fyke said.
“This was an idea that was in my head a couple of Thursdays ago and now it’s effecting real change,” he said. “I’m proud of the people around me and all the families who participated and gave, I’m proud of everybody.”
As the students packed boxes, two members of the Coast Guard community arrived in a pickup truck to transport the donations to the Coast Guard Academy’s “pop-up” food pantry in New London.
One was Donny Bechtler, of Norwich, a logistics officer of the Chief Petty Officers Association, who said the food pantry started with 12 pallets of food from We Share Hope, a nonprofit in Warren, Rhode Island, followed by help from the Connecticut Food Bank.
“Then donations started trickling in and now it’s been a constant stream of 80 to 100 cars a day just dropping food off,” he said.
Bechtler said about 100 to 120 families of furloughed federal workers visit the food pantry each day.
“We try to fill up people’s carts so this is one thing they don't have to stress about,” he said. “We can’t help them pay their bills but we can keep their pantry full.”
Accompanying Bechtler was Jerry Wright, of Norwich, concessions chairman with the Coast Guard Enlisted Association, who said the pantry was set up on the Coast Guard Academy campus on Jan. 13, or 22 days into the government shutdown that started Dec. 22. Initially the pantry was only for Coast Guard workers but then it was opened up to all affected federal workers.
“We opened it up to anyone who is furloughed, IRS, TSA, everybody’s welcome. They can come and take as much food as they need,” he said. “We have people coming from Rhode Island, Cape Code, New York.”
The food drive has given the students an opportunity to be aware of a national issue and to do something locally to help others, said Eisenbeis.
“It empowers them that when they do see something in the news, they can say, ‘I’m helping families that are affected by what is going on with our government,” Eisenbeis said. “Now they watch the news more because now they feel they have some background knowledge and they’re part of this with how they’re helping other people.”
Later on Friday afternoon, a Washington deal was struck to reopen the government for three weeks, until Feb. 15.
Reached by phone, Bechtler said the pantry would remain open through Tuesday but his group would be prepared should the government shut down again.
“We’ll close the pantry because people will be paid next week and they can load up now,” he said. “But the government could close again in three weeks, so we’re going to be prepared in case that happens.”
The Coast Guard Academy food pantry is set up in Leamy Hall. The pantry is manned from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and doors remain open until 10 p.m., through Tuesday. Donations can be dropped off anytime.