MARV has lots of young friends across Allen County.
Children run for the big white school bus, painted with bright, smiling fruits and vegetables, as soon as they hear its horn. Onboard, they get breakfast or a brown-bag lunch, depending on the hour, and sit in booths to eat or read one of the many books within arm’s reach.
MARV—short for Meals and Reading Vehicle—is the answer to a problem: In the summertime, instead of making children travel somewhere for free meals, the school district brings nutritious food to them.
MARV reflects a growing awareness in Allen County that softening the blows of poverty by cultivating conversations and addressing the long-standing barriers that contribute to generational poverty are both essential ingredients for health equity.
In the Iola school district, one of three in the county, 64 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price meals. Sheryl Hill, a newcomer to Iola, has three children and appreciates the help from the MARV program. “For families like us who sometimes run short on groceries, I know the kids are covered for breakfast and lunch,” Hill says.
In the school system, Iola has a long-term initiative to help families called SAFE BASE. Over the course of six years, the organization worked with three dentists and local service clubs and organizations to screen 5,000 students countywide and to provide follow-up dental treatment to more than 700 Allen County students. The annual health fairs, held in conjunction with school enrollment each August, also provided free physicals, immunizations, eye glasses, head lice treatment and school supplies for local students. “The reason we help one another is the kids are our kids,” says Angela Henry, director of SAFE BASE.
Thrive Allen County began bringing middle-class residents together with lower-income neighbors in “conversation circles” to encourage frank discussion, as well as connections and understanding. Helen Ambler, a retired school district employee, formed a bond with an unemployed younger woman and helped to coach her through a job interview. “When you actually get to know people, to set aside prejudice, we can begin to listen,” she says.
From these community conversations, leaders stepped forward and started to put ideas into action. Some were simple gestures, like covering the cost for a free load of laundry to remove the embarrassment of having to wear soiled clothes, or setting up “Blessing Boxes” stocked with canned goods and household products. Others required advocacy, such as successfully pushing municipal utilities not to turn off service in below-freezing weather.
At the First Presbyterian Church of Iola, volunteers serve free meals on Sundays to keep the conversations going. “People don’t get out of poverty if the only people they know are other poor people,” says the Rev. Linda Whitworth-Reed. “This helps in relationship building.”