I know many parents dread the routine of packing school lunches. For one Grays Harbor woman, there was no summer break from making lunches. Every weekday, all summer, Phyllis Shaughnessy and her tireless group of volunteers gathered to make more than 300 lunches for North Beach kids.
Phyllis and her husband began spending their vacations in Copalis Beach in 1978. They were drawn in by the natural beauty, slow pace and quiet rural town. Phyllis had a busy career working for RC Cola and performing clerical work for a local hospital. She raised five children, two step-children and was involved in her community.
In 1993, Phyllis “retired,” moving full time to Copalis Beach. After spending just a few minutes in her presence, you get the feeling Phyllis’s retirement was anything but idle. She worked at the Copalis Post Office and she remembers how exciting it was when the small town post office got their first mail scanners. Phyllis and her husband helped form a neighborhood block watch and crime patrol. She became involved in serving through Copalis Community Church, working in the food bank.
In early 2000, Phyllis read an article about a federally funded lunch program that helped bridge the gap over the summer for Aberdeen and Hoquiam families that received free or reduced lunches. The children came to designated sites and received a free lunch. Over her years of work at the church food bank, she saw the need in her own small community. “The burden to have even more food over the summer months is not being met,” Phyllis stated. “Those two meals provided with the school’s breakfast and lunch program is now on families who can barely make ends meet during the school year.”
Phyllis began making phone calls. She wrote letters, attended meetings and shared her idea for a program in the North Beach area. She rarely took no for an answer and when a door closed, she knocked louder. Finally, Phyllis and her team received accreditation to facilitate a program for North Beach families under the umbrella of Copalis Community Church Food Bank. The program was broad spectrum, and although it did provide much needed nutrition, it was difficult to follow the program’s strict guidelines on distribution. Dietary guidelines were not always child palate friendly. But, the biggest reason this program didn’t meet the needs of North Beach families was because they couldn’t travel to the distribution sites. Children were still going hungry. After the summer of 2014, the North Beach area lost the federal summer lunch program.
Since the summer lunch program didn’t serve the needs of the unique community, Phyllis and her volunteer crew tried a new route. She visited local businesses and groups in Grays Harbor. North Beach children weren’t just statistics to the locals – they were neighbors and classmates of their children. They knew the family’s names and their stories. With the help of Bill Campbell, self-proclaimed as the “paper-pusher,” the group received their 501(c)(3) non-profit status.
They named the program “Green Lantern Lunches” after the local establishment that supported their efforts, the Green Lantern Pub. With decades serving as a community hub, the Green Lantern Pub is more than a watering hole. With a Go Fund Me campaign and generous fundraising including a measurable monetary donation from the Seabrook Community Foundation, Phyllis and her team were set to feed children.
Phyllis’ eager army was ready. They transformed a garage into a working facility. Meeting early each weekday morning, the volunteers efficiently created an assembly line, making 300 lunches daily in just over 60 minutes. They packed the lunches in cars and drove them to the homes of the needy families. The area from Ocean Shores to Taholah and Copalis Crossing was split among approximately five vehicles and Phyllis delivered lunches on her own route. As of the end of August, more than 15,000 lunches had been distributed this summer.
I rode along with Phyllis on her route. I was humbled and moved by the experience. As we pull close to each stop, she would share a little bit about the kids we were visiting. She knows the families and something unique and special about each child. Driving up to the homes, she honks the horn and kids look out the window, wave and smile to see the “Lunch Lady.” Phyllis asks genuine questions and always shares a kind word. Some people would have been bothered by the living conditions of some of the families but it doesn’t phase Phyllis.
When kids came up to the car, she rolls down the back window where the carefully packed tubs of lunches are held and simply says, “take what you need.” The children and families are genuinely appreciative, grateful that someone cared enough to make sure they had basic needs met.
This week marks the last few days before school starts. Phyllis asks every child if they are set for school supplies. You see, the week before, she distributed those as well, knowing that some families couldn’t get to non-profits that hand out free supplies. She hands out school supplies with the lunches.
Phyllis is a vivacious, energetic woman. She says she will keep organizing volunteers and delivering lunches “until it doesn’t need to be done or until I have the help to do more.”
More is in the plans. The Green Lantern Lunches program hopes to begin a “Friday Backpack “program, where extra food supplements are sent home with students over the weekend. Why more? The need isn’t going away – and neither is Phyllis.
You can support this community of volunteers by visiting the Green Lantern Lunches Go Fund Me page, by calling the program at 360-289-2971 or simply volunteering your time next summer. Follow Green Lantern Lunches on Facebook. As one donor remarks, “Buy Phyllis a tank of gas.” But most of all, share Phyllis’s story.