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The Fifth-Grader Who Fed Putnam County, WV

David Munro | May 15, 2020

People | Inspired Fans

At 11, Elise Simokat created the Box-to-Belly challenge to help ensure that her classmates weren’t going hungry in her community

Dark skies over Hurricane, West Virginia, matched the headlines flooding out of the region. Labor unrest. Plant closings. A drug epidemic. The clouds parted, however, in the presence of an 11-year-old ray of light named Elise Simokat who took it upon herself to make sure a county’s worth of needy kids had a hot meal for Christmas.

“A co-worker came to me with a Facebook video and said, ‘You need to see this,’” recalls Hormel Foods brand manager Meghan Baumann. “It showed Elise raising money to buy Compleats meals for hungry kids over the holidays. Going home that day, I couldn’t stop thinking about her.”

Baumann reached out to Elise’s mother, Jacque Cline, who agreed to let Hormel come and film Elise’s next delivery for the company’s “Inspired Fan” series.

If this story sounds familiar — a well-off kid performs a charitable act and then returns to her regularly scheduled life of carefree comfort — you have not met Elise. She is no more your average fifth-grader than Putnam County, West Virginia, is your average American demographic.

Taking care of her Own Backyard

It’s every parent’s dilemma to decide how much reality a child should bear. The tougher the reality, the tougher the dilemma.

“I try to shield Elise as much as I can,” Cline says. “But some things you can’t ignore, especially when it’s right in your own backyard.”

Elise’s backyard — Hurricane and other commuter towns between Charleston, the capital, and Huntington, the state’s largest metropolitan area — are among the most affluent in the state. But drive a few miles into the hills and hollows and the reality changes like a head-on collision. Stately houses become shacks. Proud faces become heavy with distress.

I heard a story about a kid at another Putnam school who ate ramen noodles raw because nobody was around to cook them. It made me think, what if that was me?

Elise Simokat

Elise delivering meals

“It starts with a lack of opportunity,” says Doug Erwin, a friend of Cline’s and founder of the Backpack Buddies summer food program. “Our area has seen really good jobs leave and not be replaced. Loss of jobs means loss of purpose. Into that void comes the drug problem, and that of course affects the kids.”

Although West Teays Elementary, where Elise goes to school, has comparatively fewer students enrolled in the free and reduced cost lunch program, she has eyes and ears — plus an unusually empathetic heart.

“I heard a story about a kid at another Putnam school who ate ramen noodles raw because nobody was around to cook them,” Elise says. “It made me think, what if that was me?”

Elise approached her mother with the idea to provide hot meals for kids on Christmas — a daunting prospect at first, says Cline. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, how am I gonna provide these kids with a turkey and all the trimmings?’” Cline told Erwin about Elise’s idea, and together they hit on a solution. Erwin’s Backpack Buddies program sends ready-made meals to low income students over the summer, but it doesn’t include holidays. Elise’s idea was the perfect gap-filler for that need.

Box to Belly Challenge

With the plan and a snappy project name (“The Box to Belly Challenge”) in place, there was just the small matter of raising funds to feed close to a thousand kids. Elise had chosen to give out Hormel® Compleats® microwavable meals for their convenience and ease of preparation, and she’d worked out a volume price at a local Kroger market.

“My mom said, ‘How are we gonna get five thousand dollars?’” Elise laughs. “I said, ‘You know what, let’s post a video to Facebook. Maybe people will donate there.’”

Despite her daughter’s charming on-camera appeals, Cline set her own expectations low, hoping to raise maybe a tenth of their goal. “But pretty much immediately, things started happening.”

Elise online raising money for the #BoxtoBellyChallenge

Elise’s aunt was first on board with $40. More friends and family jumped in. By morning, they had 18 donations. “Then we went to church and people started handing us $20, $50,” Cline marvels. “I got random phone calls saying, ‘We saw your video, we want to help.’” Elise shakes her head thinking about it. “I didn’t know how kind the world could be.”

From her “office” in the family’s garage, Elise labeled each case of Hormel® Compleats® meals by school, number of students, and how many cases. “The next morning,” Cline says, “we loaded up Doug’s truck in the freezing weather and delivered to all 22 schools in the county.”

It might shock generational pundits that someone Elise’s age would sacrifice vacation time to help others, but it’s no surprise to longtime Elise watchers.

“She’s been doing this since she got here,” says her West Teays principal Valerie Fowler. “Whether it’s walking our preschoolers to class, or making friends with our special needs kids, she’s like Mother Teresa. She just has this sense for what people are needing.”

Mission Accomplished Not for Elise

By any measure, the Box to Belly Challenge was a smashing success. Nine hundred nineteen at-risk kids were guaranteed a hot meal on Christmas day. Elise’s goals — all of them — were set, met, and exceeded. She was even named a WSAZ News Channel 3 “Hometown Hero,” complete with a school assembly and awards presentation.

“I don’t like to be in the spotlight,” she demurs, “but my grandmother’s friend asked for my autograph. So that was kind of funny.”

It was the perfect time to declare “mission accomplished” and go home a winner. Right? “That’s what I thought in first grade, when we knitted scarves for all her special needs friends,” says Cline. “It would be a one-time thing. Over and done. But that’s not Elise.” In fact, her fundraising had been so successful that there was food left over. Elise set her sights on another delivery for Spring Break. When asked if she wanted to split the meals between schools, Elise remembered the ramen story — and where she heard it.

“There are 317 kids at Poca Elementary,” says Erwin, who worked with the school to set up their summer snack program. “Two hundred of them receive a free lunch, which means they’re either at or below the poverty line. They have the greatest need, so that’s where Elise wants the food to go.”

The pockets of poverty nestled into gorgeous hillsides en route to Poca is a study in contrasts, not unlike West Virginia itself. It is the nation’s most impoverished state and also its most charitable. It is one of only two states with negative population growth, but its residents spend more time with neighbors than anywhere else in the country.

As Elise enters a Poca hallway pushing her handcart stacked high with Hormel® Compleats® meals, she is immediately embraced by faculty and staff.

Her bright scarlet Box To Belly sweatshirt is coincidentally a propos — it’s pride day at Poca and everyone is dressed in red. The biggest hug Elise gets is from Melissa Smith, a kindergarten aide who helps manage the school pantry. Elise heard the ramen story from her.

Elise Delivering Hormel Compleats to school

“It tears you up when your five-year-olds come to class and say they haven’t had anything to eat,” Smith says. “I get emotional about Elise because she’s making a difference. Knowing my kids are going to have a hot meal over Spring Break that’s more nutritious than beef jerky or a pudding cup. At her age, to see that need and respond to it. She gets it.”

Elise, the Bucket Filler

The problems in West Virginia are pernicious, and they have not plateaued. Some of the statistics — especially those related to the opioid crisis — are knee-buckling in their severity. It’s not cynical to wonder how the efforts of an 11-year-old girl could possibly amount to more than a drop in a bottomless bucket.

“You can look at our situation as overwhelming and our bucket as empty,” says Erica Divita, a Poca School counselor. “But we look at it differently. We call people like Elise a bucket filler. She put a drop, a huge drop, in our bucket. But she’ll inspire others to put in more drops. And eventually, that’s how a bucket gets filled.”

Another Elise ally in feeding the hungry, local pastor Sonny Williams, echoes Divita. “Mother Teresa said, if you can’t feed a hundred, feed just one.”

For her part, Elise just wants to get home, park her handcart, pet her dogs, and dive into some hardcore Fortnite. But before checking out, and arming up, she offers a parting thought when posed with the drop-in-bucket conundrum.

Elise relaxing and playing some Fortnite

“I’m just one person. I can’t change the world. But I’m not the only one doing this. And more of me can change the world. We can do anything. The sky’s the limit.”

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