LEWISTON — Over the summer, staff at the Trinity Jubilee Center saw parents and their children were excited to get back to school full time.

But, for some struggling families, there can be mixed feelings. Due to the pandemic, remote and hybrid learning last year heightened concerns over food access, with many Lewiston students relying on school meals for nutrition.

Now, with schools returning full time to classrooms, the worry has shifted to having the proper clothing.

“Transitioning back to full-time, in-person school will be a big adjustment for the kids, and they don’t need the added stress of being embarrassed about their clothes,” said Erin Reed, director of the Trinity Jubilee Center.

This summer, the center has provided more than 200 families with groceries and an added bonus: $70 gift cards to Marden’s and $30 gift cards for Quiet City Books to support back-to-school shopping.

According to Reed, the funding came from a grant aimed at publicizing the center’s Summer Food Service Program, which provides grocery boxes to families. The grant paid for the gift cards, which were offered to families who participated in the food program, and over the last two weeks, 119 families signed up for the expanded program.

“We’ve found that once a parent comes for the first time, they realize that the food is great and the pickups aren’t complicated or embarrassing and they start coming in regularly,” Reed said. “People can be hesitant to ask for help and these extra supplies often push families to come in for the first time.”

Teresa Pelletier, a single mother of five, went to Marden’s on Saturday with the gift card to do some shopping.

She said because she is disabled and has limited income, she’s “struggled tremendously” throughout the pandemic to keep food in the house.

“I am so very grateful that this program was available to all families who needed the help,” she said. “I appreciate the time and effort put in by those who made this program possible for me and my kids and all the other families out there struggling to make ends meet in such crazy times.

“And to top it all off, it’s embarrassing to send my kids back to school in second hand clothes that don’t fit because I can’t afford new clothes for them.”

Christian Pelletier, 12, of Lewiston shows his mother, Teresa Pelletier, a pair of pants Saturday while shopping at Marden’s for back-to-school clothes in Lewiston. The mother of five received a Marden’s gift card for $70 from the Trinity Jubilee Center to help with the cost of back-to-school shopping. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Reed said the Summer Food Service Program is the “summer version” of the school district’s Free and Reduced Lunch Program. During previous summers, Trinity served breakfast and lunch but instead began putting together grocery boxes due to COVID-19.

The center distributed 5,679 grocery boxes to more than 1,000 children this summer. The boxes included “kid favorites,” including chicken nuggets, cheese sticks, granola bars and Cheerios.

Reed said families rely on their kids eating breakfast and lunch at school and that affording all of the extra groceries during remote schooling, on top of additional childcare costs, was tough for a lot of families.

“A silver lining of the pandemic, though, was that kids only had to worry about having clean, fashionable clothes two days per week, not five,” she said. “They could stay in pajamas on remote learning days or wear old hand-me-downs.

“Now even young kids are worried about being made fun of for coming into school with clothes that are too small, ripped or dirty because they have to wear the same outfit for a few days in a row.”

Reed said Marden’s will calculate the balances on the cards at the end of September, when they expire, and Trinity will only pay for what was actually spent. The center has been collecting telephone numbers from the families in case there is enough left to do another round of gift cards around the holidays.

She said teaming up with Marden’s seemed like the perfect fit, because of the variety of products it sells. She said families may be looking for everything from new jeans or shoes, to school supplies or a desk to make a “homework station” at home.

She said Quiet City Books on downtown Lisbon Street “was so excited to participate.”

“We’re thrilled to be supporting these Maine businesses, and helping kids in need at the same time,” Reed said.

Know someone with a deep well of unlimited public spirit? Someone who gives of his or her time to make their community a better place? Then nominate him or her for Kudos. Send the person’s name and where he or she does good deeds to reporter Andrew Rice at [email protected] and he will do the rest.

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