TAMPA — Lauren Dungy has spent two decades reading to kids in schools that serve low-income students.
She and husband Tony Dungy want to show kids that reading isn’t punishment or a chore. It can be a portal to adventure.
But there are no more classes for the Dungys to read too. Kids are stuck at home now. To Lauren Dungy, that means reading is more important than ever.
That’s why she, through the Dungy Family Foundation, has teamed up with the nonprofit WeSeeU to provide books, coloring materials and activity packets to the students whose families are picking up meals at some Title I school distribution sites in Hillsborough County.
Children, Lauren Dungy said, are particularly vulnerable right now.
“They hear tidbits of the news and hear their parents talking, but they really don’t have that security,” she said. “It’s important for the kids to stay busy.
"If their minds are free to wander and worry without someone beside them to walk them through it, it can be pretty devastating. They may or may not have an adult in their lives to comfort them or keep them busy.”
The Dungy Family Foundation was founded by Lauren Dungy and her husband Tony, the retired Super Bowl-winning NFL coach, to help those in need. WeSeeU is a nonprofit that Tanya Cross helped found in 2018 and now helps working parents obtain food, clothing and other essential needs.
When they heard the schools were going to close for the pandemic, Cross said she and Lauren Dungy started assembling materials for activity packets from community members. They and other nonprofits gathered construction paper, crayons, crossword puzzles, sketchpads and other activities they thought would keep kids from kindergarten through eighth grade occupied.
For help distributing the supplies, they contacted Henry “Shake” Washington, a retired administrator and former school board candidate who had worked for the Hillsborough County School District for 42 years. These days, he said, he spends most of his time glued to the news. But distributing the activity packets at local schools gives him the chance to help students.
His friends ask him if it’s safe to be doing that. But Washington believes he has to help, so he follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to distribute the materials safely. The stakes are high, he said.
“You’re talking about people out of jobs, people scared in the pandemic, people split up in their families,” he said.
So far, they’ve distributed nearly 600 packets at Sligh Middle School and Folsom, Mort and Shaw Elementary Schools. They keep running out of packets, Cross said, but they’re still putting together as many as they can hope to keep distributing them for as long as they can during the pandemic.
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“It kind of helps the kids,” Cross said. “It gives them something else to do. But it also helps that mom who’s maybe not used to having that kid at home.
"Everyone is having to learn to cope with things differently. It helps the kid, or the mom, or the dad, even if it lasts for a week or two weeks or however long the activity will last, it helps them relieve a little stress to have them have something to be able to focus on.”
The brief interaction with students right now, even from behind masks, Lauren Dungy said, is what’s important to her. It’s a chance to motivate students when they need it most.
“We tell them ‘You can be a writer, you don’t have to wait to be an adult,’” she said. “If you’re writing and drawing pictures, you’re already a writer or an artist.
"If no one puts that idea into their mind, they’re not going to do it. It’s just something they see on TV or something people do in New York or something. But telling them they can do it now, in Tampa, Florida, changes that.”
IF YOU WANT TO HELP
To help the Dungy Family Foundation and WeSeeU give out activity packets to homebound kids, go to www.weseeu.net to learn how to donate supplies or money to purchase more supplies.