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A Prairie Grove couple's nonprofit organization has collected thousands of dollars over the past several years to help feed children in some Washington County schools.

Angel Lifeline provides money to school districts to cover the cost of meals for children who go through the cafeteria without an adequate balance in their meal accounts.

When such a case arises, a cashier is authorized to take money directly from the Angel Lifeline account and apply it to the cost of a child's meal. It's meant to be done quietly so no one other than the cashier is aware this is taking place.

Ken and Denise Gheen started Angel Lifeline in 2012 after realizing how many students in the public schools were going hungry because their parents weren't keeping their meal accounts full.

"Our goal is simply to feed these kids, because there are lots and lots of problems that come from kids not being able to eat nutritious meals on a regular basis," Ken Gheen said.

Hungry kids have a hard time paying attention in class, which means their academic performance likely will be affected, he said.

Calling attention in any way to a student's lack of money also could put that student at risk of bullying, which is why the Gheens request cashiers be subtle when they dip into their Angel Lifeline fund.

Some schools provide an alternative meal to students with insufficient funds, but giving a kid a brown bag with a sandwich in it "is like hanging a sign around his neck saying, 'I'm different,'" Gheen said.

Angel Lifeline in the past year has provided about $5,000 to four Washington County school districts: Elkins, Lincoln, Prairie Grove and West Fork, according to Gheen. He estimated Angel Lifeline has provided $25,000 to $30,000 to school districts since 2012.

Gheen said he and his wife do not take any pay for their administration of Angel Lifeline. All money donated from businesses and individuals goes to the schools.

Participating districts must agree to keep track of the money they spend and fill out forms accounting for what they spent.

The Lincoln School District charges students $2.50 per lunch. Valerie Dawson, Lincoln's food service director, said the district has received $400 from Angel Lifeline within the past few months.

"We used every bit of it. We could probably use more," Dawson said.

She said she typically tries to help the elementary and middle school students whose family income level qualifies them for reduced-price, but not free meals at school.

"Those are the ones who need more support," she said.

Free and reduced-price meals are available to children of families that qualify under the federal government's income eligibility guidelines. Those families must apply for the benefit. In Lincoln, 70 percent of the district's 1,200 students qualify for either free or reduced-price meals.

Wendy Burrus, child nutrition director for the Farmington School District, said Farmington has an account it uses to cover some students' meal costs, though it does not take money from Angel Lifeline.

"Sometimes parents just have hardships," Burrus said. "In order for us to keep our books clear, we use that money so the students don't stay in a negative balance."

In any case, Farmington children are fed, she said.

"We hold the parents responsible for sending the money and make sure they know they should keep a positive balance," Burrus said. "We always feed our kids first and deal with the situation after."

The Bentonville School District in December launched its "Every Kid, Every Day" campaign, which calls on district staff members and the community to donate money that is used to eliminate students' negative lunch account balances.

Bentonville had negative lunch balances totaling more than $10,000 as of December. While much of that could be attributed to parents simply forgetting to keep their child's account in the black, other parents appear to be having real financial difficulties, said Janet Schwanhausser, the district's finance director.

The district had raised $1,075 for the campaign as of mid-December. An updated figure was not available last week.

Metro on 02/12/2018

Print Headline: Prairie Grove couple's nonprofit helps cover student meal costs

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