A student shops for new shoes. (Photo courtesy of Care to Learn)

On Feb. 11, as a set of Walmart shopping sprees for Springfield schoolchildren in need came to a close, the single mother of two Rountree Elementary School students pulled the school’s principal aside.

The mother’s twin sons were two of three students picked by Rountree staff to participate in Care to Learn’s Shop With a Hero event, and they were among a few dozen kids who received a crisp $100 bill to spend on health, hunger or hygiene products of their choosing. Misty Ramsey, the Rountree principal, said the mother was so thankful when told her twins were selected. But there was also the matter of getting to the Walmart Supercenter on South Campbell that morning. 

Misty Ramsey, principal at Rountree Elementary School, shops with a student selected to spend $100 at Walmart on Feb. 11. (Photo courtesy Care to Learn)

The mother is working two jobs, and recently got accepted to Missouri State University. But right now she doesn’t have a car.

She also had a younger third son who would need to join them. Ramsey had lined up bus passes for all of them to get to the store. But as the family aimed toward a checkout line with other children and families from south Springfield elementary schools, the mother told Ramsey she was worried about bringing everything they’d bought back on the bus.

Ramsey told her they would figure something out, even if it meant the principal driving the supplies to their home. 

Ramsey turned to explain the situation to Ron Woodard, director of family support services at Springfield Public Schools and the district’s point person for coordinating the event at five Walmarts across the city. Woodard whispered to Ramsey that it was covered. As he’d seen the boys fill their family’s shopping cart with food, he scheduled an Uber. 

“Oh my gosh,” Ramsey said.

“Not going to cry,” said Jennifer Beatty, a first-grade teacher at Rountree who had been the SPS hero picked to shop with the boys.

“I’m choking it back,” Ramsey said.

Later, as the family checked out, Beatty said that efforts like that add up.

“Someone is doing what they can,” she said. “And if we help a few, that’s a few more.”

A shopper keeps track of how much money she and a Springfield Public Schools student have left to spend after he was given $100 as part of Care to Learn’s Shop With a Hero event. (Photo courtesy Care to Learn)

Event offers help, fun to some district students at a growing time of need

It’s hard not to see the needs across Springfield right now, Woodard said. 

“Things have been so difficult with our economy right now that even middle-class families are struggling to get basic needs met,” he said. “It’s been that difficult. Things that people used to easily afford, people are struggling to afford those things now. Any additional help that we can provide really helps bridge that gap.”

With funding from Care to Learn and an assist from store managers and associates at the city’s five Walmart Supercenters, district staff at every SPS elementary school and choice school picked three students to go on the Feb. 11 sprees. Students, families and district staff shopped at each of them Saturday morning. At the south Springfield Walmart, many pointed out that there are families struggling to make ends meet no matter what part of town you’re in. 

This marked the first Shop With a Hero since the pandemic’s outset. Several teachers, counselors and principals at the South Campbell Walmart said they were thrilled to be able to participate in the event again. After SPS Superintendent Grenita Lathan handed out $100 bills to students, the SPS staff joined kids and families on the shopping spree, many with their phone’s calculator apps queued up. 

A Springfield Public Schools student holds the $100 given to him by Care to learn. (Photo courtesy Care to Learn)

“I mean, $100, unfortunately, doesn’t even get you as far as what you’d hope it would anymore, but it’s a start,” Ramsey said. “And it’s something that we can provide for those families in need right now without saying, ‘Here’s a voucher,’ (or) ‘You can get this if you go somewhere else.’ They’re here today and they’re walking away with their need filled, which is super great.”

Lathan praises community partnerships in Springfield

The Feb. 11 event was Lathan’s first experience with Shop With a Hero since joining the district in 2021. Lathan stepped in occasionally to help kids pick out new socks, try on shoes or find a new sweatshirt, many of which were marked at clearance prices. Much of the Walmart winterwear was on sale, and the date of the event was tied to that fact. 

“Very moving just to hear our students share their plan of what they were going to purchase today,” Lathan said. “One young lady said she needs school supplies, she needs clothes and she needs food. And it’s just touching that Care to Learn is available to assist our students.”

Lathan said that when students’ basic needs are met, “they can truly then focus on academics.” And so the district looks to work with community partners to help when those needs are unmet. Lathan said she met with Care to Learn’s founder, Doug Pitt, and CEO, Krystal Simon, on her first day on the job. 

“I think I started at 8 (a.m.),” she said. “They were there — Krystal and Doug — at 8:30 to meet with me to introduce me to Care to Learn, and it’s been a wonderful partnership.”

Grenita Lathan, superintendent of Springfield Public Schools, helps a student pick out socks to buy with $100 given to her through Care to Learn’s Shop With a Hero event. (Photo courtesy Care to Learn)

Lathan said they shared how the organization has helped and asked her about her thoughts on addressing student well-being. 

“I feel people in Springfield take for granted the true collaborative nature of the people in this community,” Lathan said. “And I say that a lot. People probably get tired of me saying it, but I’ve lived in a number of places to see genuine people, to know what’s genuine, what’s real. And you see that here. Care to Learn models that. Because you made a lot of people in my line of work — I mean, a lot of people — that say they want to help (and) they want to work with the district. But they don’t deliver. Care to Learn delivers.”

Simon said the event allows people linked to Care to Learn to view its mission through a different, and necessary, lens. Many SPS families have received vouchers for health, hunger and hygiene items, but there’s only one day a year when Walmart associates get to see the “heart behind our mission,” she said. And that date is one that Walmart store manager Jeremy Weddle said his staff starts preparing for once it’s on the calendar. They prep for kids’ needs, he said. They get as many pairs of kids’ shoes on the racks as they can. They stock stationary, apparel and lunch bag-friendly groceries. 

Kids filled shopping carts with many of those selections on Feb. 11. One child’s cart included bread, fruit juice, socks with cats on them, hand lotion, and Pocky sticks. Another held apple sauce, body wash, shampoo and valentines for the upcoming holiday. 

Springfield Public Schools students got some leeway to pick how they wanted to spend $100 on health, hunger and hygiene products. The money was given to them during Care to Learn’s Shop With a Hero event. (Photo courtesy Care to Learn)

Meeting basic student needs can unlock academic potential, Rountree teacher and principal say

The twins’ cart was focused on meeting hunger needs. It held frozen foods, cereal, Uncrustables, milk and bread, but also some new shirts. Beatty, the first-grade teacher at Rountree, said it makes a difference for a student to be able to show off new clothes or bring in “the good lunch,” even if it’s for a bit.

“It just brings them some joy, and I think also when you’re happier, and they feel good, then they’re more well adjusted at school,” she said. “Happier kids can learn better if they’re not angry or they’re not struggling with some behaviors, at least for that little time.” 

And teachers, Beatty said, can reach students in those little windows of time. Her principal agreed.

“Allowing this opportunity for them to feel like they are dressed clean, they have the elements they need to have good hygiene, it allows them to come in confident as a student and feel like they are a part of everyone else,” Ramsey said. “And when your brain is ready to learn when you walk in the door, then we are already in a better place than sometimes when they walk in.”

Simon said that the unique elements of the Shop With a Hero event — the non-school setting, the collaborative spree — can be bridge-builders between children, parents and school staff. 

Woodard, the director of family support services, said it’s important for parents to see the faces of SPS staff in an environment where they’re showing they care. 

“When we say that we care, we’re putting action behind our words and that’s the thing that parents are blown away by,” he said. 

And when he wasn’t making sure the event went smoothly, he said he took time to steal looks at the faces of the families who got a little help last Saturday. 

“The smiles that we’ve seen have been priceless,” he said. “The smiles have been priceless.” 

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson