Teacher Alexandria Ralat was discussing animals with her third-grade class four years ago when she asked her students if they had pets. One raised her hand and said, "We had a bunny."
Ralat, who is an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher, thought the girl was maybe speaking in the wrong tense and responded, "Well, honey, do you mean we have a bunny?"
"We had a bunny but my dad had to kill it with a rock and put it into a stew to feed our family," the girl replied.
That is when Ralat, who is now a sixth-grade teacher at Molholm Elementary School in Jefferson County, knew she had to do something, she said.
More than 90 percent of the 482 students at Molholm Elementary qualify for free and reduced breakfast and lunch, and 10 percent are homeless. A majority of them are Latino.
"The kids were not eating for more than 17 hours, and that was affecting their academics," she said.
As an answer to the need to feed students before and after school, Ralat and Dr. Richard Archer founded Feeding Minds-Enriching Lives in 2008. The mission of the organization is to provide nutritious food to children and families through an in-school food pantry and thus relieve some of the financial burden for families who qualify for the assistance. The organization also provides clothing, school supplies and cultural experiences to the children.
"I don't think it's OK to have so many homeless families and families who are on the fence making choices literally between paying the rent and buying food," she said.
"It is not a hand down, it is a hand up."
On Feb. 26, Ralat's extraordinary efforts in changing the reality of so many children were honored by the Hispanic Annual Salute, a nonprofit organization that highlights outstanding adults and students who volunteer in the Hispanic community. The nonprofit awarded $1,000 to Feeding Minds-Enriching Lives and raised another $6,000 in donations.
Hispanic Annual Salute's Board Vice President Kathy Berumen said that Ralat exemplifies the idea of giving back to your community and helping others to prosper regardless of their background.
"What we found special about her is her recognition that there was a need in the Hispanic community and her ability to formulate a plan, to create something that is effective. The difference she makes in children's lives is simply outstanding," Berumen said.
Ralat, 39, was born in Denver and raised in the Ruby Hill area as the oldest of four children. Her father was a Puerto Rican locomotive engineer and her mother was a homemaker of Spanish and German heritage. She graduated from Kennedy High School and eventually from the University of Colorado in Denver.
Ralat said that early in her life her mother taught her to be giving, especially to children who may not have resources or support from their parents.
"The neighborhood kids that had nowhere to go always had a place at my mom's table," Ralat said. "My mom instilled in me that everyone is your kid. She never said some for me, none for you."
Every other Friday, more than 50 families receive an average of 200 pounds of food each from the Feeding Minds pantry. The financial relief for these families is about $790 a month, which, according to Archer, could be better spent in rent, gasoline, medicine and clothing. The average income for families who seek help from Feeding Minds-Enriching Lives is $8,500 a year.
"What she gives us helps us greatly," said Yesenia Castillo, mother of three girls and a volunteer at the pantry. "I see her as an older sister who helps guide my girls and helps us without judgment."
Castillo and her husband were financially stable until her husband lost one of his two jobs in construction. Yesenia's hours were also cut at her cleaning job, and the family is barely able to afford rent, she said.
Iracema, one of Castillo's daughters, is Ralat's student and her right hand in the pantry.
Archer said that the pantry has had a positive impact in the community and in the lives of people. One of her former students is now studying law at Harvard University and another family has started a catering business. They are each donating a percentage of their earnings to the pantry.
"For those who like to look away from the issue of having starving children in an agricultural state, in the 21st century, in an urban corridor, I say, 'These children are not going anywhere, so what are you going to do about them?'" Archer said. "These children have the right and the ability to move forward and do good things. We can't put a shelter over everyone's head, but we can put food in their tummies until the next day."
To get involved. Para involucrarte
If you would like to contribute or volunteer, call 303.948.4993 or visit http://feedingmindsfoodpantry.org.
Si quiere contribuir o ser voluntario, llame al 303.948.4993 o visite http://feedingmindsfoodpantry.org.