“From Essex to Claremont with love.” If Annie Cooper was a newspaper editor, that’s how she’d title a story about her effort to raise money for a school district more than 100 miles away.
Cooper was one of several people to host fundraisers aimed at paying down a $32,000 school lunch and breakfast program debt in Claremont, N.H., where the school board briefly mentioned hiring a debt collector or bringing delinquent families to small claims court.
The local paper, the Valley News, reported the measures were never seriously considered, but after hearing news of the situation, Cooper started a GoFundMe page on October 9. She set an admittedly ambitious goal of raising all $32,000 to clear the debts.
Over the course of several weeks, she raised more than $2,000 from 74 individual donors, but the momentum eventually slowed, prompting Cooper to consider the best way to present the funds and get her point across: No family should have to fear getting a bill in the mail for lunch money.
“My heart went right to my throat,” Cooper said of hearing mention of a debt collector.
“I know the pain of being the person who owes the money,” she continued. “I wanted to help the school district there have a deeper conversation, so they weren’t just sending the bill to the families – they were creating a new way forward.”
Cooper shared memories of shaking a piggy bank to cover her kids’ school lunches and said when the Essex community started to notice her need, it quietly began pitching in – leaving groceries in her car while she was at work or donating clothes. Now in a better place, Cooper said she uses her experience as fuel to help others.
In mid-October, news broke an anonymous donor agreed to pay off $29,000 of the outstanding balance, meaning Cooper’s haul and efforts from several other donors would well exceed the necessary amounts. She sent a check down Monday to the superintendent’s office.
Data from the New Hampshire Department of Education shows that half of all students who attend school in Claremont are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
According to the Valley News, the Claremont School Board says it’s taking steps – like hiring a part-time lunch program monitor to assist families in completing free or reduced lunch forms – to make sure such a debt doesn’t incur again.
Cooper hopes that conversation continues not just in Claremont, but everywhere.
“We have to feed our children and ensure we are not placing further stress on families already in emotional and financial distress,” she said.