A group of volunteers pack food for hundreds of students and their families living in the Vista Unified School District. Courtesy photo
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Vista nonprofit sees uptick in hungry students

VISTA — An all-volunteer group in Vista that helps provide food to hungry students and their families will need more help from the public to continue its mission.

The Vista Teen Outreach, a nonprofit created in 2011, was founded to support the students living in poverty within the Vista Unified School District. In the past, the nonprofit has fed roughly 500 to 750 students, but the demand has increased to 900, said Debbie Medrano, who founded the nonprofit eight years ago.

“(Our current goal is) to be able to meet the needs of feeding almost 900 kids a month,” Medrano said. “We are struggling with our annual budget to maintain this pace. We’ve had a large uptick in students and are having a hard time keeping up with the demand.”

Medrano said she created the nonprofit in 2011 after learning from another community member that a student needed a new pair of cleats to play football.

“(The community member) dug deeper and after hearing his story, realized he along with many boys on the team, needed more than cleats,” Medrano said.  “They needed food.”

Vista Unified School District estimates that roughly 1,800 students within its borders are hungry, homeless or both. The San Diego Hunger Coalition estimates that at least 141,000 children in the county will not receive “enough food for an active, healthy life.” Another 84,000 children are at-risk of food insecurity, according to the coalition.

Those staggering statistics are what prompted Medrano and dozens of other volunteers to create a pantry where students and their families can receive the food they need.

“Hunger is such a basic need that we all need,” Medrano said. “It’s hard enough to do school, but it’s impossible if you’re hungry. I don’t like being hungry and just couldn’t let a child go hungry if I can help it.”

Medrano said some of the biggest misconceptions about recipients of the Vista Teen Outreach program are that parents aren’t working hard enough. She gives an example of a mother, who left an abusive situation then had all her belongings stolen. Or a family where both parents work for the same company and that company closes its doors.

Charlotte Files, president of the nonprofit, said many recipients stand out to her. She said she remembers one family who didn’t have a working refrigerator.

“We were able to get them a new (used) refrigerator and deliver it along with their (holiday) basket and additional food for the week,” said Files, a mother of four. “This was a single mom of two, a cancer survivor on disability. She didn’t ask for the help but was completely grateful and couldn’t thank us enough.”

Another recipient was a young man who lived in his car and worked two jobs. The student went on to join the military, Files said.

As the nonprofit gears up to deliver 200 holiday baskets to families in need this Thanksgiving, volunteers hope to receive enough donations to maintain its current goal of feeding 900 hungry children.

“My ultimate goal would be that our services would no longer be needed, that we wouldn’t have hungry kids in our community, but until that day comes, we will continue to do what we can to fill the void,” said Files, who noted the nonprofit spends roughly $1,000 a month to stay afloat.

“My goals are to surround myself with people of different strengths all working towards the same goal of bringing awareness of our organization to the community and to destigmatize the food insecurities for our youth.”

For more information about Vista Teen Outreach or to donate, go to vistateenoutreach.com.

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