At Swansea High School in Swansea, South Carolina there is a beautiful, energetic, well-dressed senior with a winning smile and many friends surrounding her. Yetzibel Santos looks like a typical high school senior and in many ways she is. She is dressed nicely and always takes pride in her appearance. Yetzibel is a good student and participates in numerous school activities, she’s very outgoing, and never at a loss for words. Like any other senior, Yetzibel likes a break from her regular classes and never minds running an errand for a teacher which gives her a few minutes of uninterrupted access to the halls of the school.
Yetzibel is the lead for the Swansea High School’s food bank. The Swansea JAG program runs the pantry. JAG South Carolina is a course that is grant funded taught by Ms. Tammy Jones, the Job Specialist. JAG, or Jobs for America’s Graduates, is a program designed to teach students the employability skills they need in order to become employed in America’s job market and productive members of their communities. The students learn how to interview for jobs, how to dress for professionally, important skills like being punctual, completing a project, and following the directives of a supervisor. In addition, students in the program learn the importance of having insurance, handling their personal finances, running a meeting, and management structure. A hallmark of the JAG program is the importance of community service to others; helping those around you without expecting anything in return.
Yetzibel admits she used to be withdrawn because of past experiences. At a little over 7 years-old, she emigrated with her mother from Mexico. Her father had been working in the America for some time before Yetzibel and her mother joined him. The living conditions in Mexico were very harsh and made her parents long to come to America.
In order to get here it was a four week- long journey through the desert that was difficult, to say the least. Yetzibel remembers losing so much weight that both she and her mother were skin and bones. Yetzibel remembers that on the journey, her mother was only able to buy her one good meal in those four weeks. “She bought me a McDonald’s hamburger.” Yetzibel said. It’s a fond memory for Yetzibel from a time that was very dismal.
Even when Yetzibel and her mother were reunited with her father, things were still tough. Her family lived in a small home with ten other people. There was one room to be shared by Yetzibel and her parents with access to a small bathroom. Yetzibel slept in the bed with her mom and dad because there was no other choice. Her father worked in the construction industry and her mom did some work cleaning homes to help cover their bills. In time, the hard work and sacrifice began to pay off.
Eventually, Yetzibel was enrolled in the Lexington County School District. She and her parents lived in a home near the hospital that they shared with her aunt and her cousin. A new addition to their family arrived, a little boy. And the family had a dog named Flicka. There came a point when the family thought they could afford to stop renting and purchase their own home. They found an affordable house they liked. Once they moved, Yetzibel was enrolled in a new school. Yetzibel really felt she had found her home.
When Yetzibel was accepted into the JAG program, she started working in the high school’s food pantry. This program feeds families of disadvantaged, school aged children in the district. Yetzibel really liked working in the pantry and helping those who were struggling to find enough to eat. If there was one thing Yetzibel knew, it was hunger. She quickly learned how the pantry operated and was never afraid of the hard work that it took to make the program a success.
The high school staff supervises the food pantry but it is run by the students. The pantry has a business structure that allows the students to progress through the pantry staff structure. The more experienced upperclassmen can take on the role of administrators, while the underclassmen do more of the labor. The most experienced student eventually has an opportunity to be the pantry manager. Yetzibel set her sights on becoming that person and now, as a senior, Yetzibel has reached her goal.
The pantry was started with a grant to serve 30 families five years ago. Currently, the pantry serves almost 120 families a month with food provided by Harvest Hope and a few donors. The pantry may not be state of the art but it has become a saving grace to the families it serves. The program has its struggles. One problem for the pantry is limited supplies. In addition, the outside of the pantry’s portable headquarters is covered in mildew. The siding is beginning to buckle and the stairs are rickety. The inside has a limited amount of space, and has a stale smell that may point to a water leak. They have a few donated freezers which aren’t really enough storage when the food is first delivered. Ms. Jones, Yetzibel, and the small staff of JAG students do an incredible job with what they have in the pantry. The pantry really is a team effort. The JAG students use the skills they learn in class to run the pantry and keep it organized.
“This is where I belong,” Yetzibel said during an interview. “I’ve learned that everyone has potential and that you can reach that potential through learning and hard work.” Her plan is to attend college after graduation and work in healthcare, and possibly do some public speaking. For now though, she’s perfectly content feeding the hungry and being an American teenager.