The Akwesasne Boys & Girls Club has been dedicated to the youth of its community since 2001. It provides many services through after-school programming, ranging from educational and cultural activities to health and fitness for younger children and teens. It serves 650 youth annually from the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation and youth who attend the Akwesasne Boys & Girls Club (ABGC), St. Regis Mohawk School, and Akwesasne Freedom School in Akwesasne, New York.
One service that it is committed to is its food and nutrition program. The “Iawekon Nutrition for Kids” program received support from First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) under its “Nourishing Native Children: Feeding Our Future” Project that was generously supported by the Walmart Foundation.
The ABGC was awarded funding to further its “Iawekon Nutrition for Kids” program whose goal is to alleviate childhood hunger in the community by providing meals and access to local foods. The funding supported the program from July 2017 through January 31, 2018.
Myra Lafrance is the assistant director for the ABGC, and is a member of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in Akwesasne. She says the Iawekon Nutrition for Kids program provided food during the weekends and when school was on breaks, and it filled a great need. Many of the 174 children who received food are from low-income homes, and some receive services through local domestic violence shelters.
“We see the need every day. For the kids to get a little extra food – it made us rest a bit easier on the weekends.” Lafrance said. “Frankly, it’s a struggle going from grant to grant, but every bit helps. It was exciting to give the opportunity to the kids.”
First Nations and its “Nourishing Native Children: Feeding Our Future” Project provided grants to Native American communities to continue or expand nutrition resources for existing programs that serve American Indian children ages 6-14. The project’s goals were to support Native American community-based feeding programs, and to learn from these programs and other model programs about best practices, challenges, barriers to success, and systemic and policy issues affecting Native children’s hunger, and to foster partnerships among programs.
Lafrance said that living in a rural area means that food is expensive. Some of the students spoke up about how the food meant a lot to their families, and that experience was seen as a positive. One community member’s story stuck with Lafrance.
“There was an elder who was recently widowed and she is raising her grandchildren. She is on Social Security and on a very limited income. She cried when she was invited to participate. She said it meant so much and she was grateful for the opportunity,” said Lafrance.
Getting the food backpack aspect of the program off the ground was challenging, but the club put its can-do attitude to work in order to make the most of the grant funding to support the youth.
“We knew there was a local food bank that had a backpack program and we saw how they did it, and we were confident we could duplicate it. Bridging the power and the connections within the regional and state food banks, we approached them and asked could we maybe hop on board with their backpack program, since they were established and the costs would be lower. They were more than happy to do that and they went the distance,” said Lafrance.
Dick Lavigne is the director of the JCEO Food Pantry, and he has been feeding people for the past 50 years combined – in his current position and as a former restaurant owner for 40 years. He sees the need across the region. He and his dedicated volunteers stepped up to support Lafrance and the Iawekon Nutrition for Kids program.
“Myra came to see me. She knew about our feeding program at the Salmon River School where we provide food to about 80 kids. She told me what she was doing at the Boys & Girls Club on the reservation, so we got connected, and we’re glad to help her out,” said Lavigne.
The group of mostly retired grandparents, who volunteer their time with the JCEO Food Pantry along with its sister organization, Citizens Advocates, created the food packages for the program. Since the warehouse where the food packages were assembled was some 26 miles away from the ABGC, the area school bus system stepped in to fill the transportation challenge. Totes and totes of food bags were delivered once a week by the school buses, which eased the strain on the club staff, and allowed more funding to go toward food for the youth.
In addition to providing the food packages, the club provided additional information to the 174 families about other resources in the area that might help to fill in the food gaps.
“It was complicated looking online, so we put the information on food distribution houses and their locations all in one brochure, so the families didn’t have to dig for the information. There are food banks in the area, but the families didn’t know how to access them. We wanted to pull in additional support, beyond what we could offer, to provide resources to them,” said Lafrance.
Lafrance and her team also provided information on the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) for the area, and how to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). They also took time to assist some families with their applications.
The ABGC clearly sees the hunger need every day in the community, and it is ready to support the youth and their families who are in the greatest need.
“There needs to be more money to sustain these programs. Maybe we lead the way a little bit. But we didn’t just service the club, we also served outside families. If the families were in need they could come to us. We’re very proud to serve families and help them,” said Lafrance.
But Lafrance knows that she and everyone involved with the Akwesasne Boys & Girls Club can’t do it all alone.
“First Nations is an amazing group of people. These people are amazing to work with and we communicated with the executive director here about the great work the organization does. It was good to work with such a group of committed people.”
By Mary Bowannie, First Nations Communications Officer