November 20, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…Toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

-Elizabeth Byrnes

Tucked away in a discreet supply room at Ralston High School, beyond the steel lockers and crowded classrooms, Elizabeth Byrnes is stocking nonperishable goods.

While classmates hurry to first period at 7:30 a.m., Byrnes shuffles paperwork, counts inventory, coordinates volunteer shifts, and organizes pick-ups and drop-offs for the school’s food pantry.

Byrnes is not your typical teenager. Sure, she’s a 17-year-old cheerleader who gabs on a smartphone and loves to shop at American Eagle. But this 5-foot-6-inch brown-eyed beauty takes her community service seriously.

So when she saw a sign last year advertising the school’s free food pantry, titled the R-Pantry, Byrnes decided to check it out.

“I didn’t know it was needed,” she says.

On that particular day, she visited the small closet of a lecture room where teachers had been operating a makeshift pantry that allowed students in need to shop anonymously for food, toiletries, and other supplies inside the high school.

Roughly 60 percent of students at Ralston Public Schools receive free or reduced-rate meals.

To create a healthy pantry, teacher Dan Boster says the Ralston High staff noticed the need and donated nonperishable items and the seed money—roughly $800 worth—in exchange for casual dress days.

“Once the pantry was created, we handed it off to the students,” says Boster, who also serves as National Honor Society adviser and oversees the pantry project.

Byrnes acquired the larder responsibility and has helped it evolve from the small closet of a lecture hall into a spacious supply room with large tower shelves brimming with food as diverse as artichoke hearts, fruit snacks, and granola bars.

Byrnes has grown the one-person operation to having 70 volunteers on deck to assist when needed. She has presented before the Ralston Chamber of Commerce when soliciting for donations and has advocated and made Ralston High an official Food Bank of the Heartland donation site.

She describes the families who utilize the pantry as living break-even lifestyles, existing paycheck-to-paycheck, with little left over for simple luxuries such as lip balm or toilet paper. Students from such families experience a lot of stress and anxiety over where their next meal is coming from, she adds.

“I saw how education is extremely difficult to get, especially if there’s a need in the household,” Byrnes says. “Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

Food insecurity—which means that people lack access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle—can be invisible, she explains. “Not knowing if there will be dinner on Friday night or lunch on Saturday.”

The R-Pantry idea is a positive response to a really challenging situation: student hunger. It is not the ultimate solution, but it is a start.

“I have so much respect and admiration for these students who are asking for help to support their
families.”

Byrnes excels in calculus, biology, and creative writing. She serves on DECA, is a class officer, and participates in National Honors Society. She enjoys running, hiking, and playing with her two dogs—Sophia and Jack.

Byrnes credits her family for always influencing her to do what’s best and help those in need. Dad (Robert E. Byrnes) is a doctor. Mom (Mary Byrnes) is a mortgage banker. Brother (Kent Keller) is a police officer.

“Her empathy for people runs very deep,” her mother says.

However, the driven teen doesn’t always communicate well with mom and dad, jokes her mother: “She was never one to seek glory. We didn’t know how involved she had been in the pantry until she was recognized. When she made homecoming court, we didn’t know about it until people began congratulating us.”

Mom adds, “She moves through life as if this is just a job. Helping others is just what she does.”

Byrnes plans to attend a four-year university next year and major in biology. She’d like to someday become a cosmetic dentist or dermatologist.

Byrnes encourages other young people: “If you see something you could change or help out, don’t be afraid to jump in there. You could change someone’s life with your one small action.”

The R-Pantry at Ralston High School (8969 Park Drive), is open on Fridays after school until 4 p.m. To volunteer, contact the school at 402-331-7373.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.

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