PATERSON, NJ  – Distributing more than 650,000 meals to schoolchildren is quite a task on the best of days. Throw in the need to also give out home instruction packets and Chromebooks and you’ve got a Herculean effort at hand. Of course, this all happened in the midst of a global health pandemic that shuttered city classrooms on March 17, and forced the implementation of extraordinary health protocols to make it all a reality.

None of it would have been possible, Superintend Eileen F. Shafer said recently, without the volunteers who have been playing critical roles in keeping students fed and their education moving forward since school buildings closed. The volunteers, she added, are largely district employees who have chosen to work at the district’s sites throughout the city to distribute student meals, home instruction packets and Chromebooks.

“They could be working from home. But they volunteered to work at our eight distribution sites. Many of them are parents. Some are grandparents. All of them are motivated by a sense of duty to put the students’ needs first,” said Shafer, at a news conference held at the John F. Kennedy Educational Complex. “Their selfless dedication has made the district exceptional with regard to student meal distribution.”

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Shafer also noted when a leading education news website looked into New Jersey’s largest school districts during the pandemic, it found that no other school district in the state had distributed more student meals than Paterson Public Schools. Just days before the news conference, Governor Phil Murphy gave a ‘shout out’ to Paterson Public Schools during one of his COVID-19 briefings when he said that “our educators and support staff are integral parts of their communities, and there is no greater example of their commitment than in Paterson.”

“My department could not have done it alone,” said district Executive Director of Food Services David Buchholtz. “It takes all of us. This was all possible under the leadership of Ms. Shafer and the unwavering commitment, hard work and pure love of helping others from our many, many volunteers who are with us today.”

Because of the number of students without access to technology at home, Paterson Public Schools officials also implemented what Deputy Superintendent of Schools Susana called a “monumental” plan that included giving out devices and work, and then collecting it once it was completed. “We have so many people who care about our kids in Paterson,” Perón said, with District Director of Business Applications Christopher Lewis, who oversaw the distribution of Chromebooks to the students, offering his thanks for the many people who prepared and sanitized the devices before they were distributed. 

“To everyone who is on the front line distributing food, distributing packets, distributing Chromebooks; thank you for your steadfast commitment to our students in the great city of Paterson,” Lewis said.

Among the volunteers has been Tammie Harrell-Simmons, who works at the site at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Educational Complex. Described herself as a “fresh grandmother” who was aware of the risks of volunteering, Harrell-Simmons said that her team were “very precautious.”

“As a product of the Paterson Public Schools, as a resident of Paterson, I want to give back. It’s a team effort. We all have to work together. And I want to be part of that team to help lift Paterson up.”

Mayara-Raquel Amador, a at Public School No. 28, also said she was willing to take the risk to help the students. “It’s my community. It’s my neighborhood. If not us, then who? Who’s going to do it?” Amador said.  “If the children are not being fed, they’re not healthy. They don’t need that extra stress of worrying about their next meal.”

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