If world hunger could be solved in a half hour, it might happen at a lunch table at George Mitchell Elementary School in Waterville. The effort has already begun, spearheaded by two mini humanitarians — 8-year-old best friends Gabbie St. Peter and Alice Willette.
The girls, who have been friends since “they were in their mommies’ bellies” as Alice puts it, have raised more than $40,000 for their school’s food pantry, enough money to keep the pantry funded for more than 10 years.
Their efforts, which will also help fund an additional pantry at nearby Albert S. Hall School next year, gained national attention and is influencing other students around New England to start similar projects.
Though their birthdays are just a day apart, the girls have so much more in common. They both are well-spoken and enthusiastic about finding solutions to the problems they see around them — something they’ve been doing for years.
Alice donated school supplies to teachers after finding out that teachers have to purchase their own, and also gave to the homeless shelter for her birthday a few years ago.
“I knew I had a roof over my head and I wanted other kids to have a roof over their heads,” she said of her work.
Gabbie’s mother Karen St. Peter said Gabbie has shared similar sentiments since she was about 5-years-old, whether the family was talking about her peers going without food or families without homes.
“She’s always had a heart for others and she gets very emotional and sensitive when she’s sees others may go without,” St. Peter said.
A brainstorming lunch
Earlier this year, the girls noticed students carrying empty bags into a room at their school then coming out with full bags. They soon learned that the students were receiving food from the school’s “no questions asked” food pantry, started by PTO president Jennifer Johnson.
Alice said the pair originally considered a few other organizations in town, but after meeting Johnson, they knew it was the perfect place to help.
“We wanted to help a good cause instead of getting presents and we saw that [the pantry] didn’t have much food in it when we were walking by it one day,” Gabbie said.
Johnson had started the pantry a few months prior with an annual budget of $5,000 and was funding it through a few donations she’d received from local businesses, other parents and teachers.
“I wanted to not just give kids food, but give teachers and faculty another resource other than having to say ‘thats too bad, sorry you’re hungry,’” she said.
When Johnson met Gabbie and Alice, she said both of them seemed curious about her work and asked what they could bring to help. Johnson told them she would send a list to their teacher, but by the time she did, the girls had already gathered bags of food to donate.
“They’ve really been amazing,” Johnson said of the duo. “I am so blown away and impressed by them, they are just incredibly generous … the drive in them is amazing to me.”
Johnson has invested money donated for the pantry into several certificate of deposit accounts with different maturity rates so it can continue being funded well beyond what the girls have raised.
“In a way, we’ll be able to live off the interest accrued, almost like a trust,” she said.
Gaining national attention
Unbeknownst to the girls at the time, Johnson set up a fundraising website through GoFundMe earlier this year and reached out to local media on their behalf. They had soon raised thousands of dollars and caught the attention of The Ellen Degeneres Show.
In April, the girls flew out to Los Angeles and Ellen gifted them $20,000 to help reach their $100,000 goal.
“I don’t even have the words to say how excited I was, I was really excited,” Gabbie said.
Both girls said the experience was surreal and fun. And although Alice admitted to being so nervous that she ate a ton of the complementary strawberries and “threw up before going on stage,” both she and Gabbie were their usual bubbly, enthusiastic selves during the interview.
Since the show, the girls have been featured in Parents Magazine, met Gov. Paul LePage, along with several current and former state and U.S. representatives, and learned they were recipients of the $2,500 Association of Fundraising Professionals of Northern New England Demont Scholarship Award for Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy.
A good cause spreading
This summer Gabbie is helping out at the Waterville Food Pantry and both girls have started planning their birthday party for next year.
This time, they are going to ask for donations for “all of the humane societies in New England,” Gabbie said enthusiastically, adding that she already had ideas for how to best market their plan.
Johnson said she’s also been able to expand the pantry to include fresh produce and has another pantry at Hall School set to open by the start of the new school year. She and the girls have also heard from other schools in Maine and one in New Hampshire that want to start pantries like the one at Mitchell School.
“That’s pretty cool,” Gabbie said of the ripple effect. “If you start a project, you just want to keep doing it, so just keep going … it’s the good thing to do.”
As for Alice, she has nothing but gratitude for everyone who helped them reach their goals and hopes it will inspire other people to think about what they can do.
“I just want to say thank you, it helped us reach our goal and if everybody didn’t do their part, we would have still been at one thousand,” she said. “Now, because everybody knows about it, I think there will be more pantries in the world and less people will go hungry.”