RALEIGH, N.C. – As COVID-19 swept the nation, schools closed their doors to safeguard students and help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The virus caused unemployment to skyrocket, causing families to struggle more than ever to feed their children. Students in Bladen County were particularly affected by COVID-19, leaving them and their families in a dire situation.
Amy Stanley, the director of school nutrition for Bladen County schools, said 76% of students attending Elizabethtown Middle School would typically receive free or reduced meals during the school year.
“Typically students are here at school and they’re able to get those lunches ... but COVID-19 has impacted our society so much,” said Jamal Dunham, the principal of Elizabethtown Middle School. “We transitioned to virtual schooling, but kids still need to eat.”
“Without those meals, they’re not going to have the nutrition that they need,” Stanley said. “When we get out of school on Friday and come back on Monday, there are many children that do not eat during that weekend, so to go three or four months without the children eating would be devastating to the families and to the children.”
Bladen County leaders asked the North Carolina Army National Guard to help provide breakfast and lunch to students across the county.
“The National Guard has stepped in and provided our district the opportunity to support children through natural and healthy eating habits,” said Dunham. “We would not have been able to make the impact we’re making without the help of the National Guard.”
On April 27, 55 Soldiers from various units across North Carolina including the 1131st Charlie Company, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 449th Theatre Aviation Brigade, Alpha and Bravo Battery, 5th Battalion, 113th Field Artillery Regiment, and the 1454th Transportation Company, arrived in Bladen County.
“It was just amazing to see how quickly they (NCARNG) were able to come in, integrate into the system, and just hit the ground running,” said Robert Taylor, the superintendent at Elizabethtown Middle School.
Guard members assisted seven schools, including Elizabethtown Middle School. Their collaborative mission to help the hungry began early in the morning as Soldiers put on their uniforms and worked long hours with the school staff to prepare meals and load them onto school buses for delivery.
“The teamwork is just phenomenal,” said Maj. Ashley Perdue of the HHC 449th TAB and the officer in charge at Elizabethtown Middle School. “Working with the cafeteria staff, we all just melded. ... It’s been a really great experience.”
The Guard helped Bladen County provide approximately 45,000 meals a week that were distributed daily along 26 bus routes.
“The feeding of the children during this COVID crisis has been a really tremendous effort,” said Taylor. “Having the National Guard here has made a tremendous difference in terms of how we serve people.”
Children once again heard the sound of school buses approaching their bus stops. However, the last thing they expected to see were boots emerging.
“At first they were kind of standoffish and scared, not used to seeing the uniform,” said National Guard Spc. Amber Cohen, assigned to the 449th TAB. “Now they’re running up to me like I’m family ... and giving me hugs on my leg.”
The experience ended up being more than just a job to members of the Guard.
“You get to see the smiles on their faces ... and you know that when you hand them that food, they’re going to be eating for lunch and breakfast the next day at the very least,” Cohen said.
“The National Guard in Bladen County will be a lasting memory for everyone,” said Taylor. “The Guard is actually helping out communities in ways that they have never imagined.”
Dunham praised the Guard's “phenomenal work.”
“We are blessed to have you on our side,” he said.