14-year-old pays off lunch debt at former school, fundraises to eliminate debt at other Missouri schools
DeJuan Strickland doubled his goal raising $400 for McCurdy Elementary.
DeJuan Strickland, 14, remembered what it was like to be hungry as a fourth grader at Missouri’s McCurdy Elementary, and not knowing how he would eat lunch that day. That feeling made Strickland determined to make sure no one at his former school would feel that way.
Strickland helped pay off his former elementary school’s unpaid student lunch debt this year after posting a GoFundMe fundraiser online with the original goal of raising $200. “This is important to me because sometimes the only nutritious meal for kids is at school,” Strickland wrote in the fundraiser's description.
That goal was doubled with Strickland raising $400 for McCurdy Elementary. The school’s website features a photo of Strickland delivering the check and credits him with the $400 donation.
“They told me stories about how kids, there was a kid who didn't have enough money to pay for school lunch or pay for the pizza, and they were able to pull it from the fund and they're able to have pizza at school that day. It was amazing, and I'm really happy,” said Strickland.
From there, Strickland set his sights higher. He decided to angle the initiative to eliminate school lunch debts in all of the Hazelwood School District, which includes 19 elementary schools, six middle schools, three high schools, and other educational programs.
The fundraising campaign has amassed over $4,000, $2,500 of which Strickland plans to give to Hazelwood, while searching for another district in need for the remainder of the funds.
“This is a huge problem,” said Strickland. “The fact that kids aren't going to be able to eat, that's a problem.”
The national public school meal debt is $262 million per year, according to the Education Data Initiative, an education research group. Missouri has 243,110 food insecure children, the group estimates, totallng $43,905,666 in school meal debt.
Strickland remembered the day in fourth grade he was not able to pay for lunch.
“My lunch balance was zero, I wasn't able to eat,” said Strickland.
Strickland’s mother, Sharron, was able to replenish her son’s account, but said the day was painful for her as well. “At that time, I was on disability, so my income was very limited, and so, being you know, a single mom, limited income, lack of support, so that day that it happened it hurt,” she said.
Strickland credits that day with opening his eyes to food insecurity and said the day stuck with him. “That’s why I started with my old school.”
Strickland said he contacted nearby Parkway C-2 School District to find out how to expunge their school lunch debts. He was shocked when he said the district told him their negative balance was over $50,000. This opened Strickland’s eyes up to what he saw as a larger issue.
“It's crazy, because a lot of other schools in like different countries or anything, they don't have a problem with negative lunch balances, cause it's free. So it's like, you know, why are they like that? Why is it free over there and not over here?”
Strickland said his penchant for charity was instilled in him at a very young age by his mother. She would make “blessing bags” with items such as toothpaste, toothbrushes and socks for those in need.
When he's not fundraising to erase school lunch debt, Strickland works on his comic book series following Tech Boy and Science Girl, teenagers who use the power of science and technology to defeat villains.
As for the future, Strickland said his goal is to attend M.I.T., become a computer programmer, expand his business, write more books and continue to “give back at larger scales.”