Ballantyne Families Board members: Valerie Johnson, Heather McAfee, Janelle Clemons and Liz Emmett. (Tori Collins is not pictured.)

Look for the Helpers

Volunteers and school counselors assist families in need

By Jodi Werner Greenwald | Photos by Shrimp & Grisettes Photography

There’s a story Fred Rogers often told from his childhood about seeing scary news on TV. When he did, his mother would say to him, “Look for the helpers.”

In Ballantyne, one does not have to look far to find them.

When Ballantyne families’ needs increased at the start of the pandemic, neighbors and school counselors stepped in to help, big time.

The infrastructure already existed at Community House Middle School. A few times a year, their parent volunteers and school counselors collected food and gifts for families in need. One parent at Community House, Heather McAfee, thought teaming up with the other Ardrey Kell High feeder schools would create a bigger impact. She was right.

Leaders of Ballantyne Families Helping Neighbors in Need include CMS school counselors and the organization's board members: Janelle Clemons, Liz Emmett, Lisa Smith, Erika Clarke, Amber Brown, Valerie Johnson and Heather McAfee. Not pictured: Tori Collins.

When schools shut down in March 2020, McAfee worried about the students who relied on schools for breakfast and lunch. She approached Valerie Johnson, a school counselor at Community House who had led holiday drives in the past, and they discussed doing something to help.

McAfee circulated an email, and in less than 24 hours, volunteers had mobilized a collection. They assembled 350 bags of food at Community House and distributed them to 100 families the next day.

“The community came together,” McAfee says. “That’s when it all sort of snowballed. After that event, it went so well, we felt the need to do more.”

For the next round, because Community House was closed, 12 families opened their porches for collection, and South Mecklenburg Presbyterian Church offered space for assembly. Ardrey Kell’s student government also donated food it had collected for Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina (the organization wasn’t accepting donations at the time), and the school’s sports concessions donated more than 1,000 drinks.

The helpers kept coming: 26 volunteers sorted and assembled 650 bags of food. Fifteen CMS staff came and distributed them to 100 families they had identified as being in need. Promising Pages gave out collected books.

“Heather was bold enough to ask, and people responded,” says Johnson. “Which, I don’t want to say was completely shocking, but it was definitely surprising. I just didn’t know that our community would show up to help other community members as they have.”

Given the volume of donations and concerns about handling and quarantining food, the group shifted to gift card donations. They held biweekly drives until the end of the 2020 school year, when they distributed a lump-sum sponsorship to help families over summer break.