The Things that Keep Me Up at Night

The Things that Keep Me Up at Night

A wife, mother, and small business owner makes a difference with just one call.

Andrea Wilkinson (in red), the local event coordinator for Food For Neighbors, led volunteers in sorting food that will support students in six area schools: Walt Whitman Middle School, West Potomac High School, Bryant High School, Sandburg Middle School, Mount Vernon High School, and Quander Road School.

Andrea Wilkinson (in red), the local event coordinator for Food For Neighbors, led volunteers in sorting food that will support students in six area schools: Walt Whitman Middle School, West Potomac High School, Bryant High School, Sandburg Middle School, Mount Vernon High School, and Quander Road School. Photos by Renee Maxwell

Alexandria, VA. - “I remember thinking, ‘This is terrible!” shared Laura Wainwright, as she reflected on the struggles of some community members in the Fort Hunt area, where she grew up and resided most of her life. Wainwright was seeing the ongoing and increasing economic disparity between her neighbors, many of whom were having difficulty putting food on their tables. A wife and mother of two who never had to worry about feeding her children, she felt she had to do something. She spoke with key school staff she knew, and with their support, she decided to make one phone call — a call that has since made a difference in the lives of hundreds of local children and their families. 

That call was to Food For Neighbors, an all-volunteer nonprofit founded to provide supplemental food to secondary school students who have few, if any, reliable food sources other than the meals they receive at school.The heart of Food For Neighbors is the Red Bag Program, which holds five food collection events throughout the school year. This program mobilizes individuals to shop for nonperishable items and set them on their doorsteps for collection. Volunteers, organized by neighborhoods, collect the food and bring it to central locations, where it is sorted and delivered to participating schools. 

At the schools, social workers, counselors, and/or parent liaisons identify students in need and distribute food to them, mostly on a weekly basis. Food For Neighbors also provides shelving and cabinets for school pantries as well as toiletries, holiday meals, and grocery gift cards for the most vulnerable students. 

“Food For Neighbors runs like a well-oiled machine,” said Wainwright with enthusiasm. “It has all the documentation and such, which made presenting it to school leadership so easy. The schools sent the information out to their families, and the response from the community has been tremendous.” Now serving as the Food For Neighbors Area Manager for six participating schools in the Fort Hunt area, Wainwright shared, ”It was so much easier stepping into the role than I ever thought it would be.” 

School Board member Karen Corbett Sanders (far left), Mount Vernon District Representative, joined the Food For Neighbors Fort Hunt Area team and schools in celebrating their partnership in fighting teen food insecurity.


“This is exactly how we wanted Food For Neighbors to work,” explained Karen Joseph, Founder and Executive Director of the now five-year-old non-profit. “Our goal is to make mobilizing community members to help their local schools as easy as possible. With school and community support, we can say ‘yes’ every time we receive a call for assistance. That’s why we’re celebrating our schools and volunteers this school year, as they are key in our fight against teen food insecurity.” 

Hunger Is Closer Than You Think

During the Food For Neighbors April 30th Red Bag food collection and sorting event, Joseph visited Walt Whitman Middle School, which, under the management of Wainwright, has been serving as the food collection site not only for Whitman, but also for West Potomac High School, Bryant High School, Mount Vernon High School, Sandburg Middle School, and Quander Road School. There, Joseph lauded Wainwright and her volunteer team including Andrea Wilkinson, Event Coordinator; Mark Wainwright, Driver Coordinator; Siobhan Casey and Katy Kleemann, Red Bag Drop-off Coordinators; and Jackie Fleming, Anniversary Celebration Coordinator. 

Joseph also welcomed Karen Corbett Sanders, the Mount Vernon District Representative on the Fairfax County School Board, who noted earlier, “We are forever grateful for the kindness and generosity of Food For Neighbors.” Corbett Sanders added that relationships with trusted adults in the home, school, and community are key factors in a student’s success. Food For Neighbors inspires and facilitates these relationships. 

Joseph then highlighted the many area schools and staff that have been making a difference through Food For Neighbors, which reached the Fort Hunt area in October 2019. In all, Joseph recognized six schools, each with its own Food For Neighbors story, as well as the school staff that are key to the program’s success. 

Walt Whitman MS 

Craig Herring, Principal 

Matthew Johnson, Assistant Principal 

Karisa Gearheart, Social Worker 

Delia Montecinos, UCM Coordinator 

West Potomac HS 

Tanganylika Millard, Principal 

Whitney McDonough, Social Worker 

Lauren Heslep, Social Worker 

Tanya Stamos, PTA President 

Tracy Dunn, PTA President Elect 

Bryant HS 

Christopher Larrick, Principal 

Karen Hertel, Assistant Principal 

Marilyn Moore, Assistant Principal 

Florence (Pipi) Harrison, Director of Student Services 

Sandburg MS 

Darwin Barker, Principal 

Haleh Royanian, Social Worker (Named pronounced as “Hailey”) 

Mount Vernon HS 

Jovon Rogers, Principal 

Rodine Aboul Hosn, Social Worker

Quander Road School 

Frank Tranfa, Principal 

Greta Nichols Thomas, Counselor 

While the brief recognition ceremony ensued, vehicle after vehicle loaded with Red Bag food and toiletry donations continued to arrive. Across Northern Virginia, over 18,000 pounds of food were collected to make a direct, positive impact on the lives of area students. 

Attesting to this impact, Craig Herring, Principal of Walt Whitman Middle School where 60-70% of students qualify for free/reduced price school meals, emphasized that Food For Neighbors has provided a consistent and reliable food source for students. “When I first arrived at Whitman, I found kids wandering the halls looking for food,” he said. “Many had pieced together support from teachers who were personally purchasing and providing snacks, but this and various short-lived weekend food programs were not consistent resources. Food For Neighbors provides that consistency and stability.” Herring stressed the importance of knowing one’s community, as many won’t ask for support until relationships are built, and he added that, like the Food For Neighbors program, the support given has to be accessible, easy and positive. 

Herring was a key player in helping Wainwright bring Food For Neighbors to Whitman and making the school an ongoing hub of food support for nearby secondary schools. He is troubled by the significant economic disparity in an area that is home to the most expensive house in Virginia and, at the same time, to neighborhoods consisting of living spaces cobbled together with plywood or made out of small hitched trailers. He is passionate about providing support to each student as a whole, and he has recruited friends who enjoy providing and/or picking up food donations in support of Food For Neighbors. He also gets students involved, which is a perfect fit for the IB school and its teaching of the importance of global citizenship. 

Equally passionate is Pipi Harrison, the Director of Student Services at nearby Bryant High School. Harrison also noted the huge economic disparity, with much poverty in and around the Route 1 corridor. Bryant has 175 students, already facing life struggles ranging from being young parents to suffering homelessness. Hunger is just one of these struggles, and all of her Bryant students receive Food For Neighbors support. 

She shared that her students’ parents often say, “It’s one thing for me to go to bed hungry, but another for my child.” She furthered that Food For Neighbors lightens the load of parents, who may then focus on other important needs like obtaining eyeglasses and dental care for their children. Harrison explained that “I see relief wash over their faces” when she gives them food. It’s meaningful for them to be able to provide for their children, and even the simplest opportunity to allow a child to select a favorite cereal from the pantry is empowering. 

“We could not do our job without Food For Neighbors,” noted Harrison. “It’s so easy for me to say to a family ‘Yes, we’ve got this food for you!’... It makes my life easier. I know there is a steady supply of food and gift cards, which frees up my time to focus on other things children need.”

Harrison noted that a student can’t learn well when hungry. The ability to help through Food For Neighbors, however, is more than physical. “The food nourishes not only their bellies, but also their souls.” She said, “It gives them hope. It shows people in our community that you are seen; you are heard; you are not forgotten. You matter.” This is more than food. It keeps students connected to school, which makes them want to remain in school. 

Harrison reflected on a poignant conversation she had with Wainwright before a pending blizzard. Worried if some students would have food during and immediately after the storm, Wainwright had said, “These are the things that keep me up at night.” Familiar with some of the support Food For Neighbors could provide, Harrison recommended she contact Food For Neighbors. With the support of Harrison, Herring, and the Food For Neighbors team, Wainwright took it from there, and now students at Bryant, Whitman, and four additional schools have meaningful, consistent food support. 

Food For Neighbors is happy Wainwright made that call, and it continues to expand to address the need in Northern Virginia. The nonprofit now has over 1,700 households donating food and over 1,200 volunteers offering to collect, sort, and deliver it to 29 schools in Fairfax County and Loudoun County. As of the April 30th event, Food For Neighbors has provided over 330,000 pounds of food for students. To learn how you can bring Food For Neighbors services to a school near you, contact Karen Joseph, For other information about the nonprofit’s services and volunteer opportunities, visit