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story.lead_photo.caption Dr. Ken Bridges, left, and Dean Inman prepare Thanksgiving food bags for distribution, which began Wednesday and will continue through the end of this week. SouthArk provided 138 students with Thanksgiving food bags with the help of a $50,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation. (Contributed)

As the community prepares to celebrate what will likely be a quieter-than-usual Thanksgiving for many families, South Arkansas Community College is giving back to its students to ensure they will be able to have full Thanksgiving dinners.

The college recently received a $50,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation, funds from which will be spent through the end of this year and into next year at SouthArk’s three food pantries for students. The food pantries are located on the main West campus, off the downtown area in El Dorado; the East campus, on East Main in El Dorado; and the Warren campus in Bradley County.

“We’re looking to beef up, or to restock our food pantries,” Dr. Derek Moore, Vice-president of student services, said. “We want to make sure our students have access to food. … If students are hungry, they can’t study as well, they may not attend class as regularly.”

In addition to restocking the food pantry, the school is also in the midst of distributing special Thanksgiving food supplies to 138 students at all three campuses. Along with a traditional Thanksgiving ham, students are receiving pasta, rice, canned vegetables and fruit, peanut butter, powdered milk and whole grain cold cereal.

“We had this grant and decided to do something special for our students, because this has been such a hard year,” Dr. Ken Bridges, a history professor at SouthArk who helped to found the school’s food pantries, said. “When you work on trying to help students, you see the many hardships so many of them face. So many go through college and you don’t realize the problems they go through. … Sometimes it’s a pretty big task, because you’re not just taking care of the students, you’re taking care of their families.”

Amy Sturdivant, director of adult education for SouthArk, said the college is working to build the resources offered to students at the East and Warren campuses. The East campus, in addition to its food pantry, also has a closet for students to pull clothes from, inspired by the Career Closet at SouthArk’s West campus; the closet on the East campus also includes everyday clothes, she said.

“It’s always open. Students can come in and out as they please, so there’s no one watching them. Same for the food pantry,” she said. “Whatever is offered as far as student support services on the main (West) campus, there is a piece of that on the other two campuses.”

Moore said a recent study from Arkansas Aspire, part of the Arkansas Community Foundation, found that 20% of Union County residents are food insecure, meaning they may not know where they’ll find their next meal. As of fall 2019, SouthArk had 1,400 students; 20% of that is 290, and he said that is far too many to allow to potentially go hungry.

Securing the grant took work from SouthArk employees across the three campuses, including Moore, Bridges, Sturdivant, Dean Inman, director of enrollment services, Vanessa Williams, director of counseling and disability support, Tammy Ward, events coordinator and adjunct professor, and Linda Lephiew, grants coordinator.

Along with the food pantries and clothing closets, SouthArk has extended help to students in other areas, as well; they provide gas cards to some students with vouchers, laptop checkouts for those without a computer to do school work on and Wi-Fi hotspots for those who don’t have secure Internet connections, particularly now since so many students are working online in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The SouthArk Foundation provides students with scholarships.

The college also provided students with checks from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act in the spring and summer semesters, and will provide the same direct assistance to more students this fall.

“Our students are a part of the community; their families are a part of the community. Sometimes they just need the help getting started,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”

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