Former Fleming County and current Pikeville girls basketball coach Kristy Orem knows how to manage a team.
Her squads assist each other on the hardwood to create a winning product. Orem’s newest team is doing exactly that, and their efforts are assisting their community and feeding students.
Upon arriving at Pikeville, Orem became food service director for both the high school and elementary school programs, adding to her already busy workday. The Paintsville alumna is also the Panthers athletic director. Orem said they are all a labor of love.
“If you are passionate about it, you can do anything,” Orem said. “I am passionate about feeding our kids and making sure they get healthy meals. Everybody already knows that I’m passionate about basketball and athletics. Most people don’t know that I have a master’s degree in health and nutrition. So, when this job came about, I thought I would really enjoy that. It was a new challenge for me.”
When school was closed to in-person instruction in mid-March due to the COVID-19 crisis, Orem applied for a summer feeding program that would allow all students, ages 2 to 18, to get free breakfast and lunch while classes are not in session and NTI days were ongoing.
She said normally Pikeville works with the National School Lunch program, but it doesn’t qualify for summer feeding because the school doesn’t have a high enough free or reduced lunch population.
“Now with everything that’s going on with the COVID-19,” Orem said, “all our students are using a summer feeding program where we are now allowed to offer free meals to everyone while this is going on, whether you are free or reduced.”
Orem said she is extremely grateful for the outpouring of support from the community and the school staff as they implement this program which none of them have done before. It started slow over the first couple of days but now through the dedication of those around her, the staff is now disbursing hundreds of meals a day to kids in need.
“The first couple of days, I didn’t do a very good job going out,” Orem said. “The first day, we only served like 50 kids because we were having kids come to the school and pick it up. Now, we are sending out three buses and we are serving at least 400 kids breakfast and lunch every day. I was learning. It was a whole new venture for me. Thankfully, we’ve had so many people in the community and the school system that came in and helped.
“Our youth service center has been great,” she added. “They know where a lot of the kids live. Our transportation director is our football coach, Chris McNamee. He has volunteered to drive the bus every day when we have gone out. He drove the first bus that we took out.”
The kitchen staff works from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. They do not work on the weekends. They prepare 800 breakfasts and 800 lunches so the volunteers who deliver the meals can serve every kid one hot lunch and one cold lunch for Tuesday and Thursday. The same with breakfast. Orem said they are following all safety standards and social distancing guidelines.
“We’ve tried to keep our spacing,” Orem said. “Everybody comes in and has as different job to do for the day. Then they get out so we can limit our cooks’ exposure. Obviously, that’s our No. 1 priority.”
Orem believes the precautions are necessary, as many members of her staff are 65 and older and may be more susceptible to contracting the virus. She is doing all she can to protect their health. But the cooks in the cafeteria share the same commitment and the joy of feeding their students. Several members of the kitchen staff have been working at Pikeville for more than 25 years. Led by principal Jason Booher, the school named the serving lines in the cafeteria after their beloved cooks.
“It’s been a great blessing,” Orem said. “I work with the best people in our cafeteria. Our cooks are phenomenal. Our kids love our cooks. I don’t know if I could have gone anywhere other than Pikeville and been food service director, just because of those ladies that I work with.”
They still show up early with a smile on their face. Each bus that is sent out every day includes three volunteers.
“They are volunteering their time,” Orem said. “They are not getting paid to deliver these meals. The drivers are donating their time to deliver these meals. I hate the girls in the cafeteria are behind the scenes and don’t get to see the smiles on the kids’ faces when they see the food.”
Orem said the process is growing every day but the number of meals being made seems to be leveling off around 400. They are dedicated to all their students and maintaining a safe and clean working environment.
“We try to explain to people, it’s a common misconception to think we are only feeding free or reduced,” Orem said. “The summer program is for all children on our stops. Some people have said they didn’t want to take away. You are helping us because we are getting reimbursed.
“We are learning every day,” she continued. “The girls are wearing masks and always wearing gloves. We have a group working in one area and we have another group in another area so they aren’t on top of each other and staying 6 feet apart. They are really good about it. … I make sure that they are comfortable. I feel like all our hands are raw right now because all we do is wash our hands.”
Orem said they want to maintain the kids’ safety as well. After the volunteers make sure the child is home, they will leave the food by the front door or on the front porch to keep everyone safe.
The students even got a little holiday treat. The staff put an Easter egg in every kids’ basket with candy inside. To see the students happy and fed is Orem and her staff’s true motivation.
“The kids will come to the door and we get to see their little faces,” Orem said. “We are really trying to lessen the contact because that is what we are supposed to do. For me, when I see kids jumping up and down, that is so exciting. It motivates them so much because they know these kids are hungry.”
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