Jenny McCoy, center, with husband Kim McCoy and superintendent Nancy Coogan at the awards ceremony in May.

Congratulations and so many thanks to Jenny McCoy, founder, advocate, and organizer behind the Tukwila Weekend SnackPack Program that feeds almost 120 McKinney-Vento (homeless) students each week. In May, she was named the 2015-16 Washington Association of School Administrators Community Volunteer of the Year in Tukwila!

Here is the complete text of her nomination:

Tukwila’s schools serve some of the brightest and most beautiful students from cultures across the globe. Many are refugees. Many come with extreme levels of trauma. Many have never been in a formal education environment. Many have rudimentary English fluency, if any. These are challenges we welcome—however, education funding formulas do not recognize some of the most basic needs of our students, and that is why we rely on strong community partnerships. We rely on people like Jenny McCoy.

Consider this: One of our elementary schools borders on 92% poverty; another fluctuates between a 20 to 25% homeless rate. When our students do not know if there will be shelter over their heads or food to eat during non-school hours, they are unable to focus on reading and writing and math. Jenny, a long-time Tukwila community member, decided to step up and do something last year. She talked with our principals and social workers to identify the most significant student needs, and they set a goal to feed every homeless student during the often-hungry weekend stretch between school meals.

The official rollout of the resulting Weekend SnackPack program was Feb. 6, 2015, with amazed and delighted McKinney-Vento homeless students at Thorndyke Elementary each receiving a backpack full of food for the weekend. This took an incredible amount of coordination between Jenny and Thorndyke Social Worker Kimberly Goodman, as well as all of the staff at the school (distribution procedures, dietary restrictions, communication, storage space, assembly volunteers …). Immediately, the principal there described the backpacks as “cherished.” One key to the success was making this an opt-out program for McKinney-Vento children so that all homeless students were automatically enrolled; another was handling the communication with such grace, sensitivity, and positivity that students and families embraced the backpacks with dignity and no sense of stigma (in fact, staff report that ALL students are clamoring for a backpack!).

This year, the Weekend SnackPack Program has grown to also include Cascade View Elementary School, and almost 120 backpacks full of food go home with McKinney-Vento homeless students on Fridays, with empty packs returned on Mondays for refilling. As you can imagine, this is a monumental undertaking. Monumental. Jenny has been the leader, organizer, cheerleader, brand designer, marketer, fund-raiser, social-media guru, logistics manager, and delivery woman. Jenny recruits and manages more than 30 volunteers each week for the actual assembly-line “stuffing.” She has coordinated six prominent community donation drop-off locations and communicates widely to get out the word about needed food supplies. She has arranged pre-populated shopping lists available for shoppers at local grocers, Costco, and on Amazon Subscribe and Save. And most essential for donations, she has secured big-corporation and organizational partners to keep the food flowing, notably Macy’s Logistics, Union Gospel Mission, LaFayette Engineering, ThriftIt, BrightNow! Dentistry, and Inspirus Credit Union. She has had big-name officials like King County Executive Dow Constantine visit the assembly line. When more food is needed for extra-big packs during longer breaks, she gets it. When supplies are critically low, she comes through with thousands of pounds of more food. Every week, without fail, there is always enough for all.

Don’t forget—this is Jenny’s side volunteer gig! In different capacities, she’s been supporting Tukwila schools like this for decades. Jenny’s faith is huge and all-loving, and she has always been a passionate and optimistic conduit between the community and the school district. Individually and as part of various groups, she has met with school leaders—including every superintendent—for more than 20 years to ask them how she can best advocate for their health and wisdom as they worked on behalf of children. She simply wants to let them to know that she and others in the community care deeply for them. During some very turbulent years, she attended every single board meeting—not to comment, not to state her public opinion, but to quietly and calmly make her presence and support known. If it was a contentious meeting, she brought “reinforcements” to help create a more positive atmosphere to remind attendees that they all had the same mission to serve children. To help in her advocacy and ensure that community members had accurate information about schools, she began the TukwilaExchange, a listserv that unites our schools, the city of Tukwila, social service providers, and local faith-based organizations. Through this network, it is a miracle how quickly information can spread and needs can be met—whether it’s a winter coat for a child or a pickup truck to help a family move. The entire community has been mobilized. In another specific instance, Jenny coordinated closely with the district in 2008 during Tukwila Centennial, which included a Healing of the Land event to recognize the Duwamish Tribe. This included a school-district resolution to teach tribal history and culture in every school as part of our curriculum. Because of this effort, thousands and thousands of Tukwila students understand and respect the history of our community and its original people.

If you ask Jenny about these monumental efforts, she will defer to the volunteers and organizations who provide the resources and many hands to make things happen. She will defer to our school leaders and staff, whom she partners with closely to be responsive to children’s needs and respectful of school operations. She will defer to a higher purpose that unites us all in a common mission. With the Weekend SnackPack Program, she said, “I’m not having to push a heavy stone up a hill. Rather, I’m chasing a snowball downhill, watching it gather speed, mass, and momentum.” She is right, her programs build on their own energy and magnetism. But that’s only because Jenny is the heart, soul, brainpower, inspiration, and manpower behind the scenes.

While staff and families universally praise the SnackPack Program—with one teacher stating Jenny’s “efforts are beyond measure; we can’t thank her enough for meeting the most basic needs of our vulnerable kids!”—here is just one particular anecdote: Recently a chronically homeless family came to Cascade View to specifically say thank you for the support. They had been constantly moving from house to house “couch surfing,” and the SnackPacks were an absolute lifesaver because the mom had neither the funds to purchase food over the weekend nor the ability to store/prepare the food as she and her children were temporary guests in other people’s homes. The SnackPacks kept her kids from going hungry.

Jenny McCoy will tell you it’s her privilege to be a part of the Tukwila School District community, and that she is “delightfully exhausted” to head the SnackPack Program. Now it’s time for the Tukwila School District community to tell Jenny that the privilege and delight is all ours!