NORTH PORT — Sue Lord started out as a volunteer reading with kids at Atwater Elementary. Soon, she was listening to their stories.
“I learned that they were hungry, that they badly needed shoes,” Lord remembers.
That was seven years ago. She now runs the school’s food pantry and a school store with prizes that include toys, but also essentials such as socks and toiletries.
When she was helping struggling readers, Lord caught on pretty quickly that there were barriers to their academic success. Some kids hadn’t eaten; some were in pain because they had cavities but no dental insurance.
“They come in with all this baggage," Lord said. "How do you expect them to make their spelling test a priority?”
A Kiwanis member, several years ago Lord secured a grant to buy shoes for kids who needed them at all nine schools in North Port. They managed to get $25,000 but the question was, how to find these kids? They came up with an easy solution: look at their feet.
They found 665 students that way. There were shoes that flopped due to worn out glue, there were kids with shoes two to three sizes too big, or too small.
Steve Lord, Sue’s husband and a third-grade teacher at Atwater, sent one child to the office to get a new pair of sneakers. One of his other students noticed and said he, too, could use a pair. You have shoes, Mr. Lord told him. “Can’t you tell,” the fourth grade boy responded. “These are my mom’s.”
Some of the parents asked her to please not give the shoes out at school because they didn’t have any gifts for under the Christmas tree. Now during the holidays, Lord helps put on a “Giving Tree” for families that can’t afford Christmas gifts for their kids.
Every two weeks she and her husband operate the school pantry, stocked with canned goods and other items supplied by All Faiths Food Bank, and 20 to 30 families cycle through. Ask some of them what they would do without the pantry and you get a quick answer: “Starve.”
“If you live paycheck to paycheck, and your car breaks down or something else happens, then you’re never able to catch up,” Lord said. She’s seen that happen again and again to many families at Atwater. That’s when basic necessities start to fall by the wayside. That’s when kids start showing up without socks or underwear.
In 2011, Lord was awarded North Port Citizen of the Year. Local news crews came to talk to her, but once she started sharing, one of the cameramen complained that she was making this sound like a third-world country.
“You can’t take for granted that kids have all this stuff,” Lord said. “We try to help families with all basic needs. We try to fill in the gaps for some of our families, which could include anything from furniture or bedding, to school supplies.”