‘Freedom Writers’ author inspires big River Bend Food Bank donations

Women Fighting Hunger raises $85k for school food pantries

Erin Gruwell was the keynote speaker for River Bend Food Bank’s Women Fighting Hunger event that raised $85,000. CREDIT RIVER BEND FOOD BANK

Erin Gruwell witnessed the impact of hunger in her students’ faces, in their attitudes and in the stories that she encouraged and inspired them to tell beginning three decades ago. 

The teacher, author and activist shared the story of her students’ plight and their miraculous turnaround with a Quad Cities audience on Thursday, March 28. She was the keynote speaker for River Bend Food Bank’s Women Fighting Hunger event at Rhythm City Casino, Davenport. 

Hunger River Bend Food Bank
‘Freedom Writer’ teacher and author Erin Gruwell meets with students at an update New York school. CREFDT FREEDOM WRITER FOUNDATION

“I saw what happens when children do not have their basic necessities met,” she said, recalling their journey together which inspired their book and a Hollywood movie. “These young boys were already part of a school-to-prison-pipeline. And they were kicked out of each class they were in since kindergarten.”

Ms. Gruwell and the 150 Freedom Writers first gained national attention when they appeared in 1998 on an ABC special PrimeTime Live with Connie Chung. “Ms. G” – the name the students gave her as a show of respect – knows their stories could have had much different endings. But she was committed to helping them turn their hardships into hope. 

Her students, who came from backgrounds of poverty, gangs, violence and homelessness, were at risk of dropping out. But then a young, and admittedly insecure, English teacher walked into their Long Beach, California, classroom in the mid-1990s “wearing polka dots and pearls.”

 The teacher became the student, she said, and realized she had to know her students and their world. But she was determined to harness the power of education and lift up these boys who had been “written off” by the system. 

It was a ‘bam moment’

“This was a crash, boom, bam moment,” Ms. Gruwell told the Women Fighting Hunger crowd of 500 women – and a few men. She recalled how at the time, the Los Angeles area was in despair from the riots and civil unrest that had followed the acquittal of four white police officers in the now famous Rodney King beating case. 

“The city had buried 126 kids,” victims of homicide, she said. And she worried one of these troubled students would be No. 127. 

A large and generous crowd listens as Erin Gruwell talks about the journey she and her students took in writing the story “Freedom Writers”. CREDIT RIVER BEND FOOD BANK

“They didn’t like school. They didn’t like reading … They didn’t like each other. And the only thing that brought them together in perfect harmony was they didn’t really like me either,” she said. 

For her students, including one named Carlos, “every single moment was about survival. He was forced to daily worry about “where am I going to sleep, what am I going to eat, what am I going to wear,” she said.

“He wasn’t part of a system. He wasn’t even part of a foster system. So just sleeping was agonizing,” Ms. Gruwell said. 

“In our community, we didn’t have 500 people who would get gussied up on a school night to come and to give freely, to give of their time, to give of their talent, to give of your treasure,” she told the room of River Bend donors and supporters.  

Hunger to succeed

For Carlos, who bravely told that classroom of being abandoned by his mother at 3 months old, she said “How do you ever put yourself back together again? And now I have these boys in my class and they are angry, and they are hungry.

In her classroom, these troubled teens found their voice, were not only listened to but heard, and turned their lives around. 

Under Ms. Gruwell’s guidance, all 150 Freedom Writers graduated high school and pursued higher education and still are part of her life today, 30 years later. 

Their journey became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller that was adapted into the major motion picture, “Freedom Writers,” starring Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell. In 2022, Ms. Gruwell and the Freedom Writers Foundation released their latest book, “Dear Freedom Writer,” written by the next generation of student authors with deeply personal responses from the original Freedom Writers. 

Of her early days in the classroom, she said she thought about “just sending them away and then I thought ‘Not on my watch. We’re going to learn some lessons, and have some courageous conversations.’”

Today, Ms. Gruwell leads the Freedom Writers Foundation as its executive director. The foundation, where many of the original Freedom Writers are still involved, continues to inspire and support students to overcome challenges and achieve their academic goals. For more information, visit www.freedom writers foundation.org

$85K raised to fight hunger

Ms. Gruwell’s inspiring message of hope helped to raise an awe-inspiring $85,000 for River Bend to help feed school-age children in the greater Quad Cities region. Proceeds from the fundraiser will help purchase food for the 65 school pantries it supplies across a 23-county service area in eastern Iowa and western Illinois.

The Women Fighting Hunger sponsors included: Gold Sponsors – John Deere, Northwest Bank & Trust, The Stations of Our Quad Cities, Rhythm City Casino & Resort, Royal Neighbors of America, SSAB, and UnityPoint Health; Silver Sponsors – Diversified Foods Inc., Eye Surgeons Associates, Green State Credit Union, Hanline Fresh Foods, Per Mar, Prairie Farms, Quad City Bank & Trust, River Valley Cooperative and Tyson Foods.

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During the program, both the food bank’s Chair Marie Ziegler and its President and CEO Nancy Renkes told the audience how River Bend’s services – and financial donations – are needed more today than ever.

“For 42 years, River Bend has been in our community providing food for our hungry neighbors,” Ms. Ziegler, a retired Deere & Co. treasurer, said. “And for 41 of those years that food came primarily through the generosity of our food suppliers, grocery stores, convenience stores and certainly our community and our donors. But in the past 18 months, the food bank world has been turned upside down.”

Need continues to grow

“While we are still receiving a lot, and are very grateful for the food donations we’ve received, those donations have declined by 30%. At the same time, the need in our community has grown by 29%,” Ms. Ziegler added. 

Last year, River Bend spent nearly $1.2 million to purchase food to feed the hungry by narrowing the supply gap caused by the decline in food donations. This year, it projects it will spend $3.4 million to purchase food for all its feeding programs and to supply its 438 hunger-relief partners. 

Ms. Renkes, who will retire from the food bank in June, said she was in awe of the crowd’s support. She also thanked supporters there “for reminding us that there are positive things that are happening because of the work we are all doing… because every once in a while we need to hear that.”

Find out about River Bend and its programs or donate go here.

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