By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — Joelle Kramer has a true teenager’s reason for why she’s loved coming to Kids Against Hunger the last few months.
“At least I get to get out of Mr. K’s class,” she joked.
On a serious note, Kramer loves coming to Kids Against Hunger because, in addition to getting her out of her Mankato East High School building, she gets a chance to help people around the world and in her own community, and learn some job skills at the same time.
Kramer is part of the Mankato Area Public Schools’ community-based work experience program. It is designed for students in special education and aims to give them work skills to allow them to successfully find work when they leave high school.
Kids Against Hunger has been on the list of participating businesses for several years. Right now that list includes Minnesota State University’s food services, University Bookstore, hilltop Hy-Vee, Again Thrift Store, Social Security and Administration, Pet Expo, Hilltop Florist and the Pathstone Day Activity Center.
Kids Against Hunger Coordinator Mark Smisek said they enjoy being a part of the community-based work experience program because it falls in line with their mission to give back to the community.
“We want to help the community any way we can,” Smisek said. “We’re not just about helping people in other countries. We want people to know we help our community, too.”
Every day a handful of students from the program come to Kids Against Hunger or one of the other participating businesses. They’ll spend half their day at school — either East or West — and then the other half on site.
At Kids Against Hunger, they do what so many members of the community have done: package meals for shipment to Haiti or some other poverty-stricken nation, or even down the street to the ECHO Food Shelf.
In Kramer’s case, she puts on her apron and hairnet and helps put food directly into Kids Against Hunger’s well-known packaging. She seals the bags up, fills a cardboard box and uses packing tape to make sure it’s shut.
It keeps her busy.
“It feels good helping people from a different country,” she said.
The program uses five job coaches that accompany students at the work sites.
“They are the backbone of the program,” said Mark Stewart, who oversees the community-based work experience program.
Built into the program is the idea of variety. Once Kramer is done at Kids Against Hunger, she’ll be transitioned to another place where she’ll learn new skills that, one day, will help her get a job in the real world.
“A lot of kids have gotten jobs at places where they’ve worked,” Stewart said.