Meet the Summer Lunch Lady: With School Out, Washington State Great-Grandma Delivers Free Meals to Needy Kids

With School Out, Great-Grandma Delivers Free Lunches to Kids in Washington State
Phyllis Shaughnessy
Drew Mikkelsen/KING 5 News

08/12/2015 AT 12:05 PM EDT

With schools closed until classes resume in her rural Washington State community, Phyllis Shaughnessy knows that kids who receive free or subsidized cafeteria meals during the academic year may go without during the long summer months.

So, stocked with more than 200 sack lunches a day and a core of volunteers to help pack them, Monday through Friday, the great-grandma stepped up this summer to help deliver 6,851 meals – and counting – direct to their doors.

"It's easy to see," Shaughnessy, 73, tells PEOPLE of the difference her effort makes, "when you drive up and you see kids jumping up and down, 'Yay, the lunch lady is here!' They get their bags and they just dash to the nearest place they can open them up and start in. They're happy."

So is Shaughnessy, who organized the donor-driven program for the North Beach School District in northwestern Washington, and partnered with a local restaurant and her church to make it happen.

For 11 years the retired postmaster and part-time substitute teacher in Copalis Beach, Washington, counted on a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to find summer meals for students who qualified for free breakfasts and reduced-price lunches during the school year.

But last year, a change in the grant meant those meals had to be served in a single location – a challenge for a district whose rural residents are so spread out.

"We had to give it up," she says of the grant, "because we couldn't get the kids to where they needed to be."

Determined to fill the gap, Shaughnessy acquired a caterers' license. Rich and Claire Hall, who run the Green Lantern Pub, offered their kitchen as a place where meals could be packed. The Chapel by the Sea Presbyterian Church assisted Shaughnessy by sharing its nonprofit status with her program, and since mid-June donors have contributed about $12,000 to keep the "Green Lantern Lunches" going. The program will continue through Aug. 28.

On a typical day this week, each sack lunch contained a package of Top Ramen, a fruit snack, fruit cup, fruit juice and peanut butter crackers. "On Fridays, we try to give an extra box of macaroni-and-cheese or something to have on the weekends," Shaughnessy says.

A half-dozen or so volunteers gather at the Green Lantern at 6:30 a.m. and finish their packing before the restaurant opens at 8 a.m. Around 9:15 Shaughnessy starts her 28-mile route that delivers 90 meals at 32 stops; a second driver makes a 40-mile loop with 80 lunches, and a third travels 25 miles with about 40 lunches.

"The kids are always excited when Miss Phyllis is here," Angelo Arroyo, a mother of five, told King5-TV.

And with grocery bills that climb during the summer months when her kids are home, Arroyo says, "It's really great they do it because they want to."

Indeed, says Shaughnessy: "Anyone doing this is going to profit as much as the child getting the lunch. If you weren't getting as much as you give, you wouldn't do it. It's a two-way street. It always is.

"All I know is that it's a blessing to the parents and to the kids," she says. "It gives them something to look forward to, and it isn't just the lunch. It is the personal contact you make with someone, letting someone know that you care."

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