If my Granddaddy Bean had known Churchie Riley, he’d have said she’s a wonder, the title he bestowed on a remarkable few whose good works astounded him.
She has fostered 53 children, coaches three sports in the Center City Youth Sports Program and drives the bus that picks up kids who don’t have transportation to the rec centers. She’s also the front office secretary at West High School.
Her real name is Anita, but she’s been called Churchie since she was a little girl growing up in Lonsdale. Her best friend’s daddy, Arnell Church, was a local DJ whom everybody called “Churchie.” When the girls would call in to ask him to spin a disc for them, he’d say, “This is for L’il Churchie.” The nickname stuck, so when I called West High School last week and asked for Churchie, I got a prompt call back.
“This is Churchie,” she said. “And I have all the food.”
I had learned about Churchie via an email appealing for help for the school’s hungry kids, of whom there are too many.
“Our awesome school secretary provides a pantry for kids who might need food.,” it said. “She also sends backpacks packed with food home on the weekend with kids she knows needs it. The group that was helping her is no longer helping her with the backpacks. If any of you all would be interested in helping send items it would be amazing. This year has been a tough year for many families at our school.”
Riley has been the school secretary for five years, and pretty much from the day she stepped in the front door, she knew who the hungry kids were. Some had been her foster children. She wasn’t about to watch kids do without.
“I’d keep a little stash of ramen noodles, cookies, crackers …” she said. “And one day a lady said, ‘That’s gotten be expensive.’”
So, she started getting help from parents and co-workers, and her stash grew to the point that it became known as Churchie’s Pantry.
“And now it’s huge,” she said. “I’ve got a room for it, and on the average, I might feed 60 kids a day.”
Some kids are hungrier than others. The kids who use the pantry don’t have the money for extra stuff and often leave the cafeteria hungry. Churchie’s Pantry provides them with the extra calories they need to get through the day.
After she’d been doing it for a while, Churchie got to worrying about what the kids were getting to eat on weekends, so she started sending backpacks full of food home with them on Fridays.
“Most of them don’t eat on weekends, and I started out with two or three backpacks and then went up to six or eight. Now I’ve even got me a clothing closet.”
She’ll remember one kid for a long time – she calls him a “little boy,” despite the fact that he wears a size 12-and-a-half shoe. He came in on a cold, rainy day wearing slides and asked Churchie for some dry socks. The West High team did better than that, and a volunteer went out on her lunch hour and bought him a pair of shoes.
“The look on his face when he got the shoes,” Churchie said, her voice breaking. “It hurts your heart.”
Another time, a friend told her about a student who desperately needed help, and Churchie found out that he’d like to have a pair of pajama pants and a pair of shoes. Later, he sent her an email to thank her for his new clothes.
“Miss Churchie, I want to thank you. Nobody’s ever done anything like this for me…”
Churchie, who is quick to laugh and unashamed to cry, doesn’t want anybody to think she’s doing this on her own. Lots of people have been inspired to help, and she is grateful.
“We all do our share. I appreciate Dr. Speas (West High School executive principal Ashley Speas) and our social worker Brittney Blaine. Dr. Speas has even left the office and gone out to buy a case of noodles for the pantry. They are wonderful. I even got a budget in the PTSO.”
But these are extra hard times, and the needs are great. Friends of West High have stepped in to help, and Churchie says the most desirable backpack items include smaller items like pretzels, Pop-Tarts, fruit or pudding cups – that don’t need refrigeration and can fit into a backpack. Also welcome are noodles, mac and cheese, peanut butter cups, tuna, SpaghettiOs, ravioli, mini meals or anything that can be heated up or only requires water to be added.
Money donations and/or gift cards from grocery stores are also welcome and can be dropped off at West High School’s front office. Just ask for Churchie.
She’s a wonder.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.