Turquoise LeJeune Parker closes each session by telling her students how much she loves them. Mrs. Parker, the 34 year old library teacher at Lakewood Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, does everything she can to show it, and her most recent act of kindness was a $106,000 campaign to feed her needy kids.
According to Durham Public Schools spokeswoman Crystal Roberts, winter break can mean weeks of food instability for children and their families.
“It’s a basic human right. We’re not talking about raising money to buy people a vacation; this is food, a very, very basic thing,” Parker said. “We need to make sure we take care of our schools, because when we take care of our schools, we’re taking care of our community.”
Mrs. Parker’s Professors Foodraiser used the funds she gathered to purchase, pack, and distribute more than 5,200 food bags to children at 12 Durham Public Schools schools.
In the dozen schools where the project works, 98 percent of children rely on their school’s low-cost or free lunches.
It is the primary source of nutrition for many children.
However, when the holidays arrive, the schools, as well as their cafeterias, close.
Mrs. Parker has always had an army of donors and volunteers at the ready, to champion the needs of her students,” Lakewood Elementary School Principal James Hopkins told CNN in a statement.
“What’s so impressive is that these efforts have provided students across Durham the same fortune; in this case, of receiving a substantial portion of food over the extended holiday break.”
Parker had wanted to be a teacher since she was four years old, when she sat on her mother’s bedroom floor, arranging her teddy bears as her students.
“I wanted to be a teacher all my life,” said Parker, who has been a teacher for 11 years. “This is what I love, it’s all I ever wanted to do, I am living my dream.”
Now that she is a mother of one, she teaches over 400 pupils in grades kindergarten through fifth, and her love for them extends beyond the classroom.
“I call my students Mrs. Parker’s professors. If that tells you anything, it’s that I believe in them and I love them so very much,” Parker said. “‘I need them to know that I love them, to remind them that love is an action word. I will tell them all day, but I will also show them all day.”
Her vow to feed all of her students began in 2015, when one of her students’ parents confided in her that they wouldn’t be able to feed their children during the Christmas break.
“She told me, ‘I’ll be okay, I can go without eating, but I can’t let my kids go without eating for two weeks.’ It’s really hard to know they have stuff like this going on and not to do everything I can,” Parker said through tears. “My husband and I started thinking, if one family is asking this question, then there must be more.”
Parker sent a text to everyone she knew on Dec. 14, 2015, asking if anyone would be interested in donating money so she could supply food bags to last them the entire holiday break. Slow but steady progress was made.
She raised $500 the first year.
She made $55,000 last year.
However, this year set a new high, with more than $106,000 in donations coming in from throughout the country.
“It has left me speechless. I’ve cried about it a little every day,” Parker said. “It took off in a way we could have never expected.”
Mrs. Parker’s Professors Foodraisers generated enough money in two weeks to buy enough food for thousands of children in the district to fill large brown grocery bags.
Each bag contained kid friendly foods such as cereal, canned goods, granola bars, and macaroni and cheese that could be cooked no matter where a family lived.
“This is a community effort. This is not $106,000 out of my pocket, this is the result of us operating as a collective,” Parker said. “It’s because of all the people who gave their time, their money, their talents to make sure our kids are taken care of.”
“Mrs. Parker is a school district’s dream teacher, a perfect mix of competence and compassion who is committed to serving young people holistically,” Durham Public Schools said in a statement.
“Her Foodraiser addresses food insecurity head-on, particularly during a time of year when commercialism brings need to the forefront,” the statement continued. “Through her efforts, our food-insecure students have access to sustenance when schools are closed for the holidays. She is their lifeline.”
Parker said the success of the fundraising has motivated her to make it a lifelong effort, with the goal of feeding as many children as possible during both winter and spring breaks.