Jill Draper never planned on starting a local movement. The Kingston resident and small business owner said she only wanted to find a way to help local kids when she committed $500 toward erasing student lunch debt. And now, thanks to other generous donors, the debt district-wide is within reach.
“I’ve never organized anything like this,” Draper said. “I’ve been an activist, I’ve marched, I’ve donated money. But I’ve never organized anything. It’s been really interesting and informative to kind of see it catch fire a little bit and take on its own momentum. It feels really good.”
Draper said she got the idea from Ashley C. Ford, a Brooklyn-based writer who late last year began tweeting about things everyday people can do to help make their world a better place. “A cool thing you can do today is try to find out which of your local schools have kids with overdue lunch accounts and pay them off.” tweeted Ford on Dec. 6, setting off a nationwide movement that also resonated with Draper. “For whatever reason this was one that spoke to me,” Draper said. “It felt winnable.”
School lunch debt accrues when a child is unable to pay for their lunch. Districts like Kingston don’t turn the child away, but unless they’re on the free lunch program, the cost of the lunch is added to their account and will follow them through the school system.
Draper first checked with the district on the debt at John F. Kennedy Elementary, her neighborhood school. When she discovered it was only around $200 she began to further widen the net to see how far she could stretch her initial pledge of $500. By then she’d already posted to her business’ Facebook page in an effort to galvanize other local small business owners.
“Let’s do this and make a least one small positive change in this dark world,” wrote Draper on her etsy.com shop site Jill Draper Makes Stuff on Dec. 7. “A bunch of snowflakes make a blizzard.”
Since then, that blizzard has raised around half of the district’s nearly $6,000 debt, accrued in all seven elementary schools, two middle schools, and at Kingston High, where it totaled nearly $2,000 on its own.
“Checks come in every day, so I sort of keep a rolling tally,” Draper said this week. “But the lunch debt continues to accrue.”
As her largesse turned into a mission, Draper began giving radio and newspaper interviews, which resulted in interest not just from local businesses but also individuals who just wanted to help.
“After that a lot more checks started coming in,” Draper said. “And it’s been super inspiring because the checks range from $10 to $500. I find something really inspiring about that that it speaks to people who have $10 to give and people who have $500.”
Draper said the grassroots effort hasn’t just been good for local students, but also for her sense of human kindness.
“Especially in the times that we’re in, things can seem kind of dark and hopeless, it really for me in a totally selfish way, has been such a bright spot,” Draper said. “These notes with the checks are from people who care. They care about the town we live in, and they care about the kids that are going to the school here. And they care for no reason that benefits them. It’s been really encouraging. All the checks come with the sweetest notes saying, ‘Keep me on your list,’ or, ‘If you’re doing something else, let me know.’”
Draper attended a Kingston school board meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 11, where she gave school officials a check. While she’s passed on requests for donations to be spent on specific schools to the district, Draper said she’s leaving how the money is distributed to trustees.
“What I’ve done with the school board is I let them decide on disbursement,” she said. “Honestly, there’s more bureaucracy there than I know about. I’m not on the school board. I went to my first school board meeting the time I brought them the check.”
Draper likened it to how she operates Jill Draper Makes Stuff, her yarn design and spinning business.
“I run a small business and I can’t do everything, so I outsource the stuff that I’m not good at to the people that are good at it,” she said. “I don’t know how to build a website, so I hire someone to do that. What I know is how to make yarn. And so I feel like, with the school board, their method of disbursing the money, they know better than anyone else what is needed. The response was amazing and the school board was so kind.”
As for what happens next, Draper is still trying to figure it out.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about that,” she said. “What are the changes that can happen? Food is such a basic thing, and public school is where so many people get their start. And you can’t learn if you’re hungry. I know it’s a funding issue, but I feel like maybe all public school students should be getting fed. And then it removes the stigma of free lunch or reduced lunch. There’s a certain equity in everyone just getting fed.”
Draper said she realized the effort to erase student lunch debt in Kingston may only be a temporary solution, but it was one worth doing all the same.
“It does sort of feel like throwing a spoonful of sand into the Grand Canyon, but what else can you do?” she said. “Things have ripple effects. One person’s life just being marginally easier, you never know the ripples it might cause. I’m not naive. I have a pretty good grasp that this isn’t going to change the entire world. But maybe if everybody took one small thing and worked on that one thing that they care about, it could.”
(Editor’s note: Those wanting to pitch in are asked to send Jill an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, which will be answered with details and an address to mail checks.)