Mary Florek smiled as she helped set up bags of food on the tables inside Maple Heights School District.
The smiles — shared throughout the day by other workers — were hidden beneath their masks worn to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. They were helping families in Cleveland with students who are adapting to life away from school, but their spirits were still high.
Florek, a cafeteria manager, was helping the Arby's Foundation distribute masks and food bags for students in the Maple Heights School district, as well as meals for those who are helping feed those students during the ongoing pandemic. The assistance was made possible through a partnership with the Arby's Foundation and Cleveland Browns to deliver food and free internet to students across the Cleveland area who are looking to stay healthy and engaged in their education.
"There are many people in need who can't get to the store," Florek said. "They can't do normal things we've been doing. We know what this is all about. Nobody is used to this. No one knows what to do. I feel like we're helping those people."
The school community is doing its best to remain physically separated and maintain a healthy social distance, but at the same time, it's also found ways to grow tighter and support students who need assistance.
As part of our Hats Off to Our Heroes initiative, today nearly 500 front line workers wore custom shirts to recognize local heroes keeping students and families fed, healthy and learning since schools closed down in March. These front line workers are food nutritionists, bus drivers, educators and secretaries going into work every day to make sure students and families have what they need to weather the storm. Arby's is joining us to celebrate these heroes by delivering lunch for them as an additional thank you.
Florek said she's seen children who have biked to the school to pick up bagged lunches, which contain a healthy variety of fresh food from all four food groups, for their families.
"These are not just snack bags," Florek said. "These are bags they can live on. They can have it for breakfast, lunch — they're eating healthy. We'll throw in a snack, a bag of chips, when we can, but we're following the same guidelines we'd follow throughout the school year."
The workers have helped distribute about 450 meals per day to families in the community, according to Dr. Meghan Shelby, the director of Special Pupil Services of Maple Heights City Schools. When the pandemic originally closed schools in March, Shelby and her team organized a plan to continue delivering meals to students in a safe way regardless of when students can return to the classroom.
"The folks that are here today, a lot of them are paraprofessionals and cafeteria workers," Shelby said. "They see our kids everyday, work for our kids and know our kids. They've worked behind the scenes in addition to providing lunches and breakfasts. A lot of them have reached out to families individually by phone. They do a lot for us, and it's nice to have some time to recognize the great work they do."
In addition to the free meals, the Arby's Foundation and the Cleveland Browns have also allocated $100,000 to provide 520 students with one year of free WiFi. The grant, which was created to ensure students have the necessary resources to stay active in a remote learning environment, was created from the "Get 2 School, Stay in the Game" initiative, a statewide initiative designed to promote the importance of school attendance and end chronic absenteeism.
The Arby's Foundation, Cleveland Browns Foundation and Cleveland Metropolitan School District recognized inherent challenges as nearly two-thirds of CMSD's students do not have access to reliable internet connectivity, which is exacerbated with the need to provide virtual educational resources following school closures across the state and country.
"Obviously, we're not physically in school, but we want to stay engaged," Shelby said. "We've been promoting those ideas throughout the closure, and we'll continue next year as well. There are resources online that families can access and fun things with Browns players to motivate kids to how important it is that this is still school. You're still learning, it just looks different."
The Arby's Foundation has also provided 500,000 free kids meals through "School's Out Food's In" meal cards to "Get 2 School, Stay in the Game" action school districts and committed an additional $11,300 to the Cleveland Browns Foundation. The funds will go toward supplying protective equipment to Northeast Ohio school district staff members who continue to prepare and deliver food for students and families in need.
Following a matching contribution by idegy, the preferred promotional merchandise partner of the Browns, 20,000 facemasks will be issued to a combination of front line workers operating food drives distributions, educators and students at CMSD, Canton City School District, East Cleveland City School District and Maple Heights City School District.
In the coming months, Arby's will also distribute food vouchers for sandwiches and meals at Arby's for families in the school district.
"It's wonderful to be able to give them a meal with their family or get them something to-go to show that we care about them," Shelby said. "We're all in this together."
Togetherness is important right now. That's why Florek and other cafeteria workers want to continue doing their jobs in a safe way and ensure students and families have what they need in life away from school.
"I think this is a great thing we're doing, and I'm very proud of what we're doing here in Maple Heights," Florek said. "We don't have to be here everyday, but we come. I'll do it everyday if I have to."