When Dale Darcas’ daughter was 8 years old, she took the money from her piggy bank and asked him to take her to the store to buy school supplies for children who didn’t have any.
Darcas couldn’t help thinking of his childhood in that moment. He was one of four kids raised by a single mother and remembered how holiday gifts would not have been possible without Toys for Tots.
“That just hit my heart thinking that as individuals we can maybe be a paycheck away from being in that situation,” Darcas said.
Darcas is the executive director of Serving Our Kids, a nonprofit that provides bags of food for 3,800 students at 80 Southern Nevada schools to take home on the weekends. The group started 14 years ago serving 20 students at one school.
“We asked the question to the counselors, other than back-to-school supplies, what’s the biggest need for children in schools. They said food for the weekend,” Darcas said.
About 67% of students qualify for free and reduced lunches in the Clark County School District, and during the pandemic, all students get two meals daily through U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers.
But what happens when schools are closed on the weekend?
Three Square, the largest community food bank in the Las Vegas area, also provides weekend meal bags. But not all children qualify, which is where Serving Our Kids fills the void, Darcas said.
School counselors identify and refer students who need food for the weekend. In the first week of the 2020-21 school year, there was a 27% increase in referrals from school counselors, as the pandemic has brought an economic crisis to the area. Darcas said there are 15,000 homeless and at-risk children in the area.
“The need is much greater than it’s ever been,” he said.
To meet the need, the group has constantly moved to bigger spaces, now at a warehouse in Henderson — their 11th location in 14 years. The initial five years were spent renting a storage unit and holding food drives in a grocery-store parking lot.
The weekend bag includes: two packets of oatmeal, ravioli, ramen noodles, granola bars, crackers and fruit juice.
“We put two oatmeal packets in the bags for the kids so that they have breakfast for Saturday and Sunday morning and then we put ravioli and a ramen noodle (package) so that they have lunch for Saturday and Sunday. And then we put other snacks in the bag as well like crackers and fruit juice and applesauce, granola bars,” Darcas said.
Every Thursday, volunteers bag meals that will be delivered to schools for the weekend. During the pandemic, a delivery driver parks across the street from the school so children can pick up their meal bags.
They typically run out of food every two weeks, leaning on more than 200 community partners to continuing to raise awareness and restock their shelves.
SOS Radio, Equity Title Co. and Sunland Asphalt & Construction put on annual food drives, and Tabbert Team mortgage lenders donates a percentage of proceeds on each home loan, Darcas said. In March, Andre Agassi Foundation for Education donated $20,000, and Haas Automation has donated $25,000.
“Everybody has a story of how they find Serving Our Kids. It’s one of the biggest blessings to me,” said Ken Ravago, a volunteer driver with the group.
Schools are also pitching in with food drives, including Shirley & Bill Wallin, Frank Lamping, Glen Taylor and John C. Vanderburg elementary schools. At Wallin, teacher Jaynee Perez brought students to their group’s facility to help bag the food.
“I wanted the kids to get the full picture,” Perez said. “Because when you donate it, all you know is you’re bringing it to donate and somebody’s picking it up. You don’t see what happens. It makes an impact.”
The next food drive is Oct. 10 at the warehouse, 121 Industrial Park Road in Henderson.