SEARSPORT — A little over a year ago, Jen Wenz, owner of the Aquarian Gift Shop in Searsport, heard some disturbing news from friends who were faculty in several local school systems.
“I was made aware of certain children who had fallen behind in their lunch accounts and were denied school lunches because they had no money,” she said. “I had a little money from my business to pay it forward, so instead of paying for the next 10 cars behind me at Dunkin Donuts, which has already been done, I thought why not pay it forward for children’s lunches at school?”
With the help of a few friends, their informal mission began in 2017 with a few auction items they were able to sell in order to present to Searsport Elementary School.
“In this country, no child should ever be refused a lunch,” she said. “We’ve been to three different schools with our donations and have literally cleaned the slate for children who had outstanding balances on their lunch account, so that they are no longer refused.”
“We work hard, but we bring the community up with us. For all of the children who grow up and move away from Maine, if they grow up seeing a community that cares about them; they may stay.”
Wenz decided to formalize the grassroots project and created Pay It Forward for Kids, Inc. in 2018. Based out of her home in Searsport, Wenz launched a two-pronged vision:
1. Ensure that lunch accounts were paid for in area schools, and
2. Provide backpacks filled with school supplies to children in need.
Having grown up in a working class family, Wenz said she has a sensitivity to how charity is viewed. Her main goal is to ensure that no child should ever feel ashamed that he or she can’t afford a lunch.
And with the backpack program, she intuitively discerned that bus drivers would be the eyes and ears for the kids who needed the supplies the most.
“Once again, the way I learned of this need is through a number of faculty members in local schools who called me to let me know what needs children had that teachers were witnessing on a daily basis,” said Wenz. “Teachers regularly take money out of their pockets just to make sure kids have school supplies and we also know of a number of local organizations doing the same thing. However, from my standpoint, the people that see these children every morning and afternoon are the bus drivers. When we asked the bus drivers if they’d be willing to take our brand new backpacks and give them to children that needed them riding their buses, they said yes. The whole point was that this was low key, without any form of embarrassment: the bus drivers would just hand them out.”
The schools that Pay It Forward for Kids currently benefit include Mount View High School in Thorndike, Capt. Albert W. Stevens School in Belfast and Searsport Elementary School in Searsport.
The organization just received $500 from Hamilton Marine to pay off lunch balances at Mount View High School, which Wenz handed to the school nutrition director of RSU 3 this week.
“We were floored,” she said. “We didn’t even know we were on their radar.”
This is a busy time of year for Wenz, who not only runs her shop full time, but puts together Christmas packages for certain families that the organization has adopted.
All told, we’ve received approximately 5,000 from the community this year,” she said. “One hundred percent of the funding has gone to both programs. And it’s going out to the programs as fast as it’s coming in.”
Wenz credits the strong ethic of Maine community for the organization’s success. “The success of our program is not only from the hard work of all the ladies that make up our team, but also, from every community member who has participated in even the smallest way to be the change they want to see for kids and families in Maine,” she said.
Wenz said although the group focused on Waldo county children from the start, the overall mission is to expand and develop their programs in every county in Maine. For more information on how to donate, visit:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/PIFFKcharityauction, or their website at https://www.payitforwardforkids.org.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org