Feature   Defense News

North Carolina Guard Distributes Food to Community

June 23, 2020 | BY Army Spc. Hannah Tarkelly

As the coronavirus swept through the nation, schools once bustling with the sounds of children became ghost towns, school buses stopped in their tracks, and classrooms once filled with life went vacant.

The pandemic left families in Bladen County, North Carolina, in a dire situation. Unemployment skyrocketed, and families struggled more to feed their children.

Soldiers wearing face masks assemble packaged meals.
Preparing Breakfast
Army Spc. Priscilla Gonzalo, assigned to the North Carolina Army National Guard’s 449th Theatre Aviation Brigade,assembles breakfast meals for distribution at the Elizabethtown Middle School in Bladen County, N.C., May 26, 2020. The North Carolina National Guard is working with state agencies and local food banks to help support COVID-19 relief efforts.
Photo By: Army Spc. Hannah Tarkelly, North Carolina Army National Guard
VIRIN: 200526-Z-AI968-081

Amy Stanley, the director of school nutrition for Bladen County Schools, said 76% of students attending Elizabethtown Middle School would typically receive free or reduced meals during the school year, and that most of the meals the children ate on weekdays, came from the school meal programs.

"On a daily basis, typically, students are here at school and they're able to get those lunches....But COVID-19 has impacted our society so much," said Jamal Dunham, the principal of Elizabethtown Middle School. “We transitioned to virtual schooling, but kids still need to eat.”

With parents out of work and students without a meal plan, the uncertainty of when their next meal would come became a mystery and a gut-wrenching horror.

"Without those meals, they're not going to have the nutrition that they need," Stanley said. "When we get out of school on Friday and come back on Monday, there are many children that do not eat during that weekend. So to go three or four months without the children eating would be devastating to the families and to the children."

Schools were no longer in session, but their desire to help remained strong. County leaders called on the North Carolina Army National Guard to help with their mission to provide school breakfast and lunches to students.

"The National Guard has stepped in and provided our district the opportunity to support children through natural and healthy eating habits," Dunham said. "We would not have been able to make the impact we're making without the help of the National Guard."

A soldier wearing a face mask assembles packaged meals.
Food Prep
Army Sgt. Darian Fleming, assigned to the North Carolina Army National Guard’s 449th Theatre Aviation Brigade, places food into trays to distribute to the Elizabethtown Middle School in Bladen County, N.C., May 26, 2020. The North Carolina National Guard is working with state agencies and local food banks to help support COVID-19 relief efforts
Photo By: Army Spc. Hannah Tarkelly, North Carolina Army National Guard
VIRIN: 200526-Z-AI968-277

Fifty-five soldiers from guard units across North Carolina —  including the 1131st Charlie Company, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 449th Theatre Aviation Brigade, Alpha and Bravo Battery, 5th Battalion, 113th Field Artillery Regiment, and the 1454th Transportation Company — arrived in Bladen County.

"It was just amazing to see how quickly they were able to come in, integrate into the system, and just hit the ground running," said Robert Taylor, the superintendent at Elizabethtown Middle School.

The guardsmen provided assistance to seven different schools throughout the county, including Elizabethtown Middle School. Their collaborative mission to help the hungry began early in the morning, as soldiers put on their uniforms and worked long hours with the school staff to make and prepare meals. Finally, the meals were loaded onto school buses and were off to their usual routes.

"The teamwork is just phenomenal," said Army Maj. Ashley Perdue, the officer in charge at Elizabethtown Middle School. "Working with the cafeteria staff, we all just melded. … It's been a really great experience."

The guard played a key role in helping Bladen County's limited workforce to produce and distribute mass quantities of food on a daily basis. The guard helped the county provide about 45,000 meals a week that were distributed daily along 26 bus routes.

"The feeding of the children during this COVID crisis has been a really tremendous effort," Taylor said. "Having the National Guard here has made a tremendous difference in terms of how we serve people."

A soldier wearing a face mask pushes a cart loaded with packaged meals.
Loading Meals
Army Capt. Tom Hartlieb, with the North Carolina Army National Guard’s 449th Theatre Aviation Brigade, loads meals onto a school bus to distribute at the ElizabethTown Middle School in Bladen County, N.C., May 26, 2020. The North Carolina National Guard is working with state agencies and local food banks to help support COVID-19 relief efforts.
Photo By: Army Spc. Hannah Tarkelly, North Carolina Army National Guard
VIRIN: 200526-Z-AI968-399

During a time of social distancing, school buses were as rare a sight as an ice cream truck in the dead of winter. Nonetheless, children of Bladen County were once again able to hear the sweet sound of the roaring engine as their yellow beacon of hope approached their bus stop. Their unexpected guardian angel had arrived. However, the last thing the kids expected to see were boots emerging from the bus as the doors opened.

"At first they were kind of standoffish and scared, not used to seeing the uniform," said Army Spc. Amber Cohen, assigned to the 449th TAB. "Now they're running up to me like I'm family...and giving me hugs on my leg."

The experience ended up being more than just a duty and a job especially to Cohen. The word "family" was used to describe the relationship the staff and soldiers developed while working for the same cause. It brought new perspectives and grateful hearts as these heroes in green served their community.

"Their people of our own," Cohen said. "It feels like it's a family. You get to see the smiles on their faces, and you know that when you hand them that food, they're going to be eating for lunch and breakfast the next day at the very least."

An unlikely hero quickly became a friendly face that the children greeted with warm hugs and bright smiles.

"The National Guard in Bladen County will be a lasting memory for everyone," Taylor said. "The guard is actually helping out communities in ways that they have never imagined."

The dedication and perseverance of the Elizabethtown Middle School staff and soldiers served food and hope to many children. A time of tragedy evolved into an unexpected experience of unity and camaraderie.

"The National Guard has made an impact here at Elizabethtown Middle School and is touching the lives of the students here in Bladen County," Dunham said. "The National Guard has done some phenomenal work. We are blessed to have you on our side."

(Army Spc. Hannah Tarkelly is assigned to the 382nd Public Affairs Detachment)