By Zack Peterson
The Laker/Lutz News Correspondent
Denise Smith’s voice rings like a silver bell through Suncoast Harvest Food Bank in Land O’ Lakes.
“C’mon, guys! The other group did 40 boxes in 40 minutes. Can you do the same?”
Around her, 13 seventh- and eighth-graders from Land O’ Lakes Christian respond with increased speed, cradling bags of Ragu spaghetti, boxes of Wild Berry toaster pastries and sleeves of Publix-brand saltines in their arms like ants frantically preparing for a bitter winter.
Smith cranes her neck and makes sure no one needs help lifting a box, crosses her arms and chuckles.
“They typically respond better with a little competition,” the 55-year-old teacher said.
Then she darts into action and helps a student sort an armful of goods.
The afternoon of Dec. 18 was the second time she bused her students to Suncoast to work on packaging food boxes, Smith said.
The activity is part of a broad, nonacademic elective module the private school implemented this year that teaches everything from capping a spark plug to changing a tire.
About a month ago, the class started on a different segment — nutrition. They priced out menus, discussed the food pyramid and learned about healthy diets and how bodies make energy from good food.
Then they segued into hunger, and how difficult putting food on the table is for some families.
The real goal, Smith said, was to establish an “inch deep, mile high” mentality. If students could see that they had the capability to help solve world problems, that people have needs, not just wants, then they could be tremendous forces in the community.
“I want them to recognize the needs of others,” Denise said. “The only way to really do that is hands-on, really serving people.”
Andrew Rondinella, a 13-year-old seventh-grader, said he’s undergone a change in thinking. He held a can of green beans up to his face and examined it before gently placing it on top of a brimming box of food.
“I realize that a lot of people in Tampa Bay starve now,” Rondinella said. “I was pretty surprised. … It’s nice to help the homeless.”
Rondinella was shaken from his insight by Smith’s booming announcement.
“Two more minutes, guys! Then we have to get back to school.”
The children revamped their efforts and scurried from box to box, capping some, double-checking others.
The group arrived at 12:45 p.m. By 1:25, they were rushing back to school.
“You got to do what you got to do,” said 13-year-old Maddie Jones.
Smith was silent, but she quickly broke a smile after hearing Jones’ selfless attitude.
“Watching them catch a vision of the needs of the community around them made it all worthwhile,” she said.
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