Show lending a hand to local youth

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Talented young Okotokians will show off their music, dance and theatre skills in a variety show to help fill the bellies of their peers.

The Okotoks United Church is hosting the Kids Helping Kids Variety Show Nov. 4 featuring an array of young talent in an effort to raise awareness and support around the Lunch for Kids program. The initiative sees volunteers making lunches on school days for 41 students.

Program co-founder Shannon Olson said it has been an eye-opening experience for volunteers to see the level of need in town.

“There was a lot of shocked comments when we brought the idea out,” she said. “People just can’t believe it in a community with the affluence that Okotoks has, but you don’t see behind closed doors and we don’t see the social situations and we know the struggles since the economy shifted have been pretty great for a lot of people and they’re barely hanging on.”

The idea of the Lunch for Kids program came from Olson and her husband Brian, who learned about a similar program in Calgary and High River. The couple contacted the Foothills School Division to see if there was also a need in Okotoks.

“There is so much need right now and sometimes for these families it’s such a struggle to get healthy food that sometimes you have to choose between medication and feeding kids,” she said. “We understand there are social situations, but kids should not suffer because of those situations. My husband and I feel that for successful children to grow up and get a good education you’ve got to feed their brains and nurture their bodies.”

Volunteers prepare the lunches in the Okotoks United Church’s commercially-certified kitchen two to three times a week. Olson said the food is supplied from donations by more than 10 local organizations, businesses and individuals in the community.

“This isn’t a church-driven thing, this is a community-driven thing,” she said. “We wanted to make this a community commitment so the whole community recognizes the need here in Okotoks.”

Lunch for Kids began as a pilot project in March, providing a sandwich, fruit, vegetables and add-ons like Gold Fish crackers or an unsweetened fruit cup each for 23 students in two schools. In September, it expanded to 41 students in four schools.

Ryley Hatchard, counsellor co-ordinator with the Foothills School Division, said she contacted schools to identify students who could benefit from the program.

“I sent it out to schools to see if there was a need for lunches,” she said. “We identified 20 students that could benefit from the lunch program.”

Hatchard said she contacted schools again in September and doubled that number.

“There certainly is a need,” she said. “It really depends on what’s going on in that individual family’s life. Sometimes it might be for a short period of time or it might be longer for others. It varies from situation to situation.”

Most of the families contacted were receptive to the Lunch for Kids program and appreciate the support, said Hatchard.

“Brian and Shannon were so kind in approaching us with this and providing this opportunity to families in Okotoks because there wasn’t any sort of program like this prior to their stepping up,” she said. “The biggest thing is how appreciative we are for Brian and Shannon for taking the initiative and ensuring that they have the nutrition they need to be successful in the classroom. Fed kids are able to learn.”

Variety show organizer Shelley van den Bos said about 20 performers are lined up for this weekend’s event.

“I think it’s going to be amazing,” she said. “They’re all excited about the premise of what it’s for.”

Through the variety show, Shannon hopes to not only get more sponsors for Lunch for Kids, but also volunteers like service groups to expand the program to include other schools.

Admission to attend the Kids Helping Kids Variety Show is by donation. Attendees can purchase a brown bag lunch similar to what the children receive for $5. Door prizes will be available and a pie auction will be held.

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