COMMUNITY HERO PUT FOOD ON TABLES
When North Clackamas School District first halted in-person learning last spring, the calls for help in putting food on the table didn’t stop. In fact, they increased.
So Michele Warzoha answered hundreds of them and repurposed the district’s food pantry to deliver food at the curbside.
The pantry, inside an old classroom in Milwaukie, had been set up as a market where families could come in, browse the shelves and take home free groceries.
The COVID-19 pandemic made that impossible.
“We knew our students need access to food and access to nutrition, so during school closures, we knew closing our pantry wouldn’t be an option, especially as some food pantries around us started to close,” said Shelly Reggiani, the district’s Executive Director of Equity and Community Engagement. “Michele organized the food, the PPE, the curbside pickup, the bilingual phone numbers, toys and bikes around Christmas — everything.”
For her work expanding the output of the district’s food bank during the first 18 months of the pandemic, Warzoha has been selected as Pamplin Media Group’s 2021 Community Hero for Clackamas County.
Warzoha, a first-generation Italian American, started her career in schools as a volunteer in Greenwich Public Schools in Connecticut, where she spent 25 years as a secretary and classroom assistant before moving to Oregon on somewhat of a whim.
In North Clackamas, Warzoha — who has two kids and three grandchildren — started in 2017 as an elementary school substitute teacher before moving over to the food pantry, where she has worked as both secretary for student and families support services and volunteer coordinator.
Before the pandemic, the pantry had 30 volunteers and was open four days a week for students and their family members as well as young parents with future students.
“I really liked that part of it when it was our little store and I got to chat with the different families coming in and out,” Warzoha said. “During the pandemic, I missed that human connection and the chance to talk to people in an environment where we never judge anyone.”
Pandemic restrictions prevented volunteers from working, so the district repurposed a few staff members for the food pantry when schools closed. The shelves expanded from one classroom to three, and the pantry opened twice a week with crates filled with upwards of 60 pounds of food, including fresh produce and frozen meat.
According to state data before the pandemic, more than 33% of students at 13 of the district’s 26 elementary, middle and high schools qualify for free or reduced lunch, a federal marker of poverty.
“Before COVID, we were feeding about 40 families a week. During COVID, we were feeding around 100 families per week or more,” said Michael Ralls, former district director of social services who recently started with the county’s juvenile department. “A lot of people lost jobs and our demand increased.”
Oregon Food Bank supplies about a third of the food for the pantry, while the rest comes from donations of food and gift cards. The site of the food pantry, the Wichita Center (formerly Wichita Elementary School), also offers hygiene products, a clothes closet and housing assistance. In August, staff organized 1,700 backpacks full of back-to-school supplies before Warzoha left North Clackamas School District for a position closer to home with Estacada Schools.
“They have a food pantry out here too,” she said.
Warzoha lives near the lake with her boyfriend, who she first met in high school and reconnected with in Oregon after a few decades apart. She has her own kayak and local friends to show her the best hiking spots.
North Clackamas said they’ll remember Warzoha for her humble service to families and her cooking
“I always have so many leftovers. I never learned to cook a small amount. Tiramisu is maybe my specialty, but meatballs, lasagna, anything really, what do you need?” Warzoha said.
She said she’ll look back fondly at her time with the district.
“I was scared when I moved out here. I spent my whole life in Greenwich and didn’t know what I was getting into,” she said. “So to be welcomed by this community as one of their own, well, I don’t really know how to describe how good that feels.”