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Helping kids survive college

Brandon Workman (left), a student at California University of Pennsylvania, and McKenna Smith, who attends the Douglas Education Center in Monessen, Pa., with their “College Survival Kits.”

Just about everyone knows the essentials of college life: a grab-and-go breakfast, easy-to-make pasta dinners, and in today’s world, a supply of hand sanitizer.

The Salvation Army’s Monessen, Pa., Worship and Service Center is now providing a monthly distribution of “College Survival Kits,” containing boxed pasta, pasta sauce, tuna, soup, canned fruit, breakfast bars, cereal, hand soap, hand sanitizer, produce, and fruit as available, along with a $10 gift card to a local grocery store.

The kits are available every first Thursday of the month from noon to 5 p.m. All students have to do is show a valid student ID. The last distribution was on April 1 and drew students from colleges all over the area. The corps prepared 150 kits.

“The kit and gift card help me to stretch my food budget each month,” said McKenna Smith, a student at Douglas Education Center, a private college in Monessen.


Meeting practical needs

Among the other colleges near Monessen, located about 45 minutes south of Pittsburgh, are California University of Pennsylvania in California, Pa., and Westmoreland County Community College in Youngwood, Pa.

“Over the years, we realized that the college age group is the bracket that is the most in need for food,” said Captain Susan Thwaite, the corps officer in Monessen.

“We are grateful for a $10,000 donation from the Cleveland-Cliffs Foundation. It allows us to better support our local students who are working hard to better themselves and their futures through pursuing a college education. We hope the ‘College Survival Kits’ bring some comfort to our college students. We want them to know that we are here for them and we are cheering them on.”

Thwaite said the corps offers a food pantry, but many of the students don’t show up because they often don’t have anywhere to store the goods, such as a 5-pound block of frozen chicken.

“They don’t know what to do with the food,” she said. “So, they tend to just not come to the food pantry. We were just looking for a way to help meet the need for these college kiddos without insulting them. We wanted to give them food they will actually use.”


Learning about the Army

The Salvation Army already holds a weekly food distribution for about 60 students at the Douglas Education Center, which provides a grab-and-go lunch. The school does not have a cafeteria.

Thwaite said that by talking to the students over the years, she learned many of them struggled financially and were not aware of The Salvation Army as a resource. A few years ago, a survey found that 80 to 90 percent had never been inside a Salvation Army building.

“We really like helping them and educating them on what The Salvation Army does,” she said. “Before the pandemic, they would actually come in and sit down and eat a hot lunch every week with us and we would chat and get to know them better. It was just a good way to fill a gap.

“We have a lot of good gospel talks and a lot of good conversations about the Bible.”

Thwaite said a few of the students volunteer at the corps. Her goal is to continue building on the success of the program.

“I hope that we can build and maintain about 200 boxes per month and, at the same time, build relationships and give this age group a better understanding of who the Army is and what we do and maybe bring some to the Lord along the way,” she said.

by Robert Mitchell and Stephanie Rex

For more information about the “College Survival Kits,” call 1-724-684-4282.

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