'We Raised $100,000 To Give Free Food to School Kids Over Christmas'

I've always wanted to be a teacher, though initially I planned to be a high school history teacher and for about three months, I wanted to be a lawyer. I don't know what I was thinking there. Finally, I realized that teaching in an elementary school is where I really wanted to be.

So, I have been an elementary school teacher for 11 years now and the last seven of those have been in Durham, North Carolina. For the past three years I have been teaching at Lakewood Elementary School, but in 2015 when I was teaching at Eastway Elementary School, the family of a student reached out needing food for their kids for winter break. There are lots of programs during the school year where kids can get a bag of food every Friday for the weekend, but being out of school for two weeks over Christmas is a different story. I made sure that family was taken care of but I then realized that if this family was asking then a lot of other families could probably use free food at this time.

I decided to create Mrs Parker's Professors Foodraiser and sent messages to as many people as I could think of to ask for donations. T. Greg Doucett was one of those people. He is a local lawyer and I had met him earlier that year when he was running for State Senate and wanted to speak with local teachers. T. Greg went through a period of homelessness himself and had memories of how people had helped him, so he felt a connection to making sure kids had food for the winter break. From that moment until today, we have worked together to make sure that food makes it home with our kids each Christmas.

That first year we raised enough to feed the families of 22 students—or professors as I call them—over the Christmas holidays. A lot of the fundraising for Mrs Parker's Professors Foodraiser, which is also known as the Bull City Foodraiser, happens on social media, which is where T.Greg plays a huge role. He manages the financial side, including receiving paper checks, overseeing our PayPal and Venmo and GoFundMe donations that all go into a foundation. I manage the logistical side of the project; volunteers, ordering the food and arranging the bags and delivery. Both of our reach on social media is pretty broad, so we can lean on the people in our circles to help this project come to life.

I'm amazed at how much this has grown in the years since. In 2020, we raised around $55,000 in donations and when T.Greg told me the final total of the Foodraiser this year, more than $106,000, I was absolutely shocked. This was a vision to provide free food for one family and then for 22 kids in my class. That's all I was trying to do at first!

From 2015 through 2019, T.Greg and I would organize a bunch of people to meet and pack their cars out with food to take to school so we could organize it into food bags. But because the Foodraiser had grown so much by 2020, the amount of food became more than a caravan of cars could take. I do have to give huge amounts of love and appreciation to Lowes, because last year they donated an 18 wheeler truck, a forklift and a driver to help us, and we have used that this year as well.

Over $100,000 Was Raised For Free Food
Turquoise LeJeune Parker (left) started her annual Mrs Parker's Professors Foodraiser in 2015 to feed one family. In 2021, along with co-organizer, T. Greg Doucette (right) , the fundraiser was able to generate more than $100,000 in donations and feed 5,200 families across 12 schools in the Durham area of North Carolina. Turquoise LeJeune Parker

I placed the order this year with Costco and T.Greg went to Costco to pay and posted the total of $103,079.70 on social media. They then brought the pallets of food to Lakewood Elementary in the 18 wheeler. The food was transferred into the gym and placed in order on an assembly line. Another huge part of this effort was the volunteers who came in and helped with the assembly line and packed the bags. Once they were ready, the food bags then went to different classrooms at Lakewood and to 11 other elementary schools in the area. This year, we have been able to provide free food to around 5,200 families.

We have also made sure that this is a quality bag of food; we do our best to be intentional about what we give. We choose items that can last—except for the loaf bread—including oatmeal, canned tuna, corn and green beans, cereal and juice and granola bars. They are foods that can be fixed up into meals regardless of a family's living situation. Our goal for 2022 is to get the pop-top cans in case a family is without a can opener.

What we have achieved is unbelievable really. I often look at a picture from the first year and it makes me smile, because this whole initiative came from helping just one family. That is just wild to me.

But I often say that while you can have a brilliant idea, you can't execute it without a team of people. It won't have the same impact. When I was at North Carolina Central University, I was in the marching band and our band director gave us a lot of responsibilities as students. You can have a vision to make different shapes and words on the field as a marching band, but you can't do any of that by yourself. That's how I see Mrs Parker's Professors Foodraiser.

I do a lot of work with my local, state and national state affiliates of the National Education Association (NEA), working for legislative change, but I don't know if I would run for public office. I feel more impactful when I work to build a bigger team across the state, with the goal of ensuring legislators who care about people are elected. But I will absolutely be doing Mrs Parker's Professors Foodraiser in 2022.

One of the dreams I have is to do with spring break. Winter break and spring break are the two holidays we have where no food is provided for families. In 2019, we were able to work with an organization to provide some food bags to students during spring break, but sadly in 2020 that didn't happen because of the pandemic. Then in 2021, a different organization helped provide food bags for two local schools; Lakewood and Eastway Elementary Schools.

My prayer for the future is that we can expand to provide free food over spring break in the same way we do at Christmas. But we will certainly keep Mrs Parker's Professors Foodraiser going every winter. I have no doubt about that.

Turquoise LeJeune Parker is an elementary school teacher and community organizer in Durham, North Carolina. You can follow her on Twitter @PrkrsProfessors and T.Greg Doucette @greg_doucette.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.