SPRING HILL — The Westside Helping Others Food Pantry and Clothing Closet was started by Westside Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Melissa Tomlinson and first-grade teacher Vanessa Kent a couple of years ago with just donations.
Since its beginning, the project has taken off.
It began its third year with an open house with hot dogs and chips during the recent family night at the school's Family Center. Parents were invited to come inside to see what the pantry/closet had to offer when it officially opened the following week.
The portable structure had racks and shelves of children's clothes, plus shelves of food. The project began with a food drive; teachers then started accepting clothes "from families who were able to give," Tomlinson said.
"Westside is about 80 percent free and reduced-price lunch students," Tomlinson said, and sometimes students were coming to school hungry — sometimes with clothes or shoes inappropriate for the weather or clothes that were worn or ill-fitting.
After the first year of accepting donations, the pantry/closet received a boost.
"Toward the end of the first year," Tomlinson said, "we were able to get a ($2,000) grant from Nativity Lutheran Church in Weeki Wachee."
They received another one this year for $5,000.
The only requirement for using the pantry/closet is having a student who attends Westside. Parents are limited to 20 food items per visit; there is no limit on clothing. The pantry/closet is open every other Thursday.
Westside Helping Others goes beyond the pantry/closet. The volunteers provide food baskets at Thanksgiving and food baskets with gifts at Christmas.
"We don't want a child to go hungry or a family to go hungry," Tomlinson said, "when we have the resources to help them."
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Westside Elementary School has received grants for the Westside Helping Others Food Pantry and Clothing Closet from Nativity Lutheran Church in Weeki Wachee. The name of the church was incorrect in a previous version of this article.