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A teacher learned one of her students might go hungry over winter break. She now feeds thousands of kids each year.

Volunteers load bags with free groceries for 5,200 students in the Durham Public Schools district before the start of the winter holiday break this month. (Turquoise LeJeune Parker)

Elementary schoolteacher Turquoise LeJeune Parker was a few days away from the start of her holiday vacation when she received a text message from the mother of one of her second-grade students.

The parent wondered if Parker knew where she could find food for her children during the school’s two-week winter break because her refrigerator and pantry were almost empty. Her kids relied on free school breakfasts and lunches to get them through the day.

Parker, now a library teacher for 387 students at Lakewood Elementary School in Durham, N.C., said she felt like crying on that phone call six years ago.

“This mom told me she wasn’t worried about herself, but she couldn’t let her kids go without food for those two weeks,” she recalled. “I told my husband about it, and we knew we had to do something.”

Parker and her husband, Donald Parker, a carpenter, immediately went out to shop for groceries for the woman and her family, but then they thought about all the other families.

A man strung Christmas lights from his home to his neighbor’s to support her. The whole community followed.

“If one parent was going into the holiday break with no food in the house, we knew there must be others,” said Turquoise Parker, 34.

Although the Durham Public Schools district regularly worked with a nonprofit to provide food-insecure families with weekend groceries, the program couldn’t serve every child, she said.

On Dec. 14, 2015, Parker decided to text everyone she knew asking for donations to buy enough holiday groceries for all 22 students in her class at the time.

“I’m trying to send each of my 22 students home with a bag of non-perishables to help their families with them being out for Christmas break,” she wrote. “If you know anyone wanting to donate, let me know! I’ll go pick it up!”

Within a couple of days, she had $500.

“It really took off and made such an impact for these families that I knew I had to keep going,” Parker said. “Food is something that no one can do without. It’s not only a basic human need, it’s a human right.”

The second year, she said she raised $1,000 and the program grew from there. Last year, more than $55,000 came in.

This year, from Dec. 8 to 11, Parker and a group of 70 volunteers once again bagged groceries to send home with students at the beginning of their winter break.

This time, $106,000 was raised through fundraisers, a charitable foundation and social media. It was enough to help every child at 12 elementary schools in her school district, said Parker, noting that about half of the district’s students qualify for free or low-cost school lunches.

About 5,200 students took home bags filled with a two-week supply of cereal, bread, peanut butter, pasta, granola bars, oatmeal, beans, mac ‘n’ cheese, canned chicken, fruit and vegetables, she said. The groceries were ordered online this year at Costco and delivered to the gym at Lakewood Elementary.

Parker said she named the project “Mrs. Parker’s Professors’ Foodraiser,” because she considers all of her students to be “little professors.”

“I’m a part of their family now and they’re a part of mine,” she said. “We’re all learning together. They help me as much as I help them.”

The school district is grateful for her extracurricular efforts.

“Mrs. Parker is a school district’s dream teacher — a perfect mix of competence and compassion who is committed to serving young people holistically,” said Pascal Mubenga, Durham Public Schools superintendent.

As a single mother, I lost my job before Christmas. I don’t believe in miracles, but here’s what happened.

“Her ‘foodraiser’ addresses food insecurity head-on, particularly during a time of year when commercialism brings need to the forefront,” he said. “Through [Parker’s] efforts, our food-insecure students have access to food when schools are closed for the holidays. She is their lifeline.”

Parker is relieved that the program now helps thousands more students, and it runs with the dedication of many volunteers.

During her first year of raising funds to feed about two dozen students, she heard from Durham attorney T. Greg Doucette, who asked how he could help. Doucette now pitches in to help coordinate the project every year, she said.

“This has become a community effort — not mine alone — and that’s how it should be,” Parker said.

Doucette said that when he first signed on to help, he didn’t anticipate that bagging groceries would become a recurring project. But when he learned about food insecurity in his community, he wanted to do something to lessen the need, he said.

“I keep staying involved because I’ve been able to see the results of the work firsthand with my own eyes,” said Doucette, 40, who now helps raise money for groceries every year through his T. Greg Doucette Foundation.

“People are complex — we often never know or care about others’ struggles,” he said. “This is a straightforward project that helps to lift some of that burden and helps make kids’ lives a little brighter.”

It’s a concept that Parker said she learned to take to heart at a young age while growing up in North Carolina.

A UPS driver left a kind message for a family. They put it on Instagram, and strangers showered the driver’s baby with gifts.

Her mother, Marian Thompson, was a single mom with three children who got a doctoral degree in education and worked for 43 years as a teacher and school counselor, she said.

“Oh, my gosh, did she ever inspire me,” said Parker, noting that she often accompanied her mother to work as a preschooler.

“I saw everything she did for kids at school, and from age 4, I also wanted to become a schoolteacher,” she said. “At home, I’d line up all of my teddy bears and baby dolls and teach them.”

After she graduated from North Carolina Central University in 2010 with a degree in public administration, she took her first teaching job at Estes Hills Elementary School. Since 2019, she’s been the library teacher at Lakewood Elementary, although she prefers to call herself a social justice teacher, she said.

“Food inequality is systemic and that’s not okay,” Parker said. “Giving children food for their Christmas break is not a lavish thing — this is food we’re talking about. The well-being of our community is directly related to the well-being of our children. We have to fight for each other.”

It’s a lesson she has thought about often since giving birth to her first child, Madame, four months ago, she said.

“I pray that the teachers, school staff, bus drivers and cafeteria employees will take care of my child the way I’ve taken care of the children I’ve been blessed to teach,” Parker said.

“I look at all of my ‘professors’ as my own children,” she said. “I’ll do anything for them.”

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