(Pictured: 8-year old Keoni presents check to Franklin Elementary School Principal, Woody Howard after selling keychains to pay off classmates’ cafeteria debt. Photo courtesy, April Ching.)
An act of kindness by a Franklin Elementary School second-grader has received national attention and made a big impact for students with cafeteria debt.
Keoni Ching, 8, wanted to do something special for “Kindness Week,” an annual event celebrated in many VPS schools. He heard his mother and father discussing NFL player Richard Sherman’s recent donation of $27,000 toward student lunch debt in Washington and California. Keoni had his own experience with an overdrawn lunch balance, telling Good Morning America, “I almost ran out of lunch money and then I thought about other kids that would run out of lunch money very quickly.” While Keoni’s mother, April, was quickly able to pay the balance, the experience led them both to think about families who might easily fall behind. April recalled Keoni telling her “‘I’m going to do as much as I can. Everyone at the school is my friend, and I want to pay off their lunch ticket.’”
To raise money, Keoni decided to sell key chains, customizing them with charms and lettered beads. “I love key chains. They look good on my backpack,” Keoni said in an interview with CNN. He sells the keychains for $5 apiece, however, a Seahawks-themed piece will cost $19.77. Keoni, a Dolphins fan, says he “just doesn’t want to make them.”
People from all over the country have contacted the Ching’s with requests for the custom key chains. “We have sent key chains to Alaska, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Arizona, all over the country,” April told CNN. “There was one lady who said she wanted $100 worth of key chains so that she could just hand them out to people. … There were several people who bought one key chain and gave (Keoni) a hundred bucks. It was absolutely amazing how much support the community showed for his whole project.”
“I can’t even tell you how generous people have been,” April said, recalling a man with no connection to the family who gave $1,000. “He just said that for an 8-year-old to want to do something so nice for other people and have it be nothing more than wanting to help his friends at school…that touched him.”
School lunch debt is an increasing concern nation-wide. In the 2017-2018 school year, 75% of school districts reporting to the School Nutrition Association (SNA) had unpaid student meal debt. The SNA said that percentage has “increased substantially,” citing that the median amount of unpaid meal debt per district rose by 70% in 5 years.
In Vancouver Public Schools, students are fed a hot meal regardless of whether they have money in their lunch accounts. This can lead to large balances in unpaid meals by the end of the school year.
Franklin Elementary’s Principal Woody Howard recognizes how Keoni’s gift will help alleviate the pressure felt by many families…”The reality is if a family falls behind and especially if they’ve got multiple kids, that debt can add up quickly and can really sneak up on you.”
On Jan. 31, Keoni was able to present Howard with a check for $4,015. Of that amount, $1,000 will go to his school to pay off the $500 lunch debt and for any future debt incurred. The rest will go to six other schools, which will get $500 each to clear their own lunch debts. Among the many others inspired by Keoni’s kindness, GoDaddy.com has agreed to match Keoni’s donation with an additional $4,000. “I think the lesson here is that when you see a need and then you go and address the need, people notice,” Howard added.
While Keoni’s efforts have received national attention, he is not the only student with a desire to help his fellow classmates. Students throughout Vancouver Public Schools have a long history of helping those less fortunate in our community through individual or classroom projects. Each fall, all 36 schools participate in the Student Chest Drive, a student-led fundraising event that dates back more than 50 years. These donations have a big impact on student success, allowing the Foundation for VPS to directly fund students’ most pressing needs such as food & housing; school supplies; clothing & shoes; medical & dental support; glasses; early learning; after school activities, mentoring opportunities & family engagement events; athletic & activity fees, and more.
For April Ching, Keoni’s accomplishments bring a personal satisfaction. “We have tried so hard to teach him that if you are kind to others you will always be happy. When you see the joy that your child is getting from giving to other people, there really is nothing better than that.”
With help from his family, Keoni said he plans to continue to make and sell keychains to benefit others in our community. “He doesn’t understand the magnitude of what he’s doing. He’s just helping,” said April. While Keoni may not fully understand the impact of his “act of kindness,” he seems to understand the importance of being kind, stating simply, “it just makes the world a better place.”