Editor’s note: This is the first in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Stepping Up.”
Two days after Cleveland High School closed on March 11, when teachers and staff were allowed access to clean out their rooms, Ray Morales suddenly remembered the food — the pantry, supplied by the YWCA and available to any student who needed it.
Morales, who has been Cleveland’s assistant principal for six years, knew that the pantry — filled with trail mix, dried fruit and nonperishables like oatmeal — had just been replenished, and filled a crucial need for students who needed a snack, a meal or something to eat over the weekend.
“The food pantry items always go,” Morales said. “And the thing is, it’s for everybody. Just because a student doesn’t qualify for free-and-reduced lunch doesn’t mean they come from well-off families, just that they don’t meet the requirements.
“It’s open for everybody,” he said. “As it should be.”
After Seattle Public Schools closed Cleveland — and later Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all schools in Washington state to close through at least April 24 to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus — Morales collected what was in the pantry, along with other food donated by the staff from their own rooms. At the suggestion of the school’s attendance specialist, Morales reached out to Luis Rodriguez, the father of a Cleveland student and owner of The Station coffee house on Beacon Hill.
“We suggested The Station be a place for families and community members to pick food up,” Morales said. “And of course (Rodriguez) was like, ‘Absolutely.'”
School staff notified Cleveland families via email and social media that there was food to be had, if people needed it.
“But this is also for the community,” Morales said.
He also reached out to his sister-in-law, who works in the Bellevue School District, to see if anyone she knew would want to contribute to the new pantry at The Station.
“It was crazy,” Morales said of the response. “Every single person who came into The Station asked about the pantry, and how they could help. It inspired folks to donate food or do things on their own.”
In days, the pantry went from serving the school and the neighborhood to anyone who needed it.
“Some people knew, and the word just spread,” said Leona Moore-Rodriguez, Luis’ wife.
On a recent morning, the counter along the coffee shop window was covered with several dozen eggs — donated by Glo’s Cafe on Capitol Hill — bananas, peanut butter, cans of soup, tuna and beans, boxes of macaroni and cheese, granola bars, drinks and travel-size shampoo and soap. There were plastic gloves, and boxes and bags for packing and, in a fridge under the counter, milk donated by nearby Filipino restaurant Musang. There were also two bags of comics and magazines for younger people.
“I think some people feel self-conscious, like it’s for the poor,” Rodriguez said. “But this is for everyone. This is for the community. People who lose their jobs, have less money or no money.”
Regular customer Jessica Ramirez came in for coffee. She told a friend who had just started a job — and had a smaller, starting paycheck — about the community pantry.
“I know a lot of people in between,” said Ramirez, who works for a foundation that serves indigenous organizations and is drumming up donations for the Workers Relief Fund at Casa Latina.
“It’s been nice to see people coming together for those in need,” Ramirez said.
Just before noon, Kwong Fan, 75, came in for some food. He’d read about the food pantry online and took the bus from Rainier Valley.
“I’m low on food and I don’t want to go to the store,” he said. “I can save some money. It’s hard.”
He took a few cans of food and some eggs and asked Rodriguez for one bottle of milk, then another.
“Thank you,” he said once, then twice. Before he left with a couple of bags, he must have said it six times.
“Why let the food go to waste?” Rodriguez asked. “We are an activist coffee shop, here to help the marginalized, black and brown folks. And this is what Ray Morales does as a teacher.”
Said Morales: “The Cleveland staff planted the seed, but The Station is the prime vehicle to get this out and inspire other folks.”
Rodriguez hopes it inspires his sons and others who may be drawing themselves in during the coronavirus outbreak.
“We are going to remember this moment for the rest of our lives,” Rodriguez said. “So you ask, ‘What were you doing then?’ My kids can say that their mom and dad were out there helping.
“That’s all we have, right?” Rodriguez said. “Leave something behind.”