Wilmington fifth grader aims to eliminate lunch debt—and succeeds

STEVENS INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL Principal Casey Orellano (left) accepts a $5,929 check from Aria Jandeska, a fifth grader, who came up with the suggestion to accept donations for fellow students who owe that amount in lunch debt. She and her mother Shauna raised the total needed in less than one week. Photo by Eric Fisher.

Marney Simon

A local fifth grader’s idea to give back this holiday season turned into a community effort to clear nearly $6,000 worth of student lunch debt from accounts at Stevens Intermediate School.

On Dec. 18, Shauna Jandeska posted a message to the Wilmington, IL Community Group on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to contribute to a plan to help erase student lunch debt at SIS, an idea that was brought to her by her 10-year-old daughter, Aria.

A fifth grader who loves dance and Taylor Swift, Aria has a naturally generous spirit. She said she first realized the issue when one of her friends told her that their lunch balance was in the negative.

“I thought of that, if they didn’t have enough money then maybe I could go buy them something,” Aria said. “Then after school I went and talked to my Mom about it, and I said I wonder if I can find a way to put money on their accounts.”

Aria asked if helping pay that debt could be included as one of her Christmas presents this year, so Shauna went through social media to see if anyone would be willing to help.

The response was immediate, and overwhelming.

By the afternoon of Thursday, Dec. 21, almost 100 people had donated, and there was only $113 left to collect to cancel out the debt at SIS. Shauna said someone reached out to her about the remaining balance, and paid that off.

“I got to pick up Aria from school and tell her that the final donation had come in and we had done it, and I think she was kind of shell shocked, she just sat there with her mouth open,” Shauna said. “It was truly amazing.”

On Friday, the family delivered a check for the entire amount—$5,929—to SIS, managing to collect the funds in under one week.

Not content for that to be the end of the story, Aria quickly asked her mom if they can keep going.

“I was so happy and excited that we did it, and I asked if we could move on to the next school,” Aria said.

Shauna said that’s exactly what they intend to do. The family is keeping their fundraiser open, looking to take aim at any school lunch debt owed at Wilmington Middle School and Wilmington High School, especially for 8th graders and seniors, to make sure that debt gets cleared before promotion or graduation.

“I reached out to [District 209-U Cafeteria Director] Tina Brownlee to try to find out what the high school seniors and the 8th grade graduating class, what that lunch debt is,” Shauna said. “We’re going to take every donation that has come in since and put that toward their debt... Every donation that comes in will go toward that, and if we exceed expectations, we’ll take on the next school.”

Aria said she’s had other students ask to help out too, excited about the opportunity.

“I’ve had the students ask me about it, they say ‘hey Aria, I think what you’re doing is cool, and I say thank you so much,’Jandeska” Aria said. “I had students come up to me and ask me what I was doing, and a lot of the teachers did too.”

Shauna said in addition to the generosity of the community to donate to the school lunch fund, there were even a few surprises for Aria and her sister, 23-month-old Alita, on Christmas morning.

“There were two wonderful ladies who bought gifts for both of the girls and dropped them off for them for Christmas for Aria’s generosity, they thought that she should be blessed as well,” Shauna said.

Shauna also said when the holiday break is over, she intends to speak with the district administration and the board of education to find a better way to tackle the process, such as setting up a fund directly through the district where people can donate year round.

“There shouldn’t be $6,000 in debt for elementary kids, that’s not right,” Shauna said, noting how easy it is for the lunch debt to add up, especially for families with multiple children in the district.

And, she encouraged her Wilmington friends and neighbors to continue thinking about helping out.

“Sharing, commenting, donating, the more shares we get, the farther our voices reach,” Shauna said. “The message behind this is, think of others. Others may be struggling a lot more than you are, they might be having a harder time than you. You never know what somebody is battling, and this is the time to give to others, not to judge or say nasty things. Everybody is doing their best with what they’ve got... It’s not [the kids’] faults that their parents are struggling. This economy is devastating families.”

Shauna will continue to collect funds to be applied to school lunch debt in Wilmington.

Those who would like to donate electronically can do so via PayPal at www.paypal.me/sjandeska, on Venmo at https://venmo.com/u/Shauna-Jandeska, or via Zelle at 815-545-9714. Donations can also be dropped off or mailed to Shauna Jandeska at 912 S. Buchanan, Wilmington IL 60481.

“I love living in Wilmington,” Aria said, showing maturity and compassion far beyond her 10 years. “I would just like to say, thank you to everyone that donated, I really appreciate it. I just never would have thought it would have come this far. It’s so amazing. It’s beautiful how far we’ve come and how far we’re going to keep going.”